Ashok’s Shop

by

06/09/2019

Neighborhood: Featured, Midtown


For twelve years there was a convenience shop I frequented in the Manhattan office building where I work. It was a cramped place, essentially a hole in the wall with a door attached to it, at the back end of the lobby. The sign on the door said Headline Newsstand, but as newspapers gradually disappeared as a necessity of daily life, the shop survived by selling coffee and other sundries: cellophane-wrapped bagels and muffins, gum and candy bars, soda, bananas, cold medications, cigarettes, cheap umbrellas.

The store was run by Ashok, a short, middle-aged Indian man. Over time I got to know him. My first impressions of Ashok were not favorable. The problem, at the beginning, was that when I ordered a large regular coffee, he’d often pour my cup right up to the brim before putting the lid on it. As I would walk to the elevators, my drink, on more than one occasion, spurted out over the sides of the cup onto my hand, staining my shirt. Congenial fellow though he was, Ashok was an absent-minded schlemiel, the kind of guy who could be counted on to not only screw up a coffee order, but also have it spill on his customer. And if he was a schlemiel, around Ashok at least, I was a shlimazel—the person whom the hot drink landed on. There was something amusing about this hapless inept interaction, although when hot coffee was staining my white shirts I didn’t think it was particularly funny.

For a period, I switched my allegiance to Ali, an Afghan gentleman, who had a breakfast coffee cart on the corner of the block where I work. His efficiency was remarkable. The man had memorized the morning preferences of hundreds of customers. Splenda, Equal, black, light, regular. The man knew exactly what every one of his regular customers wanted. And he did this while frying eggs on a little grill. The man was a whirlwind, starting his mornings at 4 a.m., or so he told me, so he could claim his spot before anyone else. No matter how grim the elements, he’d cheerfully discuss the weather with you. Rain, snow, sleet, summer heat—nothing deterred him. Even during the annual two-week period in September when the United Nations General Assembly brought world leaders to the east side of Manhattan and wreaked havoc on  midtown traffic, my coffee guy always managed to be at his corner.

Ali, despite his efficiency, or perhaps because of it, often had a line of customers waiting for him, and on certain days when it was raining, I found myself returning to Ashok for my morning coffee. His coffee pouring technique seemed to have improved. I’d also frequent his little nook for an afternoon Kit-Kat bar. “I have the dark,” he’d declare triumphantly to me after noticing I preferred the dark chocolate bar to the regular.

Ashok’s work day was long, and eventually I realized he was lonely, or at least bored. Sometimes when I came in the shop, he’d be watching cricket on his cell phone. When I evinced vague interest in the match, he’d share his knowledge of the game. I had a rudimentary understanding of the rules, which he improved by explaining wickets and overs and sixes. He would recount for me the glories of India’s top batsmen, Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, and was especially animated watching international matches when India was playing Pakistan or England.

Ashok told me he was from Gujarat, in the west of India. He came from a family of wheat farmers, and when he got married, the dowry, paid by his bride’s family, had provided an opportunity for escape. Ashok and his wife moved to Uganda. He lived there nearly two years, selling hair products in Kampala. I knew that in the early ’70s the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin had expelled the country’s 80,000 Indians, mostly Gujaratis, many of whom had been there for generations. They were given 90 days to leave. A much smaller Indian merchant class had reestablished itself in Uganda after Amin was deposed. Ashok explained there were also large communities of Gujaratis, mainly shopkeepers and traders, in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.

“We are the Jews of East Africa,” he told me proudly. “But it was not easy in Uganda, so many fees and corruption. It was hard to make a business. It is better here.”

He’d come over to New York in the mid-1990s, sponsored by a relative, a beneficiary of what President Trump likes to refer to as chain migration. It was several years after his arrival that Ashok’s American Dream took something of a dark turn. On September 11, 2001, he was operating his own newsstand in lower Manhattan, a block from the World Trade Center. The newsstand was destroyed and, although he never went into great detail about it, it seemed that day had left its scars. His circumstances, for reasons not entirely clear to me, had never completely recovered. “I lost my business on that day. Now I am just working for my boss; this is not my own place,” he told me on more than one occasion.

Our building lobby has two large-screen TVs turned to CNN, and whenever the network was covering a terror incident, Ashok would step out from his little shop to watch the report. London, Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Boston, San Bernardino, Orlando, the West Side Highway in New York. Whatever the particular atrocity, Ashok would be transfixed in front of the TV, reluctantly returning to his shop only when a customer appeared. On those days he’d look watery eyed and invariably make the same comment to me as I passed him. “These guys. You see this. You see what happened?  They are bad. They are bad.” School shootings and the many other senseless attacks by mentally ill people that are a regular feature of American life also grabbed Ashok’s attention, but they didn’t seem to deplete him in the way Islamist terror attacks did.

Most of the time though, Ashok seemed cheerful. On a slow afternoon, he would banter with the front desk security person, Peter, who had grown up and still lived in the Red Hook public housing projects or Bill, the building engineer who lived in suburban Long Island. Their disparate backgrounds didn’t deter their lively back and forth. On a quiet afternoon, before handing me my change, Ashok might first complain about New York City taxes, the cost of electricity, his mobile phone, and the rent of the Jackson Heights apartment where he lived with his family. He would take out and show me invoices that he expected me to peruse. Other times he’d tell me about the new Hindu temple in New Jersey that he helped clean on weekends as a show of devotion. It was one of the largest in the world, and had been constructed out of hand-carved Italian marble.

The Indian prime minister, Narenda Modi, who had previously been chief minister of Gujarat, could do no wrong in Ashok’s book. His enthusiasm for a strong leader who would make India great and get rid of the crooks seemed excessive to me, but I didn’t pretend to understand the intricacies of his nation’s politics. When Modi spoke at a sold out Madison Square Garden in 2014 during his first visit to the United States, Ashok was proudly in attendance.

Over the years, my interactions with him were routine and mundane. Sometimes Ashok would disappear for a few days and his wife, looking morose and confused, would stand in for him at the shop. Once when I remarked that he was looking tired, he told me he’d spent the weekend driving his cousin’s family to Fort Wayne, Indiana, because they were opening a 7-11 franchise there. When a couple of years later I asked how his cousin was doing, he told me the family had moved to Poughkeepsie. “It is much better than Fort Wayne, but the problem with Poughkeepsie is that people there don’t have money. Good people, but no money.” There was a short-lived drama, I remember, where, due to fire regulations, the building management insisted the shop’s door had to be kept closed. Ashok had his customers sign a petition, and after a few days the open door policy returned. That was about as exciting it got as far as happenings in the building lobby were concerned.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I noticed that my inbox had an email with the subject line Headline News Closing. The entirety of the message read:

Please be informed that effective Monday, Headline Newsstand will no longer be operating in the lobby. We are looking forward to providing a new food and beverage experience in the near future. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you.

Robert Martin
Assistant Building Manager

Right away I headed down to the lobby. In his little shop Ashok was packing boxes. He’d managed to keep his imminent departure quiet. “I will be back. Don’t worry. This is only temporary,” he said. I didn’t believe him, but I could tell he didn’t want to discuss the matter, or had been told not to talk about it. We shook hands awkwardly, I wished him well and that was it. When I entered the building lobby on Monday morning, Ashok was gone.

I’ve been thinking about him recently and wondering why his departure affected me. We were friendly, but not friends. His pronouncements could be slightly ridiculous and he was unremarkable in most ways. I doubt that anyone, other than his family, ever thought of Ashok as special. But there was something impressive about his peregrinations across continents from Gujarat to Kampala to New York, with his own 9/11 story, and his immigrant tale of ups and downs. I’ve compared his expedition in my mind to my mother who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, escaping the post-war gloom, rationing and deprivations of working class England to begin her own adventure in New York. And my paternal grandfather, who, if family lore is to believed, witnessed a pogrom as a child and left Russia, unaccompanied at age 13, traveling first to Wales and then Brazil, before getting work as a merchant seaman and making his way to America. When the boat he was working on docked in New York, he jumped ship, headed downtown and walked the streets of the Lower East Side until he found someone who knew a distant relative who had settled in the neighborhood years earlier.

Ashok’s story was one more among the millions of variations of my family’s American dream. He is one of the forty percent of New Yorkers born in another country. The thousands of Hondurans, El Salvadorans, and Guatemalans, walking north and hoping to make it to the United States, all have stories too. Their journey and Ashok’s, the immigrant’s journey, requires courage. Perhaps Ashok’s children, or more likely his grandchildren, will mythologize his adventures one day. But the real story in all its ordinariness is heroic enough. Wherever you are now Ashok, I wish you well.  

***

Jacob Margolies is the Managing Editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. This story was originally published in the April/May 2019 edition of The Forward.

 

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§ One Response to “Ashok’s Shop”

  • Jacob this is an excellent piece and so important in today’s climate. All Real New Yorkers have an Ashok (or two, or three) in their lives, just as they have us in their lives. My hope is that we all strive to play nicely in the NYC sandbox.

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