I found the monk, but then I lost him again. I will admit that I succumbed and procured the Monk from outside the city limits of Manhattan, from across the Brooklyn Bridge. From a small store that seems to only have an online storefront.

In part the reason I did not share this information had to do with the fact that I was protecting my source, for fear there might be a run on the Monk. Little did I know that the forces of rum would be so powerful, that my precautions would not protect my secret treasure trove. Just this past week I came to the end of my precious brown gold and decided it was time to re-order. (Continued below)

I went to their website and found that the Old Monk page had a big sign splashed across the image saying “OUT OF STOCK.” I refreshed the page thinking it was just a temporary misunderstanding between my computer, the cookies and their web page. But upon finding the same result again I decided that the problem must surely be the browser I was using. I switched browsers, fully expecting to get the opportunity to fill my shopping basket and hit the satisfied customer button, but instead got the same message again. I slowly accepted the fact that the Monk was indeed no longer available at my secret hideaway. I emailed the company, desperately pleading for a date when the Monk would be back on their e-shelves. Then came the answer below:

Thanks for contacting us. Unfortunately, it will not be for a while as it is no longer available.
Kind Regards,
Customer Care Team

The words “it will not be for while” were enough to make this grown man cry but upon reading the next few words the devastation was complete. What did they mean it was no longer available? Was this some sort of cruel joke? What had caused this run on my rum? I checked with the store during my initial order if they had a good supply, and they had assured me they did. It was in this moment of panic, staring at my last, almost empty bottle of Monk that I had a flash of inspiration. It struck me that the great flaw in my original search had been that I was looking in all the places that New Yorkers of Indian origin or foreigners with a taste for all things Indian, shopped. These people never lived in India, and are not Indian so would not know or love the Monk the way an Indian does. I realised that my best bet for finding the Monk lay in searching the vicinity that housed Indian’s visiting New York for a period of time longer than a vacation. Those who would need of the Monk to survive.

I called the first liquor store that came up near the United Nations and had the most wonderfully joyous conversation with the owner. I ended the call by saying that I would stop by the next day to pick-up all the Monk he had; and he assured me once again that he had a special connection with the distributor, and would never run out…

 

Traffic policewoman trying to persuade bus driver to move.

 

Sadly, work is now starting to get in the way of my quest, and the poor Monk has had to take a backseat as a result. On the bright side though I can now afford to order the bottles directly from India, if I so choose.

Walking back from work the other evening I happened to be strolling up Ninth Avenue, keeping one eye open for any liquor store I had not yet visited in the neighborhood, when I noticed some chaos up ahead at the major 42nd street junction. At first I naturally assumed it was just evening traffic being guided by traffic police and thus the mess. Ever noticed how no matter which part of the world you are in, the moment traffic police take over directing traffic there is always chaos? Followed by massive congestion and a rapid back-up of cars for miles around. I have wondered why they do not just let the traffic lights do their job since they are all electronically linked and co-ordinated, which the poor traffic police never will be not matter how hard they try or how well they dance…

As I got closer to the junction I observed that a large bus was in the process of making a right turn down Ninth avenue but not moving and so the blocking the entire junction. It seemed like the bus driver and traffic policewoman were engrossed in conversation, in the middle of this major junction, while cars on all four sides were waiting to get by. First, I thought the bus driver might be thoughtlessly asking for directions or that the cop had pulled him over and neither seemed terribly bothered to move out of the way to conclude their business. But as I got within earshot I realised it was an entirely different matter; a standoff! The cop was telling the bus driver that the right turn was not allowed at this time of the evening, to better facilitate the flow of rush hour traffic, and the driver it seems was refusing to go straight and around the next block to his destination. So she said he was not going to make that right turn unless it was over her dead body and he decided he would then just stay put until she changed her mind or hell froze over. I decided to stay and see how long this would go on. In the end it lasted twenty-minutes and the driver only acquiesced after the poor traffic policewoman called male armed cops to start amassing at the junction…only in New York!

I feel compelled to confess something that I have been holding back from all of you but also know that have I done so purely to protect you.  But recent events have forced my hand and I now feel I must come clean before someone or something else is struck by the curse.

It all started about two months ago, around the time I published my first post. I was in midtown to meet a friend for coffee.  As I got to the agreed venue early, rather than sit and wait I decided to take a stroll.  I had hardly gone a few paces when I came across a liquor store that I had never seen before.  The reason this is significant is because it was located around the corner from where I worked for a number of years and also where I passed by every morning on the way to my last job, just earlier this year.  Yet for some strange reason I had never noticed this store staring me in the face.

I walked in with eager anticipation, feeling like there was some divine sign telling me that the Monk was nigh.  The store was empty and there were no salespeople or clerk behind the counter.  I said “hello” rather loudly and still neither heard nor saw any sign of life.  I raised my voice and repeated my words.  This time I heard a little shuffle somewhere in the back and then heard a door close.  As I turned to look, from around the corner I saw a little old lady slowly walk towards me with a big smile.  She said, “Can I help you?”  I told her I was  looking for a rather elusive brand of rum and did not expect her to know it much less carry it.  She asked me the name of the rum and I said “its Indian rum called…” and she cut in to say “Old Monk” before I could complete my sentence, taking me completely by surprise.  I looked at her in shock as she was clearly not Indian and looked like she might have been Eastern European.  She smiled and said it was fine rum and one that she had carried for many years.  To my delight, she went on to add that said she tried to convince many a customer to buy, over every other run, but had been rather unsuccessful; and as a result it was only very recently that she stopped carrying it.  Great, I thought to myself, yet another sign from the Universe – just not the one I was looking for! However, all was not lost as she offered to order me some, saying she knew how to find the rather elusive distributor. I jumped at the offer and asked when I should come back to pick it up, she said in about three weeks should be fine.

In the last five weeks I have walked by the store more than four times now, all at different times of day and different days of the week, on my way to coffee, breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings.  For some strange reason the store has always been shuttered.  There is no explanation or sign. And there is no indication that they have gone out of business, been evicted or shut down by some city agency, and I cannot imagine that they just decided to take a month long vacation. Most strange; and even stranger that this should have happened in the same week that the old lady has asked me to return to pick up my Monk…

As I had a meeting downtown on the west side, I took the opportunity to check out a couple of liquor stores in the vicinity but once again came up empty handed.  Maybe I need to figure out another tack and try tracking down the elusive Old Monk distributor.  I was walking back home with this thought brewing in my head when I heard someone say “Excuse me Sir.” I was stopped in the middle of a two way street on one of those little pedestrian islands.  At first I ignored it but as the voice persisted and got louder I glanced around to see that the other two people waiting for the light to change were women, so clearly the voice sought me.  This was one of those NY islands that had benches and a sculpture and greenery around it, so it took me a brief second to spot the rather portly gentleman sitting on the bench, slightly obscured by the shrubbery, bellowing at me.

He was wearing jeans which were rolled up above his ankles, with a makeshift belt made of what looked like plastic bags tied together holding them up and a black t-shirt neatly tucked in.  Next to him on the bench was a black carry on size suitcase and to his right was something that resembled a briefcase surrounded by a large number of plastic bags loaded with stuff.  He must have been in his late fifties; he wore a pair of large framed glasses, the kind my grandfather used to wear, had short cropped hair and sported a bandanna.  As I looked him in the eye, he said “do you see the school truck over there,” pointing across the street.  I looked over and did not see a school truck but spotted an ice cream van, which I assumed was what he meant.  I acknowledged.  He said, “would you mind going over and getting me a bottle of Pepsi? I will give you some money.” I agreed.  He then proceeded to dig into one of the myriad plastic bags beside him and pulled out a brown paper bag.  From this bag he extracted a handful of change. I saw many pennies, nickels, dimes and thankfully a few quarters.  He proceeded to count starting with about three quarters and then rounding off the dollar with nickels and dimes.  As he was doing this he asked me how much a bottle of Pepsi would cost.  I have no idea I said and he did not either.  So we assumed it would be a buck or buck fifty.  As he handed me the change, I turned and started to cross the street. I was halfway across when I heard him shout out “Actually sir, would you mind getting me two bottles of Pepsi.  And I want the kind that come in bottles; you know them plastic one’s.” I stopped and turned back.  He once again started to count and handed me another $1.50 asking if it would be enough for two bottles.  I said I imagined it would be.

The ice-cream truck only had ice-cream, strangely enough.  Luckily I spotted a hot dog cart on the opposite side and ran over to ask the man if he had some Pepsi.  When he paused, I thought crap now I am going to have to run over to Fairway which is at least a couple of blocks from here and the guy is going to think I am running off with his three dollars.  I could not think anything more embarrassing than being arrested for stealing from a homeless man.  The cart man said he was out of Pepsi but had some Coke.  I looked over to try and get the homeless man’s attention but his back was turned to me.  So I decided to take them and hope this man was not brand loyal.  The total cost was $4; I guess it’s been a while since I bought a bottle of Coke or Pepsi.

I brought back the bottles and handed them to him explaining that the guy was out of Pepsi, so I got Coke instead.  He did not seem bothered and asked me if they cost a $1 each or more.  I told him they were $2 apiece and quickly added that I was happy to cover the difference.  But before I could finish he said, “I guess I owe you another dollar then.” Again I repeated that he did not.  I told him he was welcome, shook his outstretched hand and started to leave when I heard him say, “Hey, wait a minute, there are no napkins in here.” I looked at him like he must be joking but he gestured to the Sun and said, “Hot day, need something to wipe off you know…would you mind?” I said OK and ran back over to the cart and came back with a handful of napkins.  As I handed them over to him, he once again thanked me and looked like he was about to ask me for something else but this time I gave him a look that said it all.  He stopped short and simply said, “Have a great day and thank you again.”

The other day I was headed to the East Side as I had been reliably informed of an Old Monk sighting there.  Apparently, a liquor store in Murray Hill carried my portly friend.  I was walking East on 57th Street I heard a car honking furiously.  At first I thought nothing of it, as its as natural as breathing to hear cars honk incessantly when walking around this city.  But this guy would not stop; he slowed down and pulled towards the curb like he was trying to get my attention, almost running me over in the process. He was shouting in Italian “scusa puoi essere mio amico” or something to that effect and continued in Italian like I knew exactly what he was saying.  I stopped and looked at him blankly but he continued chattering away in a very excited manner, all the while gesturing and smiling too.  Finally I said “Non parlo italiano”. He stopped mid sentence and looked at me totally shocked. Then he said in English, with a very think Italian accent, “yooo are naught Itaaalian?” I said “no, I am not.”  He was well dressed, young-ish and driving a big black SUV.  I imagined he wanted help with directions to the airport or something like that.

As I prepared to give him directions to JFK, he instead asked me “what I did?”  A little surprised, I answered that I was not working at the moment.  He then asked what I did with my time.  I told him, honestly, that I walked around the city looking for a specific brand of alcohol.  He laughed and looked at me quizzically like I was joking but seeing that my expression did not change, he chose wisely not to dwell on the employment issue any longer.  Instead he asked if I would help him out with a small problem he had.  By now I seriously doubted he was looking for directions.  I thought to myself here comes the sob story followed by the request for any money I can spare.  I guess things are so bad that they are even hitting up unemployed people now.  But he didn’t and instead pointed to the back of his SUV and told me that he was a salesman for Giorgio Armani.  He said he had was in the city for some show and was flying back to Milan that evening and would have to pay duty if he took the suits back with him.  To avoid this he had decided to give away these beautiful $3,000 Armani suits for almost nothing.  And it must really have been my lucky day because he also told me that the suits he had just happened to be my size!

Sadly, the liquor store in Murray Hill did not result in ending my quest.  The Indian store owner told me that he used to carry the Monk but that the distributor just stopped showing up one day.  So I returned once again empty handed – no Monk and no Armani suits in hand.

We had dinner with old friends the other night and when the host asked us what we wanted to drink, I declined as I always do saying I had stopped drinking ever since I quit smoking.  However, my wife decided to let then in on my secret and divulged that this was true in large part but that I did make one exception – Old Monk.  Unsurprisingly our hosts did not have a bottle tucked away in their liquor cabinet but they did offer me rum which I had never tried or heard of.  Since my wife had thrown my secret out there I felt I should oblige, do the polite thing and have at least one glass.  Turns out their rum had never been opened; so naturally I offered to leave it that way and insisted they don’t open it on my account.  But my host would have none of it.  So I volunteered to help open the bottle and pour myself a small drink, fully expecting to not like this rum.  Most people find champagne hard to open and some even wine bottles but rum bottles usually do not get onto that list.  I realised this was a special rum as my host and I both struggled to get past with what seemed like a dozen Victorian letters-worth of wax to finally open it after fifteen minutes of cutting our way through it.

I will admit that the whiff I took left me surprisingly impressed and more eager to try this dark rum.  And I was even more shocked when I took a sip to find it not only smooth, but sumptuous and perhaps even a close second to Old Monk!  As my palette savoured every sip I secretly decided that I had found a substitute for the time that I remained without the Monk.  Excitedly, I asked my hosts where they got the rum.  Their answer made me feel that perhaps I am destined not to drink or that my liver (after many years of quiet suffering) has managed to send a magical plea to the Universe to prevent me from drinking.  Turns out they had been gifted the bottle three years earlier by the bride’s uncle when they had travelled for a friend’s wedding – you ready for this – to Venezuela.  Yes, I said Venezuela.  The Uncle had special access and was able to procure a bottle of this precious liquid gold, which was even hard for Chavez to do at the time.  Of course I also learned the Uncle has since relocated to Miami, needless to say that by now Chavez must have taken over the company that made the rum and no doubt turned it into a water bottle factory for his people.  Good luck finding this rum in New York City I thought to myself as I sipped my tenth glass of the night…

After my initial shock and disappointment of my first foray into little India, I decided this time to go directly to the source.  The famous store whose name is not Pakistan or Afghanistan but another –stan.  Well known for its wide selection of Indian, Asian and Oriental goods ranging from spices to ghee, and even wildly exotic honey’s whose aroma can trap the average shopper into buying 10x what they came in for.  But I was on a man on a mission and resolved not to be swayed.  I walked around the store with a sense of purpose, taking in the unbelievable variety of Olive oils and walking quickly past those aromatic honeys.  My ‘aha’ moment came when I spotted liquor on an obscure shelf at the back of the store.  Cautiously optimistic I studied the contents and quickly realised while there were many Sherries and liqueur’s but no Monk.

Dejected, I walked over and going against my man-nature decided to ask the old man behind the counter for my Monk.  As I was walking over I saw an older woman approach him too.  I noticed that she looked rather pleased as punch with herself, beaming as she strode right into my path.   She waved her empty basket for his attention.  I was now within earshot and second in line for his precious knowledge.  She exclaimed “I have an idea and was hoping you can help me”. Unenthused, the old man nodded but it seemed like she was ready to proceed irrespective.  She glanced over at me, almost as if to ensure that I too could hear, and then proceeded to spill the ever building beans.  She said, “I have been invited to my friend’s 20th wedding anniversary party tonight and for the 20th you are meant to give a piece China, but they really don’t need another plate…” Again she looked for some signs of enthusiasm or encouragement from her audience but the old man did not offer one.  Without hesitation, and again with a glance to ensure the peripheral member of her audience was still around, she said, “…So I thought instead of giving them some boring old pieces of China – why not give them things Made in China!  Can you point me in the direction of things made in China?” At this point I could swear someone put one of those stage spotlights on her as she was beaming and glowing brighter than a shooting star occurring during the Aurora Borealis.  The old man however, did not blink, smile or show any signs of encouragement.  He quietly walked out from behind his counter, and still showing not the slightest reaction to this brilliant idea, simply said “OK, this way”.

As I stood there waiting for his return, I realised that I don’t have any friends approaching anything close to their twentieth wedding anniversary.  In fact I am not sure anyone in our generation ever will, given the high divorce rate today.  With regards to the idea itself I felt the lady deserved get an A+ for effort but a C- for creativity.  Especially, since these days you are hard pressed to find anything in US not made in China – in fact with the growing popularity of Chinese adoptions there will be soon be a whole generation of kids also made in China!

I guess if I ever wanted to get creative about giving a “piece of China” to someone then I would probably buy them shares in a major Chinese corporation or Chinese government bonds, and really give them a PIECE OF CHINA…meanwhile its onwards and upwards on the quest.

I have wondered for a while where all the Indian taxi drivers in New York have disappeared.  Back in the 90’s every second cabbie was Indian but today maybe 1 in 15 is.  There has been a huge influx from Eastern Europe and the West African countries, and there still remains a large number from both Pakistan and Bangladesh but very few Indians.  It is almost as if they all got together one fine day and decided to stop driving cabs or worse yet, someone made them all disappear.  The question has plagued New Yorkers and me for some years now and nobody has come close to solving this mystery; that is not until I chanced upon the answer quite inadvertently during my quest.

I have now visited 3 liquor stores on the Upper West Side, 2 on the Upper East, 2 in Little India and 2 in Midtown West, and while none of them had the Monk on their shelves they all seemed to know it immediately and without need for further explanation.  I suspect this is in part because Old Monk is the 3rd largest selling rum in the world but  probably mostly because all the liquor store owners I met were Indian.  I mean it was quite extraordinary, and if this was just a coincidence than you have to admit it’s a rather strange one.  The fact that every liquor store I randomly walked into happened to be run by or owned by an Indian.  In the end while I found no solace and will relentlessly continue my quest for the Monk, I do feel some sense of gratification of having solved the burning question on the minds of every New Yorker – of where all the Indian cab drivers went.  I guess we should all be grateful that they are no longer behind the wheels of our cabs!

Found myself in Little India today rather fortuitously as I was meeting an old college buddy for lunch.  He had just moved into a new office and asked if I wanted to pick our lunch destination.  So naturally I picked my favorite South Indian restaurant a few blocks away from his office.  If you have never tried South Indian food you most do so, the only caution I have is that if you are White you will need to either have a very high tolerance for spice or a brave and adventurous palette.  In my estimation it is the only purely vegetarian food that is not just edible but actually tastes amazing.  Of course there was one other reason why I chose this location and that is because I was sure that I would end my quest here.  I was convinced that I would see The Monk sitting fat and happy on many a shelf, in one of the multitude of Indian stores that litters this part of Lexington Avenue.

We had a wonderful lunch, and I had yet another convert to South Indian food.  As we parted ways I could sense the sparkle in my own eyes and the quickening of my heartbeat.  The moment was very near – the end of the journey, the completion of my month long quest.  I walked into Jaganlal Company (names of people and places have been changed to protect their identities) the place where I loyally come to do all my Indian junk food shopping since discovering it many years ago.  Now I was not expecting Jaganlal to carry my Monk but was sure that they would know where I could find it nearby.  As I got to the register, in what seemed like an age, to check-out the many items on my wife’s shopping list I asked the clerk rather nonchalantly (while secretly filled with a barely containable and now bursting glee) where I could find a bottle of Old Monk.  He put down the Garam Masala packet, stopped punching the register, pondered for the briefest of seconds and then looked up at me with the blankest stare I have seen in my life and said “Whaaaaat Monk you waaanting?”  I stood there in complete disbelief, completely lost for words and staring at what was left of my happy little moment now shattered and smashed into a gazillion little pieces of WHAAAAAAT

This could end up being the shortest blog I have ever written or the longest one.  Personally I would much prefer something in the middle.  The purpose of this blog is quite single-minded, it is meant purely to chronicle my journey, through the people I overhear or meet and places I visit during my search across Manhattan for the rather elusive Old Monk.  I started this quest about one month ago fully expecting it to end in less than one week.  I did not in my wildest imagination expect that it would have lasted this long.  This especially in the age of the information super highway where information about every possible person, place or object is available at our fingertips – all we have to do is Ask  (I don’t Google and will not until they have sufficiently explained why they need to store our “search” information and habits for up to 8 years).  So here we are on the 1st June 2010 and I am still no closer to finding the monk than I was at the beginning of this quest but I am a little wiser.  I no longer rely blindly on the information provided on that search results page – in this instance it has proven totally inaccurate and utterly useless.

Since I have purposely failed to fully clarify the objective of this quest, I am sure there are many who feel that I should start (and probably end) with a visit to the Capuchin Monks of New York City.  Admittedly, that would be great advice were it not for the fact that what I seek is not an old bald man but an old rotund bottle – a bottle of rum.  Not just any rum but a damn good one.  Indian rum to be precise and I can confidently that say it is the best rum I have ever tasted.