The gas station is packed. I figure we are half way there, considering the traffic we are about to face heading East on Route 27. We’ve been on the road since 11.30 this morning and we’re kind of starving. And we have to pee. There is the prospect of fresh lobster and grilled fish once we arrive but for now we have to settle our rumbling stomachs with salty nuts and canned tuna. Waris slides back into the passenger seat with a big grin on his face and a giant protein bar in his hands. “I’m trying to maintain a diet that contains 200% of the daily required protein intake,” he says in a clear, scientific voice. That’s admirable, I say, but why? “I have a fast metabolism and I’m constantly on the move. I need the protein to keep me going.” But he adds, “I only eat protein bars in a hunger emergency at gas stations off the LIE. Otherwise I tend to keep processed foods to a minimum – if it has a complex label, I’m not interested.” I can learn something from this guy, I think. He’s skinny, lean and good looking. Write that down.
Turns out this is just a minimal fact I learn about Waris Ahluwalia, the 37-year old Sikh most people outside of New York have come to know as ‘the mysterious, bearded man with turban’ from the Wes Anderson movies. Spending four hours in a car with someone will do that. But I don’t mind. Because he’s funny. “How long ago did we first start talking about our shoot?” he asks me casually. “A year ago!!” I fire back. “Yeah, I was kind of waiting for your site stats to go up,” he reasons, then chuckles when I shoot him an offended look. It’s the sort of humor that doesn’t get old because you’re never prepared for it. He doesn’t have an accent either, in case you’re wondering. He grew up in the city. His family moved from the Himalayas – he took his first steps at the Golden Temple – to New York when he was 5-years old. But he still enjoys his mom’s Daal dish, keeps his beard long and takes five minutes every morning to tie his signature, black turban – he doesn’t sleep with it. When I ask him if it’s limiting his swag, he objects: “Darling, a turban goes with everything. It’s an important part of me – yet it doesn’t restrict or limit me or even enhance. It’s a reminder of the values my family and religion taught me. It inherently doesn’t make me more religious or spiritual – it’s just fabric. It’s how I behave day to day with the world around me that defines me. My interactions with the universe.”
When we arrive at Melet Mercantile the sun is wrapped in a haze of hungry humidity. We learn (from twitter) that a nasty storm is headed our way from the city. But it doesn’t make it any cooler though – I’m sweating. Waris takes his time. He loops the store a few times before he makes up his mind about the pieces he’s going to wear. He’s picky and determined. Most photographers want to put him in suits, probably because “I tend to wear suits quite a lot,” he guesses. “Simplicity blended with complexity to create a dashing uniform. The hope is that if one looks like a gentleman, one may behave like a gentleman. What a world that would be.” But today is different. “No bottoms!” he yells. “I’m not going to wear any bottoms! Where do you keep your loin cloths?” The sales girls giggle and present him with a few colorful sarongs instead. “Yes!” A grey Mercedes station wagon pulls up in the drive way. It’s Bob, the owner, and he’s beaming. “How can one put a bromance into words?” gushes Waris. “Bob is charming, insightful and utterly talented at what he does. It’s Bob’s passion that make’s Melet a gem. And his wife Pam. There’s no place like it.”
And with the promise of rain and a great meal we commence our fashionable dress-up, dress-down party. He picks out shoes, jackets, even a white mesh tank top, which he finds hilarious. We drive to the Bay with a change of clothes and an enormous beaded necklace. The air is thickening; the storm dangerously close and looming. We probably have an hour left before the storm slaps us in the face. But Waris is a professional. He stays in character the entire time, a serious, serene version of himself. And what do you know? Underneath that svelte, protein-laced body lies a buffness even Waris is not prepared for. That close-up of his arms stirs up all kinds of questions. “Are you single?” I ask him, genuinely. “At the moment I am indeed very single,” he answers willingly. “Are you running a dating service on your site? Maybe you could help with some pick up lines.” Oh, Ladies, did I mention House of Waris makes amazing jewelry? According to the story, it all began with a ring….