“This can only happen in New York,” Zak said to himself.
“Memory, what can I make of it now?” he read aloud and looked over his shoulders to see if others heard him. Nobody did. They were all busy.
A woman was reading an unusually thick book on accounting. Two young men were discussing the USFMG (United States foreign medical graduate) examination. A couple was busy with each other.
It was an “R” train from Manhattan to Queens. Most of the passengers were immigrants: South Asians, Latin Americans, Chinese and East European Jews.
They looked tired and over-worked. America had not yet washed the traces of poverty from their faces.
The train rushed them to their destinations, small, dilapidated cubicles on numbered streets in New York’s Queens District. Each apartment tagged with a number – 301-27, 109-17, and 403-06. They had not yet earned the right to live in leafy neighborhoods with posh sounding names.
Even schools in their neighborhoods did not have names. They were simply called PS (public school) 14 or 45.
“I have become an orchard, washed in on the salt white beach. Memory, what can I make of it now that might please you – this life, already wasted and still strewn with miracles?” Zak read the poem again.
It was a cold late winter evening. Zak or Zakir Husain, as his parents named him, came to New York from Washington and got lost. Yes, lost because he left his bag, laptop, cell phone and overcoat in a car that he got off outside the Lincoln tunnel.
He was lost and he loved it. It brought out the beast in him. The moment Zak realized he was lost; his animal instincts took control of his senses. His veins tightened. His hands stretched out in a defensive position as if warding off unseen enemies. His legs moved faster and for the first time in years he ran for some distance and was not out of breath.
Zak felt he could hear better, see clearer. He became more conscious of his surroundings.
Stranded outside the tunnel that linked New Jersey to Manhattan, his immediate concern was to cross into Manhattan. There were no pavements or walkways. So Zak walked up to a policeman and asked if he could walk to the other side.
The policeman looked at him, from head to toe and back, and said: “No you cannot. You need a vehicle to cross the tunnel.”
“I have left my luggage in a car and have no money. So I cannot take a ride,” Zak said to the policeman. “I do have a credit card, a driving license and an identity card, though.”
The policeman checked his ID but before he could guide him Zak had another immediate urge; he needed to use the restroom. The policeman showed him a pharmacy which had a public lavatory.
When Zak returned, the policeman told him if he walked four blocks uphill, he would get to a taxi stand and could use his credit card to go to Manhattan.
At the taxi stand, the manger told Zak that although Times Square was only 6 miles, he would charge $45. Zak was about to get into the cab when a man, who was waiting for a ride to JFK airport, suggested he should go to an ATM, draw some cash and get on a bus.
“They charge only two dollars,” said the man.
Zak came out, started looking for an ATM and found one. But while operating the machine, he realised he did not remember his pin code. He went back to the cab station but when the manager noticed that Zak was totally at his mercy, he raised the fare. “Now we will charge you $60,” the manager said.
Disgusted with this attitude, Zak came out and walked straight ahead. He did not know where to go or what to do.
As he realised that most of the people around him were Latin Americans, the racist hidden inside him came out. “What if they mug me or worse, stab me,” he thought. He obviously did not think of his Latin American friends, which included a physician, a professor and a journalist.
There is comfort in stereotyping people. And the ugly racist inside Zak did not want him to break out of his grips. So Zak quickened his pace when he saw a man with a large, red scarf.
But when he lost all sense of direction, he stopped a man, a Latin American, and asked him where he was. “Bergen,” said the man, “close to Manhattan.” He thanked him and resumed his walk.
After a few minutes, he saw a large building which displayed the name of the bank Zak has an account with. He had never been so excited on seeing a bank. He ran up to the bank and tried to open the door. It was locked but there were people inside.
He waved at them desperately until one of them gestured back to tell him that the bank was closed. But Zak continued to wave at him, which forced the man to open the door.
“I am an account holder. Here is my bank card and I am lost. I mean I have lost my money along with my bag and I need to get to New York, so please help me. I desperately need some cash,” said Zak.
“OK,” said the man and took him to a woman inside the building. Zak repeated his story and also showed her his ID to prove that he was not a vagabond.
The woman agreed to help him and assisted him in withdrawing $200 from his account. She too was Latin.
Now that Zak had money in his pocket, he felt better and started noticing things that he had not noticed before, such as a nearby store run by a Sikh. He went to the shopkeeper and said to him in Punjabi, “can I use your phone, please?”