New York – Yonder Years

I lived in Queens, New York in the late seventies. These were pre-Giuliani days and New York was not what it is today. Encounters with crime, mugging, graffiti and squeegee boys were part and parcel of living in New York. Once, an apprentice mugger, who demanded cash and credit cards from my wife Rathna, inside the grocery store. I think he was a trainee because when Rathna (unwisely) ignored him, he just walked away. He was just studying people’s reactions to his threatening demands so that he could perfect his art. I am sure today he is an accomplished perpetrator with many conquests under his belt.

There were strange incidents and occurrences that involved ‘normal’ living in New York. One shrugged his shoulders and accepted the fact that it was New York and bizarre incidents were par for the course. If one wanted harmony in life while living there, one quickly learned to ignore rudeness in people, uncanny con artists, the panhandlers and the street side singers with a bowl for change in front of them. I, once while waiting at a red light, was rear-ended by a teenager, whose uncle begged me not to call the police because that would mean the end of a driving career for the young teenager. You see, he had so much ahead of him, a bright future, and this would be a black mark that would follow him like a shadow forever, the rest of life. I took pity on the boy and did not press charges, as there was only minor damage, a broken tail lamp on the rear of my car. The benevolent uncle even gave me a telephone number to call the next day and promised to pay for the repairs. The number turned out to be fictitious and I knew I had been ‘taken’ by another con artist. Worse still, a month later I received a notification from police blaming me for a ‘hit-and-run’ episode! I panicked, but my insurance agent laughed and said it was a common happening in New York. I never heard from the police or the uncle after that.

Then there was a time when Rathna had another close encounter with robbers in the apartment building. Our friends were living in an apartment in the same building, on another floor. Both the husband and wife went to work but the wife returned earlier from her work. One afternoon, Usha came running to Rathna saying that there was something wrong with the lock on her door, as she could not open it properly. Rathna went with her to the door and tried the lock. Strangely, every time it clicked open, it locked again. After many tries it opened and they just saw the robber escaping out of the window on to the fire escape. There were two of them and one of them was locking the door from inside every time the girls were trying to unlock it! The apartment had been ransacked and robbed clean.

I had some bad experiences with cars in New York. Hailing from a small town in India I was not street smart, when I arrived in New York. I trusted people and it was easy to fool me with friendly words. The teenager and his uncle episode proved that. I once had an accident right in front of my apartment (accidents are inevitable part of life in New York). I still could drive my car to my parking spot in the underground garage of my apartment building. The front of the car was badly damaged. I did not carry collision insurance (hardly anyone did, and moreover it was prohibitively expensive for someone with a resident’s salary). The building supervisor (maintenance man, supervisor is a fancy title for him), started showing interest in buying the car from me (for a song, of course). But I had resisted and told him that someday I will have it repaired and use it again. A week later when I went to check on my car, I found that all the four wheels were missing and the car was placed on wooden blocks! Now I could not even drive it get it repaired. I was forced to sell it to the supervisor (for even less money because it did not have wheels now). The very next day the wheels reappeared and the supervisor, beaming with pride was working on the dents and painting it. I felt like a sucker, needless to say. Ah! But this is New York!

I once lost a car in the same apartment building within twenty-four hours after I bought it. After I bought a nice car from an outgoing intern (who was going back to his motherland, Korea), I parked it in the garage late that night. In my excitement (and exhaustion after a long and arduous day), I locked myself out of the car with the keys in the ignition. I was too tired to device a plan to get it out, as it was already midnight. The next morning I came down early with an open wire hanger to unlock the car and get inside. The car was gone! The police came but gave me no hope. A month later I got a call from them saying that they found the remnants of my car in a junkyard (graveyard?). I was told that I would likely breakdown and cry if I saw it. So I saved myself the agony.

Many times, while living in New York, I uttered the Lord’s name. Mostly this was in disgust at some sight or behavior of impertinent people. I am not religious and yet do not believe in taking the Lord’s name in vain. But one incidence nearly made me believe that God, if He existed, was on my side.

I was an extremely busy surgical resident in Queens, New York. I had no time for anything other than my work, during weekdays. My wife Rathna was left alone to fend for herself in our apartment with two young children. Winters were particularly harsh on her, as she had to bundle up her children and take them with her even if she had to go to the grocery store (yes, the same one where she had encountered the mugger). She had no choice but to go there, dragging one toddler and the younger one in a stroller.

One afternoon I received a frantic call from Rathna that she lost her keys, as there was a large hole in her overcoat pocket. She did not know where she had lost them as she had just come back from the grocery store. She had retraced her steps into the grocery store (which was across the street from our apartment building). She was locked out of the apartment and the children were howling with hunger. I could hear the noise in the background as she was using a public telephone (before the days of cell phones) and despite the noise of the screeching cars, I could hear the children crying in the background. Luckily, I was not in the middle of a lengthy surgery and was able to leave the hospital and drive home quickly as my hospital was only fifteen minutes away.

Our apartment was on the main street and parking in front of it was always a problem. There were about a dozen meter parking spots but because it was a busy weekday, parking was still difficult. I circled around the block two or three time before I spotted a vacant spot and quickly parked there. Juggling some quarters for the meter I went to put the money in the meter and what do I see there! A set of keys was dangling from the meter! I instantly recognized it as Rathna’s set of keys. Someone must have picked up the keys from the sidewalk and hung it up on that meter. I met my wife and the red-eyed children in the lobby of our apartment building, handed over the keys and after planting a few pecks on their cheeks, quickly went back to work. I can still remember Rathna’s wide-eyed look of surprise, when I left her. The name of my favorite God was on my mind and lips. Why did I have to park in that spot and nowhere else? This has to be divine intervention and not merely coincidence!

Living in the greatest melting pot in the civilized world was an experience that I will never forget. But I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that all hell broke loose during my stay in New York. On the contrary, we had memorable times, when we had the time to enjoy it. I cannot blame the city for my lack of time. That was the nature of my work whilst there. I still have good memories of our occasional weekend drives through the George Washington Bridge or the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge out of the city to see the fall colors or to spend a day in the park. When relatives visited from India, we took them to Empire State Building, World Trade Center and Liberty Island, and the Bronx zoo, beaming with pride to show off our beautiful city. And then there were times when we could get a taste of the city, when we could see a Broadway show, stroll through mid-town, and then eat out in an Indian restaurant in the city.

I got out of New York to pursue a professional career, and raise my family. But New York does have a special place in my heart that comes only from living in New York for an extended period of time. All the inconveniences and difficulties are forgotten and one quickly forgives the city and its people. I go back as often as possible, not withstanding all the hassles and troubles. The freedom one feels there along with the many activities only a city like New York can offer, pulls me like a magnet to the Big Apple.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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