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After Work: Saturday In The Park

...He smears these delicacies with chili and garlic paste and then fills them with spiced potatoes, onions and fresh carrots, lettuce and chopped red and green peppers. He deftly flips the crisp dosa, slices it and a lifts it into a waiting Styrofoam container along with spicy sambal soup and coconut chutney....

Dona Gibbs serves up the tastiest Open Writing column of the year.

For more of her delicious words please click on After Work in the menu on this page.


“Three days a weeks I start work at 4:45 in the morning; three days at 5:45,” Thiru Kumar, known as the Dosa Man to thousands of New York University students and other hungry New Yorkers, explained. He has to start early to prepare the ingredients for his dosas.

He didn’t look up from his grill as he spread lentil and rice batter for these savory subcontinent crepe snacks. He smears these delicacies with chili and garlic paste and then fills them with spiced potatoes, onions and fresh carrots, lettuce and chopped red and green peppers. He deftly flips the crisp dosa, slices it and a lifts it into a waiting Styrofoam container along with spicy sambal soup and coconut chutney.

All this happens from a cart parked at a corner of New York City’s Washington Square. The line for dosas snakes down the block. Kumar opens up at 11 a.m. but often sells out before his cart closing time of three o’clock. For many of his regular customers dosas, idlys and samosas are lunch six days a week.

This is probably the healthiest street food I’ve ever had. It’s not vegetarian; it’s vegan. No eggs or dairy are used. Kumar works his magic with olive oil. Not only that he serves everything up with an enormous smile.

To say New Yorkers are a competitive lot is an understatement. And to reward ourselves for striving in this big city, we only want the best. Even in our street food. Why there’s now even an annual competition, The Vendy Awards are handed out for the best street food. They’re sponsored by The Street Vendor Project, a not-for-profit group that assists vendors in understanding their legal rights. This year’s event was hosted by celebrity chef Sarah Moulton. Event goers got the chance to eat themselves into a stupor for sixty dollars to fund the Street Vendor Project programs.

It was just last week that Kumar walked away with the Silver Vendy, but he wasn’t letting his recent victory throw him off his dosa flipping game.

It was the third try for the 39-year-old Sri Lankan. He had been awarded runner-up status in the two previous years. His wining entry was his original Pondicherry dosa, the creation I described and happily ate.

It must have been Parents’ Weekend at New York University. There could have been no other reason there were so many middle-aged, not-from-around-here folks hanging out with the jeans and tee-shirt wearing college kids. The long line at the Dosa Man’s cart brought these family clumps to an amazed halt.

“Whatever he’s selling it must be good,” one mom type nodded sagely.

“It is, it is!” her daughter agreed. “We’ll come back later when the line isn’t so long.”

Lots of luck. Three o’clock was only a quarter of an hour away and dosa batter was running low.

Okay, I had my Styrofoam container loaded with goodness and I was juggling a bottle of water. I needed a place to sit.

Washington Square Park is loaded with benches. There are sunny grassy areas and shady grassy areas. The landmark 77-foot arch dedicated to George Washington is the north entrance but the enormous fountain with ledges perfect for reclining is what draws the crowds.

I heard music. A group of mournful mountain balladeers had staked a claim to a quiet corner; a jazz quartet had drawn an audience along another path and an accordion player accompanied a lithe hula-hoop dancer in another leafy corner. I was drawn to a cheerful raucous drumbeat.

A crowd had started to form near a drummer who beat out rhythms on a set of white plastic buckets. Three men in matching red and blue basketball uniforms were working the crowd and unfurling a piece of black and white checked linoleum that they called, “Grandma’s kitchen floor.”

O.K, I get it, I thought. They’re breakdancers.

But this being New York, they weren’t just any old breakdancing crew. These guys were world-class. How do I know? They told us so.

There were handstands, flips, crab walks, high jumps and whirls. One spun the other “like a helicopter” on the top of his brother’s head, no hands.

In one move, the guy, the others called, “Country” slid the length of the linoleum on the top of his head. Truly, don’t try this at home.

If all this weren’t enough, they kept up a slightly ribald running patter that had the crowd roaring. Their show lasted an hour and at the end almost everyone handed over a few dollars.

“We got ourselves a website. Tic and Tac,” Tic, or maybe it was Tac, told us.

I checked it out. They’re 31-year-old twin brothers from the Bronx whose real names are Tyhemm and Kareem Barnes. They’ve collected a lot of press notice, been an opener for the singer Alicia Keyes and performed in an ill-fated off- Broadway musical where they were called the best thing about the show. The site is filled with “Follow your dream “ philosophy. All upbeat stuff. Just like them.

So thanks, Kumar. Thanks, Tic ‘n’ Tac.

You show us that what New York competitiveness is really all about: a real can-do spirit and optimism while wearing huge grins. And you know how the song goes, “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere.”

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Links

http://www.satyamag.com/aug05/kumar.html

http://www.ticandtac.com/

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