Monday Morning Greetings 2022 #23 – Street Unicorns

June 6th, 2022

My mother was a fashion designer who prided herself in the clothes she designed and the dresses she wore, and her son comes home as a Hare Krishna dressed in shmatas! Yes, that’s the word she used to describe my robes. It is a Yiddish word for “rag” usually applied to shabby dress. Later, as I matured, I was more sensitive when visiting her. She much preferred the brightly pressed saffron silks than the crinkled faded cottons. “Oh beautiful,” she said, as she reached out from her seat to feel it’s fine texture and admire the bright saffron color. I think she would have been happy to see my picture in Street Unicorns.


Street Unicorns is a newly published coffee table book that highlights the dress of boldly stylish New Yorkers with the strong urge to express their authentic self in fashion, regardless of what people think. But what the hell am I doing in such a book?


Street Unicorns


It was a little more than two years ago, during a pleasant pre-COVID summer, while walking around Union Square Park with Madhava das during his break from leading kirtan with the harinama party, when we were stopped by a pleasant gentleman admiring our “unique” garb. He spoke something about a book he was writing, asked to take our picture, got our information, sincerely thanked us, and left. Soon we got documents describing in more detail his project and asking us to sign a release so that he could use our pictures. Two weeks ago, the book was released.


Robbie Quinn, the author, is an excellent photographer, and just as good a writer. Although it is not by any means my usual monk reading fare, I was impressed with the book. It was so well written that once I began skimming the three-thousand-word introduction, I was drawn to go back and read what the author was saying more carefully.


Mr. Quinn’s passion is authenticity, a quality he says that can often make people impelled to express themselves in ways that don’t conform to the crowd. He reasons that it is very difficult to do this in smaller, more provincial places that thrive on such conformity. He therefore appreciates New York City, where historically many new people arrive and those in residence get used to, and even welcome, others who are different than themselves. In his introduction, he describes this phenomenon and how it spurs creativity and why it inspired him to honor this expression of authenticity in fashion through his photography:


“It may sound counter-intuitive, but perhaps because there are so many new people coming to cities all the time, everyone seems to be more curious rather than suspicious of one another, Presenting yourself in a different way might not be judged as harshly, and there is already someone that gets you, somebody that feels something similar. An idea is shared, and movements born. This can happen with regard to music, fashion, and social issues—any situation where open minds can meet.”


I think you may all be appreciating this week’s post but may question what this has to do with my weekly blog, whose theme is wisdom based on the Krishna bhakti tradition. I just loved the picture from the book, and so did those few I shared it with. I felt that my readership would also, especially as it was with Madhava, who needs no introduction as arguably the most respected kirtan singer in the current international Krishna bhakti movement. Street Unicorns was my inspiration this week, and I felt inspired to write about the picture and see how I could fit it into my blog. Did I put the cart before the horse in the sense that due to my enthusiasm for the book, I began a post before I had some specific realization to share, while usually I start first with a specific realization in mind? The answer is yes, but I think it worked, and by telling the story of the picture something came within my mind to share. Here it is:


It is ironic that I am in a book of people who want to stand-out, because the saffron color of the robes of a monk is literally called “kasaya[1], indicating freedom from dressing in a materially attractive way.[2]  My motive for dressing the way I do, in that sense, is exactly the opposite of a “street unicorn” as Robbie Quinn defines it: a bold person wanting to stand out and express their non-conformity. So rather than being a “street unicorn”, my simple robes are more a conformity and submission to a spiritual ideal than an expression of uniqueness. On the other hand, although it is non-descript, my dress expresses authenticity in another way. It is certainly an expression of the person I am or want to be—a dedicated servant of God who wants to exemplify and feel by his dress a life of simple living and high thinking.[3]


Now here is the irony: In another way, I do stand out by my dress, because the culture I am representing is transplanted here in the West. By wearing my robes, I am making a public statement that “I am different, this is who I am, come find out if you are interested.” This is what the first Hare Krishnas who came to England purposely did. They specifically shaved their head and wore robes, which they hadn’t done before, to stand out. They were successful beyond their wildest dreams. They stood out and attracted the curiosity of the Beatles, which led Apple Records to produce The Radha Krishna Temple album,[4] one of the songs which reached the twelfth most popular on the UK Billboard chart at the time.


I also related to Robbie Quinn’s description of New York, how it developed a culture of diversity and acceptance that fosters conversations with the curious and like-minded, which gives birth to trends and new movements like no other place in the world. When I read that, it highlighted in my mind the genius of Śrīla Prabhupāda coming to New York and why his movement started and flourished there. Hey, if I just wore slacks and a baseball cap how would Robbie have ever found me!


Let me end here with a corny finish—you know the ones where immediately after a loved one has died their adult child achieves some great accomplishment, usually winning a significant sporting event, and to honor the departed they sentimentally point to the heavens to offer their success to their loved one. Let me do that here for my mother, who died last September in her hundred and first year:


“Mama, look! Your boy who came to you in shmatas is now a fashion icon!”



[1] Kasaya or kashāya (Sanskrit: कषाय) means, ‘astringent’, ‘decay’, ‘smearing’, ‘juice’, ‘degeneracy’, ‘anointing’, ‘gum’, ‘resin’, ‘red-brown’, ‘stupidity’, ‘defect’, ‘fragrant’. It also means ‘attachment to worldly objects’ or to ‘the yellowish-red garments worn by monks’.

[2] “The kaṣāya, or saffron loincloth of a sannyāsī, indicates freedom from all attractive material garments.” (Bhag. 1.15.40, Purport)

[3] While visiting the Supersoul Farm in Upstate New York I met one lady named Sandy from Boston. I showed her the book and began describing it, and somehow she connected it to Bill Cunningham, a photographer she had admired. I found that interesting as the book was dedicated to him. Yesterday I got a note from Sandy that had similar realizations to me as to why my simple dress was a good fit for Street Unicorns: “I had a realization after I left that you might find interesting. The fashion book that you’re featured in…dedicated to Bill Cunningham…and about authenticity and style. Bill Cunningham only wore one outfit ever, which was the uniform of hotel cleaning staff, very humble garb. (He also lived in a tiny room with almost no belongings.) That bears resonance with the concept of spiritual dress: that is what is most authentic (and radical, in material culture) in not identifying with one’s outer layers.”

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Radha_Krsna_Temple_(album)


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