Saturday, February 25, 2017

Trips to New York always feed my optimism.

On this trip, I decided, as I often do, to joyride the subway out to my home borough of Queens. In particular, I boarded the 7 train at its new extension, the Hudson Yards station (11th Ave. and 34th Street, the new northern endpoint of the High Line). The Hudson Yards redevelopment encompasses some of the most rapid and frenetic construction I've seen in Manhattan, but that’s another thread for another time. I stayed on the 7 train all the way til the last stop, Main Street/Flushing. The 7 train is aboveground from the moment it emerges from the Steinway Tunnel into Queens, snaking its way through Long Island City and settling into a long graceful run along the Queens Boulevard viaduct, one of the classiest structures in the entire subway system. The route runs over Roosevelt Avenue through Jackson Heights, where I grew up, and Elmhurst, which still holds the record for largest number of languages spoken within one Zip code (11373). It then glides over Flushing Meadow Park, past the CitiField stadium (which replaced the venerable Shea Stadium) and the Unisphere, and then dives underground, almost as if it were frightened, at the very last possible moment before entering Main St./Flushing station.
I hadn't been to that neighborhood since childhood; the RKO Keith theater, where I'm pretty sure I first saw Star Wars, wasn't far from there, nor was the YMCA where I have a vague memory of going to swim classes.
Today, though, I stepped out of the station and into Little Taiwan/Little Korea. The Main St. station area rivals Jackson Heights’ 37th Avenue for density, but everything was Asian: open-air markets and stalls, grocery stores and restaurants and clubs with names displayed only in Asian scripts, a bewildering variety of vegetable and animal products on sale in bins on the sidewalk. It was happy chaos.
It was fun to walk around there, but practicality soon demanded my attention, as I needed to pee. A block away was the Flushing branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, a system I had patronized heavily as a child. I was sure I'd be welcome to use the restrooms there.
And so I was; but not before noticing that the library was packed. Every computer terminal on four floors was in use. Every reading table was filled with readers. The variety of languages represented in the fiction shelves—Russian, Polish, Armenian, Korean, Turkmen—was astonishing, as was the fact that every aisle seemed to have people browsing. There was a rack of literature in multiple languages on how to become a US citizen. There was a desk staffed by WorkForceOne—a NYC-staffed publicly funded employment agency that runs job fairs, provides connections to job training and placement, and so on, all at public expense. People were using the library as the civic resource it was meant to be. Why can’t the San Francisco Public Library serve its constituency so richly?
On my way back on the 7 train, I gravitated to the front car so I could look out the front window as we barreled down the tracks. (The 7 train is one of the few that still affords that pleasure.) I eavesdropped on a conversation between two high-school-age African-American boys until I realized that the video games they were discussing were simulators that let you pretend you are driving a train. They were discussing the impending release of the simulation files for the Chicago Transit Authority (“the El”). One of them had a phone app that included schematic drawings of all the NYC subway cars ever built, and he was trying to identify the car in which we were riding. If you ever wondered what a middle-aged white man and two African-American high school students could bond over, now you know.
To top off the day: I finished the afternoon by walking around my old neighborhood of Rego Park. Purely by coincidence, as I was walking past my old home (62-23 Cromwell Crescent), a middle-aged lady emerged. I realized I was staring, and as if to excuse myself, I addressed her: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to alarm you. But 35-plus years ago, I grew up in this house.” She was very kind and said she remembered the person her son had bought the house from—my father. She even invited me into the house to look around. The kitchen cabinetry was unchanged from when I was 17. The dining room had the same fabric wallpaper my dad had had installed sometime during my high school years. I was moved, to say the least. She assured me that if I should return to the neighborhood with my wife or children [sic], we would all be welcome in her home. On the way back to the subway, I stopped at the fruit stand that has been there since I was a child. It’s still in business, and I bought a bottle of seltzer water whose label I couldn’t even recognize the writing on. (Close inspection of the label revealed that the writing was Armenian script.) On my way back to my friend’s house in Harlem, I stopped at a food truck. The vendor was a Middle Eastern man who barely spoke English; he was selling food to an African man who barely spoke English. I ordered onion rings and a gyro.
I don’t believe the universe sends us messages. I suppose if I believed that, today would be an indication that the universe was trying to send me a positive message. But I think it’s a lot simpler than that. People of many stripes, just trying to make their own way—that is the universe’s message. There aren’t many places where the message is as loud and clear as it is in New York, which is one of the many reasons I love visiting here. It should be a required visit for everyone.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Day 1 & 2 - Delhi

Hi everyone,

Sorry about the protracted silence...

Tonia and I arrived safely in Delhi after a whopping 16.5 hour direct flight from SFO—fortunately in business class, so we got some sleep and arrived in fairly good shape. The flight path took us easterly over the North Pole, crossing over Norway, Finland, Russia, the 'Stans, and then entering Indian airspace over Amritsar. Getting through Delhi's modern airport was a breeze and quicker than expected.
From the moment we touched down here we've been among family. My undergraduate student Nikunj from Berkeley met us at the airport and drove us to his grandfather's house, where he's been spending some time during winter break.
I should explain that Indian families tend to live together—two or three generations in a single house, or sometimes in adjacent or nearby ones—so Indian homes are large, with 6 bedrooms not uncommon. Nikunj's parents are separated and his dad lives in Chennai, but when he comes home he also spends time at the home where is grandfather, uncle, and nephew/niece live, and he had invited us to stay there, in a luxurious guest bedroom. The evening of our arrival we had a splendid home-cooked Indian dinner. Nikunj and his family are followers of the Jain religion, whose distinguishing precept is "harm no living thing"; strict Jains do not even eat root vegetables, though milk is OK if it's from a happy cow. Confusingly, eggs are not OK, despite the fact that unfertilized eggs don't represent any loss of life. At any rate, everything we've eaten in the country so far (I write this 72 hours in) has been vegetarian, which is just fine.
We had a great conversation with his illustrious grandfather, Vijay Kumar ("VK") Jain, who has a remarkable life story: he came out of poverty with nothing, doing menial work and day labor to work his way up, and determined to learn to grow his own food so that he'd never starve. He ultimately became a successful charter accountant (think CPA) and is now retired and quite well-to-do, but never forgot the value of work and passed it on to his family. He's widely traveled, speaks great English, and can hold forth on a variety of topics—a very interesting guy to be with.

[photos coming soon]

After a great night of Benadryl-induced sleep to try to adjust to local time, the next day we had the morning available since our flight to Jodhpur wasn't until 1:30pm, so Nikunj and his grandfather took us for a walk in Lodi Gardens, a lovely public park adjacent to the residences of federal government mucky-mucks (Delhi is the capital, after all), and we ran into the Attorney General for India, who (along with many other government higher-ups) is apparently a good buddy of VK.
The Lodi Gardens, like many public parks in Rajasthan (as we would soon learn), included temples and ruins dating back hundreds of years; and on this smoggy Saturday morning people were out walking, doing yoga (yes!), and so on. (Not walking dogs; most dogs we saw were strays.) When I say "smoggy", the air quality index was about 175 ("unhealthy") and the visibility less than 1/4 mile—like Beijing on a pretty bad day. People take it in stride, but it does make you appreciate the air quality of most US cities, something we usually take for granted.
As you may know, in November the Indian government invalidated 500- and 1000-rupee notes—nominally to clamp down on fraud and black market activities, though surely any sophisticated black marketeer wouldn't just keep a shoebox full of notes under the bed, so this move mostly hurt middle-class people. (Only 4% of Indians pay income tax; over 87% of wage transactions in the country's economy are off-the-books; under-invoicing and over-receipting are so widespread as to be universal.) The result is that no US foreign exchanges have rupees at all (most of them wrote off their entire inventory of rupees as a loss), ATMs in India have hour-long queues and run out of cash early in the day, and many ATMs don't even work because the new 1000- and 2000-rupee notes are a different size than the old ones so the machines must be modified. In all, the "demonetization" has been a major bungle, and although major tourist destinations accept credit cards, day-to-day business in India is overwhelmingly a cash economy, and people are pissed. Anyway, VK was kind enough to loan us enough cash to get us through any trip expenses that weren't prepaid and for which we couldn't use credit cards—the idea was I'd repay Nikunj in US dollars back in Berkeley, since he needed spending money and it was easier to do this than to have US dollars obtained in India.
We made our flight to Jodhpur relatively easily.  That's where we are now, and that'll be the subject of the next post.  We'll add some photos here too, or on Facebook under Tonia's account.