The notion of spandex this summer stirs thoughts of Batman, Spiderman and the Avengers.
Lately, Batman is striking a religious pose as a messiah-like figure who is locked away for three months, escapes and walks on water on his way to save Gotham.
For Spandex House, the stretch-fabric retailer located in our real life Gotham on 38th Street in the Garment District, their superhero has quite bit more experience in saving the day—about 5,000 years more.
Upstairs, beyond the scattered rainbow assortment of two-way and four-way stretch, mesh, and the other thousands of varieties of spandex, you will learn the definition of superhero in the form of a nearly five-foot, immaculately buffed and polished golden statue of Hanuman, the Hindu god of power and strength.
While most Hindus believe that there is a transcendent God that pervades all things, they also lay claim to an estimated 330 million deities as manifestations of the divine—Hanuman the Monkey-King being one of the most popular. In the love story Ramayana Hanuman mobilizes a monkey army to help Rama rescue his wife Sita from an evil demon-king. Hindus believe that the story illustrates the complete surrender and devotion to God. People pray to Hanuman for courage, confidence and freedom from evil. His temples are found world-wide—on hills, mountains and a hidden corner on the second floor of Spandex House.
According to Rajan Zed, Hindu priest and president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, it’s not uncommon for business owners in India to pray daily inside their shop before opening in the morning. “They’ll sprinkle holy water around, light incense, and say a prayer, sometimes to two different shrines,” Zed said.
The statue models a resolute monkey ready to defeat evil and defend the good. He sits right in the midst of the workaday world. His house is not Wayne Mansion of Gotham but the more humble hand-crafted shelter of plywood walls and rooftop, gated by a silver knee-high dog pen fence. Artificial sunflowers and multi-colored twinkle lights intertwine on the inner walls of his home.
At the base of his feet lays the ubiquitous Manhattan morning adornment, a Styrofoam cup. The god also smokes indoors with spiky stems of burnt incense, a half-full pitcher of water, and a barbeque lighter lying parallel to a candlestick. He doesn’t deign to notice the mayor’s decrees and hasn’t got cancer in aeons.
But most notably, the entire 12-foot structure is lined and stapled to nearly 24 yards of red and gold sequined spandex. A spandex house for a divine superhero!
In 2007, Kishan Persaud, a Spandex House employee, discovered the 150-pound statue in the basement of 1181 Broadway, about a 15-minute walk from Spandex House. Persaud said he found the statue in poor condition, rusting and dirty. “There was no justice,” he said as he reflected on the lack of respect given to the god. Persaud decided that as the god had aided Rama in his time of despair, the spandex worker would aid Hanuman.
Persaud, who came to the United States in 2000 from Guyana—on the northern coast of South America—is a devout Hindu with ancestral roots in India. After working a few years in grocery stores stocking and doing delivers, he came to Spandex House in 2005. Despite 12-hour days in a six-day work week, he still allots time to pray in the morning, usually chanting a Sanskrit mantra to his own, smaller shrines in his apartment in Jamaica, Queens.
Ashvin Katariwala, Persaud’s boss, also practices Hinduism. He immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1985. His first job in the U.S. was at Glaston Fabrics for five years, where he learned the trade of fabric importing, until he joined Spandex House as a part-owner in 1991, the year it opened.
After seeing Hanuman, Persaud asked Katariwala if he could purchase and bring back the statue to Spandex House for a proper home. LaCrasia, a glove manufacturer that housed the statue, priced it at $1,000, about half the retail price. Katariwala gave Persaud the money to bring the statue back.
Since the statue was too large to fit into a delivery truck, Persaud and about four other Spandex House employees carried the bulky statue 10 blocks on the sidewalks of Manhattan. Hanuman was on his way back to recovery and saving the day for his followers.
Persaud polished the blackened statue to its original brilliant golden color and bought a scepter for Hanuman to hold.
“He’s [still] missing the mountain in his hands,” Persaud said of the traditional visual symbol of strength typically accompanying a Hanuman statue. “We’ll maybe put a house there instead”—another wrapped in spandex.
Persaud said that Hanuman makes it possible for him to continue working at Spandex House. He says his workplace offers “nice work,” but that it is a hard job with no health benefits—which is why he goes to Hanuman for help. “I pray to Hanuman every day to give me health and strength. That’s why I can work here.” The folded dollar bills secured by rubber bands around Hanuman’s outreaching palms are the small daily prayer donations from Persaud’s minimum-wage pay. He will eventually bring the money to the Ganesh Hindu temple in Flushing. Persaud hopes to one day earn $900 a week—about double what he makes now—as an elevator operator.
Katariwala believes Hanuman has also made it possible for Spandex House to survive and even grow through the recession. Since the arrival of the statue, the owner has observed that the store’s second level, which has struggled to attract customers since it opened in 2004, has had increased foot-traffic and business. He was even able to open a second location on West 40th Street.
Spandex House’s steady business comes at a time when the spandex industry faces challenges. Katariwala remembers when he dealt with nearly 22 spandex production mills in New York; now he works with about three. Over the last two decades, most New York fabric manufacturing factories gradually shut down, forcing fabric retailers and wholesalers to buy most of their supplies from China and South Korea.
“Ninety-five percent of buying used to come from the New York mills and five percent from overseas. Now it’s the reverse,” Katariwala said. So Spandex House must now deal with fluctuating currencies and freight costs as well as fierce competition in the Garment District.
Within just a couple block radius of Spandex House, two other major spandex retailers offer competition—Spandex World and Stretch House. And there are other mixed fabric stores that also supply the material.
Spandex House’s ability to adapt and keep fabrics unique retains customers. Toddie Fisher, a fashion designer from Ohio, has been shopping at Spandex House since he moved to New York three and a half years ago. Fisher said he appreciates the wide selection of mesh and power mesh (loosely woven stretch fabric and its sturdier counterpart) which he uses in his lingerie line. Standing well over six-feet tall, Fisher said he easily noticed the Hanuman statue in the store, but made no assumptions as to why it was there. What he did know was that Spandex House is the “chicest” store of the three spandex-only fabric stores in the area and contains “many hidden treasures.”
The icon of Hanuman has provided Spandex House employees with resilience to push through a changing business. Katariwala knows things could be worse. “Business isn’t that bad, thank God,” he said.