I tried writing a full-length blogpost on most or all of these topics, but somehow lost my way. So here they are, summarized and all together
I went to NYC Pride a few weeks ago. Usually, when ‘Pride’ is mentioned, everyone assumes it to be a wild Mardi Gras of sorts, but NYC Pride was nothing like that. It was co-opted by politicians, political parties, big corporations and social organizations. The focus was on milestones the LGBT community had reached, and about what more they want to do. Everyone and his brother wanted to show support for the community. Google had tons of Pride-themed swag – I saw this girl on the train with a ‘Noogler’ cap, Google Pride Tshirt, a TDbank rainbow flag in her pocket, a rainbow wristband, a sticker from an athletes group showing support for the community… phew. I ran into my middle-aged senior colleague there, and he’d brought his kids to watch. I’m glad for the mainstreaming of the cause. I hope sometime within the next ten years, I’ll be able to see matrimonial ads from parents looking for same-sex partners for their children in India. Because, well, no one ‘becomes’ gay to piss their parents off. Once your choice of partner is normalized, you can focus on other things, like worrying about how they fit into your family, whether your parents approve of your partner’s caste and religion, and how to ward off your parents and aunties and uncles hinting that they want you and your partner to adopt children asap. Like everyone else.
It made me think of all the homophobia in India. A girl I know came out of the closet, and someone else I know met her once. When this someone else got to know that the girl was gay, she said ‘But… I met her just last week and she seemed so… normal?’. And that is one of the most benign things I’ve heard. I’m kind of optimistic that’ll change, but I don’t know.
- Freedom of Mediocrity
Pride had tons of couples walking with signs saying ‘Together for 35 years, married for 2′ and other such mushy things. Made me wonder, what about the ones who argued and split up? If they marched in this parade, would that somehow make the cause less worthy when it came to light that flash news, gay people had the same relationship issues as straight people. There’s just so much more pressure on gay people to make things work, if you consider things this way.
One of my best friends works and studies in France and Germany. He’s an exemplary student and employee. He works really hard at everything he does, and always has done right by any standard, professional or personal, though if you ask him, he won’t say exactly that. When I ask him why he struggles so hard with doing everything right, he says ‘No, if I mess up, it’s so easy for them to say all Indians are messups’.
When homosexuals get assaulted, a great part of the advice given to them is “Project yourselves as being more awesome than straight people’. The major complaint you hear (especially from straight men) about gay men and lesbian women is ‘Why do they have to dress so ‘weird’? Why can’t they just be…. normal?’.
It irks me that just because I possess a uterus, I need to be twice as good as Karthik (generic male name) to get the same amount of praise Karthik does. It irks me that just because Sheila and Trisha are lesbians, they need to have a more exemplary relationship to show the world that gay people deserve their unions federally recognized. Or because Reggie is African-American, he needs to dress nice all the time to prove to everyone he isn’t ‘ghetto’.
If you don’t believe me, look at the examples touted of successful minorities. The ones to look up to are always the ones at the top. Admiral Grace Hopper, gay couples who’ve been together 40+ years, Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
The problem is, double standards don’t affect the ones at the extreme ends of the success spectrum too much. It affects the rest of us.
Federally recognizing gay marriage won’t probably help the couple who want to be there forever and ever for each other as much as the couple, say the lesbian one in Under the Tuscan Sun who decide to have a child and midway into the pregnancy, the pregnant partner is left literally holding the baby. Gender equality won’t help Marie Curie as much as it would probably help some nameless girl in a nameless software company who realizes she would be a better coder than tester and asks for a raise due to which there’s a huge difference in the quality of her life and in the decision of who between her and her husband stays home to take care of the child for a few months.
Also, the people at the top are really few. The people in the middle are a larger bunch. If you want to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people, you’d do better to start at the middle.
Freedom to me has essentially meant the freedom to make mistakes. In some countries, the difference between taking the right route with a male escort and walking alone in the wrong street can literally mean the difference between life and death. A truly free country is where your ‘punishment’ for going down the wrong alley isn’t much, because it’s so easy to make a mistake there. Freedom means being able to say “Hey, so can you explain to me what Markov Random Fields means?’ without the fear of being thought of as a dumb blonde. Freedom means being able to realize you’ve made a commitment to the wrong person and being able to get out of it without extra punishment for having committed to someone of the same sex instead of the opposite sex. Freedom means a brown person being able to mess up on a date with a white person without the white person thinking that’s true of all brown people. Freedom is flunking your final and finding out you still have a fair way to achieve your dreams.
Freedom means being able to write bad code without wondering if that would mean you don’t prove yourself well enough and you’re going to rot in a worse role than you wanted, though that’s not really standard for the men in your industry. Freedom is to be able to cheat on your gay partner and not have the consequences be so grave that all of gaykind are seen as weirdos and cheats by citing your example. Freedom means to not be judged for the nude pictures your ex uploaded of you in revenge a long, long time ago.
Freedom is like a mother’s love that says your mistakes aren’t that worse than others, and that the world still loves you and gives you opportunities to prove yourself other ways.
- What ‘feminine’ means
So I used to think being feminine meant having feminine interests. Sewing and embroidery, knitting or crochet or cooking or makeup or clothes, or maybe singing. But apparently you can be good at all those things and still not be considered feminine enough. Gaggles of sorority girls don’t care about your consummate knowledge of eye makeup. They don’t care about your awesome recipes. Mothers-in-law couldn’t care less about your crocheted toys. Or even your hips which your ob-gyn considers ‘perfect for childbearing’. You can have stereotypically feminine skills and interests and demeanor and you can still be one of the boys. Because the notion of femininity goes beyond all that.
Being a girl seems to be more about not living life on your own terms. It’s not about being a whiz at styling your hair, it’s about having no interests apart from styling your hair, irrespective of how good or bad you are at it. It’s about deferring to someone else, irrespective of whether you need or want to. It’s about being able to let someone else make your decisions for you – No, that can be a trusting relationship, not necessarily an acknowledgement of inferiority. It’s about not explicitly controlling your own destiny, but instead resorting to guile to achieve your aims. It’s about saying I don’t call the shots in my own life. Think about it. I’m not saying ‘being a woman’. I’m saying ‘our concept of femininity’. Think about it.
- Existential Crisis
Sigh. What can I say. FOMO. YOLO. Indecisiveness. Not knowing if I’m right in being attached to what I’m attached to. Not knowing what the future holds. Wondering if I ought to have regrets. Wondering if others have been right all along. Wondering if my reasons for living the life I live are good enough or if I should have taken everyone else’s advice and done something else. Wondering if I’m good enough to achieve my lofty dreams. Stuff like that. I’ll figure it out. It’s just damned hard sometimes.
Like I’ll probably never tire of saying, I moved to New York City in 2012.
Among other things, I discovered that a lot of concerts happen in the area. I don’t anymore have to worry about getting back late. And it works great even if I’m by myself, thanks to the excellent public transport this city has. So I ended up watching a lot of concerts. Let’s see how that went.
- Norah Jones: Last April at Tarrytown Music Hall. I had no idea this place existed. My friend had an extra ticket and while I had only listened to two Norah Jones songs properly until then, I decided to just go. Turned out to be a test concert for her tour for Little Broken Hearts a month later. Two hours later, Norah had a new fan. Her voice has an ethereal quality to it. Her manner makes you feel she’s just a regular girl you’d meet at a slumber party and do your nails with and who you’ll grin at when she has her arms full of Grammys and you won’t for a moment think she’s being snarky when she says “And I didn’t thank my grandmother either” when the media asks her why she didn’t thank Pt. Ravi Shankar in her Grammy acceptance speech. I also have grown to like her country band The Little Willies. Her music doesn’t take itself too seriously, be it when she’s covering Dolly Parton’s Jolene or singing melodious yet creepy songs about what she’ll do Miriam who’s done her wrong. I love how effortless she makes it all seem.
Here’s The Little Willies singing about Lou Reed cow tippin’.
- The Manhattan Transfer: It was Last.fm’s recommendations which introduced me to this jazz vocalese band. I wrote about the concert here. It was a very enjoyable evening. It was raining like crazy as I hunted for a Kinko’s to print my tickets out near Grand Central, and I made a mad dash in my soaked ballerina flats to catch the last train that would get me to Tarrytown in time for the concert. It was still cold and rainy and dark as I trudged up the slope to get to the music hall. It was downright magical to hear jazz vocalese being performed live. When we all stood up in an ovation after Birdland, it didn’t matter that I was the youngest and brownest in the crowd, or that the two women next to me had large bobbing Adam’s apples and that had made me unsure about beginning a conversation with them or that the old couple next to me called me ‘coloured’…. all that mattered was we thought the band did a wonderful job and we had had a great evening.
- The Raghu Dixit Project: All the Bangaloreans in the tri-state area came together at Joe’s Pub that evening. Everyone had that typical RV/PESIT look about them. Their performance was just like I remembered them at NITK in 2007, though only Raghu Dixit and Gaurav Vaz remained of the then-lineup. Their token eye-candy was the flautist this time, as opposed to the guitarist while at NITK. Everyone who’d come, Bangalorean or not, enjoyed the concert a lot. There even was a caucasian woman who danced on tables and jumped up on stage as the band finished. She was introduced to the crowd as the band’s ‘stalker’. They played old songs, new ones, movie songs, folk songs… they’ve always been good at showmanship and kept the audience on their feet pretty much the entire duration. Pretty good, I’d say.
- The Doors (of the 21st Century): aka Krieger-Manzarek. They’ve got a lead singer who does a pretty awesome Jim Morrison. Ray Manzarek looks just as erudite and classy as he looked in the band’s heyday. Robby Krieger looks like just another little old man with funny pants and a great shock of white hair, but two minutes with a guitar and he’s a powerhouse. Ray’s brother Rick Manzarek came in with the lead guitar for a few songs, I don’t particularly remember which ones. (This is why you’ve got to blog just as soon as you finish a concert). I was initially trying to record the songs, or to sing along or to try and remember the songs, but with the long interludes and solos and improvizations, I just gave up and sat back and closed my eyes. It was the closest I’ve got to a religious experience. The band are very loud, very ’70s, very cheery, very prone to cussing. They remembered Jim, they got up and pranced around, they screamed, they played their hearts out. From Riders on the storm to Indian Summer to Light My Fire, the music transcended every pore of my being, and when they finally got around to LA Woman, it didn’t matter anymore that they were playing ‘my song’, all I knew was I didn’t want them to stop playing. I’m someone who makes fun of Morrison poetry, but in that music hall with the music so loud, and a powerful-voiced young man spouting them, the lyrics all came together and made sense.
The crowd was interesting as well. Lots of ex-hippies. The sorts who are balding badly but still have a ponytail. The sort who still try to drink like they did in the original Doors concerts, but now end up going to the restroom every half hour. One such man next to me was reminiscing about driving down Sunset Blvd passing by a billboard advertising the latest Doors album, LA Woman, with Light My Fire playing on the radio when the announcer interrupted to announce Morrison had been found dead in Paris. His much-younger wife piped in with ‘I wasn’t born then’, and we laughed.
- Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler: I had the highest expectations for this one. If listening to Krieger-Manzarek had been a dream-come-true, Bob Dylan would be downright legendary. Didn’t pan out that way. First, we’d gotten the crappiest seats at Barclay Center. Secondly, it was at Barclay Center, which is a ballpark. The problem with a ballpark is, it’s too large. I was too far above the stage and watched the whole thing with my camera zoomed in to 25x. The acoustics were okay. But then Mark Knopfler was the least interactive performer I had watched until then. Most of the songs he played weren’t any of the popular ones from Dire Straits. I’d have liked to appreciate the Celtic-sounding numbers he played, but not one song got an introduction or even had its name mentioned. The band was introduced at the very end. There was hardly any greeting the audience or acknowledging us.
I thought Dylan would be better because he famously performs at his grandkids’ school impromptu. How wrong I was. He acknowledged the audience even less than Knopfler did. He sang all his songs in a gruff monotone with very little hitting the higher or even the mid-ranged notes. I had great difficulty identifying which song it was that he was singing. The lighting was terrible.
If all that weren’t enough, the audience enthusiasm was pretty low. Any burst of enthusiasm would remain rather localized because the place was so large and people were so sparsely scattered. One group starts going ‘woooooo’ and realizes they sound out-of-place and just as others start picking up on it, they stop. And everyone stops. I just didn’t feel the enthusiasm the way I had in the other ones. It was a pretty huge let-down I’ll say.
- The Queen Extravaganza: This is Queen’s official tribute band. Their act is produced by Roger Taylor and the show is designed by the same guy who used to do it for Queen as well as for Led Zeppelin and RHCP and Floyd. I was warned they were loud, but I had no idea how much until they started playing. They had two wonderful vocalists, Mark Martel hitting the higher notes, and Jennifer Espinoza doing the powerful lower notes. Neither did any falsettos, I was disappointed to note. Their enthusiasm is boundless and their energy is infectious. They had these screens in their backdrop where they played footage from Queen concerts and music videos. I especially loved their rendition of Don’t stop me now, where they flashed the lyrics along with little pictographs.
The audience were astounded by their Bohemian Rhapsody where they played the original music video and the band did all the parts live except for the Balland and Opera bits for which they played Queen’s recording. They played all the well-known songs including Radio Ga ga, Killer Queen, Tie Your Mother Down. Mark Martel sang a very very soulful Somebody To Love. They ended it with We are the champions and We Will Rock You.
This was truly a dream-come-true for me. I’ve loved Queen for many years now, love their music, love their showmanship. This was the closest it can ever get to the real thing, and I had the time of my life listening to these songs. If I ‘just let go’ and surrendered while listening to The Doors, I was alive and ready every second for Queen. It made me smile for weeks after and nothing could faze me.
My enthusiasm for the band was however beaten by a banker who said he’d been to Queen’s concerts and pronounced The Queen Extravaganza ‘nearly as good as the real thing’, and a sixteen year old Brazilian boy who loved astronomy as much as he loved Brian May and spoke perkily about learning to stargaze from Brian May’s blogposts and tweets. And a couple of girls from Yonkers who said to me, ‘Ooh, Freddie was Indian too, did you know?’.
- Upcoming…. I’m dying to attend Dengue Fever’s concert in April, and wondering about Steven Wilson too. I’m a tad pissed about missing Roger Waters and Jethro Tull and hope at the very least, Jethro Tull perform again in 2013. I’d love to attend one of The Little Willies. I’ve heard there are a lot of concerts of Bollywood singers, but I’m somehow not too enthusiastic, but maybe that’ll change. I’m hoping AC/DC choose to perform, given I’ve missed them at Indio a while back. Rickie Lee Jones and Fleetwood Mac look promising. Maybe I’ll check out some jazz at BB King Blues & Grill or the Beatles tribute bands there. Maybe I’ll finally try Birdland. Or maybe I’ll say yeah I’ve attended more concerts in a year than I have all my life before and not go for any more. Let’s see how it goes. Watch this space
That Delhi girl died.
I don’t know if I should even be saying anything. In the time between when she was assaulted and when she passed away, I was having a good time. Lots of friends and acquaintances coming in to town, and I end up coming home at hours that would be considered unreasonable back home. I often come back home by myself, unescorted. What’s more, I do everything by myself. Initially in this city, it wasn’t much of a choice – I hardly knew anyone. If I had to rely on company, I’d've never discovered half the spots I intimately love here, wouldn’t be doing improv, wouldn’t have gone for writing classes, wouldn’t go for random Reddit meetups, wouldn’t furnish my home, wouldn’t…. do anything!
My behaviour and demeanor would be termed ayyashi in an Indian city.
Enough has been said about the mentality of Indian men and the government and patriarchy, and I guess I needn’t repeat all of that, given others have said it better than I could have. All I know is how not being constrained by my gender set me free.
I’ve always been the good kid who walked the straight narrow path. I don’t like to take risks. I just like to be left alone to do my own thing. I don’t like to fight the system. I’m not the rebel sorts. I hate having to fight for what I need; I prefer negotiating. I’m the meek nerdy girl you don’t really notice. That said, having a father and mother like mine means you end up with interests in random things your friends usually don’t share interests in. And you know what? That combination makes life hard!
You don’t want to stay out beyond your curfew, but you really want to go for Toastmasters which holds meetings late in the evening. You don’t want to go out with a crowd that has only boys, but that’s probably the only way you can attend that concert you’ve been dreaming of since forever. It’s hard to make friends because they all live so far away and they hang out late after class and you need to leave because you don’t want to get home too late. You want to take pictures of the sunrise, but you aren’t supposed to be out that early. You want to exercise in the sun, but it’s weird to do so on the terrace because the neighbours have lechy sons.
And so on. These seem very much like problems of the privileged, I know. I’m lucky to be able to go away from home for higher studies. I’m lucky my parents save money for my MS and not for my Mrs. But the sort of roadblocks in my way are roadblocks too.
You are advised against taking Mechanical because it’s not a woman-friendly field. You want to do a project with one professor but he is a creep you don’t ever want to be left alone with. You correct a lecturer in class and he casts aspersions on your character (this really happened to me). While your mostly-male team is trying to negotiate with a professor, you are asked to step in and ‘turn on your feminine charms’. Some girls you know wear jackets in 35 degree heat because a colleague stares at their chests and the people above him won’t take their complaints seriously. You hear of a much-loved former colleague being fired for sexually harassing the office looker, and though you are shaken, you are hurt even more by your friends accusing her of doing all this just for a fat settlement (mostly because they are numb with disbelief), and you wonder what would happen if you were to blow the whistle on someone who troubles you… would these same friends who hold you so dear turn against you?
When I joined gradschool in the US, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of don’t-care I faced. No one cared I was a girl. No one looked at me weird if I stood my ground about a technical point and was proved wrong; it was expected I do that. No one cared if a researcher was a man or a woman. I couldn’t anymore rage about being discriminated against; I had to contribute equally. I could stay at lab past 2am, and I’d get escorted back by the cops. And I didn’t need that, really… I could walk back and it would be perfectly safe. No one talked down to me because I was a girl. No one made me uncomfortable with their eyes or touch. The world was telling me ‘Here, you have all the opportunity and none of the constraints, now you have no excuse for not kicking ass’. It was sort of scary because I was never used to feeling that.
When I finally had free time on my hands in New York, my mind and body initially protested greatly at my resolution to never come home before 9pm on any given day. It wasn’t safe, my mind and body yelled. There’s some catch, they screamed. I kept myself away from staying home with my entire self kicking and screaming. Soon, I was comfortable talking to strange people, going to places that I wouldn’t have dreamt of going to, and my only gripe when I stay out late is that I lose out on a few hours of sleep, or that the Q train doesn’t run express. I see me blossoming as a person, without the constant worry that someone is staring at my bosom or looking to grope me. I feel less helpless. I see myself finally get that sense of entitlement and innocence I’ve longed for for so long. Somehow it felt like I’d lost that with constantly preparing for the worst in India. There are no strangers judging me for my choices here and wondering aloud if my mother did a good job raising me. I feel free.
I’ve had shady creepy experiences, but I’ve always been comforted by the fact that things can’t get too bad, there are cameras everywhere. And that even if something happened, the perpetrators would be brought to justice. The confidence that if I called 911, the cops wouldn’t say creepy shit and get away with it.
The confidence that the rule of law was in effect in New York City.
Yes, we can go on blaming the general attitude of the people, of Indian men, of Indian parents, society and everything for what happened to so many women in India. But in my opinion, that’s not it. Strict laws and their strict enforcement can go a long way in changing how society thinks. There are plenty in New York City as well who’d be too glad to do it the Delhi way, but there are cameras everywhere, the laws are strict, the courts are strict, citizen groups won’t let go of any such case easily. There certainly are flaws in this system, and perpetrators do get away occasionally. But the fear is enough to deter a lot of people from committing crimes. Not just rapes. Mugging and murder too.
If the streets are safe, people no longer have an excuse to lock their daughters up. If the legal system is secure, rapists don’t get away scot-free. Parents of girls start chilling a bit, let their daughters go to a larger variety of places. The presence of a larger proportion of women changes the social dynamics of any place. Boys grow up seeing more and more girls in their activities, and the whole idea of the difference between the genders stops being so stark in their heads. Sure, to see change in the society and its mindset, it’ll take at the very least another generation, but as an immediate effect we can see the number of crimes go down, and that is not a small thing.
And that’s why we shouldn’t lose sight of legislating on stronger laws, police reform, judiciary reform, and electing officials who toe our line on these things.
I’ve had a most wonderful weekend.
A couple of months back, I’d been to a Norah Jones concert at this little town in Westchester county called Tarrytown. It was a great discovery by a friend of a friend’s, especially since Norah would be touring the world a month after to promote her new album, Little Broken Hearts, for tickets that were twice what I paid for that small ‘Norah and Friends’ concert in Tarrytown. It wasn’t even advertized… that secret.
Since then, I’d been following the show listings of Tarrytown Music Hall quite religiously and they had a lot of musicians performing, a lot of whom I’d vaguely listened to, but wasn’t really inclined to go to a full concert of, like Michael Bolton and Dionne Warwick. And then I saw them advertise for The Manhattan Transfer – a jazz vocalese band. I booked tickets more than a month in advance.
The concert was on Friday night. Somehow I managed to get fully drenched in the only 20-minute spell of thundershowers in a long time – it had been boiling hot the whole week through. After a ride up north, I found my seat, with a good view of the stage. As the hall filled up, I realized I was easily the youngest person in the place. Everyone else seemed to be thrice my age or thereabouts. I got talking with the old couple to my right, and they were quite surprised to see a young brown girl at a concert like this. They were very nice, unintentionally racist and loved jazz music.
It turned out to be the band’s 40th year, and they were playing a lot of their old hits. They started with Route 66, followed by Java Jive, followed by On a little street in Singapore and Brasil. Everyone seemed disappointed that Cheryl Bentyne was not performing, as she was undergoing surgery. In place of her was Margaret Dorn, who did a decent job, but somehow didn’t complement the band well enough. Janis Siegel, who is the other female singer in the band (they consist of two male and two female singers), does a beautiful scat and hits the high notes wonderfully, but the steady, solid, unadorned voice of Cheryl would have kept the sound more grounded and bound together, I felt. The band went into solos then, and also songs from other composers and songbooks.
By now, the elderly gentlmean in front of me was shaking his head wildly, obstructing my view. So I switched to the empty seat in the front row, next to two colourfully dressed women. If it hadn’t been for the bobbing Adam’s apples and raspy voices, I would never have realized they were transvestites… even their square jawlines weren’t so prominent. There was a fifteen-minute interval and I was nervously looking into my phone because I was afraid of saying something to the ladies and offending them. One of them then asked me what I thought of the concert so far. They turned out to be immensely passionate about music and about this band.
The band then got back and continued with numbers from the songbooks. They went back to their classics, and reached a crescendo with Birdland, at which the ladies next to me burst into tears of joy because ‘it was so beautiful’. It really was. A wonderful, practiced sync between all four of them, that comes with singing together for so long. That one song took all the positives from their entire performance that evening and put it in one four-minute burst. It indeed was a marvel to hear. Alan Paul then finished off with a very emotion-laden Gloria, a fitting end to the concert.
I came back tired, cold and wet, and with a big smile on my face for having experienced something that beautiful. Nothing could top that.
Or so I thought. Reddit.com, worldwide purveyors of procrastination, were having their annual Global Reddit Meetup Day on Saturday. Turned out, the New York City meetup was happening rather close to where I lived. What the hell, I thought and went there. The environment was surprisingly like what Reddit feels like to me online – where you can be yourself and find your crowd no matter what. Everyone felt welcome. There was food and drink which people had brought, and people talking and playing frisbee.
Within minutes, a couple of computer science sophomores and I were in a deep conversation about the Twitter API and web development and Asian Parent memes, when we were interrupted by a friendly southerner who introduced us to a Mongolian who grew up in Siberia. The conversation shifted to languages, their origins, and things like that while we asked the Siberian about what it’s like there, whether it was a ‘punishment posting’ (extreme weather, yes it’s a punishment posting, especially the northern parts of Siberia).
Just then, we were all called for a group picture, which took several clicks to get right, with one organizer running frantically across the area, trying to get all of us in the shot, in panorama mode. There was one guy screaming out typical Reddit stuff like ‘That takes care of my senator ambitions’, ‘That escalated quickly’, and other such things. It was awesome that everyone got the inside jokes!
We got back to hanging around and chitchatting. Now there were people playing soccer in addition to frisbee, and then a bunch started playing Calvinball. The bunch of us who were talking about insane conspiracy theories, careers in computer science/IT, drones, Iran and other things slowly got distracted by a guy who was showing a bunch of people some plants and trying to dig something out. He looked out of place, with his rather-complicated looking tools and park-ranger clothes. Turned out to be a horticulturist, and we got back to talking.
There was one fella who had a job extracting eyes from corpses, for an eye bank. The conversation quickly degenerated into a barrage of eye puns. Eye-banking, Eye-T, ‘Did you know about the blind man who picked up the hammer and saw?’ ‘No I didn’t, and neither did Helen Keller’… and so many others which I don’t remember now. We were surprised at how quickly real life mirrored Reddit.
We see this guy standing awkwardly beneath a tree, by his bike, and texting on his Blackberry. I wanted to engage him in conversation, when one of the people I was talking to whispers “Omigod, that’s the Reddit CEO”. I don’t remember Yishan Wong’s face, so I pull out my mobile to imageSearch his face, by when one of the group had already walked up to him to ask, “Are you Yishan?’. “Yes, yes I am”, he said. And then told us not to make much of a fuss.
So we casually stood around, asking him about what keeps him busy. He said though he’s a techie, the 20 people who run the website don’t much need any guidance with technical issues, though scaling is a challenge. His job, he said, is to keep a good relationship going with the folks who own the website, so that in times of crisis, like the r/jailbait issue, they trust the Reddit team to get it right instead of walking in and shutting the website down.
He was telling us about how the whole plus for Reddit is the community aspect, which is fostered by self posts and by meetups like this one. He told us about how they hired someone who would have been an awesome Community Relations Manager, but right after the day he was hired, he was diagnosed with leukemia. Just then, we were interrupted by a reporter from New York magazine, who stood by listening to our conversation, and chiming in with supporting questions.
Someone asked him about the next technical questions he was addressing, and he mentioned subreddit discovery. It seems a very interesting problem, because given an interest, there are atleast 30 different subreddits, so which one would you recommend to a given user? Also, how would you know about these subreddits, given that most of the time, the names of the subreddits don’t directly reflect what it’s about? I suggested showing the users wordclouds around each subreddit, extracted from the content of the posts on it. He said their biggest advantage is their large user base and availability of mods for everything, which they can use to manually tag subreddits.
I then asked for a photograph with him, which he kindly obliged. One of the group asked if he gets asked this often, and he said he doesn’t, mostly because he’s a very private person. Then he had to talk to the reporter as he needed to run elsewhere in a bit, so we shook hands and got back to talking to each other.
Stuck around for a while more, talking to the photographer from New York magazine, who was somehow unobtrusively capturing pictures of all of us in our natural environment, and watching people play Calvinball.
Four hours after I’d first walked in, I walked back home, terribly dehydrated and hungry. And cheery as hell. It’s not everyday (in New York atleast) that you meet so many nice cheerful people, one among who is the damn CEO of Reddit Dot Com and talk to him about word/tag clouds!
I moved to New York City soon after New Year. And then seem to have disappeared into a black hole. Neither have I been blogging my exploits, nor have I taken the trouble to upload photographic evidence of my presence in this great city to Facebook or Instagram. No, I’m not hiding out in some corner of Oregon and just saying I’m in NYC. But it’s hard to take pics of yourself when all you own is a not-all-that-great Android phone with not-good battery life. I’ll be getting a camera soon, and maybe I’ll do a photo-essay on the Greek-inspired architecture in the city. And then maybe do Boston.
But until then, all I have is my shaky memory and this blog to tell you all about what to try in New York City. From the perspective of a vegetarian, rather social loner. Ingredients – you. And maybe a Metrocard. That’s all. Here goes!
- Look at the city lights from a high vantage point: This is the quintessential thing to do in any big city. I really love looking at lit-up places. It somehow just erases all that is an eyesore and highlights only the nice stuff. High above only makes it better. The Empire State Building is the first place that comes to mind for this. It’s right in Midtown Manhattan, on 5th Avenue, right near the middle of the city. Up the street a short way away is Rockefeller Plaza. You can go up the observation deck of 30 Rock and see all the streets lit up. That’s the Chrysler building, that’s the Empire State Building, that’s the stuff around WTC, and that seems like a church. Then you look at all the tall buildings midtown and point out the one where you work. And if you’re on the Empire State Building, the little blue thing midtown is the Rockefeller Plaza ice-skating rink. Then you see the streets, brightly lit Fifth Av, broad Park Av, crooked Broadway, Park and Broadway merging way downtown into 4th Av. And then the Brooklyn Bridge, and Queensboro Bridge, and Brooklyn and Queens. Then Newport, Hoboken and other cities in New Jersey along the Hudson river. Beautiful.
- Walk along the Brooklyn Bridge and back: It has a very nice pedestrian walkway. And even a lane for cyclists. With plenty of places and benches where you can stop and pose for pictures. Or just look at the tall buildings of the Financial District, or the piers along the East River. And the lights on the bridge itself. And its history, the process of it being built, and the huge steel ropes that seem to impossibly hold it up.
- Get jostled around at Times Square, watch a Broadway show: Times Square is the busiest place I’ve seen ever. It’s always full to bursting with tourists. There’s no dearth of dressed up characters wanting to pose with you for pics (for a fee). Or of bright lights. It’s the closest you get to Vegas without going to Vegas. There are plenty of theaters playing Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. The milling of humanity is cloying if you prefer wide open spaces, but for a big-city person like me, it feels just right. Oh, and the Broadway shows. They take the idea of a stage performance and make it awesomer than you can imagine. No stunt is too impossible to perform, no cost is too big to spare. The music, the dances, the acting, the stunts, the costumes…. even if they vary, there’s no reduction in the ‘wow’ factor at any show.
- Admire the architecture at Grand Central: It has to be the most beautiful public transit station ever. It is a work of art, right from the delicate chandeliers to the tall ceilings. Try their food market. So much fresh produce and fresh catch. A delight to behold.
- Listen to some busking at large transit stations: The ones I’ve seen in Manhattan so far have been the best at Grand Central, Times Square and Union Square. Occasionally Herald Square too. And also on the shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square. There are a lot of performers. Most of them are obviously not that great. But you do quite often come across a really good jazz band, or a bunch of really flexible breakdancers. Or a couple of South-east Asians playing some exotic instrument. Or a sole violinist playing some beautiful, mournful tunes. Or a fun group on the shuttle who have ‘Sing-along Saturdays’. Don’t get the CDs they offer ‘free for a $5 donation’, though. I’ve heard most of those CDs are blank
- Play chess and lounge by the fountain at Bryant Park: I love Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan. It is located right behind the Schwarzman Library, which is a delight to behold all by itself. It is the perfect place for hanging around after work and attempting to write your novel. Cisco provides free Wifi citing just that reason. There’s a huge lawn, and a fountain. There are a few sandwich places. And a couple of chess boards and pétanque, a French game. It’s a popular tourist spots, and by the end of two hours there, you’ll become an expert at taking shots of people with the fountain as backdrop. A calming, relaxing place. My favourite spot in the city.
- Watch improv for real cheap: There are three places that come to mind – People’s Improv Theater in Flatiron, Magnet Theater in Chelsea and Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade. Their shows cost under $10, and are really really good. Then there are mixers as well where you can take part and improvise scenes possibly with someone who’s been doing this for ages. These places aren’t yet as well-renowned for their alumni as Second City in Chicago or Groundlings in LA, (Hang on, UCB can boast of Aziz Ansari) but just go watch! The folks performing now might just end up being the next Lisa Kudrow or Scott Adsit. Or the current Scott Adsit – he performs in these places! And for $5!
- Do Karaoke in Koreatown: I haven’t really been to Chinatown, because it’s so far out of my way. But Koreatown is in midtown. 32nd Street between Madison and 7th Avenue is full of Korean restaurants, banks, bars and karaoke bars. For the first time, you genuinely feel you are in another country. As a vegetarian, I can’t really appreciate much of the food, except in Hangawi, which is a rather upscale vegan Korean restaurant, and their smaller, more chilled out cafe outlet, Franchia. But the real attraction in Koreatown would be the karaoke bars. Haven’t done it myself, but have heard from friends that it is an experience you certainly should have with your friends.
- ….So much more: Well, there’s simply too much to do. Jog in Central Park, have lunch in Hell’s Kitchen, shop for real cheap around NYU, check out the large clothing stores on 34th street, shop real posh around 59th and Lexington, eat at random Pakistani restaurants around 28th and Lexington where you feel you’re in some chai shop in Lahore, walk the Museum Mile, go to the waterfront near WTC, have chaat around Jackson Heights, listen to some jazz at Birdland, attend a Hack-and-Tell session at the Meetup.com offices…
I haven’t done it all. No one has. By the time you think you have, they get something new. That’s what makes it a wonderful, exciting city. It’s not easygoing like Boston or San Francisco. It makes you rough. I went from being a docile immigrant who couldn’t talk back to a store clerk in Dallas when she was making fun of me to the hard-as-nails one who asked the tough-built lady from the Bronx who elbowed me to ‘take all the extra space on the train and shove it up hers’. It’s not easy on the nerves. But it gives you the freedom to be whatever you want, while virtually guaranteeing that no one’s going to remember if and when you mess up.
Being pretty much by myself has toughened me up a lot, I’ve to admit. Not just NYC, but right from when I moved here. I’ve gone through so much that now nothing else seems insurmountable. I tell people one or two stories from my life, and they are already going ‘Girl, you’ve been through a lot!’, when those are just the episodes I can narrate. It’s not like I’ve had it rough…. I just seem to find these fun situations to be in. I sometimes find it hard to not say ‘Bitch, please!’ when others my age whine about being depressed or broke or lonely or stuck, but I realize there are way too many people who are more than qualified to say ‘Bitch, please!’ when I whine about my ‘problems’.
There will always be things to be dissatisfied about, things that you feel insecure about, and scary unpleasant things. But when you fulfill your childhood fantasies of lying down on a lawn and writing into your notebook and having dessert for dinner and catching a snowflake on your tongue, you find there’s very little in the universe you can genuinely be mad about.