Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Footloose in New York
[On my recent trip in 2008, I found New York a safe place. The crime rate was quite low for a city of its size. But in 1995, when I visited NY for the first time, it had the reputation of being infested with cheats, muggers and other sundry criminals. On the evening of my arrival there, I had a few tense moments. This is what I wrote then.]
If you were about to visit New York for the first time and came across someone who had lived there, you’d be given a few tips so that you aren't raped or killed unnecessarily. Before I left India, a friend who had been in the US of A gave me a list of dos and don’ts, mostly don’ts: Don’t take your eyes off the luggage at airports, don’t become too friendly with strangers, don’t hang around at tube stations after the crowd has moved, don’t carry much cash on your person, don’t take a taxi alone, don’t enter a lonely loo …
I arrived at the Newark airport in a cloudy autumn evening. The flight was delayed by an hour, a matter of little consequence to a regular client of the famously unpunctual Indian Airlines. All the bad press that the city of New York has been getting didn’t bother me. My task was simple: I only had to take a twenty-mile ride to the Hotel Hilton at Manhattan, where someone would receive me and take me to my temporary abode at Queens.
The city of New York and all other big cities of our time make me think that the children of the twentieth century have limited imagination. No two mountains rise the same way, no two rivers follow similar courses, no two children smile the same smile; but most of the sky-scrapers in our cities look so soullessly alike! The Hudson showed up and vanished in a flash. Soon we were driving under water through the faceless Lincoln Tunnel that seemed to say, “OK, folks, here you are, but I couldn’t care less.” When we reached Manhattan, the clouds hanging around the upper floors of the buildings broke into a torrential rain.
The burly driver of the shuttle coach delivered me and my luggage at the gate of Hilton. The person who was to meet me there had left a note at the reception saying he was leaving after waiting for half-an-hour beyond the scheduled time! Fortunately, I had a friend, Murali Bagade, who had been posted to New York just a week before. I phoned Bagade at his office, but he had left for home. Called his home; no reply.
It was pouring and nothing much could be seen outside the chandeliered foyer of the hotel. The reputation of the NY cabbies being what it is, I didn’t want to take a cab towards an unknown destination, if I could help it. And my baggage precluded taking the metro. So there I was, a stranger in a supposedly dangerous city with an uncertain night looming through a deluge.
For a moment, I toyed with the idea of checking into Hilton, but rejected it quickly as I recalled that Fiedel Castro was staying there for a UN conference on that day. Both Mr. Castro and me were in New York on official work, and both of us are from the third world, but I reckoned he enjoyed a better daily allowance. A night at Hilton or an encounter with a mugger would make similar impacts on my wallet.
My colleague, JPN Thampi has a sticker on his table: “When in doubt, don’t!” That evening, I followed the dictum with slight modification: “When in doubt, drink!” I went to the bar on the ground floor of the hotel. It was a wonderful place teeming with people and TVs of various sizes, and a number of those ubiquitous vending machines that sell things like candies and condoms. The crowd was jovial, noisy, and smoking. No one noticed as I walked in, pulling two suitcases. The beer was awfully affordable and the food (succulent sausages) was on the house. I felt at home. Barring the vending machines, the place looked no different from an upmarket pub in Colaba Causeway in Bombay or Brigade Road in Bangalore.
After about an hour, I called Bagade again, and this time, he answered. One more hour and another beer later, it was a huge relief to see my friend walking in with a broad smile and a long umbrella, but thoroughly drenched, all the same.
The queue for taxis in front of the hotel was long and serpentine, and by the time our taxi was on one of the several bridges across the East River, it was quite late. Suddenly, the driver declared that he was not sure of the way to Queens. Bagade, having lived in the city for just a week, didn't know the way either. It was still raining and there was not a soul on the sidewalk. Our taxi was whizzing past at fifty miles an hour along with hundreds of other cars; there was no question of stopping and asking for direction from anyone. A strange situation: the vehicle was moving fast, but we were in a jam. My friend and I looked at each other.
Thanks to the efficiency of the American system, a photograph of the taxi driver along with his name in bold letters was prominently displayed in the passenger compartment. The name, Hidayat Ullah, and a South Asian physiognomy gave us hope. Maybe, the fellow was an Indian or Pakistani, which should make it easier to tackle him.
Actually, Hidayat Ullah was from Bangladesh. He and I speak the same language and his home in Noakhali is less than 400 kilometres from mine on a planet with a circumference of 40,000 kilometres! He was hardly dangerous. On the contrary, he was a scared, insecure young man, terrorised equally by police and the underworld. A brush with the law might mean loss of his driving licence and livelihood. And like all NY cabbies, he lived in the perpetual fear of the cold metal on his nape. He had had the experience twice and had lost whatever he had on him. Only an undying faith on Allah helps him carry on in this hazardous city, where he trades his personal safety for earning a level of comfort that is unimaginable back home in Bangladesh.
The Bengali language worked like magic for Hidayat Ullah’s memory. We were home and dry in fifteen minutes.
Calcutta / 11 December 1995