Thursday, September 25, 2014

gary in ruins

Perhaps this is a facile or shallow analogy, but New York City feels like the Kolkata of the USA.
And Kolkata is the New York City of India

Let's compare and contrast.
Much like Kolkata, NYC is the cultural capital of our country. Unlike Kolkata, it is the largest city.
But, much like Kolkata, it is crowded.
But not nearly as crowded as Kolkata:

Population Density of New York City: 27,778 peeps per square mile.
Population Density of Kolkata: 63,000 peeps per square mile
Although, the population of New York City is almost twice as high as the most recent census count I could find for Kolkata:

The population of New York City:
8.337 million
The population of Kolkata:
4.573 million.

Which was an even more mind-boggling difference when I realize that the population of the United States is 313.9 million and the population of India is 1.237 billion.
And these numbers are impressive and interesting, but I also realized I probably can't imagine a room full of more than fifty people. At 313.9 million, my mind just turns into a blank.

The numbers are not what makes New York City Kolkata, it is the spirit of the city. There's something about the dirty smells mixed with the beautiful smells, and the rich mixed up with the poor, and all the beauty and the ugly, the divine and the mundane all jumbled up together in a rich, dusty mix of City that makes them feel so similar.

Just as the smell of the kati rolls or the misti stands would cut through the smoggy fog of pollution and goat dung, the most magical smell in the entire city of New York is the Dough Loco smell that wafts out of the soft morning air. It is the most magical smell. It's like Kolkata, where the rich smell of a stand would pop out of nowhere, surprising you with its potency and beauty--its sweetness and its richness.
The dough loco smell enchants me, it wraps me in its doughy, cake-y sweetness, it fills me with great gladness. I have decided that I am in love with Dough Loco. I love catching a whiff of sugary ecstasy every time I pass by. But although I breathe in deeply, to catch every whiff of the smell that I can as I walk by the store's large glass storefront, I come up empty. But then, a few unexpected strides after the store, the magical smell of maple miso doughnuts swirls into my nostrils. It usually only swirls into my nostrils a few strides after I pass it.
But it is intoxicating. Just like the smell of Kolkata.

Besides the similarities between the roar of the traffic and the trains, and the dog shit sweltering on the hot sidewalks, there are also uncanny little particulars that remind me of Kolkata even more.

The apartment buildings on Lexington that look exactly like all those sad dusty buildings in Kolkata on the way to the airport. It makes my heart turn upside down when I see them. In Kolkata, they looked like hopeful little prophets of modernity, that had quickly been covered up in the dusty entropy of the city. As I watched the wind tug at the "NEW! ROOMS for RENT! SPACE AVAILABLE! NEW!" banner, I wondered how long it would take for the metallic, sharp buildings, sticking out like a sore thumb from the statuesque brownstones and brick of the city, to be covered in a thick layer of dusty obsolescence.

But they are such different cities, worlds apart from one another. Although they are both filled with decadent smells and rich, colorful sites, there is also a sad ring of dryness in their crowded, bustling streets.
There is a spiritual sort of aridity, even in the midst of the colorful temples (Kolkata), the noisy bodegas (NYC), and the colorful fabrics, jewelry, and garish billboards (both).
Perhaps this is simply the very nature of a city on earth: that the crowds that provide all the activity also doom us to anonymity. While there is always an abundance of living happening all around us, at all hours of the day and night, there seems to be a decided lack of life.

But, somewhere in the midst of the dryness, there is a river of life. A little spring of abundant life that can break out of the dusty shell of the city's exterior, and irrigate the streets, so that each of the dirty blocks is soon bursting with something new.
Perhaps this is why Mother Teresa was so attentive to these cities: she saw fertile fields, just needing a little water to help them grow.*


 * Addendum: This evening, after getting lost in SoHo, I followed my nose--homesick for Kolkata, and recognizing an intoxicatingly familiar smell--to a small little colorful food truck that advertised kati rolls. (although they had just run out of propane, so they couldn't make me one. Also I didn't have cash. so.) 
The man promised me, however, that the rolls were excellent, "a game-changer" were his exact words. 
"Which ones you like?" he asked, "where have you had kati rolls before? The Village?" 
 "Kolkata?" I said. 
"KOLKATA!?" he said. 
"Ha," I said, doing the Indian head nod. 
"YOU SPEAK HINDI" he cried. 
I don't. But I can still fake it like a pro. 
It was one of those blessèd little interactions that fills you with joy for very little reason, except that human beings are full of beauty, and two people can share a love for something they love in very different ways: like kati rolls and the City of Joy from which they come.

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