By: Barada C. Sarma
It was a cool, crisp fall afternoon of August 1964, when I arrived at the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado for the first time. The setting of my Alma Mater, against the backdrop of the Flat Irons, was indeed very picturesque and, at the same time, imposing. The imperceptible red, yellow and gold of the deciduous maples, elms, and poplars in the campus grounds and hills beyond, were not indicative to me of the gorgeous bright yellow, flaming red and gold colors they were to turn to within a few weeks. The natural beauty of my new environs completely overwhelmed me although I grew up in the beautiful setting of Shillong of the late 40’s and the 50’s.
Baker Hall, my dormitory residence hall to be for the next two semesters, was open to students for lodging but no food was being served. I was led to my pre-assigned room by one of the student clerks who I understood was working in the dormitory to earn part of his educational expenses while going to school. One works and goes to school too, and all that at the same time! I was baffled. To me and to all of my Indian friends, going to school was a full time job in itself and that activity alone was more than adequate to keep any Indian parent happy. Often, to keep one’s parents happy, many continue to go to school and college in India.
As the evening approached, and the sun was setting across the golden hills, my stomach started making gurgling noises for want of replenishment. I was new in the dorm where no food was going to be served for at least three more days. I started panicking trying to solve my hunger problem, just when I made acquaintance with Tony Carroll, my savior to be, at least for the evening.
Tony was a tall, handsome, red-headed Californian who left the beautiful Malibu beaches to go to college in Colorado, so he could ski in the slopes of the Rockies. Skiing, I learnt, was Tony’s favorite sport. Tony asked me, if I liked skiing, to which I replied, “I don’t know how to ski, and therefore, I cannot tell you if I would like skiing or not.” However, Tony was sanguine that I surely would like skiing if I tried it. He, of course, does not know what happened to me the first time I tried skiing. Ah! That is another story to be narrated on another occasion. It was Tony who asked me that evening if I had eaten supper and, if not, if I would like to accompany him to “The Sink”. He told me that there were few eating places open around the campus. “The Sink” was one of the places he has already visited and that he liked it.
Talking about culture shock! Did I have one that first evening of my arrival to this country nearly three decades ago. The name “Sink” did not connote to me the notion of a place to eat supper. I was puzzled, to say the least. Why would someone name a restaurant “The Sink”, I wondered. A sink, I thought, is something that is used to dispose dirty water, viz., a kitchen sink, a bathroom sink, or to someone more sophisticated in the ways of the world, a big hole (a sink hole) that sucks in anything and everything that comes near it. Not knowing any better on my first evening in the U.S. of A., and not completely grasping the nasal California accent of Tony Carroll, I built up my courage and agreed to accompany Tony to “The Sink” for my first ever supper in the continental United States.
Tony apprised me that “The Sink’ was located across the campus on the west side and opposite to where we were and that it would take about 15 to 20 minutes to walk. We started our stroll across the beautiful university campus toward “The Sink”. Of course, Tony’s steps were at least one and a half times my steps. In order to keep up with Tony, I had to take three steps for his two, not a fair deal at all, I thought. Then again I rationalized that not everything in this world is fair and equitable to each one of its inhabitants. Let me tell you, it was quite an effort to keep up with Tony. At times, Tony would realize that I was falling behind and then he would consciously slow down, but not to much avail, for he would forget that he was being given company by a short East Indian whose steps were only two third of his own.
On the way to “The Sink”, being somewhat curious about the food I was to have choice from, I asked, “What is the most popular dish served in ‘The Sink’, Tony?” Tony seemed not to understand what I said. He gave me a completely blank stare and repeated, ‘you asked dish’, did you? I replied, yes. Tony clarified, nothing is served in dish in ‘The Sink’. Everything in ‘The Sink’ is served in paper plates. Now, I was dumbfounded. I clarified my concept of a ‘dish’ by explaining to Tony that by ‘dish’ I only meant the main course of a meal. Oh, he said and out came Tony’s reply in a flash-‘Hamburgers’, of course! And if you don’t like ‘Hamburgers’, you could always order ‘Hot Dogs’, he told me. I was totally perplexed at his reply, not exactly knowing what a ‘hamburger’ or ‘hot dog’ was. My appetite was slowly vanishing. I seriously started wondering about my predicament of going to a place called “The Sink” to eat something called “Hamburger” and/or dog meat that is hot. Neither of these two items of food was ever in my world of culinary experience of the previous 23 years of my life.
Totally oblivious of my surrounding and completely engrossed in the thought of the prospect of having to go to a restaurant where dog meat was served, I remember standing in front of ‘The Sink’. I noticed a small crowd of young teenaged students trying to show certain documents before being let into the restaurant. Once again I was confused. Why would someone going to eat a meal in a restaurant require special permission to get in. I asked Tony once again what it was that was checked at the door. Nonchalantly, he replied, “They are checking the date of birth recorded in the driver’s license.” I panicked for the umpteenth time. “I did not bring my driver’s license from India”, I said. Does it mean I was not going to be allowed into the restaurant, I asked. Tony asked me if I had any other document that recorded my date of birth. I told I had my passport with me. “Ah, no problem,” Tony assured me. “Moreover, you look much older than 19. The guy may not even ask you for your I.D.”. Not satisfied with the answer, I continued to query Tony, why it was necessary that one has to prove up one’s age in order to eat in a restaurant. I have not heard of any such requirement in India from where I come, I said. Well, Tony replied. “It is not what you eat, it is what you drink in a restaurant.” ‘The Sink’ is not a 3.2 joint, he said. One has to be 19 years of age before one can enter a place that serves regular beer. The State of Colorado decided that you can get drunk, if you want to, by drinking enough 3.2 beer if you are less than 19 years of age. But, one can’t get drunk drinking regular beer if one is less than 19. The whole rationale didn’t make any sense to me. Only later on did I come to learn that this was a very peculiar law only applicable to the State of Colorado. The State of Colorado has very powerful beer brewery owners who have a lot of influence in the state legislature. They want to sell beer to kids less than 19 and so concocted a beer with less alcoholic content than a regular beer and that was 3.2 beer.
‘The Sink’ was a single level flat-roofed red painted ugly brick building about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide. I noticed a chimney in one corner of the building through which smoke was escaping into the air. I guessed, the restaurant kitchen was probably located beneath the chimney. While waiting, queuing behind a crowd of boisterous teenaged college students with newly obtained freedom from parental supervision outside the front door of ‘The Sink’, my sense of smell was aroused by a peculiar odor I never experienced in India. The smell of some kind of burning oil or fat, I thought. In any case, after about 10-minute wait, Tony and I made our long awaited entrance into ‘The Sink’. Tony’s driver’s license was checked as well as my passport. As soon as I opened the door from the entry foyer, my eyes and ears nearly popped out from the sight and sound I was introduced to that instance. In my entire life, I had never experienced the inimitable combination of so many senses and perceptions in one single moment as I did that moment inside “The Sink”.
The room smelled of smoke and grease from the open charcoal grill where I was told by Tony that ‘hamburgers’ and ‘hot dogs’ were being cooked. It was crowded with more than a hundred rambling teenaged boys and girls dancing to very loud rock and roll music blustering from the corner jukebox, the decibel level of which nearly pierced my ear drums. I noticed, there was hardly any space to stand inside the restaurant, let alone dance. And yet, everyone seemed to be swinging their bodies and arms without much coordination between partners, if they were dancing in partnerships.
The decor of the restaurant, if one wants to embellish it as such, was even more bizarre than the sight, smell and sound inside it. The low hanging ceiling, the mud colored walls, the dark brown tables and the chairs gave a claustrophobic feeling to me. The black colored murals in the ceiling and the walls were devilish figures and figurines, appeared to dance and play in the midst of billows of black smoke and fire. After taking stock of my surrounding in a little spot where I stood in total amazement, I slowly started to appreciate the aptness of the name of the place.
Getting fully explained what a hamburger was and what a hot dog was from my friend Tony, I decided to order a hamburger and get the taste of the greatest American contribution ever to the world of fast food. I was also relieved to learn that ‘hot dog’ after all was not dog meat. The slab or meat patty sandwiched between the bun, together with the lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions, its taste enhanced by application of the right amount of mustard, mayonnaise, and catchup was quite tasteful to my palate and my first exposure to the hamburger was a pleasant one. Since that first day, you may well imagine, I have eaten many a hamburger of different tastes in the last three decades. However, I hated the environment all around me. I wanted to leave the place as soon as I finished my meal. My friend Tony, on the other hand, asked a coed to dance with him after he finished eating his hamburger and drinking his beer. It became obvious to me that Tony was slowly getting into the swing of things in ‘The Sink’. I guessed, Tony was not about to leave the place and for him the night was yet very young. I said ‘good night’ to Tony for I was tired and wanted to get back to the dorm and rest for the night.
I stepped out of ‘The Sink’ into the cool, fresh night air of Boulder outside. My body sensed, relieved of the stressful ambience of ‘The Sink’, now tingled with a totally opposite set of sensual arousing. I was once again mesmerized by the complete stillness of the starlit night of Boulder, which I often enjoyed during my entire stay there. As I walked back to my dorm that night, enjoying the cool, brisk air, and most of all, the fragrance of the fresh pine cones strewn under the many, many pine trees along the path I took through the campus, my thoughts went back to numerous walks I had taken in the hills of Shillong, as I grew up in that beautiful little town. The other thought that preoccupied my mind as I returned from ‘The Sink’ that night was my experience inside the first restaurant I was introduced to in this country by Tony Carroll. The open fire of charcoal briquettes, the smoke of grease, the aroma, the dark dingy rom, the devilish creatures on the ceilings and walls, the incredibly loud jukebox music of the restaurant where I just ate my first hamburger somehow all fitted together to my concept of ‘hell’ on earth, if there is such a place. I concluded that I was completely wrong in asking the question, why would anyone name a restaurant ‘The Sink’. I rationalized during my walk back through the campus that ‘The Sink’ was the most appropriate name that could have been given to that restaurant. I also concluded that I was not going to be ‘sunk’, or sucked in just as a sink hole does, by ‘The Sink’, for I thought that would be my lot if I continued to patronize that restaurant. ‘The Sink’ was not my notion of a place to enjoy an evening meal. Oh! My friend Tony Carroll did not return to Baker Hall in the Spring semester. I have often wondered if ‘The Sink’ indeed sunk Tony out of a college education. May be not. It could be the Malibu beaches that enticed him back to California; for he mentioned to me once that he loved surfing in the spring and summer.