February 23, 2012

dusmesh india restaurant, feb 23

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                                       Dee
     One of the things I love most about doing this blog is that the path for each story is totally unknown to me, until it unfurls itself like a vibrant cloth, in front of my eyes.  Today, I thought that I would be telling you about a restaurant, which has the most wonderful food I've ever tasted, but instead, I will be recounting a true story of love, sacrifice, and selflessness, and, of a union, the strength of which, can not be measured.
     The beautiful, beaming face you see above, belongs to Dee.  If you have eaten at Dusmesh India Restaurant, on Ludlow Ave., you may have met, or at least seen Dee, or, one of her two children, Maya and A.J.  If you've eaten there more than a few times, chances are that all three of them have memorized your name, as well as your favorite order.  The mindbogglingly delicious food, which I've already mentioned, is the inspired work of their father, Mahabir, the head chef, and his smiling kitchen staff.  

photo by steve metz                                                                                                          A.J.
     The story of their journey to Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A., begins more than twenty years ago in northern India, where Dee, the woman who always has a smile for everyone she sees, the woman who walks you to your table and who brings  you water, was a practicing physician.  Dr. Dee.  Mahabir, her husband, was a farmer.  The children were new to this world.  The family form had taken shape, but the future was uncertain.

     Dee and Mahabir were typical of any good parents in that they wanted greater opportunities for their children.  Their willingness to radically change their own lives in order to make this hope a reality, is where they truly set themselves apart.

     In 1985, Dee would board a plane, by herself.  She would leave behind her career, culture and language.  She would leave behind her husband, son, and daughter.  She would leave behind her parents, her extended family, and most of her worldly possessions.   It would be fourteen years before she would have a life which would include daily contact with her nuclear family.  Dee got on a plane one day, bound to parts unknown, to a place named San Francisco.  

     The plan was for Dee to travel to America to lay the foundation for a new life for her family.  Her career as a physician would pave the way.  At least that was the idea.  But, as so often happens, a smooth and simple plan was introduced to a harsh, complex reality.  It became much more difficult than anticipated for Dee to transfer her Indian medical credentials, to become a practicing physician here in the United States.  

     Imagine for a moment, that it's you.  You have arrived at a place in  which everything is utterly foreign.  You are alone.  You are tasked with finding a permanent place to live, a temporary job to sustain yourself while you trustingly reach for a way to transfer your career to this foreign culture with its foreign methods.  You are tasked with learning a new language, a new city, a new form of government, a new way of interacting with people, new roads, new light sockets, new fruits, new vegetables, new household supplies, new ways of dressing, new idioms, new public transit, new banks, new beds...absolutely everything you knew is gone.  Now, imagine, also, that the backbone of your plan has fractured.  What would you do?

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                                      Maya
     Meanwhile, your husband is thousands of miles away.  He is toiling in the fields to provide food and shelter for your two small children.  They are so small that, at some point, they might even become confused as to whether the woman who is helping to take care of them while you are away is their mother or their grandmother.  Soon, they will begin school.  They will develop personalities, idiosyncrasies, and manners of speech.  Their faces will change.  Their feet and hands will grow.  Will they recognize you when you are able to visit?  Will you recognize them?  Will they like you?  What would you do with these thoughts, with these obstacles, these fears?  What would Dee do?  Would she acquiesce and return home to India, fating her family to less than she and Mahabir wanted for them?

photo by steve metz                                          saag mushroom
buffet tag

     No, she would not.  Instead, she would do what all those who achieve greatness do.  She would fight.  She would find an alternative.  She would find a way.  Dee decided that the next best thing to being able to resume her medical practice in the United States, was to become a nurse.  For a person who is a true mother, this is not shocking, or even questionable.  After all, nurturing is nurturing.  The vessel by which care is delivered, is irrelevant.  Until 1999, Dee would provide care to others by nursing them through illness, stashing away as much money as she could, a bit at a time, until, finally, at long last, her family was able to join her.  The children, so small when she had left, were now teenagers.

photo by steve metz                                                                                              Mahabir, in blue stripes, and the kitchen staff

      I have tried to imagine their first night together, in San Francisco: the first night living together as a family, under one roof, after what must have seemed a countless number of years.  I imagine tears of happiness and laughter.  I imagine some fear and uncertainty, too.   They could not have known what the future held at the time, any more than Dee could have known it when she stepped onto that airplane so many years ago.  They could not have known how difficult the first day of school would be for Maya and A.J., who didn't understand a word of English.  They could not have known that it would become difficult for Mahabir to find work in America and that he, too, would eventually embark upon a solitary journey of his own, to a place called Ohio, where he would work as a dishwasher while his family remained in California.  They could not have known that, by way of this experience, Mahabir would discover in himself, a great gift for cooking and that this gift, along with the hard work and dedication of his wife and children, would allow them to, at long last, realize their family dream, some twenty years in the making.    

     It would be in the form of their own restaurant, a business they would build from the ground up, using the same tenacity and sense of purpose, which had served them so well for so long.  It would grow from being a well kept secret, frequented by a handful of lucky customers, into a bustling, community hub, which would be packed with happy customers seven days a week.  This success would come from the high quality of the product served, but even more so from the high quality of the people who provide it.  They would name it Dusmesh, which, loosely, means "Ten God," in their Sikh faith, in honor of their family heritage.   It would be on a road named Ludlow, in a place called Cincinnati.  

You can visit Dusmesh India restaurant seven days per week.  They are open for lunch and dinner.   Lunch features the greatest buffet in the world, which includes many vegetarian options.  :)

Dusmesh Indian Restaurant
944 Ludlow Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45220
(513) 221-8900 
Hours: Lunch Buffet - Monday - Friday 11:00 - 2:30; Saturday & Sunday11:00 - 3:00; Daily Dinner Hours 3:00 - 10:00

February 16, 2012

the freestore foodbank, cincinnati cooks!

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                               Cincinnati Cooks! Student

     Some things can just be kept simple.  Some things are so elemental that we needn't overcomplicate them with our opinions, our politics, or biases, or our religions.  One such thing is the requirement that every man, woman, and child on earth should have the opportunity to nourish his or her body with food and clean water.  If you are reading this, you are, most likely, seated in a comfortable, sheltered environment, with access to electricity, clean water, and sanitary disposal of waste.  You have probably also eaten today and you won't have to question whether or not you'll eat tomorrow.  I'm one of you.  We're the fortunate and we're in the minority.  In a true world view, WE are the 1%.

Chopping Skills at Cincinnati Cooks!
     When we hear about hunger, the first impulse is to the let the mind wander across great expanses of ocean, sand, and brush, and to imagine people living in places whose names we can't pronounce, speaking languages, which, to us, sound as though they are comprised of things which are not words.  This gives us separation.  This gives them an "otherness" quality.  This makes them too foreign, too far, too difficult to help. 

     Perhaps, then if the task of wrapping our minds and our hearts around the problem of hunger, in people who are oceans and deserts away from our wireless access points, is too stultifying, then, we should look only around the corner, down the block, up the highway, or across the river.

     I'm guessing that most of us rarely think about the daily struggle of people who are truly in need.  We might casually click "like" next to a status update containing some profundity or another about poverty, homelessness, or unemployment.  I'm likely to even get some "great article" comments on this post.  But, what will you actually do?  What will I do?  How can I change so that I might help others whom I don't even know?  We may not dwell upon these things at present, but we can start to.  One thing which I know will help, is to become inspired by others who are already doing it.

photo by Steve Metz                                                                                       John: President/CEO of the Freestore Foodbank

Cincinnati Cooks! Student
     There is a wonderful organization, full of dedicated, soulful people who wake up every day with a purpose in their hearts.  We're very lucky that we have them.  It's the Freestore Foodbank.  Their mission statement says it better than anything I could possibly say.  We provide food and services, create stability, and further self-reliance for people in crisis.

     Last year, the Customer Connections Division and the Foodbank Division of the Freestore, combined to serve almost 19 million meals in the Cincinnati area.  That's 19 million meals, which did not come from anyone else, which were eaten by people who simply needed food.  The Customer Connections Division alone, fed over 160,000 individuals from its downtown Cincinnati location.

Cincinnati Cooks! Student

     The Freestore Foodbank welcomed me, as it welcomes everyone, like a family member, to its Central Parkway offices, where I visited the Cincinnati Cooks! operation, to snap some photos and speak with a few people.  Cincinnati Cooks! is a free training program, provided by the Freestore, for at risk adults.  It prepares participants for employment in the food industry in and around our city.  The program includes job placement assistance, career coaching, and mentoring.  The majority of students arrive without work, and leave having a new job and the prospect for a productive career.  Some of the students have even come back to the Freestore to help run the program, after having first spent some time in the field.  See Marcus, below, for example.

"Food is the entry point into people's lives for our organization," John Y., President/CEO of the Freestore Foodbank told me.  "It's a bridge.  It helps us find out what other tools they may need to become self-sufficient."  The Freestore not only feeds its customers, it also helps them locate other social services: vital resources on the path towards reconstruction and independence, which is always the Freestore's goal.  Incidentally, I'd like to tell you that the smile in John's portrait, above, is absolutely genuine.  There was a rich, warm, and shared type of caring in the place: a genuine sense of happy pride that comes from selfless accomplishment, exuded by all, but none more so than John.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                               Stove at Cincinnati Cooks!

     As I left the facility that day, I thought about the fact that I, as a 44 year old man, have never had to experience true hunger.  I began to wonder how many small, wrong turns I might have been away from a much less fortunate life, or, might even still be.  There are a million different ways for a life to fall apart: a drinking problem, recovery form which comes just a little too late, the unexpected loss of a spouse, or worse a child, the onset of an unexpected disease at exactly the wrong time, a broken heart.  Anything unexpected is a possible entry point into a time of need.  What if my life was the one from the mission statement...the life in crisis?  How thankful I would be for people just like those who had welcomed me that day.

Marcus: Sous Chef, Cincinnati Cooks!
Fernando: Master Chef/Trainer

     What is it that makes us human?  To me, it is brother-and-sister-hood.  It is about having an understanding that I am a being who makes choices, which impact not only myself, but my loved ones, my community, and my earth.  It is about understanding that when one of us suffers, we all suffer, and, when one of us rises from suffering, to thrive, we all thrive.  So, maybe if you and I make small changes in our lives, we can gradually extend our vision to include more and more of our brothers and sisters.  Let's start with our neighbors.  Maybe, if we do this for long enough and with enough purity of heart and goodwill towards others, this vision will extend across the oceans, sand, and brush, which now seem like juggernauts.  I know that I'm going to be trying.

Freestore Foodbank: web

February 9, 2012

ria: aka, d.j. mowgli

Ria has over ten thousand record albums.  That's more than one for each and every man, woman, and child in the town where I spent my childhood.  He has been gathering and assembling them, like threads of an elaborate and vibrant tapestry, since he was a kid.    

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                                          ria

Both of Ria's parents are Bengali.   Bangladesh is a South Asian nation, bordered almost entirely by India, except for a small portion which is bordered by the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, also known as Burma.  Ria's parents moved from Bangladesh, to Scotland.  From Scotland to Newfoundland.  From Newfoundland to Ottowa.  From Ottowa to Baltimore.  From Baltimore to Dallas.  From Dallas to Cincinnati.

Ria was born in Texas.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                           mr. bubble

Bengali is still spoken in Ria's nuclear family.  Ria has visited Bangladesh many times in his life.  His entire extended family still lives there, where they practice Islam.  Ria is an atheist, but has joined his family on a pilgrimage to Mecca.  He also joins them in prayer, out of respect for their religion and traditions.

I would like to know how to say "the twisty moustache man," in Bengali.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                  the twisty moustache man

His father is an avid Rudyard Kipling reader and began calling Ria Mowgli when he was just a boy.  His father also introduced him to an eclectic array of musical styles, including traditional Bengali music, jazz, and artists like Stevie Wonder.    

Ria learned to play the violin.  Then, the drums.

photo by steve metz                                                                                              goldfinger

Ria devoured music, floating from genre to genre.  Like a pollenating bee, he carried a little bit of each style forward and impregnated the next with that which he had learned from the previous, much as his parents had traveled from culture to culture, country to country, town to town, assimilating, morphing, but still, somehow faithful to some unarticulated force at the center.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                happy death man

Ria worked in record stores.  He made money, then he bought records.  He made a little more, he bought a few more: on and on, a cycle of hunger and feeding, as perfect as the circle of a spinning platter.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                             the red-plate special

Now, with those ten thousand platters at his disposal, and with the heritage of traditional Bengali  culture infused with an American childhood, Ria dj's.  You can hear those varied threads in his method.  First, a jazz riff.  Next, an obscure, eighties synth band, of whom you've never heard (this will have you spending hours on your own trying to track down the origin of that sound).  Lastly, there goes Mowgli, running through the concrete jungle.  I imagine that his father would be smiling.

d.j. mowgli: facebook

February 2, 2012

circus mojo

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                     circus shoozez

In 1979, when I was 12 years old, I had a moment of profound revelation, which would change the course of my life forever: I was not going to be an NBA basketball player, as I had imagined, because, contrary to my own self-image at the time, I actually really sucked at basketball.  I mean, I reeeeellly sucked. It took getting chopped from the Fighting Yellow Jackets, Jr. High team, on the first day of tryouts, for me to understand this.  Larry Bird was going to be able to keep his job and I was going to have to become rock 'n roll star, instead.  Still waiting for that one, by the way.

photo by steve metz                                             young lady/happy circus person
My point is, there are very few times in our lives when we know exactly what that small, dark shape on the horizon actually is.  Certitude and intuition, be damned.  We can shape it a bit, but at the end of the day, we must follow the path placed before us by the convergence of all of the disconnected, yet interdependent moments of our lives.  So, I imagine that Paul M., founder and Chief Circusarian (I invented  that word, at this very moment) at Circus Mojo, a circus school in Ludlow, Ky., did not imagine himself to be a circus performer, while studying as a theater major in college.

"I kind of did it as a joke at first," he tells me of his first audition with Ringling Bros..  "I was a sophomore at CCM, and I thought it would be fun to audition.  I wanted a backup plan, too, in case theater didn't work out for me."

Despite missing the mark on that first audition, the backup plan would become Plan A, when, the following year, among, literally thousands of auditioning performers, Paul was selected for one of only ten available positions in the traveling show.  Statistically, that's more prestigious than Ivy League.  Paul hit the road and joined the proverbial circus.

He would later finish his degree at CCM, but that experience with Ringling Bros., would forge a path for him, and, transitively, for hundreds of kids whom he and his organization have since helped.  The art of circus had gotten into his blood enough for him to want to teach it.  He began by offering circus performing classes at prestigious east coast schools while working as a part-time soap opera actor in NYC.  You may have seen him on Days of Our Lives.  No, I'm not kidding, but thank you for asking.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                             paul m./circus mojo

Early on in his teachings, Paul noticed something important: something that would solidify the idea of offering circus skills to the public as an ardent passion...the passion of which Circus Mojo would later be born.  "All people need a sense of achievement in their lives, and circus offers that," he tells me.  "You come here and you may not know how to juggle or walk on a giant ball, and then, suddenly, you can juggle or walk on a giant ball."  With the right amount of effort, the reward is quick.  It's also measurable in the intent smiles on the faces of the participants of Circus Mojo.  Moments of "oooh I got this...I get it" abound.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                                       ring juggler

I was lucky enough to witness this effect when I joined Paul and his students at Circus Mojo one Saturday morning.  There were kids (and even a few adults) from all walks of life.  Some had probably been spending too much time with their PlayStations.  Others, sadly, had even spent some time in detention centers.  But none of that mattered when they joined together on the floor of Circus Mojo.  The varied experiences and backgrounds of the kids were somehow washed away and instead, there was a commonality and a communion, to their effort, their learning, and the joy of discovery.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                          happy circus people

We are all born with natural strengths and deficits.  One of the things Paul likes to point out is that learning circus skills fortifies us exactly where we need to be fortified.  The kid who can pick up juggling in 2 minutes, but who hasn't yet understood teamwork, gets to help others and experience the nurturing and growth of a group.  The kid who joined Mensa at the age of seven, but who can't hold a conversation gets to be the same as everyone as else for awhile.  There is a true sense of community there, which doesn't seem coerced.  It's just naturally born of a shared, positive experience.  The most dedicated among them have even gotten to perform in Germany.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                     young man/happy circus person

Personally, I know that I could have used something like Circus Mojo when I was that grief-stricken kid who had just gotten cut from the b-ball team.  I was shy, awkward, and as thin as a slip of paper.  I imagine the twelve-year-old me stumbling through the door to Circus Mojo.  I'm immediately put at ease because there is fun music playing and Paul M. is wearing crazy shoes and cracking jokes right and left.  Moments later, we begin a group juggling activity.  A circle forms.  I'm nervous, but for some reason, not as nervous as I would be if this were gym class or a book report.  Paul M. is in the middle.  The bowling pins start flying.  What? Did that just happen?  Did Paul just drop one?  Maybe he did it on purpose.  Kids are smiling, clapping for each other, dancing in place to the music.  It seems like they feel the opposite of pressure.  I smile too.  Oops...that girl across me from me dropped one.  At least I won't be the first kid to do so when it's my turn.  Wait, one said anything mean to her.  That's odd.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                  juggling while walking high wire
Soon, I'm next in line.  I'm nervous as hell, but I'm happy too.  Now, the green pin is flying at me.  I catch it and manage to toss it back.  A split second later, the orange.  Yes!  But, the red one bounces off of my hands, into my shoulder, and onto the floor.  I can feel a familiar heat build in my face.  I turn to run after the fallen pin.  I listen, but, to my surprise the sounds of the room do not change, as I expect them too.  There is still music and clapping.  By the time I turn around, Paul M. has moved on to the next kid.  No one seems to have even noticed my blunder.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                     young lady/happy circus person

After the group juggling, Paul splits us into pairs.  This is horrible.  I'm paired with a girl who must be older than I am: maybe she's even in high school.  She's cute.  The braces on my teeth feel like they're growing.  We stand about 10 feet apart.  We're holding glowing plastic rings.  We start throwing them.  I'm dropping them all over the place.  It's a nightmare.  I feel like vomiting.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                  building a human tower

It doesn't take long for Paul to notice my struggle.  We take a break.  Paul stands directly in front of me and looks me dead in the eye.  I can't even see the girl.  He's telling me exactly what to to change my rhythm, my motion, my focus, my gaze, the way I grasp the ring.  He's telling it like it's if I just do what he's told me to do, it will just work.  He steps back a few paces and starts tossing rings at me.  I catch, throw, catch, throw, catch, throw, drop.  We keep going.  Soon, I'm keeping up.  Twenty tosses in a row!  Now, thirty!  Next, the girl steps back in.  I barely notice because I want to get back to  it.  We're counting out loud together.  We hit 50 and I hear her say "yes!"  She drops number 72.  She runs towards me and puts her arm around my shoulder.  Wait.  Did that just happen?  Yep, it really did.  Thanks to Circus Mojo.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                     young man/happy circus person

Circus Mojo will be holding an open house and performance as part of Macy's Arts Sampler 2012:

Circus Mojo: map

Circus Mojo: website