Monday, June 22, 2009

Eating out in Newark

“We’re visiting Newark tomorrow to see ‘Disney on Ice.’ We want to have lunch with you immediately afterwards. Find a good restaurant in downtown Newark and reach there by 12:30,” said my cousin brother one evening in early December. It was a Saturday and I wasn’t too familiar with places to eat in the downtown area. I called a few friends but nobody could help me.

The next morning was bitterly cold. It had been snowing lightly since the previous night and it was terribly windy too. When I reached Prudential Center it was already 12:45 and my cousin and his family had taken refuge in a small restaurant called “Chinatown Diner.” I, in the meantime, had finally managed to get hold of a friend who knew something about restaurants in Newark. “There’s a good restaurant on the 4th floor of the IDT building on Broad Street,” she said. “I don’t know if it is open on Sundays, but it is worth a try.”

Chinatown Diner proved to be a very strange diner, because they did not have anything on their menu, not even water. They also said they accept only cash. So soon, all five of us were out in the wind and flurries walking towards the IDT building.

IDT is a telecom company. That’s all I knew about it. They own two buildings on Newark’s Broad Street. My friend had told me which building to enter, so we walked smartly into it. There was a guard at the gate. We asked him if there was a restaurant inside. He promptly told us to go to the 4th floor. Once inside, there was a turnstile-style security check post where the security guards were putting wrist bands onto anyone who entered. Now this was odd for a restaurant, but we thought since this is part of an office building, maybe they have to follow these procedures. We asked the guards here once more, just to be sure, and received the same directions. We walked to the elevator. There was an operator. We told him we wanted to go to the restaurant, and he smiled and hit the “4”.

Fourth floor of the IDT building was pretty crowded. As soon as we got out of the elevator, someone ushered us towards the dining area, then someone else handed us paper plates and told us that the buffet started there. Before we could understand what was going on, or even ask, we found ourselves in a buffet queue. My cousin managed to ask someone, “We want to dine a-la-carte…” The person smiled patiently and said they only had a buffet.

So that was that. Now we turned to the food on the buffet.

The first item was macaroni cheese. Then there was jell-o. Then there was macaroni cheese again. It was a mystery all right. We had never been to such a restaurant before. I do not know what the others were thinking, but I was too surprised to look around. I took macaroni cheese on my plate, skipped the jell-o, dodged a Santa Claus and headed towards the sitting area with holiday decoration which was nearly full. Somehow we managed to find some empty seats and sat down. It was only then that I had a chance to look around me.

And then it hit me.

The people who sat around us in that large room were poor or homeless people. The IDT management was serving them free lunch this Sunday. We had walked into it without realizing.

A girl came offering glasses of soda, offering us a choice between Coke and Fanta. We managed to grunt something which she interpreted as Fanta and served us accordingly.

None of us looked at each other. We ate in silence. We, the adults, I mean. The kids were only too happy with the meal. My older nephew asked for a glass of Coke the next time the drinks came around, and then tried mixing the drinks. His parents were not in a state to reprimand him.

Another girl came with ice cream. The holiday music stopped momentarily and there was a reminder to collect the free phone cards that were being given to all departing guests downstairs.

After what seemed too long a time, we somehow finished the food on our plates. We never went back for a second helping. While leaving, my cousin brother asked someone from the organizers if there was a place where he could make a donation. The man stared at him as if he was seeing an alien. Then he said there wasn’t.

Downstairs, I collected the free phone card, being technically the only “poor” guy. I never got around to using it though. As we passed through the revolving doors onto the sidewalk once more, all of us found our voices again. My cousin brother and sister-in-law accused each other for this gaffe while I thought it was best to put the blame on my friend who was not present there. The kids never understood what the big deal was, when we had got all that good food for free.

Since that day, whenever my cousin and his family visit Newark, they either plan to go back home and eat, or choose a “safe” restaurant like McDonalds or Burger King. As for me, I have vowed not to take people to restaurants where I have not eaten already.

The only saving grace is that my nephews’ respect for me has increased ten-fold. To live and study in a place where you get free food, and that too the coolest food in the world, one must be very, very high up in some kind of hierarchy. That’s Uncle Joy for them. They aspire to grow up and come to Newark to study. I’d rather not explain the truth to them right now.

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