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I’ll Take Manhattan!

By Richard Rupnarain

The call came late Friday afternoon. "Yes, sir. Okay, sir. Thank you, sir." My words were brief and with bated breath. Mr. Allen, a partner from the CPA firm, had called to inform me that I was successful at the job interview and if I was available I could start Monday. Available? I was available for two months since my arrival to America. Besides, I was becoming bored and frustrated. Bored because there was nothing to do after my wife left for work and my son departed for the daycare, and frustrated because I saw all this great stuff in the stores and had no money in my pocket. I wanted some of the neat toys for my son and the matte black Panasonic stereo deck I saw in the electronics store at Fordham Road for my entertainment center. Besides, I had arrived in America with twenty-six dollars, the generous allotment granted to emigrants by the Guyana government, and with that trifle sum I faced the daunting task of starting life afresh. And I wasn't getting any younger!

I had two disappointing interviews before the successful one with Mr. Allen. My sister-in-law’s boss knew a friend who owned a jewelry business in Manhattan and, when he heard they were looking for an accountant, he recommended me as a favor to my sister-in-law. That morning I was attired in my favorite navy blue gabardine suit and I left for the subway with enough time to spare. It was my first trip to the largest subway system in the world. I descended the stairs at the 170 Street Station in the Bronx and was immediately in awe of the world that existed underground. It was ten o’ clock. The subway was quiet. Rush hour was past. I purchased my first token and headed for the turn-style. It was jammed. I kept pushing at it when a voice came over the speaker. "Sir, that’s the exit!" It was the man in the cage who sold me the token. He pointed his finger at the next set of turn-styles. It wouldn’t have been so embarrassing had it not been for the panhandler who stood by the entrance of the turn-style and shook his head at me. I marked his face and promised myself that if and when I garnered a job he was not going to be on my list of charities.

Unfortunately, my destination was not on a straightforward train route. It required switching trains. I tried to figure my way from the map encased above the door of the car. The problem was that the map was more complex than the map of Guyana, my country of origin. In fact, the city was five times the population of my entire country. After shuttling back and forth several times in the subway I finally emerged on ground zero like a groundhog after winter. I had also picked up my first American lingo: I have no idea. Everyone I asked for directions looked at me and said the same words: “I have no idea.” Even if they couldn’t speak English they knew those four words. I was puzzled. They all seemed like seasoned subway commuters and they were all definitely heading somewhere. So how was it they had no idea? Back in the old country where backwardness was fashionable I could not recall ever asking someone for directions and being blessed with those puzzling words. In Guyana people would stop and look around and point you in the direction you need to go or, if they were unsure, they might even stop to ask another passerby. But here it was different. People had perfected the art of saying, “I have no idea,” and some had developed unique gesticulations and shrugs that made it look professional and sound so cool that at times I was prompted to say “thanks.”
The interview at the jewelry store was over before it began. I was forced to sit in the waiting room for about three-quarters of an hour before a bearded, burly and bespectacled white man called me into his office. I thought the interview was a mere formality as I was referred by a reputable lawyer. To my dismay such was not the case. The interview lasted less than five minutes and on my way back to the subway I pondered where I might have missed the mark. Maybe it was my gabardine suit or my Timex watch that cost me the job. After all, this man sold Rolex watches and wore a Versace suit. Clearly I wasn’t dressed for success in his line of business. Judging from the women that flitted around his store and the fuss made over them by the salespersons it wasn't difficult to see that the bulk of his clientele were rich white people. Who else could afford his $8,000 Rolex watches? With that amount of money immigrants would purchase eight hundred Frolex watches at Canal Street and the flea market and still have change. I left despondent, not so much because I didn’t get the job, but because I wasn’t given a chance to demonstrate my abilities. This was a dilemma I was to confront at my next interview with a small accounting firm. It is the classic Catch-22 argument that binds all immigrants. How do you get American experience if you cannot be hired because you don’t have American experience? I thought: there is a PhD thesis waiting to be grabbed by a bored academic in waiting.

Fortunately, I found the answer after my second interview. And no, it wouldn’t suffice for a PhD dissertation. It was just two words: Know someone! I didn’t know anyone but I knew someone who knew someone that was in a position to help. I had never seen the fellow but he was willing to risk his reputation on me. He was an immigrant from Trinidad who had established himself as the controller of a nursing home. He knew the difficulties immigrants faced and was only too willing to help in any way. Besides, he knew that British trained accountants could function in any situation. So he made a call and that led to my interview with Mr. Allen.

Strangely, Mr. Allen’s call moved me to vacillation between euphoria and fear. I was a new immigrant from a land before time now being given an opportunity to work in one of the top CPA firms in Manhattan, New York. I was joyous. But the inevitability of having to acquaint myself with new technology and a different culture brought with it a measure of fear and trembling. Nevertheless, I convinced myself that I was not an old dog and that I would be able to learn new tricks and make the necessary adjustments. I took comfort from knowing that some real old rice eaters from my country were doing well for themselves. I was ready to step into the subway and start my journey towards the American dream.

A few short minutes after the one-sided conversation with Mr. Allen, a gentleman called me on the phone at home. His voice was barely audible and I was forced to ask him to repeat himself so often he must have thought I was deaf. He never stated his name, never asked me for mine, and was very frigid in a strictly business two-minute conversation. At least he gave me directions to the client before he hung up. My exhilaration deflated slowly like a punctured beach ball. This guy was a killjoy. I pulled on my blue jeans and headed for the subway to wait for my wife. Since I had nothing else to do with my day I could at least accompany her home. She exited the subway looking as fresh as she did when she left for work. In her red blazer, black mini skirt and dark stockings she looked sexy. I anticipated a special evening. She came in on the 5:30pm train and the moment she saw me she knew I had some good news. I couldn’t conceal the happiness that radiated from my otherwise sullen countenance. Not even the prospect of having to work with Killjoy was able to suffocate my joy. The good news was bursting for expression and so I let it out in a second by second commentary on how it all unfolded. I never asked her about her day at work.

That Friday evening we celebrated my new job with curried chicken and daal puri. That was our standard family celebratory dinner. The flavor however was not the same. Back home the chicken was free from chemicals and was obtained fresh on demand, as most people could not afford the luxury of a refrigerator. Besides the cost of the fridge they had to contend with the high cost of electricity, frequent blackouts, and the fact that the utility company never compensated anyone for spoilage. Over here the chickens were chemically injected and artificially fattened and had to be defrosted before cooking. Despite it all we enjoyed our dinner and made plans to do some shopping Saturday morning. I was going to get dressed for success.

Saturday morning we were the first ones at the Bank. ATM’s were not yet invented. My wife was in America before me and was acquainted with the shopping districts. She knew the bargain stores. While she shopped I followed like an impatient son stuck to a shopping cart. She moved from aisle to aisle, picking up and putting down items. The price tags largely determined what was picked up and what was put down. Finally, without looking for the cart, she began to dump in merchandise with Michael Jordan accuracy – a packet of bobby socks, a six-pack of briefs, a few ties, and two dress shirts were among my prized first possessions. Two hours later we left the district. I couldn’t wait to try on my new shirt and tie and practice my professional stance. The white shirt and blue striped tie was my choice for the first day at work. I adjusted my tie and then began to move from side to side in front of the elongated living room mirror. All the while my wife watched in amusement from her perch on top of the writing desk. I sucked in my breath and stiffened my torso for my final pose. "Watch it there before you break the mirror," she chuckled. I muttered under my breath, "Move over Judith Krantz. I'll take Manhattan!"

That Sunday I attended the Spanish church across the street to express my gratitude to the good Lord. The songs and hymns were mostly in Spanish but I recognized some of the tunes and hummed along softly in my version of English. I was aware that I sang off-key and that my voice was flat. But it wasn't my fault. The surgeon who removed my tonsils was the big fat liar. After surgery he told me that he did something special in the suturing of my tonsils, that would make my voice sound like that of a nightingale. He must have had the birds confused. I sounded more like a crow choking on carcass. No wonder he was jailed a few months later after a high profiled minister sued him for malpractice. But that Sunday I was least concerned about my voice or about what other people thought about my singing. I was singing to the Lord who I was told wore filters over his ears so that to him everyone would sound like Whitney Houston. I never even prayed that he might have mercy on those around me without filters. I was just deliriously happy.

The remainder of Sunday was mostly restful and I passed the time doing some final preparation as if I was revising for an exam. My wife was acquainted with the operations of the CPA office where she worked as an Administrative Assistant and I grilled her about everything, from how to use the photocopier to office ethics. Finally, she lost her composure. "Come on!" she said, obviously annoyed, "everything will be fine. Just relax!" The image of that guy in the store with a shopping cart in tow returned for a brief moment as I gazed at my new shiny black man-made leather shoes. They sparkled under the 60W light bulb that hung precariously from the cracked ceiling. My clothes were neatly pressed and carefully laid out on the ironing table. Unable to sleep I unfolded a subway map that my wife kept in her pocket book, took out a highlighter and traced my subway route over and over. I even memorized all the stops preceding mine. When I turned out the lights it was 9:35pm.

The Sony clock radio, set for a 5:30am wake-up call, burst to life on the hour with Dwight Yoakam's Guitars and Cadillacs. My son was still asleep when I hit the showers. This was it! The day I dreamed of had finally arrived. The minutes flew by and, before I knew it, I was on my way for a piece of the American pie.

The preparations proved worthwhile. The subway ride was uneventful. That Monday morning I met Killjoy at the client’s office. He sat behind a pile of working paper files and hardly noticed my entrance. He was a Jewish kid who looked pretty much spaced out. His shirt was hanging out of the back of his slacks and his tie was roughly fastened with what we referred to a 'cow knot" back home. The 'cow knot" was the rookie method of fastening a tie. It involved a simple pass around and then through which left the tie tilted to one side. I tugged at mine as if to draw his attention to my sophisticated V knot. This one took experience and patience. It was fairly complicated but the result was well worth the professional finish. It occurred to me that I had a skill that Killjoy lacked. All of a sudden the cultural gap was beginning to close. I breathe a sigh of victory.

Killjoy stuttered a lot, much to my amazement, as I had never heard a white person stutter. Maybe it was that handicap that accounted for his brevity with words. He treated me as though I was someone familiar and with whom he had years of dealings. There was no “good morning”, no introduction, no handshake, and no “please to meet you”. In all likelihood he was one of those commuters who had “no idea” how to get anywhere. He gave me a pile of papers and mumbled some incomprehensible instructions. Basically, I was left to figure out things on my own because I wasn't going to ask him to repeat himself. Besides, it was much too early to give any hint of ignorance or incompetence. But I had a bigger problem. The staff was almost entirely comprised of young white young ladies and I had to interact with them in order to get documents and explanations. At first I was intimidated by their comparative sophistication, fluency, and demeanor. But as the minutes passed and I observed them through the corner of my eyes I realized they were really ugly, not at all like the young ladies I saw on pirated TV in Guyana, who looked like models. These were probably the ones who had parts in movies as extras. They spoke English but it was different from mine. In fact, I was to learn later that no one speaks English like Guyanese. We hacksawed the King’s English so mercilessly that it was a challenge to prove that we actually spoke English. Was it the British colonizers who were to be blamed? No, it was the local morons who felt we were “English ducks” for trying to speak well. Nevertheless, I carried on quietly with my work, rummaging through filing cabinets for invoices, and occasionally listening in on conversations around me, taking mental notes of the way words were being pronounced, and at times mimicking their accents under my breath. Throughout that day I took the stance of a trial lawyer, refusing to ask any questions unless I was rehearsed and well prepared for possible rebuttals.

Shortly after 10am the young ladies flocked at their supervisor's desk and were engaged in light-hearted conversation about their weekend adventures. Suddenly, they began to laugh out aloud. I looked passively behind me only to find them looking at me. My brown skin turned red with embarrassment and very subtly I looked down at my crotch. Maybe my fly was open. I was relieved. It wasn’t. Then I wondered what the heck were they laughing at. I thought it was my gabardine suit with a split in the back that was often left stuck in the air whenever I leaned over a cabinet drawer, so I passed my hands quietly behind me. The flap was down. The laughter stopped and they all returned to their cubicles. To this day I still don’t know what they were laughing about. Maybe it had nothing to do with me but then I couldn’t help being self-conscious. I was a citizen from the Third World trying to assimilate in an industrialized nation without the bridge of a second tier nation. It was like skipping classes in primary school; on one hand you are excited at the notion of catching up academically to older kids but on the other fully aware that you are not up to their maturity in other ways. Just then a familiar sight entered the office. It was the coffee lady.

I was accustomed to the sight of a ‘coffee girl’ in the office back in the old country. Her name is Cindy. I renamed her Sintea after I found an unidentified floating object bobbing in my tea one morning. It looked like a rolled up piece of dried phlegm. My colleagues thought it was some type of voodoo charm to ensnare me into her arms. After all, many felt that it was the only way Cindy could get married. She wasn’t by any means unattractive. Darn the political correctness! Yes, she was ugly, real ugly. Her ‘caboose’ was five feet in arrears and she maintained her balance only from the counter weight of protruding lips that made Andy Capp's pucker seem pale in comparison. Sintea's presence invariably invoked discussions on the qualities of beauty. But what really repelled the men from her was her biting sarcasm and the fact that she would never bring you a cup of tea if you were not at your desk when she made her rounds. She remained adamant in her routine and stuck to her regimen with such unrelenting arrogance that even the partners were reluctant to ask for a second cup of tea or coffee. Tea-time was the supreme moment of her existence as it was the only time she was in control; and she cherished every moment. Why shouldn't she? She made grown professionals humble themselves and beg for a cup of tea, and that, despite the fact that more often than not, the teacups were not properly washed. Streaks of lipstick and remnants of yesterday's tea were not uncommon sights on teacup rims. But no one dared point out her shortcomings and, in this respect, it was fun to watch new employees interact with sweet-and-sour Cindy. The rookies who wanted to integrate felt that making friends with her was a good starting point but then along comes the perky presumptuous intern who makes the startling discovery that there is a stain on one of her cups. The rest of us would look at each other and snicker. He’s dead meat, we would say. Cindy would look at him and pucker her lips, not a for a kiss, but in absolute rage at the temerity of the precocious pipsqueak. Unless he apologized with tangible gifts that was his last cup of tea. Cindy loved fish cake and everyone knew where in the city to find the best fishcake shops.

This coffee lady was different from Cindy. She smiled from ear to ear. But not even the country bumpkin fetching an ass on his shoulder could make Cindy smile. Smile and Cindy were contrasting concepts. Even if she feigned the impossible attempt at a smile it sparked controversy among the staff. Did you see that? Was that a smile, or did she grit her teeth? The debate always ended in stalemate. In any event the desire for a cup of tea in Guyana where temperatures hovered in the 90's for most of the year transcended the wiles and fancies of Cindy and she capitalized fully on our misfortune.

It wasn't as warm in New York as it usually is in Guyana. But that morning I longed for a cup of tea to slake my dry and aching palate. I had left home in the Bronx early and traveled all the way to Long Island by subway. The trip took me about two hours. Then I had to trek a few blocks to the nursing home. All through the morning I wanted to draw some water from the cooler but I was fearful of doing something clumsy, like knocking over the bottle or spilling the water on my clothes. Then I understood why I was so drawn to Inspector Clouseau. The entrance of the tea lady they called Marie was a welcome relief. It brought hope that I would be saved from death by dehydration. "Morning Marie," the girls called out in unison as she sauntered into the office. She flashed a false-toothy smile and replied, "Good morning, what would you like to drink today?" Then the fun began.

Marie was taking mental notes of what everyone wanted to drink. I listened keenly for my turn, at the same time wondering if this privilege was reserved only for staff members. Nevertheless, I considered that if I was asked I would say, “Tea, please.” And if Marie became more specific I was also ready for that eventuality. “Green tea. Red Rose tea.” The supervisor must have read my mind. She told Marie she felt like having tea that morning. Ha! Hah! Someone else wanted tea. But then Marie paused, closed her eyes for a few seconds to ponder the request, and returned to earth with a shake of the head. "Sorry," she said apologetically in a European accent of some sort, "sorry darling, out of tea. Only coffee."

The supervisor settled for regular coffee. I decided to do the same. Then things became complicated. The next lady wanted coffee – black coffee, no sugar and no cream. The blue-eyed lady ordered coffee – double double. This wasn't good. What the heck is double double? Marie drew closer to the tall blue-eyed talkative one. "And you, Julie?" Julie wanted regular with ‘sweet and low’. What in blazes was sweet and low? To add to the confusion the Hispanic woman named Roberta wanted ‘decaf with 2%’. The caf what? Two percent of what? Milk, sugar? To my surprise Marie understood this jargon perfectly well. To me coffee was coffee. Now it had become a complex discipline. At this rate I surmised that universities might soon be offering undergraduate courses in making coffee. Marie turned to my direction. By now my mind was totally confused. Regular or decaf? Light and low? Double sweet? 2 or 100%? All eyes were turned on me when Marie asked, "And you, sir?" The phrase "I have no idea" climbed unto my tongue. But I shook my head and said, "Nothing, thank you." Marie looked at me with puzzlement and left the office. I was angry and it didn't help any when I watched the others smooch at their coffee some minutes later. On a growling stomach I resolved that one way or the other I was going to figure out this coffee business and come prepared tomorrow. That day I swallowed my spittle with pride.

The sound of minutes ticking by could be seen and heard from the huge black and white circular clock affixed to the wall on the south end of the office. I wasn't sure when I was allowed to break for lunch. Killjoy was still buried under a pile of working papers. He hadn't moved from that position all morning. Imagine my surprise when I heard his feeble voice seeping over my shoulder, "It's lunch. Take a break. I am going to the deli down the street. You could come along if you want to." This was the first time he had demonstrated any interest in me, however slight and for whatever reason. I didn't pack a snack, so I decided to tag along with him. I saw it as an opportunity to get to know him a little better. We stopped at a 24-hour Italian deli. The place was small and overcrowded with lunch hour patrons. My boss ordered turkey breast on rye. I had no idea what rye was. A gruff unshaven gentleman barked his order from across the room, "Bacon, lettuce, and tomato with a slice of Swiss on lightly buttered toasted whole wheat for me, and two eggs, sunny side up on rye for my buddy." The nightmare continued. The Italian man looked at me. I was hungry but it looked like I would have to go on an empty stomach that day. Just then I noticed all sorts of pre-packaged sandwiches in the glass counter. "There, can I have one of those, please?" I said, pointing to what turned out to be a tuna sandwich. Without a word he took out the sandwich, I paid, and we left for the nearby park. This time I was the victor.

Killjoy and I did not say much to each other during lunch. I learned his name was Larry, short for Lawrence. He ate slowly and methodically as though he was counting the number of times he chewed. He was definitely reclusive and I didn't want to initiate any conversation for fear of being seen as intrusive. We returned to work in silence and I couldn't wait for the day to be over. As a loquacious person not being able to speak to anyone for almost a day was for me like solitary confinement. I wondered if I would be able to endure this silence for three weeks. That's how long Larry said we would be at this client. Just then my prayers were answered.

There he was! A brown man! Hallelujah! He came over to me as if drawn by a magnet and boldly introduced himself as Raj. He was from India and it didn't take long for me to discover he was as culturally distant from me as India was from America. But he was brown and suddenly I was no longer alienated in this wilderness of white people. Raj had immigrated to America to further his studies in Accounting and worked part time at the nursing home to pay his tuition. Dressed in a white shirt with black tie, black shoes and white bobby socks he looked like a shorter version of John Tavolta in Saturday Night Fever. Nevertheless, my meeting with Raj insulated me partially from the culture shock of my first day at work in the city of New York. He had a healthy self-esteem and interacted with the staff, ‘white girls’ included, in a casual and jocular manner as if he had grown up with them. In the days that followed he became my unofficial guide to survival in New York City.

So ended my first day's work in corporate America. I survived the complex subway and even made it home without extra commute. I survived Mr. Rosen's indifference and aloofness and managed to get a substantial amount of work done. I even completed my work without his assistance. I lost my coffee but survived lunch at the deli. But the highlight of my day was my encounter with Raj. He was my getaway from the white wilderness even if only for a few minutes. As I left for the subway he was still on my mind. Something about the way he spoke made me chuckle. He had this terrible twang and whenever he tried to say anything with a V, he would substitute the V with a W. Thus, a van became a wan, and a void check was a woid check. But who cared? In this strange new world I had found someone who gave me a sense of belonging and brotherhood and with whom I felt at ease to be open and free, someone I could understand and relate to, even when he said he was a wegetarian who never once touched weal and wenison.

Richard Rupnarain formerly from LBI, Guyana, lives in Toronto, Canada. He likes to write short stories.