Updated: Dec 31, 2019
This happened later in 1985; in late September/early October.
By then my family business had gone bust in the US. The office had been shut down and there was debt all around me. I had barely managed to pay for school. The office was gone but many knew the home phone number. There wasn’t a day when I didn’t have a message on my answering machine, asking me to pay up. Over a few weeks, the calls died down but there was 1 in particular that was relentless – the owner of the warehouse that housed some of the goods left behind. They were rejects of a by-gone season. They could be sold but there was no way to pay the warehouse rent first! I didn’t have the courage to face him; rumor had it that the owner was a front for the mob. I didn’t want to test the theory.
My routine for the past couple of months had been to watch TV during the day and attend school in the evening. The money was slowly drying up. I didn’t know what to do. By the end of September/early October I had almost no money left to eat. The rent for September was paid but I was sure in October I was going to sleep on the streets. I couldn’t return to India as I was determined to finish my education. I couldn’t ask India for money because I had been abandoned with one option, to come back to India. The money I had, needed to be rationed and so for the average week I consumed a jar of generic peanut butter and a large generic loaf of bread. At that time I think it cost me around US$2.50. I slept hungry for many nights.
This particular day I woke up groggy, tired and hungry. I had barely made coffee when my phone rang. The answering machine kicked in and there was a terse message. It wasn’t the owner of the warehouse but someone with a thick accent asking me to show up at the warehouse within the next 24 hours. I was told, there wouldn’t be another call to me. A chill ran down my spine and I knew this was the end of life as I knew it. I was scared and I was angry and I was frustrated. I didn’t have any appetite left. I went to the small altar in my house and stood before it. My anger broke out in the form of tears and I wept uncontrollably. This time the tears were not silent. In what can best be described as a childish act I broke into a monologue asking Sai Baba (the presiding deity) if I had been born to die at the hands of a stranger in a foreign land. I looked at the same US$20 bill and instead of giving me courage, it seemed to mock me. In sheer anger I changed from my night-clothes and left the house. I didn’t know where I wanted to go but I knew I just had to get out.
I lived on the second floor here. My landlady Mrs Okon lived on the first floor. I took this picture in 2012. Elmhurst New York
I walked towards the subway station, but didn’t enter it. I circled the block and I don’t clearly remember where all I walked. But the time spent got some of the frustration out. I don’t remember how long I was out and then headed home. There is the Queen’s Adult Care Center near my apartment. There are generally very few people hanging around and there was a trash can (still there, see the picture below) just outside it. My eyes stared at the pavement before me as I walked. Just near the trash can, I saw something. It looked like a US$ bill. I thought it was a prank or it had some wire attached to it or at best, it was a torn currency note. I don’t know what prompted me to bend and pick it up. I unfolded it, and it was a legitimate US$10 bill. I stopped and looked around, there were one or perhaps 2 people lounging around the entrance. They were looking everywhere except at me. I thought perhaps one of them had dropped this. I knew every dollar was precious to them. In the past, while walking home from the subway station, I had the odd person approach me, begging for money. This time when I began walking towards them, they saw me approach, they hastily entered the center. It was clear they didn’t want to talk to me.
The trash can is still there. I took this picture in 2012.
Somewhere inside me I felt I needed to take the money and move on. Without any further thought I pocketed the money and started walking home. The walk from the Center to my house is not more than a couple of minutes. Even today I remember that as I turned the corner and crossed the street, I saw my landlady sweeping the driveway (see the picture of my house). She saw me and stopped. The next thing I remember is her frowning face and her standing with one hand on her hip. She was clearly upset and I didn’t know why. When I was near her she spoke to me. I don’t remember the exact words but something to the effect that if I was expecting a delivery then I should be home to receive it. I remember asking her what delivery and she telling me that the UPS man had come with a delivery of many boxes. He kept ringing my door bell and when he got no answer, he rang her bell. She told me the boxes were lying in the corridor. She wanted me to get rid of them from there. I lugged the four boxes up two stories to my apartment with great difficulty.
I opened them and in them were neatly packed garments. I had left my home address as a forwarding address when the office was closed. I opened the note attached to the main box. It was from a store in Texas (I can’t remember the name). It merely said they were returning goods from last season. I think they said the store was going out of business and since they owed the company money, they thought it best to send the goods back rather than pay. I remember sitting on the floor of my living room, completely stunned! There were garments in the boxes that were worth a few thousands of dollars! I instinctively called a jobber in Manhattan. This was a person who bought lots of the previous year’s designs. I spoke to him and told him I needed cash. He asked me to bring the goods over immediately.
I remember using a trolley and strapping these four boxes on to them. I remember it was difficult getting down the stairs from my house, then down the stairs into the subway station and up the stairs at the Manhattan station. I remember walking into the jobbers place, I remember the haggling and I remember that I left with more than US$2000 from the sale.
I headed back to my apartment in another zombie stupor. Once again I stood before my temple and I cried. This time I cried to ask for forgiveness. I was sorry for not keeping the faith. I was sorry that the US$20 bill was there to remind me that there is someone out there looking after me but instead, my fickle mind made me think it was mocking me. I reached into my pocket and removed the US$10 bill. I placed it in the same band as the US$20 bill. I sat on the edge of my bed and I really can’t remember how long I cried or how long I just sat there once again overwhelmed by the events of the day.
That night I ate my first meal in weeks. I fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion. But the one thing I remember is making a promise to myself that I wouldn’t be afraid any longer. I would have the courage to get up and fight every time life knocked me down. I promised, if I ever went back to India I would go with my head held high. And if I lived in the US, I would stand up for myself and never again would I feel I am alone.
I remember visualizing the $20 and $10 bills. These were from a higher power, proof that I must never lose faith. They were proof that someone out there cared for me.
The two bills remain with me even till this day.
The $10 bill too remains with me even today, exactly the way I placed it around 28 years ago.