The New Yorker: Bliss and a Regular Coffee
32 October 1, 1973
Bliss and a Regular Coffee
THE old National Delicatessen & Restaurant on West Forty-second Street, which used to specialize in Jewish cuisine, has changed its religious affiliation. The place, across the street from the Public Library, is now called the Alive Restaurant, and it is being operated by devotees of Guru Maharaj Ji, the chubby fifteen-year-old "perfect master" and Rolls-Royce fancier who may or may not be God. The food, is vegetarian, inexpensive, plentiful, and intermittently good. The waiters and waitresses smile - a trifle vacantly, perhaps, but any smile is better than none in this part of town - and, besides excellent service, they provide little chats about how the Satguru (or, as his detractors call him, the Fatguru) has changed their lives. The total effect is something like a Salvation Army soup kitchen on Neptune.
Guru Maharaj Ji, who has been the focus of an intensive publicity campaign over the past few months, is one of the most successful of the several jet-borne Indian spiritual entrepreneurs to have amassed large followings in this country. The Guru's American disciples have made a number of startling claims on his behalf - that he is God or is greater than God, that his organization will build an all-electric Divine City out West somewhere within three years' time, that he will rule the world by the end of the decade, and so on. (A prominent convert, the former radical leader Rennie Davis, has predicted that Mao Tse-tung will be a follower of Guru Maharaj Ji by 1975.) The Maharaj Ji operation in Denver publishes a monthly slick magazine, And It Is Divine. The September issue features a full-color centerfold shot of the Guru, who is listed as Supreme Editor-in-Chief, riding his minibike in a Long Island meadow.
And It Is Divine is on sale next to the cash register in the restaurant on Forty-second Street, but, on the whole, the guru angle has been handled with considerable restraint. Apart from a ???
heavily to plastic and imitation wood, is much as it was in National Delicatessen days. The staff, all of whom are young and neatly barbered, and most of whom have the smooth, open faces of children raised in comfortable suburban homes, wear buttons emblazoned with slogans ("Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?") or photographs (the Guru in a business suit, talking on the telephone). The menu contains only a hint or two of the restaurant's spiritual orientation: Bliss Blends, Sweet 'n' Sour Bliss Balls. Last Wednesday, we had broccoli, baked chick-peas, rice with sweet-potato sauce, salad, and, for dessert, Humble Peace Pie, which turned out to be a delicious concoction of whole-wheat crust, fresh peaches, and genuine whipped cream. With a cup of coffee, the check came to just over three dollars.
Several members of the restaurant staff with whom we talked described their conversion in nearly identical terms. They all spoke of a history of drug taking and spiritual uncertainty, they had all heard of the Guru Maharaj Ji casually or by chance, and they had all "received knowledge" through a "mahatma," or circuit-riding disciple of the Guru. The "knowledge" was invariably described as consisting of an experience of "inner light," an "inner music" in the right ear, a "divine nectar" at the back of the throat, and an experience of "absolute perfection." The manager of the restaurant, a thirty three-year-old former self-made businessman named Jim Lodato, told us that after he "received knowledge," a year and a half ago, he donated his house in Old Westbury to the Guru, who uses it as his Divine Residence when he is in the New York area. "For a businessman, this knowledge is the most amazing thing," Mr. Lodato said. "When business backs you against the wall, you have a limitless thing you can step into. Any man who's in business in New York City should have this knowledge."
Mr. Lodato told us that sixty-five people work at the restaurant, includ ing twelve cooks and seven bakers. Since none of them are paid, there are no wage disputes.
"What if somebody needs a new pair of shoes?" we asked.
"Oh, that's no problem," Mr. Lodato said. "You just ask if it's O.K., take the money from the cash register, and buy the shoes."
Marty Moss, who is twenty-eight and was a fashion designer until he became the headwaiter at the restaurant, told us that he likes his new job. "I enjoy greeting people at the door and showing them to a table," he said. "I enjoy getting into people's heads and seeing what makes them tick. A lot of people come in here to break the tension of the business day. Even if they don't particularly like vegetarian food or brown rice, they say they just enjoy being here, because of the positive influences in the air."
We asked Mr. Moss about his spiritual history, and he said, "I was into Transcendental Meditation for five years. I saw Guru Maharaj Ji at Hunter College a year ago, but it didn't really take at that time. Then I took a course in consciousness expansion at the New School, and one of the girls in the course had received knowledge from Guru Maharaj Ji. I received knowledge about three months ago. I don't knock T.M., but with Guru Maharaj Ji you go all the way - to union with God."
We talked with Carol Hoey, a waitress, or "server," at the restaurant. Miss Hoey, who is twenty-three, said it took four months of preparation before she could "receive knowledge," because she had believed exclusively in Jesus. "These people were telling me that what Guru Maharaj Ji does is the same as Jesus, and it was hard for me to accept that," she said. "I don't know what Guru Maharaj Ji's financial status is, but you have to see beyond that to what he's giving us. He's not saying after twenty years you'll see light; he's saying you'll see light and receive peace right now. Whatever you can do to serve Guru Maharaj Ji, that's all that matters. The work is hard here, but you don't get tired, because you're working for Guru Maharaj Ji, the Supreme Boss."