Journal 33 - June 18, 2004

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Journal 33
Hello to all. I've been in contact with some of you recently, while others I haven't heard from in months or more. I'm now back in Santa Barbara and settled, so I've finally decided to finish this long overdue email about returning home from my trip and the subsequent months back in the USA. If I still owe you that three dollars, no worries, I'll get it to you soon.

First I need to thank everyone involved with my trip, as any traveler knows it's equally about the people as it is the places. Thanks to everyone who emailed me, hosted me, talked to me, made a web site for me, sent me things, met me along the way, gave me airline passes, smiled, gave me a couch or provided a place to stay, gave me a beso or beijo, smiled, sent me words of encouragement, showed me your country, showed me your city, danced with me, sat next to me on a bus, bench, boat, shared a tent with me, walked with me, talked with me, ate with me, drank with me. I was fortunate to meet and be hosted by so many people whose kindness and generosity I can only hope to one day reciprocate. I made some life-long friends along the way and now that I'm home I look forward to the opportunity to show them my city, state, and country, and will do my best to host any of you if given the opportunity. I have pictures for all of you and am happy to begin burning CD's for all that I promised I'd do that for. Please email me with your address so I can post them off.

After returning home last August, tired and mystified from visiting fifteen countries in eleven months, I wasn't content with the idea of unpacking my bags. I did my best to settle, halfway attempted to adjust to real life, momentarily considered corporate life again, but nothing fit. The circumnavigational pull of global travel was too strong, and my attempt to stay put for more than a few weeks failed. The cross-global momentum of continuous travel had me itching to get back on the road. Things being what they were in Santa Barbara, I decided to leave again after being home for just a couple of months. While home I had managed to scrape together a little money, although not enough to get on the road again long term, so I decided I'd settle for somewhat of a working holiday. After a visit from one of my closest friends, who happened to be on her way to New York, it didn't take much to convince me I needed to join her.

I arrived in Manhattan in November, eager to begin life in a city I had fallen in love with as a bright-eyed tourist a year before. A friend of my friend offered me a place to stay on the Upper East Side, way Upper East Side that is. 307 East 109th Street is located in Spanish Harlem, Entiendes? My generous host Jorge quickly got me connected. Well respected in the NYC catering scene, he was able to help me find work with several catering companies that needed help for the busy season that culminates with the last two months of the year. Within a few days I was working my first big-time catering event, fully decked in a tuxedo and ready for the big time. The next thing I knew I was appointed as one of two waiters for Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz at the New York premier party for The Last Samurai.

The subsequent six weeks flashed by in a blur of black and white tuxedos, white table cloths, bow ties, and endless hours commuting on the subway to any one of dozens of different catering sites. It was a fascinating way to learn my way around the city while immersing myself in the sub-culture that is the catering industry in the Big Apple. Loaded with all sorts of characters, it was a great way to meet people from around the world and all walks of life. Approximately half of the waiters are actors, either between jobs or waiting for their big break. Most of the rest are people from around the world and across the country. Few if any are actually from New York.

At the end of the catering season I headed home for Christmas, then returned to Manhattan just in time for the record low temperatures of January. Fortunately my return coincided with the hiring needs at CRAFT, one of NYC's top restaurants, and owned by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio. My girlfriend introduced me to the manager, who interviewed me and gave me the job.

While working there I served the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and husband Chris Martin, Sandra Bullock, Mandy Moore, Jimmy Fallon, (and these are the few I recognized). What I later realized is that the restaurant exists as a microcosmic metaphor for the whole city. From the stars who dined there, to the rich white chef-owner, to the immigrant bus boys and servers, many ethnicities, sexual orientations and socioeconomic classes were represented. But beyond that, what the restaurant taught me, which metaphorically extended to all of New York, is that if you want something done right, New York is the place. The dining experience offered at Craft was almost always done to perfection. Just as with the restaurant, the quest for perfection is evident across the city, from eating to advertising, dancing to design, things are done right, which is why New York is the make or break you place. People from around the world and across the country go there to make it in the big time. Theater, Wall Street, dancing, cooking, singing, even something as simple as a Philly cheese steak. New York has it all, and it's almost always done well. Donut and coffee for $1, the perfect hot dog, best burger, ice cream, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, bootleg-subway DVD, knock-off hand bag, it's all there. Broadway to the Bronx, make it, market it, buy it. When you need something done, it's normal to expect it will be done well in the Big Apple. Need a zipper repaired, it's better than new, pants hemmed, practically invisible. Cappuccino, as if you're in Italy. It all sets a precedent that perfection is attainable, at least if you're willing to pay for it, and in New York there are a lot of people willing to pay for it. This wasn't obvious to me while I was there, but now that I'm back in small-town-blues California, there is a certain aspect of that I'll miss.

I learned a lot of other things while there too. I learned that the city is a difficult place to live without a lot of money, I learned that winter lasts six months in the Northeast, I learned that I should keep California a secret because it seems most of those people don't know any better, and I learned the importance of being a good Mamu (the Bengali term of endearment literally meaning uncle). If a year ago I had been told I'd return home after 11 months on the road, and within a few months of returning I'd be answering to Mamu, I never would have believed it, I wouldn't have even understood it. But there I was, Mamu Justin, this thanks to the friendships I had established with the Bengali contingent working at CRAFT. I wouldn't change one thing about my experience in the city. Prior to leaving I had fantasized for years about living in New York. It was difficult at times, but worth every bit of effort. I made some good friends, had many good times, and will always look back fondly on my experience there.

Despite this it didn't take long to figure out it wasn't the place for me, after six months spent with some great people, I was ready to return to California and whatever it had in store. The weather, the proximity of the Sierra Nevada, the beach, and everything else I love about California drew me back. I returned home in early May, spent some time with my mom in Santa Cruz, then made my way back to Santa Barbara and began working. Right now I'm back in the restaurant world while racking my brain for what's next. Teaching, graduate school, more travels, some combination of all, or something else? I haven't decided on one yet, but in the mean time I'm thrilled to be back riding my bikes, going to the beach, and working hard to make something good happen.

I hope this email finds everyone doing well and hope that you'll all write back and tell me what is happening in your lives. Forgive me if I haven't written to you individually in a while, but after returning from my travels I suffered badly from some post-trip blues. But now I'm back, settled, employed and exercising. I'd love to hear from all of my friends from the trip and beyond.

beijos y abrazos,

Justin