Courting the big city

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I grew up in a big city. Bangalore, set atop a plateau with a moderate climate in Southern India, was a city of about six million people, and it wasn’t even the largest in India. I’ve always felt that big cities across the globe, regardless of which country they’re in, have an underlying spirit threading through all of them. The places where dreams are made and shattered, where you work crappy jobs to live in shitty rat-holes only to have a chance to reach for the stars, where multiple worlds collide in cacophonic harmony, where the designated “other” of the land doesn’t have to always be the odd one out, where anything and nothing is possible, where thought becomes a touch more free and people become a touch more open to difference, where diversity doesn’t have to be engineered.

Those are just some of the things I love about the big city and New York epitomized them in every way possible, indeed, in ways that I’d never experienced in Bangalore. It was love at first sight, love at first smell, love at first mingle.

It was the big city. My 2003 Spring Break road trip while enduring self-righteous Christian students from Gannon University became infinitely more tolerable the moment I drank in the great city. After dropping our luggage in the Brooklyn church we were staying in, we took a subway to Manhattan. As we stepped out from the underground station, I was rendered speechless.

Towering skyscrapers that seemed to reach for the clouds and claim the heavens as prime real estate. People of every race and ethnicity, often beautifully ambiguous, sometimes ambiguously beautiful. Hustle and bustle, the real kind that will sweep away the inattentive tourist like a pesky insect trying to wade through a mudslide. Aromas and stenches of every kind, with little to differentiate one from the other. Cars with horns that honked for no reason other than to merely signify their presence – “I’m here, you know,” they seemed to say, “don’t think I’ll sit idly by as long as I have this awesome noise-producer that works with nary a push of a button.” Taxi drivers who spewed expletives in a veritable cornucopia of multilingual profanity, as if they were acknowledging the diversity of humanity while celebrating our inherent oneness with the universal language of road rage.

We walked around Manhattan taking everything in and I felt something I hadn’t felt since I began my immigrant journey – I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. People of every hue and color abounded in New York, and no one gave me a second look, a relief after a road trip with all-white travelling buddies. It was marvelous. For a moment I lost my self-consciousness, something that had clung on to me like a leach for the entire trip. I had noticed how popular culture often showcased the lights and sounds of Times Square as epitomizing the beauty of the city, and they were indeed a spectacle to behold. It didn’t do much for me though. In fact seeing that unabashed testament to capitalism on steroids even repulsed me a little. I fell in love with the people.

Beautiful, teeming masses of emotion and chaos.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay very long as we had to get back to the church for an early night since we had to be at the soup kitchen early in the morning.

It was a pity. I would have spent all night on the streets of New York that evening given the chance. Maybe befriended some of the homeless folk in Central Park, who probably had more interesting things to talk about than abortion and piety. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Large & Shrill, our sanctimonious trip leader, was not going to allow that on her watch.

“Ok everyone,” she commanded, like she was talking to kindergartners, “let’s head back to the church now. This way we will still have time for a prayer circle before bed.”

I gently whispered to the great city:

Well, thank you New York for the brief respite. I’ll head back into my shell of self-consciousness now but I’ll be back to court you again.

The church basement that was to be our home for the next few days was carpeted and cozy. We proceeded to lay out our sleeping bags before prayer time. Large & Shrill had brought a childhood friend of hers to lead us at prayer time, who was larger and shriller. From the get-go, Larger & Shriller displayed a coldhearted hostility towards me that I couldn’t quite place. I don’t know whether it was because I looked like the caricaturized, post-9/11 villain that the US media had sketched out for the average American, or whether it was because I said that I didn’t follow any organized religion when we had a go-around at prayer asking each of us what church we went to.

Regardless, it was palpable and confirmed when I noticed how warmly she behaved with others after prayer time while failing to even acknowledge my exaggerated “Thank you” to her for taking the time to talk to us. I did this primarily to ensure that I wasn’t being paranoid about the obvious contempt I felt emerging from her towards me. But I wasn’t in a place where I felt I could challenge it without feeling completely unsupported, so let it pass.

Thankfully she left, and I was able to have a lovely conversation before bed with Peter about his relationship to god. We discovered a mutual love for Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, especially the version sung by Jeff Buckley.

“I love the part of the chorus where he sings of it being a broken hallelujah with such pain.” he said, emotion tinged in his voice. “It’s how I’ve always viewed my relationship with god.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

He thought about it for a moment.

“Well…it’s because that relationship is not easy…it’s a struggle.” he said.

“Is it when you’re reconciling your politics with the relationship?” I probed.

“Partly. And it’s not helped by the conservative traditions of the church. Yet at the same time my faith means a lot to me…I don’t want to leave it because of my politics.”

There was a pause in the conversations as we both thought about what he said.

He then asked, “How do you view god, Sri?”

I smiled. It was nice to be posed the question in the non-judgmental way he did.

“To be honest, I don’t know.” I said. “I prefer to think in terms of humanity, the fundamental spirit of humanity, deriving something from all bodies of thought and religion rather than only one. It’s one of the reasons I don’t follow any organized religion per se.”

He smiled warmly.

“I’m really in awe of that, Sri.” he said. “It’s a tougher path but one that will be much more enriching I feel. I think it’s amazing that you’re here with us…it can’t be easy for you.”

I smiled back. He was the only one who had acknowledged my disquiet as an outsider, and that one gesture washed away all the negativity of other interactions. We soon said our goodnights to each other and fell asleep.

***

The next morning we proceeded to begin our stint at the soup kitchen. Before we left for the Bronx, Large & Shrill got us together to ensure we knew “how to be safe” in that neighborhood.

“Always stay in a group as we walk to the soup kitchen, don’t talk to anyone on the streets, and keep your wallets or bags close to you at all times.” she instructed in a warning tone. “Remember…stay alert for any problems.”

I wondered where the hell we were going that required this kind of fear mongering. What was this anguished place they spoke of in such hushed tones? How was it eliciting such fearful awe? The Bronx. I whispered it quietly to myself. Was it a war zone? A post-apocalyptic land of doom? A place where death and despair stalked you at all hours of the day? I wondered why some members of the group were behaving like we were heading to Sarajevo under siege. It certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that Large & Shrill spoke like we needed flak jackets and armed U.N. peacekeepers to accompany us.

It was only when we stepped out of the subway station onto the streets of the Bronx that I realized why she got so paranoid and scared the crap out of the others too. It was filled with poor black people. There it was, so crystal clear that a boneheaded moron could have deciphered it. The fear that the media had generated about poor black folk had trickled down to the instructions that Large & Shrill gave to all of us. It was another profound learning moment for me. I silently wondered how many other ways the trickle-down happened across the country, day after day, and how it affected the lives of everyday people.

As we walked to the soup kitchen, a few school kids waved and shouted at us happily. I waved back and shouted a greeting, when Large & Shrill immediately came by my side and sternly said, “Sri! Don’t wave back at them! Remember what I told you all about being safe.”

I laughed, somewhat disdainfully, and replied, “They’re just kids on their way to school, saying hello. What are they going to do? Beat us to death with their lunch boxes?”

This pissed her off even more.

“Listen…I’m in charge of our group and safety, so please just listen to me and stop encouraging those kids!” she reprimanded.

I shook my head and snorted sarcastically, making sure she knew what I thought of her instructions, but decided not to say anything. There was no way that anything even mildly resembling rationality and reason would have worked with her at that moment, so I dropped it.

We soon got to the soup kitchen where we were introduced to Bea, a lovely middle-aged black woman who called me “baby” whenever she instructed me with any tasks. I took an immature glee in the fact that she didn’t call anyone else by that term of endearment. It was like an untold, invisible bond of affection that sometimes occurred between people of color.

To my utter chagrin though, I saw that Larger & Shriller was volunteering with us for the day, apparently at the behest of Large & Shrill. I didn’t feel any lessening of her hostility towards me, and to make things worse, our group split up into two teams and I was stuck with her as the lead, while Large & Shrill led the other. For the rest of the morning Larger & Shriller proceeded to order me around using the monikers “you” or “hey” and not once referring to me by name despite hearing others use it multiple times. She certainly didn’t deign to ask me what it was. The work itself was interesting and busy so I was able to let it fly. But by lunch time her bigotry was getting to me and I could feel the anger well up. I wasn’t keen on a confrontation this early in the trip though, especially as she seemed to be so highly regarded by Large & Shrill and everyone else, none of whom seemed to notice her hostility towards me.

I tried something different.

During our afternoon break, I went out to smoke a cigarette where I found Bea also having her nicotine fix. We got to chatting immediately and as we were stubbing out our cigarettes, I opened up to her.

“Listen Bea…” I ventured, a little nervously, “um…could I work with you in the kitchen for the rest of the day?”

“Sure thing baby…we could always use an extra hand.” she said affectionately.

I smiled and said, “Cool…thanks.”

There was a pause as she knowingly smiled and adjusted her apron.

Eyes still focused on her apron as she tied the string, she quietly asked, “White bitch ordering you around like you a piece of meat huh?”

I didn’t say anything and instead just chuckled in affirmation. She looked at me and smiled cheekily.

“No problem baby…you just stick with me in the kitchen while you’re here. Ain’t no one gonna fuck with you while I’m around.”

Sometimes beauty comes with just a touch of crassness that makes it shine a wee bit more.

“Thanks, Bea.” I said, trying to prevent my eyes from welling up.

“You got it baby…now come on, we got work to do.” she said with a wink.

For the rest of the time we volunteered at the soup kitchen, I made it a point to avoid both Large & Shrill and Larger & Shriller like the plague. I stuck with Bea, who was a taskmaster and maternal shield to me, an amazing woman, tough as nails on the outside with a heart of pure gold on the inside. This piece of New York was even better than the pomp of Manhattan I had been salivating over the previous day.

Thanks again New York, for your wonderful, resplendently diverse people. It’s safe to say that I have a full blown crush on you.

Our volunteer stint at the soup kitchen went by quickly. Every day, we would go there in the morning and then on the way back to the church which housed us, we would stop by some other church or visit a priest who spoke to us about grace and service.  Peter and I were particularly taken in by a gay priest who spoke rather graphically about his sexuality and the ensuing struggles with his own faith. This made some of the others a little queasy. But it was a learning experience for me. Some of the cut-and-dry assumptions I was beginning to develop about the faithful, mainly due to the majority of my traveling partners, was thankfully being de-centered.

These post-volunteering, evening trips were a little more agreeable because Larger & Shriller stopped showing up, while Large & Shrill could be effectively ignored by playing The Lord of the Rings in my head when she talked. The constant focus on faith and the incessant discussions on morality were getting to me a little though. I had nothing against anyone’s choice of spirituality or the fact that they wanted to explore it through values of their choosing as long as they didn’t force them upon me. But there were other things one could do in New York besides going to churches and talking to spiritual leaders.

Alas, it was not to be. Barring the walks to our different destinations, I wasn’t able to experience New York the way I would have liked to. But I couldn’t complain. The trip gave me a little bit of a preview, which I would have to follow up with a main viewing later on in life.

On our last day, which happened to be a Sunday, we were to go to this huge church for an evening service. It was announced the evening before. Everyone was excited.

Peter, having noticed my increasing frustration, asked in front of everyone, “Sri, you know, if you’d rather do something else while we’re at church, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Everyone, to their enormous credit, nodded supportively to this. Everyone, that is, except Large & Shrill.

Before she could say anything, I said, “Yeah…I think I might. It would be great to go to church with all of you, but it would give me a chance to explore a little bit of New York on my own. I’ve never been here so it would be nice.”

Large & Shrill wasn’t too happy about it, but couldn’t protest, probably because the others were quite supportive of it.

So I took the opportunity that Sunday afternoon to roam around New York. On my own. And I loved it. I told my fellow travelers that I would wait for them outside the church as their service neared an end. I didn’t have much money, so had to be content with a cheap hotdog and various street performers, many of whom seemed far more talented than the garbage the entertainment industry spat out. I took the time to look at the people. So many different personalities. So many different ways of dressing oneself. So many different mental states of being. The chaotic richness was lovely.

It would have been nice had it just ended there. It would have been nice if I could have just caught up with my group and headed back to Erie to dream of the future when I would ultimately leave for the big city, any big city.

But everything that goes up must, as they say in truistic fashion, come down.

After roaming around the city, I waited for my group by the side of the church a few minutes before their service ended. As I stood by the corner of the building, my backpack slung over my shoulders, brown winter jacket zipped up to the neck, a couple of NYPD police officers walked up to me, thumbs dug into their belts, trying their best to look rather macho.

One of them asked, “Everything ok here sir?”

“Um…yes.” I replied, a little nervously.

“What are you doing here sir?” the other asked, a little more menacingly.

“I’m…uh…I’m waiting for my friends who are in church right now.”

“Really?” he said. “Are you sure about that sir?”

“Are you actually asking if I’m sure about what I just told you I was doing here?” I asked incredulously.

This angered him a little.

“Well, why aren’t you in with them then?”

“Because I didn’t want to be in there with them.”

“Really?” he said again, like I had insulted his intelligence. “Would you mind stepping to the side of the street by the squad car sir?”

Now I got more nervous.

“What for?” I said, a little more nervously. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Just come with us sir, and don’t make it harder for yourself.” the man said, unsheathing his baton slowly.

I didn’t know if it was because I fitted the target profile for security forces in a post-9/11 environment or whether this was just par for the course with the NYPD. Regardless, I thought it better to not protest. I put up my hands in a show of compliance and nodded. He still tucked his baton under my arm and led me to the police car with the other guy in tow. They then opened my backpack, checked all my things, asked me for an ID card, patted me down after requesting me to lean against the police car, all of which I did without complaining. The nervousness didn’t go away though. It was joined by a profound sense of humiliation, particularly since the episode transpired in broad daylight with what felt like half of New York watching a large brown man in worn out clothes being searched by two equally large white men in crisp, police uniforms.

It must have been the ultimate visual cliché.

Thankfully it didn’t last long. They asked me what I was doing there again.

I repeated, “I told you officer,” trying desperately to tone down the natural sarcasm in my tone, “I’m waiting for my friends who are in church right now.”

I then added for good measure, “We’re all part of the same university, Gannon University, and we’ve come here to volunteer in a soup kitchen for a week. We’re leaving today. They decided to go to the Sunday service, while I roamed around the city for a bit.”

This calmed them down, especially once they spotted my student ID in my wallet. After rummaging through my backpack some more, and checking my wallet thoroughly, they handed them both back to me.

“Well, ok then…have a good day sir.” they then said, as they gave my stuff back to me.

The two officers watched me as I walked away from them. They then got back in their police car and drove off. I went back to the church, though now I decided to sit on the steps and light up a cigarette to calm my nerves. The rest of my group came out soon, joyful and happy. I got up and joined them.

Peter, upon seeing the slightly distressed look on my face asked me what happened as we walked towards the subway station.

“Nothing much.” I said softly, not wanting to broadcast it to everyone else for fear of embarrassment. “I just got searched by a couple of police officers a few minutes back. All I was doing was standing by the church waiting for your guys.”

“What?” he exclaimed loudly, at which point everyone else turned to us. “That’s ridiculous, they can’t search you for just standing there! That’s fucking profiling!”

Others immediately started asking what happened. I repeated the story, minimizing my hurt and trying my level best to not expect any support from them. They didn’t know what to say, other than some apologetic mumbles. There was a pause and an uncomfortable silence as we waited for our train. Large & Shrill then broke the silence.

“Sorry this happened to you Sri. You should have just come to church with us…none of this would have happened then.”

Classy.

It’s ok New York. It’s not your fault. I don’t bear any ill will. I still have a crush on you and hope to hang out with you again. Only this time I’m going to try and stay away from your men in blue. Please don’t mistake me. They are fellow human beings for sure, but they make me a little nervous. The next time I court you I’m just going to keep walking until I’m indoors.

[Next up: Trouble in anti-paradise]

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