New York City has no need to move on from 9/11, because it moved on days after. To live in this city is to see the world as it is to come. Author Karan Mahajan writes about a tour of languages he undertook in one of NYC’s most diverse neighbourhood
A few weeks ago, my friend Ross Perlin, described as a “master linguist” by The New York Times, took me and ten others on a tour of the languages of Ridgewood, Queens. Ridgewood, one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in a heterogeneous city, straddles Brooklyn and Queens. To stroll its streets is to suffer a series of first-world and third-world hallucinations: faces imported from Ecuador, Nepal, China, Poland, India, Albania, Romania, or Mexico; delis with the haphazard internal organisation of kirana shops; stores festooned with signs that lie outright about products they no longer sell; hipsters pouring in from Bushwick for cheaper coffee (this, by the way, is the sort of Whitmanian sentence that New York automatically inspires). But Ross wanted us to look – or listen – deeper.
First we visited an old Sicilian club, where 90-year-old ex-factory-workers proudly discoursed on the Partanna dialect of Sicilian – which they preserve through their meetings – and profusely offered us espresso. A dapper Argentine-Italian man who speaks the regular Italian dialect served as our interpreter; later, when he learned I was from India, he addressed me as aap and chatted with me in shudh Allahabadi Hindi. I was shocked. By this point we had shifted location to a community centre and tavern known as the Gottscheer Hall, after the Gottscheer people who use it as a gathering place.
The Gottscheer are a tiny community of Germanic people from what is now Slovenia. They speak a 13th century dialect of German. Many of them fled for New York at the end of the First and Second World Wars; at one point, more than 10,000 lived in Ridgewood, making it one of those neighbourhoods that, by historic accident, contained an entire civilisation. Two older Gottscheer men with stately postures and a lady with short blonde hair talked happily about the dances that were held at the Hall for young Gottscheer boys and girls to mingle; then they invited us to the inner sanctum to give us bratwurst, sauerkraut and beer. I was famished and polished it all off.
We also passed, on this tour, a Coptic Church as well as an Orthodox South Indian Church. Ross pointed out an authentic Bosnian restaurant to the crowd in the crisscrossed shadow of the overhead subway trains. His map of the neighbourhood listed upward of 10 languages including Malayalam, Syriac, Yiddish, Haitian Creole, Romanian, German, Croatian, Romani, Sherpa and Kichwa.
The touring crowd itself was diverse. Ross is an Ashkenazi Jew from New York who has lived in London and has researched a dying language on the China-Burma border. He is the director of the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA) in Manhattan. Two of the linguists were Iranian – and married. The male half of the couple is compiling Encyclopaedia Iranica, a mad project that seeks to “cover all aspects of Iranian history and culture as well as all Iranian languages and literatures.” Later a Nepali consultant for the ELA, fluent in the Siklis dialect of Gurung, joined us at Ross’s house for smoked fish and bagels. His wife spoke no English.
I lived in Brooklyn from 2007 to 2012, but for the last few years have resided in Austin, Texas, where my world – especially the world of downtown –is predominantly white. To be back in such a crowd, which can only be found in New York, made me emotional, and later, when I took the bus from Ridgewood to Fort Greene, tears came to my eyes as I was cordoned in at the back by a succession of brown and black faces, faces I had missed passionately in Austin, that I had been so starved for – brown and black as a kind of normal, rather than a conspicuous exception.
New York City has no need to move on from 9/11 – because, in a sense, it moved on days after, moments after. There is not one New York but thousands – mixed-up conurbations and microclimates with their own internal logics and charms, dreams and juxtapositions, faces and tongues.
Each one holds the future; each one is a vision of the future. To live in New York is to see the world as it is to come. It simply cannot be put down.
Karan Mahajan is the author of The Association of Small Bombs, listed among one of the Best Books of 2016 by Time magazine
Secrets and the city
Indians who’ve lived in the Big Apple write about its undiscovered haunts
Want calm in a city that never sleeps? Head to the Frick!
Ayesha Dharker, actor
I lived on 53rd Street and Broadway was close to the theatre where I worked. For me, the city existed in real time and in fiction at the same time. I would be haunted by the Ghostbusters (1984) building (55 Central Park West), Grand Central Station, 58th Street, overlooking Queensboro bridge (Manhattan, 1979). 7th Avenue reminded me of Luc Besson’s 1994 film Léon. And going in through the stage door of the Broadway Theatre always reminded me of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film All About Eve because you could walk almost straight on to the stage from the street, something that is rare in other cities.
The places I remember were close to the theatre because I would go there between shows. Some of the places I remember are gone, like the huge piano in the toyshop FAO Schwarz or Serendipity, the cafe that Andy Warhol went to, but some remain. The fountain courtyard in The Frick Collection art museum is a calm place to relax and read. They have some great paintings in a strange collection, with Francisco Goya and El Greco sitting next to Mark Boucher.
The other place was a French restaurant called La Grenouille on East 52nd street known for its great food and its connection to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince, with excerpts written in the building that houses the restaurant. There is now a plaque outside the building and I recommend fans of the book to look it up.
Up for a hot dog? Drop by Katz’s Deli on East Houston Street
Vikas Khanna, chef
My favourite haunts include two eateries. The first is a restaurant in East Village called Veselka. Being close to New York University, it is very popular with students as well as locals and is open 24x7.
In 2002, when I was studying at NYU, Veselka was my favourite. Besides authentic Ukranian cuisine, it also offered free Wi-Fi ,which was a big thing for me in those days as I did not have a lot of money to spend. The restaurant, which opened in 1954, was perfect for the long winter nights as it would be warm and cosy inside and I would end up spending the entire night there. My favourite meal here is their famous Borscht & Pierogi, a must-have for everyone.
My second favourite is Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston Street. The deli is pretty close to where I stay and I go there quite often. Popularly known as the Katz Deli, it is a Jewish kosher-style deli and is famous for its pastrami sandwiches (my favourite too) and hot dogs – the best in New York.
The deli was founded in 1888. During World War II, it helped the army by sending food for soldiers. The eatery has been a meeting point for creative people from various fields, and has been featured in several iconic movies including the romantic-comedy When Harry Met Sally (1989).
– As told to Veenu Singh
Best meeting ground of cultures? Prospect Park!
Kanishk Tharoor, author
It’s no secret what makes New York City great. No other place in the world is as staggeringly diverse and dense as this metropolis by the sea. I was six when we moved here so I grew up taking for granted its daily collisions of language, race, religion and history. More than anything else, New York is defined by its relaxed attitude to difference, where bearded, tattooed hipsters live alongside bearded, ultra-Orthodox Jews and undocumented Central American workers count aloud in Cantonese in the vegetable markets of Chinatown.
Prospect Park – the far superior Brooklyn equivalent of Manhattan’s Central Park – is a cross-section of the city. Flanked by Bangladeshi, Jewish, Caribbean and middle-class white neighbourhoods, it is a remarkable meeting ground. I often spend my weekends there and, on any given Sunday, play football with people from as far afield as Ecuador, Uzbekistan and Senegal.
New York is not a melting pot. Its mingling of peoples is too uneven, too jagged to be described blandly as harmonious. But often it produces uncanny moments of community that are at once banal and brilliant. This August, a much-loved Greek-American radio host called Soterios Johnson left the city’s main public radio station. Mournful listeners called in on air to say goodbye, including a Nigerian bookstore owner in the borough of Queens, who in quintessential New York style charmed Johnson to tears by wishing him farewell in flawless Greek.
Feel like Thai in NY? Check out Jaiya Thai on 28th and 3rd
Perizaad Zorabian, actor
For me, New York was character building. I was all of 20 when I started my MBA in New York City. Over the next three-and-a-half years, not only did I get my MBA but also went on to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
What I loved most about living in Manhattan was that every block had at least five or seven food joints. You could walk over three blocks and have the option of sampling cuisines from across the world. Since I was a student, I was on a budget and rarely ate at fancy places. But being a foodie I was always on the lookout for undiscovered eateries.
In NYC I discovered my love for Mexican food. I used to be obsessed with this hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint called Big Enchilada on 28th Street and 3rd Avenue. For $6, I would get the best burrito and salad. Their salsa was scrumptious and every time I was feeling low or was having a rough day, I would rush to Big Enchilada. Just eating there made me feel better about the world.
Since I lived on 29th Street and 3rd Avenue, another favourite was Jaiya Thai on 28th and 3rd: Spicy and absolutely delicious, it served the best Thai food ever.
As a student, I used to love hanging out at the Greenwich Village Comedy Club, after which a falafel at Mamouns on 119 Macdougal Street was an absolute must. Once again, it was a small hole-in-the wall-place that just served falafels.
Sam’s on 29th and 3rd served the best Chinese. I could never get enough of Sam’s and my entire family lived on food from Sam’s when they came to New York to see me.
When Boman [Irani, her husband} came to NYC with me for the first time, I dragged him to all my favourite haunts. He couldn’t believe how absolutely minimal all these places were.
This summer, I went to NYC with my kids only to discover that Sam’s and Big Enchilada have shut down. This didn’t stop me from taking them to my other favourite haunts.
– As told to Aasheesh Sharma
From HT Brunch, September 11, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch