From Farm to Laundromat
Story by: Parvati Ragoobeer and Dorian Block
Photos by: Floor Flurij, Dorian Block and Heather Clayton Colangelo
Richmond Hill, Queens is both a small village and the crossroads of the world.
There are immigrants from dozens of countries living in houses with small yards and large porches. Generations of extended family are often packed together in one apartment or spread across several houses on a block.
The neighborhood houses the workers of New York City – the small business owners, the union workers, the domestic, restaurant and construction workers who toil off-the-books. The subway and highway access – a 20-minute train ride to Downtown Queens, a 45-minute train ride to midtown Manhattan and easy trips to JFK airport and Long Island – provide access to the world of education, opportunity and pay. Parents and grandparents return home, heading east on the J train in uniforms, work boots and suits, to protect cultural traditions, trying to keep family, language, religion, values and rituals alive for another generation.
Jamaica Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares, runs under the subway tracks. The businesses are locally owned and run on small profits. There is the pizza shop with particularly good pizza, the tailoring place that is closing soon because of rising rents and a dozen dollar stores, bodegas and restaurants that combine cuisines from across Latin and Caribbean cultures. Many owners and customers are West Indians, some Mexicans and some African American.
Just under the subway station, at the Bubble Works laundromat, people, without their own machines at home, come to wash a week’s worth of clothing.
Ranjeet Singh is 79-years-old.
He helps his daughter Mala Sharma – the owner of Bubble Works - live her dream of owning her own business. He minds the shop when she steps away to run errands or tend to her teenage children. And the shop gives Ranjeet somewhere to be, so that Mala does not have to worry about him wandering or being alone.
Ranjeet has been living in Richmond Hill for seven years. He lived his entire life before then as a farmer in rural Guyana – from childhood into his 70s. He spent most of everyday under a hot sun either planting, tending or harvesting rice, depending on the season. Ranjeet knew everyone in the village where he lived and they all knew him.
Ranjeet attended school for only a couple of years as a child and dropped out after it was clear he had cognitive disabilities. As a farmer, formal education mattered little, and Ranjeet got along just as his neighbors did. In New York, Ranjeet craves the ritual of work, but hasn’t been able to find work, not speaking English in a way that people understand and without agricultural work nearby. He overcompensates by sweeping already clean floors and acting as doorman of the Laundromat.
Ranjeet came here to join his daughter, who was worried that he was becoming a burden on his wife. Ranjeet had a drinking problem from as early as his family can remember. His wife spent many nights unsure of where he was or when he was coming home. She feared the fights that would follow.
His family hoped that a new country and unfamiliar environment would disrupt the habit. But Ranjeet kept drinking after he arrived in the U.S. In 2012 and 2013, he fell on the concrete sidewalk while drunk, hitting his head and passing out. He was rushed to the emergency room both times. Either the injury or the seriousness of foreign hospital led him to stop drinking at age 77. Now, two years sober - his family says that he is different and life is more stable.
“It’s a big stress that’s come off of my mother. Not to wonder where he is and what he’s doing,” says Mala.
Ranjeet’s wife Kamlowattie is a citizen but Ranjeet is only a permanent resident, because he can not read and write and is therefore unable to pass a citizenship test. The family says that they can not afford the legal advice, fees or time away from work necessary to try to get around this. Ranjeet receives no Social Security or Medicare. He does receive Medicaid.
Kamlowattie is 69 years old, 10 years his junior. Their marriage was arranged, when Kamlowattie was just 18. All her life, she raised her family, took care of the home and for many years worked doing maintenance for a food and beverage manufacturer. She now works at the Resorts World Casino in Ozone Park, Queens cleaning the casino and its kitchen on the late afternoon to midnight shift. She works to help pay the rent for the family’s three-bedroom apartment.
Mala thought that living in Richmond Hill was a better choice for her parents compared to Minnesota where her siblings live because of the milder winter and better transportation system. They all would have been reliant on Mala’s car and driving, would not have had the street interactions they have here and Mala feared they couldn’t bear the weather.
"We are used to it at home, but we come here because you have to survive", said Kamlowattie while groaning at yet another deafening subway rushing by on the elevated tracks overhead.
Going to the Mandir on Sundays with his wife is the most consistent part of Ranjeet’s life since he married Kamlowattie, and a it is ritual they continue in the U.S.
Amidst long work hours that leave them little time together, raising 6 children, the drama caused for years by Ranjeet’s drinking and now adjusting to a new country, it is their respite. At the Mandir, Ranjeet plays the religious instruments - the dholak, a hand drum that has two sides, and the dhantal, a long metal rod paired with a horseshoe shaped piece of metal, which functions like a triangle.
In August, Ranjeet and Mala celebrated their 50th anniversary in a ceremony at the Mandir. Kamlowattie and Ranjeet decided to do their annual offering to their specific gods on this day. They offer fruit, flowers and prayers to: Ganesh, the Lord of good fortune and success; Ganga, a goddess personified from the Ganges River, believed to cleanse people from sin; and Hanuman, the monkey god who alleviates problems and has miraculous power and strength.
The pandit, the leader of the ceremony, is an Uncle of Kamlowattie's. He begins the ceremony by saying a quick prayer in Hindu asking God to bless Ranjeet and Kamlowattie, and then he ties red thread bands around each of their hands, which is used as an offering of cloth to God. When asked for his right hand to tie the band, Ranjeet gives his left hand to the pandit. Not knowing what the pandit was asking of him, Ranjeet keeps providing his left hand until Kamlowattie helps him, touching his right hand gently and pointing to the pandit. The pandit then asks God to bless their body. They put their finger to each body part with a bit of water to cleanse themselves, again guided by Kamlowattie.
During the ceremony, the pandit says that he was present for Ranjeet and Kamlowattie’s wedding in Guyana in 1965, and he says that Kamlowattie is a very strong woman and was able to keep Ranjeet in order for all these years. In each of these ceremonies, the men would usually lead the rituals, when lighting an incense or putting dye on photos of gods. Since Kamlowattie understands more than Ranjeet she assumes this role in each ceremony.
In the midst of offering to Hanuman the pandit asks a question to Kamlowattie:
“If Hanuman were to come down and come in front of you, what would you ask for?”
Kamlowattie replies with three things: “Health, wealth and strength.”
The day ends with a large luncheon for their family and friends.
More than a month after the anniversary celebration, good health and strength have continued for the Singhs.
They had hoped to return to Guyana for a visit this fall, but money and work schedules lead them to put it off for another year.
"I like it here, but I want to go to Guyana. It is home," said Ranjeet. He is perpetually shivering and wearing a large hat on a cold fall day even though he's inside.
Mala says that she expects that she and her parents will stay in the U.S. in the long-term. Her sons have both attended college in the U.S. and are now working.
"No matter how tough it is here, life is tougher there. We will go back to visit, but not to live. By the time the kids finish school, they have a job and then they have their own kids. That's how you end up staying."