Other than my family’s kitchen, I have never felt so much love around a table as at Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe.
Vimala is Vimala Rajendran, a Chapel Hill food icon with a wrecking-ball smile who years ago began inviting anyone who was interested, soon more than a hundred people a week, into her home for donation-style dinners using pots she brought with her from India. That community eventually became a brick-and-mortar location on Franklin Street, to this day home of the best Indian food I have ever eaten.
After rooming with several of her sons for a few years and gleefully noshing on whatever the Leftover Fairy put in our fridge over night, I finally accepted an invitation to help out around their kitchen briefly last year. It was such an intoxicating privilege to be part of a place where so many different tastes, languages, politics and worldviews unlike anything I had ever experienced were flying around. The restaurant’s iconic “Everybody Eats” mantra, the idea that nobody would ever be turned away for an inability to pay, so blew my mind that I physically had trouble saying the words to ask for it the first time, like The Fonz begrudgingly admitting a mistake. One of the requirements on the job application was “someone we can be friends with the rest of our lives.” For someone so far away from home, it was such a blessing to have a place where the flavors of love could come rushing back in every bite.
I had admired this place for so long as a customer that I was terrified of making some horrible rookie mistake as an employee, and so I spent much of my time trying desperately to look like I knew what I was doing. One day as I sat down for my lunch break, Vimala pulled up a seat next to me and asked stoically, “Have you ever worked at a restaurant before?”
“Nnnnnoooo,” I stammered.
She looked quietly off into space.
“Me neither,” she said, smiling.
Four years ago yesterday, I waved goodbye to my family in our driveway, trying desperately for them as much as me not to cry, drove 12 hours through the desolation of Southern Ohio and majesty of the West Virginia mountains, pulled into my friend Mike’s driveway and about this time in the morning started my first day as a staffer at the News & Record. To be honest, it never felt like a choice. This state has thrown its arms open for me since the first time I stepped outside here and the bluest sky I had ever seen made my head dance with possibilities. I never could have imagined the opportunities to love and laugh and fail and grow that would find me, but when I think about all the people who have forever changed my life here, I feel immensely blessed to be right where I am this morning.
But he tells this great story of his favorite lunch spot when he worked for Santa Fe Railroad in Detroit. He was on a call to one of the auto companies with his boss, a hulking Irish guy whom he says people would always assume was a cop whenever they’d walk in to eat somewhere. His boss suggested they go to a Chinese place downtown called Ming Palace. They had a couple martinis (“marts,” as he tells it) and the chop suey, “and boy, it was the best chop suey you ever had,” he said. So this became their regular spot - when on a call, they’d go to Ming Palace, sometimes introducing themselves as Martini and Rossi, have a couple drinks and then marvel over the chop suey. Oh, you’re going downtown? You’ve got to try the chop suey at Ming Palace.
That is, until one day when they were in a rush and didn’t have time to open with cocktails.
"The chop suey was terrible," my grandpa says laughing. "Martinis make things taste pretty good."
He sits down next to me at the bar and orders a cheesesteak with potato chips. He is tall and muscular but not chiseled, the kind of guy who probably benches for three hours and then eats a cheesesteak with potato chips. He asks the bartender to change the TV in front of me to the Notre Dame football game, failing to consult me but saying to no one in particular, “college football is an awful sport.” I politely ask him why Notre Dame then, and he says his whole family is Catholic and he never had a choice. He tells me he grew up in Queens and that the Yankees are his real team. When I ask if this is their year, he says without blinking, “I will sign it in blood.” I envision him saying this with similar conviction in eight different bars each of the last eight years.
Our bartender’s shift must be about over now, because another one has shown up, a late-20s blonde who looks like she used to be much prettier. The King of Queens must know her, because he’s standing up now and reaching across the bar to touch her. It turns out he tends bar around the corner, and he’s saying she should come by when he works tomorrow night. “I promise a good time,” he says. “And a tongue massage.” She looks around the room nervously. I try not to laugh into my sandwich.
That’s the title of a flyer I saw at the laundromat tonight.
While not intended as such, I think that’s the nicest way you could refer to prostitution.
It is 1:30 a.m. when I finish work tonight. Buzzing from putting words together, I know it will be a while before I can fall asleep. It’s too late to meet anyone for a beer, so I opt to walk the downtown strip and see what kind of debauchery is spilling out of the bars as closing time approaches.
It’s a pretty quiet night, actually, which is why I notice the music coming from across the street. I look; a man is playing guitar in a folding chair outside The Green Bean. A dog sits at his feet. I surmise he might be homeless. The jingle in my pocket reminds me that I hate carrying change and like charity, so I cross the street. The man is looking down intently as I pass him. I can’t find the tip jar, then realize there isn’t one. Startled, I keep walking. Might someone just want to play free music for the world on a Friday night?
Is there a better embodiment of that saying than the airport? We love airports because they signify action. You only visit one when something exciting is happening, like you’re headed on vacation or picking up a long-lost friend or you just got the assistant manager job at Sbarro. The people-watching is great, too, like the woman sitting across from me right now who’s oblivious to the big smear of mayonnaise on her cheek. The fact that her husband/boyfriend isn’t saying anything probably doesn’t bode well for their relationship. And so many interesting shops! I try to resist all the shiny gadgets on sale, but how can I be sure I won’t need to plug my lava lamp into a cigarette lighter in Hong Kong? Better be safe!
I’m not sure I could survive very long in a place where one banana costs more than a pound of them do on the outside. But I’ve had fun here outside Gate C30 in Philadelphia on my way to Las Vegas. Here’s what I found in the last hour:
-Brookstone has Air Force One for sale on DVD. Buy one, get anxiety free.
-There’s an entire rack in one gift shop dedicated to the state’s most popular city among 13-year-old boys.
-I was intrigued by a particular menu item at Johnnie’s Dog House in the food court: The Texas Tommy, a hot dog “wrapped in bacon, deep fried, then covered in cheese.”
-My next stop was Johnston & Murphy, where, of 34 belts for sale, two were available in a size 32 or smaller and the rest I could use as hula hoops. Guess I wasn’t the only one who visited Johnnie’s Dog House first.
I notice this ladder on the side of the building on my way out. I jump up and grab the bottom rung, which is probably
ten nine eight feet off the ground. Were I not more concerned about the law, I’d climb up and peer in the window. Just as I jump down, the two cute girls who had been sitting across from me come around the corner. I hope I appear half-animal but realize I probably appear half-homeless.