“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?”
One phone call connected him back to his world, which only a few minutes ago had disappeared. He felt both relieved and sad.
Relieved that his ordeal ended and sad that this also took away the thrill, the excitement that came with that feeling of helplessness.
The beast inside him no more controlled Zak. What he calls his “civilized self” was back in control. His hands were no longer stretched out in defense. His feet slowed their pace. His eyes and ears relaxed.
His animal instincts were going back to some hidden shelf inside him and reason and logic were back. “What was the need to panic,” he thought, “I was only a phone call away from my friends.”
But it seemed as if his face still displayed some fears as the shopkeeper said to him, “I heard you saying (on the phone) that you are going to Queens. I am going to Brooklyn. Come with me because we are going to the same station.”
Zak got into the bus with this man who took him to his platform and put him on the train to Queens.
The “R” train reminded Zak of his days in New York, years ago, when he too was a poor immigrant. He shared a small apartment in Queens with his friends and worked at a store in Manhattan.
Zak used to take a train to home every evening, like those on the “R” train. And he looked as worried and tired as those on the train looked to him now.
“New York is not just an American city. It is a miniature world,” he used to say when he lived there. “You see people from every corner of the world in this city, pursuing their dreams.”
He remembered how he felt when he saw planes hitting the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. “Why are they targeting New York? Don’t they realise how international it is?” he said to himself as he watched the buildings collapse. “The terrorists do not just hate America. They hate the whole world.”
Today’s little adventure outside Manhattan reminded Zak of his old days and of 9/11. He looked again at the faces inside the train and asked the woman sitting next to him, “how far is the 36th Street station?”
“It is the 4th station after this one,” said the woman.
Zak knew where it was but he just wanted to connect with other passengers. As the woman replied, he felt as if he was back in those days when he was new in the city and often needed to ask others where to get off the train or the bus he was on.
The station came. Zak got off the train and was soon sitting in his friend’s apartment with a cup of tea and a plate of samosas.
When he told his friend how he read a poem on the train, the friend said he too had written a poem about the Indian poet, Gulzar, who returned to his village in Pakistan after almost 70 years and was so overwhelmed with emotions that he had to return to Mumbai.
“This world fragmented, as it is, divides us too, trees, forests and mountains, all had to belong to this or that side of the border, even the rivers, who know no borders, were divided,” his friend, Hassan Mujtaba, read his poem, as Zak sipped tea.
“The poet’s tears, as blue as the ocean and as big as a river, had to be divided too, his mother’s home, grandfather’s village, temples, mosques and mausoleums were all partitioned.
“They took wood from the divided forest and made a table, a bookshelf, and eyes in a window. A Buddha, a wounded soldier’s limbs and the gallows all made from this wood,” read Hassan.
“Why, o why is there so much pain and fear in the world?” asked Zak.
“You are still in shock but you will understand when you are a little more civilized,” said Hassan.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.