Quintessential American – II

There were the people I met – Anne, Tracy, Barbara, Joe, Ben.  They were all doing the same job for different publishing companies.  Our paymasters were different but we worked together in the same place called a “rep room”.  The lines between competition and collaboration were blurred in this place and as a young foreigner in the rep room I found myself amidst a very protective circle of friends. 

In those early days, before I learned how to drive, I used to walk a couple of miles to a bus stop to wait for one of the two buses that took me home.  The walk was on a lonely and industrial stretch of road and I was always dressed to the tee as I walked.  One day my wait for the bus was exceptionally long and distressing.  Hours went by and the bus was nowhere to be seen.  Then a stranger came along in a red convertible.  He asked if he could give me a ride.  I hesitated for just a second or two before I accepted his offer.  We had a nice conversation along the way and then he dropped me off at home.

The next day my co-worker Anne said she had come looking for me at the bus stop intending to ask if she could give me a ride home but I had already left.  I told her that my bus never came and I had accepted a ride from a stranger.  She stared at me, speechless and silent for a few seconds before she lost her temper with me.  I got a good yelling from her and then from all the rest of them as they collectively wondered how I could have done something so dumb, so stupid.  They kept saying anything could have happened, I could have met a serial killer, a rapist.  I just mumbled something about the guy appearing trustworthy and telling them I was safe after all.  But they were having none of it.  I was thoroughly chastised but somewhere inside there was a warm glow.  It was heartwarming to see that all these strangers really cared about me.  There were no special ties, no real relationships with them, we weren’t even employed by the same people but they felt responsible, really responsible for my safety.  They were all upset at Dan, my boss, for not being gentlemanly enough and dropping me off every night since we lived in the same area.  Dan got the rough end of it from them.

After this incident, and until I bought my own car and learned how to drive, someone was always driving me home.  Even when I learned how to drive but the idea of taking on the maze like streets of Washington DC for business purposes filled me with cold dread, Anne always drove me to my own assignments.  I can never forget all her kindnesses to me, for as long as I live. 

I got invited to Thanksgiving Dinners and other parties.  There were people who helped me move when I changed apartments and people who offered to teach me how to cook (little did they know what a losing proposition that was).  Someone was always around to help me out of a tricky situation or to offer advice.

This too was Americanism at its best, selflessness and kindness.  Perhaps I would have witnessed something similar even if I had lived an adult life in India but that’s an experience I will never have, it will forever live in the land of conjecture.  What I have registered is that when I was ten thousand miles away from home, often alone, often unsure, I met so many people who were willing to hold my hand through every situation, who were always looking out for me when I needed this care and concern the most.

This stands out in my memory, again as a contrast to the time when I had solicited help from my father’s Indian friends.  As someone who straddles two continents and two cultures I always find myself returning to the same points of comparison. It was important for me to take a test of English as a foreign language (TOEFL) in order to secure admission to the university.  I still didn’t have a car and I had asked my dad’s friend if on the morning of the test, since he worked at the same place where the test was being held, he could pick me up from my apartment, on his way to work and take me to the test center.  He had agreed and had said that it would be no trouble.

However, on the morning of the test, the clock kept ticking and no one showed up to pick me up.  I kept waiting and finally walked to a payphone to call and ask if he was still planning to pick me up.  He never came to the phone, his wife did.  I was on the verge of tears, but she didn’t hear it in my voice as she went on and on about how I needed to become self-reliant and self-sufficient, how I couldn’t continue to expect “uncle” to help me out even though I had outgrown all help this uncle could have given me after the first few weeks of my arrival.  She said it was of no concern to her if I missed this test taking date, that there would be other dates when I was more capable of taking care of my own transportation needs.  I kept stuttering and trying to say that uncle had said it would not be a problem for him to swing by and pick me up on his way to work but to no avail.  I finally hung up on her and walked back to my apartment with heavy steps and teary eyes wondering if there was any way to get myself to the university, twenty minutes away from where I lived, to a test that was going to start in twenty minutes.

By the time I got back to my apartment I realized that I had somehow locked myself out of my own apartment as well.  I just sat down on a bench near the steps and started wiping silent tears.  That’s when the building superintendent tapped me on my heaving shoulders and asked if he could be of assistance.  I told him how I had a test to take and no means of getting myself to the venue in twenty minutes.  He offered me his hand and said, “Come with me”.  He led me to the parking lot and his battered pick-up truck.  He said, “hop on!” I did and then we rattled our way through the gates of University of Maryland.  I was able to take my test as scheduled and when I got home I didn’t have enough words to thank the super.

More selflessness on display.  A trait that signaled, ‘if it doesn’t cost me a dime and if it means the world to you, then I am there for you”. 

Over the years I found so many Americans who were so nonchalant about offering a helping hand and about as many Indians, now settled in the US of A, who, with every gesture, every word spoken or unspoken, implied a marking of territory of sorts as though someone new from back home threatened their peace and security, their sinecure.  They could have achieved all means of success and acclaim but they appeared insecure on their perch, as though the effort of a kind gesture toward someone from the old country would topple them over in ways that would make immediate recovery impossible.  They looked at one as though they were saying they made it and they weren’t allowing moochers on board.

Kindness and charity didn’t come as easily to them.

Even as I write everything I have written so far, I feel as though there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in all of this.  I expected the best, I approached my new world as though I expected from it an exalted outcome, I put my best self forward and I got it back in spades, at least in those early years.

My accent, my ignorance, my demeanor were all as novel and as strange to my new friends as my friends were all culturally different and strange to me and perhaps we were all on our best behavior.  No one was being taken for granted in our mutual interaction.  The first impressions on either side were favorable.

After taking this long walk down memory lane and as I typed the passage above, I realized I have stumbled upon a major clue toward answering this question about the quintessence of Americanism: taking things for granted.

In the beginning I took nothing for granted, everything was either a pleasant or a nasty surprise and I dealt with it as the moment dictated.  But one lives and one learns and one of the lessons learned is that as the years go by, in a particular place, with ones friends, with ones family, in fact with all aspects of life, we take an increasing number of things for granted.

When that happens we lose something essential, we lose an incremental note of grace each time we take one more thing for granted, perhaps.  The more familiar we are with something the more graceless things get and the more graceless they get the more at home we feel.  No one epitomizes grace in a state of extreme comfort and such comfort is always a cherished goal despite the price one pays.

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