A Passage to Jackson Heights
Sister, you are going to be very famous one day,” the palm reader said to me as he examined the lines on my hand. “Everything next year is going to be great. You will achieve all you dreams.”
Well I was hoping for a book deal, I thought to myself.
I exchanged knowing glances with my friend Stefanie. We were sitting in a dark underground room decorated with posters of the various Hindu gods, Krishna, Ganesh, Kali, Durga, and Vishnu. Even Jesus made an appearance. From the ceiling a pink light bulb hung, casting a warm light in cubicle-sized room. The astrologer’s predictions were trite at best, seemingly the sort of predictions that came from his Astrology 101 book.
But then he said something slightly more telling. “You’re always helping people. You love to help others.”
It’s true. I did just volunteer in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. OK so he wasn’t going to win any psychic of the year awards, but for $10 you couldn’t ask for a more entertaining experience in Queens.
For many people New York conjures up images of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and pizza. The hustle and bustle of millions of people crowded onto sidewalks hailing cabs and shouting “Fuggedaboutit!” But there’s a whole other side to New York that you likely won’t find in guidebooks.
Ethnic neighborhoods have long been a part of New York’s storied history; perhaps more so than any other metropolis in the world. As waves of immigrants flocked to the city allured by the promise of new opportunity, they often found relief from their homesickness through proximity with their fellow countrymen.
Growing up as an Indian American in south Jersey, I knew all about Queens, or more specifically Jackson Heights, aka “Little India.” Indians first started coming to Jackson Heights in the seventies after the passage of the 1965 Immigration act. When the U.S. first allowed Indians to enter the country, the majority of immigrants were engineers and doctors. But soon after small business owners, taxi drivers, and laborers started filtering in many of them choosing to settle in Jackson Heights.
My parents had taken us a couple of times to Jackson Heights to visit their friends and do a little shopping while my sister and I complained about how bored we were. However my south Indian mother was not particularly impressed with the predominantly north Indian working class Jackson Heights. So our visits stopped and instead we stuck to our local Indian markets for our fix of pani puri and samosas.
Figuring my mom was just being picky, I decided it was time to rediscover Queens with fresh eyes. First stop Jackson Heights.
As I bounded out of the subway station to meet my friend for lunch at Jackson Diner, I was treated to the sounds hip shaking Bollywood music blaring out of car speakers, mustachioed men in turbans and ladies in brightly bejeweled saris. It was almost like India; minus the animals.
Every conceivable Indian product one could possibly want is available in Jackson Heights, from mango-flavored ice cream to ready-made-meals to pre-flavored masala tea bags.
Unfortunately the diner wasn’t yet open for lunch, so we sauntered over to Patel Brothers, one of the largest Indian grocery stores I have ever laid my eyes on. Wandering through the aisles, I passed women in salwaar kameezes (tunics worn over pants) gathering ingredients for dinner, young girls in the beauty aisle looking for their favorite henna to color their hair, and men stocking the shelves with giant bags of lentils. Every conceivable Indian product one could possibly want is here, from mango-flavored ice cream to ready-made-meals to pre-flavored masala tea bags. We picked up some spice packets (channa masala and chicken tikka) and headed to the register.
“Take a picture of me!” one of the Sikh cashiers shouts at my photographer friend as we were checking out. “I am very handsome, no?” he says with a grin while straightening out his mustache. She obliges him with a quick snap and a giggle. “Yes you are very handsome,” she responds.
The Jackson Diner is an institution at this point with legions of fans Indian and non-Indian alike making the pilgrimage from all over New York City. Even Hillary Clinton and Sarah Jessica Parker have stopped by for some Indian grub. With brightly colored plastic accents hanging from the ceiling, standard diner-style furniture and no music, the atmosphere inside leaves something to be desired. Thankfully the food does not. Though we could have ordered off the menu, we chose to gorge on the cheap and tasty buffet, which offered everything from spiced potatoes to naan to tandoori chicken. A chef preparing fresh dosas stood right by the buffet, doling out piping hot crispy pancakes stuffed with spiced veggies. I sat down with my plate piled high and ordered a masala chai. It’s perfectly spiced with just a hint of pepper, steaming hot milk and sugar served on the side. No vanilla and no honey like the westernized version. This is how it’s done.
I finished off my meal with a small side of papri chaat, a fast-food snack comprising of Indian-style potato chips, chick peas, potatoes, yogurt, tamarind sauce and chutney. Indian fast food isn’t widely known or celebrated, which is a serious shame. Had I more time (or more room in my stomach), I would have headed to Bombay Chaat which specializes in Indian fast food. But alas, unlike a cow, I only had one compartment in my stomach.
With our bellies full, we headed over to India Sari Palace. Bolts of brightly colored embellished silk and cotton saris lined the walls. Swarms of women crowded the store eagerly fingering the saris they had selected from the shelves. Sadly my sari-wearing skills are non-existent, so I often stick to ghagra cholis (a skirt and blouse combo) or salwaar kameezes when it came to Indian wear. Thankfully, the friendly staff is happy to teach non-sari wearers how to drape a sari properly should you decide to purchase one. However they probably wouldn’t be so friendly if they caught us taking pictures. I gazed over at the sign that said “No photographs,” a policy that is often enforced in Indian clothing and jewelry shops to prevent people from reproducing the item in India or with their favorite tailor at a fraction of the cost.
We left secret photos in tow and made our way over to Mita Jewelers across the street. One of the striking things about Indian jewelry is the abundance of gold. Though there were some silver pieces and gemstones, the primary focus was gold. And not just regular, 14 karat gold. 22 karat gold. It’s thicker and heavier than the normal 14K and significantly softer and more malleable allowing for some of the intricate designs typical of South Asian jewelry.
After our fashion fix, we stopped in Butala Emporium. For someone who loves a good trinket, Butala Emporium is nothing short of heaven. Butala houses everything under the sun from brass Natarajas (the lord of dance) to tablas to ayurvedic beauty treatments to incense.
Personally, I found myself drawn to the Japa beads, which I hoped would help me with my mediation practice. I also snagged a 2013 astrology book, which, I hoped, would divulge all the secrets of the New Year. Alas it didn’t seem to provide much detail, but the universe clearly wanted to help me out.
We were walking out when a woman stopped me on the street and handed me a card for the aforementioned palm reader. Of course, I couldn’t resist. She ushered us downstairs into a decidedly empty sari shop where her astrologer/palm reading husband was conducting readings in a little closet-like room. After waiting for him to finish with someone else, I stepped inside and sat down on the folding chair across from him. He wrote down my name and birth date and then asked me to hold a bunch of shells, think happy thoughts, and throw the shells down. He may not have been the best, but when I left I definitely had a little extra pep in my step.
Since my eyebrows were looking rather unruly, I decided to swing by Cejas Salon where we got our eyebrows threaded. Threading is a traditional beauty treatment that uses thread to pluck stray eyebrow hairs. Better than waxing and much cheaper.
My threader held up a mirror when she was done. “Very nice, no?” she asked. Once the redness subsided, it certainly would be. “Yes, shukriya,” I said thanking her in Hindi. Me and my eyebrows were finally ready for grand finale in my Jackson Heights journey; gulub jamun.
My friend and comedian (and Queens native) Sameer Naseem recommended that we check out Shaheen Sweets for some of the best mithai or sweets this side of Mumbai. Personally, I have never been a fan of Indian sweets no matter how many times my mother tried to make me try them. Indian desserts are extremely dense confections of milk, sugar and butter along with other things like nuts, spices and fruit. Heavenly to some, too sweet for others, such as myself. But gulub jamun is a different story. Gulub jamun are dough balls made of flour and milk then deep fried and soaked in a rose water with cardamom and saffron. They’re like mini-donuts on crack.
Since it was the eve of Diwali, the Hindu New Year, the cases were stuffed to the gills with all kinds of sweets just begging to be taken home and gobbled up. I decided to oblige them by getting a gulub jamun filled with cream. As I bit into the other worldly delight, the juicy rose water oozed down my chin. I sloppily mopped it up with my napkin, as I watched Stefanie devour her barfi, an Indian-style marzipan.
We continued on to a mini mart and picked up mango drinks to quench our thirst and moved on to our next stop, a music store. We wandered into Melody Stop music and video store, which enticed us with the promise of a life full of fantastical heroes, villains and beautiful babes with kohl-rimmed eyes. Though things are changing, Indian sensibilities generally forbid on-screen kissing or sex. Which means all things love and sexual must be conveyed through song and dance. When I was growing up, my friends and I did filmi-style dances to songs about love, lust, and believe it or not losing one’s virginity in a chick pea field.
“What she saying?” Stefanie asked of the song playing on the speakers.
Unfortunately my knowledge of Indian culture stopped short when it came to understanding Hindi. “Eat the gulub jamun?” I offered.
Stefanie rolled her eyes.