Imagine a coffee shop. This one is like any run-of-the-mill places with limited seating spaces. People who throng this place are mostly students, as this one is located right next to a large private university in NYC. The students like to buy this coffee, in addition to donuts and occasional sandwiches, because it is money’s worth, unlike the exorbitantly priced Starbucks coffee. Not being endowed with a lot of disposable cash, I have been frequenting this place for long. I met some Bangladeshis who work at this outlet. I feel at home when I get to speak Bangla with them. In a city given to excessive self-indulgence, one longs for camaraderie and company. In an island of self-absorbed individuals, this place offers some semblance of sharing, albeit as a matter of convenience. As an avid observer, I present a few vignettes of my time at the café.
I met her a few times at the cash counter where I place my order. It started off as a mere chit-chat. But the more I frequented the café, the more I became intrigued with the story of this feisty young woman who is barely in her twenties. Until three years back she lived in a village in Bangladesh, away from Dhaka. Once she completed her +2, she along with her parents and a younger brother moved to NYC. She is now enrolled in a Community College where she is pursuing a degree in business. She works part-time at the coffee shop. After a challenging day at school, she comes to work and returns home past 11 PM.
For days, I go missing. For days, she goes missing. Then one fine day, I see her again at the café. She knows my order by heart. I merely have to show up for her to punch in the right order. She surreptitiously slides a bunch of donuts into my hand despite my protestations. As the crowd thins out, she comes and sits next to me. We are like two perfect strangers who can get talking at any moment without going through the prelude of exchanging niceties. She is curious about India. She particularly wants to know about Muslims in India and how it feels to be a minority. I prod her to speak about her life in Bangladesh.
She tells me about the challenge of balancing study and work, something that she was not prepared for when she moved to NYC. The high rent and the mounting expenses didn’t allow her the luxury of not working in a city where everyone fends for themselves. She is happy that she is able to help her father. She tells me that it gets lonely at times as people are busy with their lives. However, she enjoys the independence and feels more confident about herself. She dreams of enrolling at Stern Business School (NYU) one day. As a daughter, she wants her parents to be happy and proud of her. Since her parents have been looking for a match, she is torn between her desire to pursue higher studies and her parents’ desire to see her settle down.
Every time I speak to her, she reminds me of the importance of praying. I smile and assure her, I will try to be a good Muslim.
On the surface, he does not appear to be the most friendly-looking person. His face has a graveness that makes me think that he has seen difficult times in life. He takes my orders mechanically without so much as glancing at me. It takes a little while to get through his aloofness. I wait patiently for him to open up. Then one day, we get talking. He starts adding an extra egg-cheese wrap when I order for one. I learn of his interest in Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore songs). As I log in my PC to the café wifi, he comes and sits next to me. His melancholic eyes look past the concrete structures outside.
He has spent close to twenty years in NYC and came here like so many others for a better life. We often speak of his wife who has obtained a degree from a university in Bangladesh and has traveled as far as Africa to participate in conferences. He seems proud of his wife’s achievements and knows she can get far if she is given a break. However, the exigencies of life in NYC didn’t allow her the luxury of pursuing a career in her preferred area of expertise. It’s not easy to convince the first-world about the skills we acquire in a third-world country. In NYC, She obtained a diploma in nursing to keep the home fires burning.
Some days when the café is less crowded, he likes to linger next to me. We talk of our future. He cracks jokes about my Ph.D. and asks if I will spend the rest of my life studying. I tell him, I would like to return to India. I tell him, I have no family (parents, sisters, and extended ones) here, no friends to whom I can speak my mind. In India, I might not able to access all that I do here but I will have people who I love and who love me. I ask him of his plans. He does not answer for a long time. Then he slowly utters, “It is difficult being a minority in Bangladesh.” He doesn’t say anything more. I look into his eyes and see tear-drops forming at the corner. I avert my gaze and look out. I wish I could hug him and tell him, everything will be alright. The best I can do is to tell him that I would like to listen to his story some day.
He asks me if I could bring him a harmonium from Calcutta. I promise, I will.
After a sleepy morning class, I rush to the café for my caffeine shot. I settle down and start lingering on my facebook timeline and reply to emails. The term was coming to an end and the number of student emails was piling up. To my right, a lean, elderly-looking woman eats her donut with a purpose. There was something meditative about the way she sipped her coffee.
As I update my status with lines of an Enrique Iglesias song, she turns to me and starts talking of the cold weather. She tells me how cold she feels despite keeping her winter jacket on inside the café. As I focus intently on her pale face, she shares snippets from her life. She tells me, she wakes up very early in the morning and goes out to collect soft drink cans and empty juice bottles from trash cans. She says that she helps recycle and keep the environment clean. I understand the euphemism. I know the empty bottles and cans sell for 5 cents apiece in collection centers. I have often seen elderly people (many of them are homeless) hovering around trash cans.
She informs me that she sells women’s handbags during the day time. I mistake her to be a door-to-door salesperson. She corrects me: she works as a salesperson in one of the massive shopping malls. She rattles out the names of Coach, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Calvin Klien, Louis Vuitton. In a conspiratorial tone, she tells me how people spend so much money buying these branded handbags which cost hundreds of dollars. This was a particularly busy time of the year as the Christmas was approaching. She cracks a joke about how this was a particularly bad time for guys as they will have to buy such expensive gifts for their wife and girlfriend.
Once she knows I am a student, she tells me of the cheap Mediterranean eating places along MacDougal Street. Most of the places operate from the basement of rundown buildings. I tell her, I am from South Asia, from India to be precise. My brown skin doesn’t make a difference. She seems to love their food and frequent these eateries. She particularly likes the soups they make.
Before taking leave, she asks me once again to try out the Mediterranean food. I assure her, I will. I watch her receding body stooping under the weight of accumulated cans and bottles.
In a city of love and longing, these are my moments of ‘ordinary affects’ (Kathleen Stewart). I meet these strangers and listen to their strange stories. In these stories, I discover fleeting moments of warmth and companionship.
[I keep the names of these people undisclosed deliberately as a mark of respect to their sense of privacy.]