Was it fifteen years ago? That I walked into a Coffee shop in the Midwestern town of Sioux City, a nondescript place with no great intellectual fountains to speak of… and saw a man reading The Sunday Edition of New York Times! It would be as amazing as finding a local n a Singapore mall wanting to discuss Heidegger with you! New York Times was just not available in the middle part of the country, isolated in every way from the exciting regions of the both coasts.
I went up to him, triggered by the advice a Meskwaki elder had recently given me: Stop looking for people, those who you need to meet will come your way.
Where did you find The Sunday Edition of New York Times, which in my opinion is the best newspaper in the world?
He looked up; a handsome man, made me think of the celluloid hero of that time, Michael Douglas, and said, four examples arrive and if you are early enough you can snatch a copy of it.
Thus began my long-term friendship with Steve A of Sioux City, Iowa on the banks of River Missouri in the middle of the country the Indians call The Turtle Island.
It was for Steve that I was waiting at 10 45 am on this clear day with a fresh, cold breeze blowing, in front of Stony Creek Inn in downtown Sioux City.
I live in a house just four miles from where I was born, this erudite, intellectual and spiritual man told me among the many enlightened tidbits we transfer to each others brain in our intense hour conversations, the last one being in July 2009!
He took me a new Café; we both are aficionados of the cacao drink, Victoria’s, which was welcoming and colourful with good coffee to boot.
I don't know of a single American friend who reads as voraciously as does Steve. He wants to up his yearly pages from 6000 to an ambitious 12000 pages, about one book a week. Also he reads and concentrates on American Literature and thus I am privy to a knowledge denied to a person living abroad and not in contact with American academia in arts. Ann Michaels’ Winter Vault was in the back seat of his car. Excellent writer he said her previous novel the Fugitive pieces was a hard read but this one is Excellent. I made a mental note to go and buy it, as it always happens after a meeting with Steve. As an aside he was the first one to mention to me about Alain de Botton’s book How Proust can change your life and also A sideways Look at Time by Jay Griffiths. Since then I have gone on to read all the books published by Alain de Botton on work, philosophy, travel and love …
Once again, surrounded by so much decay on an intellectual level with no future rescue possible, in this city, so unattractive physically except for the river, here is a vine with a flower growing to feel the sunshine of the entire world. I have to admire him for it, how he has grown to encompass the world. He is as universal as any one. It is a great pleasure for me to listen to him, learn from him and compare notes on our experiences in the common world we share.
Today we briefly touched on Civility and what Stephan Carter a Black University Professor condescendingly talked to a Sioux City audience who had come to listen to him. Steve was critical, exposing the arrogance of the Yale University Professor. A kind of attitude of what do these yokels know, and throw in Hofstadter’s name but the Yale University professor was no match for the homegrown intellect of Steve with a universal view. The inherent acceptance of inferiority by the Sioux city intelligentsia fro their second rate institutions of higher learning was an affront to this bold man with a courage to match his intellectual and spiritual strength.
I told him about respecting the audience you are addressing. I told him of my humbling experience as an anthropologist (I qualified as an Anthropologist in 1994) on a visit to the Kalahari in 1994. I made a remark that reflected my arrogance: looking around the desert and the lone trees made lonelier by the wind and sun, I mumbled. There is nothing here. The Kalahari Bushman/San elder said to me: We have everything we need here. Such a good lesson for me, that years later I clearly remember it and follow it. Don't expect others to come up to meet you, if you are interested in transferring your knowledge you have to meet people half way or go where they are. As Ronnie Frankenberg my Medical Anthropology teacher had reiterated in his classes: Knowledge to be Knowledge it has to be communicated. If you cannot communicate clearly to the audience or the other person, your knowledge is a selfish one. This reminds me of the trend in America to sequester knowledge away from the common man to the ivory towers of the universities.
We talked about Happiness and what is the concept or desire for Happiness among people living their lives in a place like Sioux City, whether or not they contemplate about it or whether they numb their thought processes with the trappings of a bourgeoisie lifestyle.
He was saying hello to every one who entered the café and he seems to know every one by their name and a brief conversation.
If I were a doctor here in Sioux City, I would be so unhappy that I would think that Suicide would be a better alternative, I stressed the difference in men and I am sure many doctors from Sioux City would not be prepared to fly 6000 miles once a month to come and see a group of underprivileged, medically deserving communities. To each his own, I thought to myself but if there are people who have the time or energy or ability to contemplate what is happening around them, I wonder what would they make of the city they are living in or the life they are leading. As Dalai Lama has repeatedly said material things wont bring happiness to you whereas serving others and helping others would. Perhaps they can start thinking in that direction. I have no respect at all for people who work inordinately long hours to accumulate wealth for their consumption for which they don't have time and have no desire to be help to others and neglect their own spiritual lives.
He began talking about the books he had read recently, including Orhan Pamuk’s recent book. I injected a little bit of tangent to the conversation by telling that Orhan Pamuk is living with his Indian girlfriend, award winning writer Kiran Desai who wrote The Inheritance of Loss.
From Times of India
During a chat in Mumbai, he charmingly admitted, “it’s no secret Kiran is my girlfriend. So let’s get that out of the way before we begin our discussion”. He went on to preempt any further probing of their relationship, saying, “She is a very intelligent and beautiful person and a great writer. India should be proud of her.”
The hour together went so quickly, a lightening of a time, so powerful so intense. When he dropped me off in front of the hotel where I was attending a conference…
What I could say to myself was.
Steve, I am proud to be one of your many friends…. However my flamboyant long overcoat from Turkey may deter your other friends from talking to me in Sioux City, Iowa…where the only friend I have made, the only friend I need to make, is Steve A.
PS My best friend in Asia, an ex Chartered Accountant now about to leave for India from KL to study to become a Yoga Therapist, wrote to me quite recently: Please make an attempt to see Steve A this time you are in Sioux City, Iowa. She had been impressed with him when I introduced Steve to her when she was visiting the Winnebago Reservation for their annual Pow Wow in July 2009