Sep 15, 2004

A story from July...

Since I haven't had or taken the time to write something longer in the last month, and foresee a limitation in my ability to do more than comment on some of the news as I see it at least for another 2 - 3 weeks, I thought that I'd share with my lovely friends and readers something that I'd written a while ago about an encounter that made me smile. Please read if you have time... i haven't really polished it at all, but I just can't wait for that kind of close reading at this point...



Sometimes I wonder if there's a look on my face, or in the way that I listen to some folks, that makes them feel comfortable that they can speak with me. I know that there have been a number of other incidents, none of which, of course, I can remember right now. Well – there were the folks that I spoke with on my trip to India. That was pretty neat. Maybe I should get in touch with some of them – just to see how they are doing, and to keep that connection – something that seems so rare nowadays. Remember that woman on the plane to Trinidad? That was a trip as well.

But most of all, what about the gentle Egyptian at the Inn on Venice Beach? Most likely, he is whom I remember the most. And yet, what was his name? I had gathered so much from his story... perhaps D will remember what his name was. Perhaps I would be able to be in contact with him again before he leaves the Inn. I remember his talking about his family, and how his wife does not want to come to America, and how he missed his two boys, and how he was a banker in that life in Egypt, and couldn't get into a bank job here. How he thought there was a lot of prejudice, and how he saw the irony of being persecuted as a Christian in Egypt, and an Arab in America.


Today, I had a great conversation with someone new who trusted me enough to speak for a while, and seemed genuinely happy about the exchange. I was sitting in the Queens office that I'd been working to close out completely, while the landlord was having the hallway painted. As I walked out my door to get something outside, one of the guys who were painting asked me something. I didn’t quite follow – unable to contextualize what he was asking since I couldn’t make out where he was from. He had a fairly recognizable Russian accent, but a complexion closer to mine than the Russian movers that we'd had clear out the office a couple of weeks earlier.

I asked him “what"? And he repeated what sounded like “are you from Russia"? I replied, “My parents are from India". To which he said, “yes! Asian!” I asked him where he was from, and he responded “Uzbekistan". He said that in his country, people listen/watch a lot of Indian movies. I knew a bit of that, but didn't realize that it continued still. He told me that Raj Kapoor had visited 15-16 years ago, and that was a hit in the country. I smiled, and said that I'd heard something like that, and then moved out the door.

The next time I went out, he said something about King Babir. I didn’t quite follow again, and he repeated, saying that he was from Uzbekistan. That there was a line that connected the Mughal emperors between his country and my imagined homeland. I thought that was cool – and then he mentioned a few other kings, Shah Jahan included, mentioned the Taj Mahal, and then a date... 1546. I was impressed, saying that I didn't know anything like that, and then walked into the office.

The third time, while I was downstairs, he started asking me if I'd heard of a particular song, which he started to whistle, but then the landlord came by to speak with him, and I made a quick escape. By this time, it was somewhat evident that he wanted to connect, to speak with someone else, but I was still in a bit of shyness/isolation, as you'd expect from my American upbringing. Rather than engage, you're supposed to be very uncomfortable with these exchanges, polite, and run away as quickly as you can. I wonder if the primary driver is the inherent separation of classes in the United States, or it's simpler and just about speaking with anyone that you don't know. I wonder if that's “American” or if that’s strictly a NYC thing.

Anyway – the fourth time was the charm. I came back to the office, and he was working on the front door, and quickly said “do you know this song?” and whistled something for a second, started humming, and then the words started to come in Hindi. I didn’t know the tune, but it sounded somewhat familiar. He mentioned the title of the movie, Sangam, perhaps? And then he asked about another one, and suddenly the tune that came from his lips reminded me of my mom, of my home. He was singing an old Mohammad Rafi song... I think from Shree 420, which he mentioned then, but translating back from a few languages. In his halting English, he described Raj Kapoor's character stylings, with pockets empty and hat off-center. He mentioned that Nargis was in the film. It was a deep moment as his eyes twinkled from the memory of the song, and as I recognized it from his rendition, his voice taking a different tone than English. I could feel memory and longing in that song, and it reminded me of home, of exile, of paths that seldom double back to where we once were, and where we always think we want to be again.

His name was Rustam, he told me later, as we spoke in the rain for about 45 minutes. He was working as a cook at Glatt Kosher in the LES for 2 years, but then when the work dried up for the summer, he started to do construction work. He was very interested in hearing more about India, and what I knew about it. He seemed to know some things about Gujarat, and I told him about the anti-Muslim violence there. He told me that he spoke Russian, Turkish, Farsi, and he was learning Polish (his girlfriend was Polish – this was something that I didn't think of at the time, but his wife is in Uzbekistan, and his girlfriend is here). Everyday, he calls home, via phone cards he buys at the Bangladeshi store around the corner from his apartment in Kensington, Brooklyn.

He was pleased that I spoke with him for a while, and we spoke of the politics in Uzbekistan. We spoke of the different feeling between America and many other places, where people receive you with a smile, and some connection between the two of you. He said that here, people give you a smile, and after 5 minutes, they have to run off somewhere else. When I heard that he was a cook, I mentioned ROC-NY, going into detail about all the work that they do. Perhaps outreach isn't my cup of tea, since I don't think that he was very interested in it.

He told me that he was a professor in history in Uzbekistan, and had reached mid-level (between assistant and professor) for 5 years. But there was no money, and he came here that he could send money back for his daughter. He'd been waiting for them to come here, but their visa application is stuck in the process, a limbo that has claimed many others. He said that if he could speak better English, he could have a job here that paid better, but his English was still very poor, and there was no time to fix it. He was a warm fellow, with a keen eye towards the things that he saw in behavior here in the States, and a comment about most of them.

I gave him my card, telling him that he should give me a call if he has any questions/needs, and took his full name and number, and the address of the deli where he worked as a cook, should he go there again. He was thankful, and I think, happy to connect with someone else during an otherwise dull, rainy day. I think that he was looking for some other job, without complaining much about the work. At 46, you want to find something else, especially if he is a man of letters.

I told him, near the end of our conversation, that he should go to the Brooklyn Public Library – that he could take a couple of hours, and train himself in English, and find some escape from work and the distance from his family. He seemed to think about it – but didn’t seem like it was a light bulb that went off... so we'll see. Perhaps I'll run into him again... in the LES, at his deli.


There's something to be said about our conversations in broken languages with people. There is an inherent victory integrated in active listening in which the other participant is encouraged to keep trying to get their point across. I feel like it gives a kind of confidence to someone, that they can actually communicate with you, and get some of their point across. Sometimes I wonder if it's just a matter of teaching people to be more patient, and to listen. Part of the problem with modernization, or at least the neo-capitalist culture in which we are embedded is that popular adage, “time is money” has resulted in people scurrying off at a clipped pace, cutting conversations into tiny pieces, small sound bites... it's the conversational equivalent of reducing letters thought out and composed into short, scattered emails. Without listening, how will we uncover the hidden story, the marvelous layers that lie just beneath a surface we may think we understand? A million million stories, each waiting to be told, each yearning to be free.


burnedouteyes said...

wonderful anectdote... thank you so much for sharing the story. yes -- people are too quick with communication these days. Satisfied with blips of text messages, emails and, er... blog comments. Heh heh heh. :)

what I really need to do is to make more time to listen.

Rage said...

thanks for your comment and thoughts... yeah - we just don't take the time, enit? feels like we're always rushing from point A back to point A back to point A all over again...