American Diaries } THE HOMELESS DIARIES
Everybody is wary of the homeless ‘problem’ in the downtowns in the U.S. Whether it is San Jose or Seattle. As a visitor, you would be more cautious than the residents. One of the guys whom I met in a bar last year gave me some perspective about the homeless issue though. About how the surge in real estate pricing, and other such issues results in a homeless community.
Usually I ignore the questions from the homeless on the pavements. Everytime it pains me because ignoring someone is the cruelest thing to do than denying or refusing. But the fear of the unknown is dominant and I would always find solace in imagining them to be drug addicts or people who have messed up because of their own fault. Most of the times they would be asking for change. And when we ignore, most of them curses.
Which wasn’t the case when I met a lady near the SAP center. I didn’t even lend my ear properly to what she was asking for but then as I walked past, she was saying ‘bless you’ and ‘happy holidays’. I walked past a little more, only to realize that she was asking for food, not money. And I did have food as I was on my way back after grocery shopping. So the guilt mounted over after a few steps and then I walked back and asked her, ‘were you asking for food?’. She said yes. I gave her a little of what I had. She was thankful and asked me if I had anything to sew, she would do that for me in return of the favour. ‘I will sew for food’, she said. A proud woman, just being plain unlucky.
Another day, another homeless man. And this time I was more attentive to what was asked, though still trying to ignore. He also wasn’t asking for money. ‘Would you have a lighter’, he asked. In this cold weather, that is the only thing he’s got to ask. I said sorry and moved on and there was no cursing.
I would still ignore, as I am still fearful of the unknown, bu this couple of incidents prove that maybe sometimes you just got to acknowledge the presence even if you don’t give them anything. Ignoring someone’s existence maybe is the cruelest thing to do.
American diaries } FOOD, LIKE PEOPLE
Some say food is like people. Like people, it travels the world and in the course it imbibe cultures and change its color and character. Like people, it survive the wars and carry the bitter-sweet taste with it. How else do you explain ‘Tacos Al Pastor’, a Mexican dish with Pork, that seem quite similar to the middle-eastern dish, Shawarma? And you learn that it was actually brought by the Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, and this immigration was a result of the collapsing Ottoman Empire back in the time? I mean, how many hundreds of years of history is that behind a single dish?
Or take the Greek dish called ‘Souvlaki’ (pita) which is also a close cousin of Shawarma, and the origins date back to the 17th century BC. When you look at the Vietnamese noodle soup ‘Pho’, it has stories of war to tell, because the soup was made popular in rest of the world by refugees of the Vietnam war (oh, and that soup is so delicious). While the Korean ‘Bibimbap’ has so many things mixed together – raw and cold vegetables, slices of meat that are sweet, fried egg and Kimchi. And you have to mix it all and eat. It is believed that farmers ate this during the farming season because it is easy to make food for a large amount of people.
Ain’t food interesting, like people?
Tacos Al Pastor (Spanish/Mexican)
American diaries } THE NEIGHBOR WE NEVER KNEW
As the war cries arise back home, I meet a man who is probably in his late 50s. Originally from Haryana, came here a long time back, went back home and then came back again about three years back. His parents were migrated from Pakistan before partition. During the chat he talks about the current neighborhood. “There are about 4-5 Indian families living in the same apartment complex”. And then he starts to talk about where in India they originally came from. Haryana, Himachal, Delhi. “And Pakistan”.
I was curious. Because he made it seem like Pakistan is yet another state in India. And his parents were, well, ‘Pakistanis’. I ask him about it. “Well, its not much different. The people of Pakistani Punjab speaks Punjabi and we get along well”. And no enmity in between at all? “We’re all struggling working class people, no? The politics does not affect us”.
Back at the hotel, men in glowing jackets gather for breakfast. White, Black, Hispanic and Asian even. Old and young. Chatting, laughing and in good company. Again, working class.
What would business men in politics, or politicians whose best friends are businessmen know about this?
American diaries } FOOD FOR TALK
When you want to strike a conversation with a stranger from another country or continent, start with the weather. When you want to talk to someone from another culture, talk about food. That’s how I got along with Andre, the chauffeur who had a moustache that made him look like a version of Samuel Jackson from Pulp Fiction. And that’s how I learned about Balut, a Filipino street food delicacy.
Balut is a developing bird embryo (yeah, with the exact shape and even feather and all that) and you got to have it directly from the egg shell. Though Wiki says it is either steamed or boiled, Andre said he had it raw. “It was a $20 dare”, he said. “Eating it is one thing, but you got to drink down a few beers first to get past it’s horrible smell”. He was visiting the south of Philippines where his ex-wife came from and their friends made him do it.
It is supposed to be a natural Viagra, according to the local belief, and the duck embryo is considered ‘stronger’ than chicken. “Oh, but believe me, it doesn’t make any difference. I tried that very night.”, said Andre amidst a loud, hearty laughter.
American Diaries } “I HAVE MADE MISTAKES”
At least two men told me so. The first one to have said that is doing Uber during the day, while attending the evening classes to be a highway patrol cop. All the while being a father of two little kids. Why highway patrol? It is less risky, he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a cop, it is just that I got lost on the way. And my girlfriend told me that I should pursue it”. And his name is Ryan. I told him that is my son’s name too. As he dropped me off at a concert venue, he said: “Take good care of Ryan for me, will ya?”
Another man, another Uber drive. He talks enthusiastically about his passion too. “I didn’t do very well in the school. I’ve made mistakes.” But his uncle, who is also a cop, is keeping a check on him. “He is very supportive and wants me to get right on track”. So why does he want to be a cop? Because there are cops in the family, and he wants to serve people and a little more into the conversation… the pay is good too. So he is attending evening classes like the other one.
Men who have made ‘mistakes’ before, now so badly want to be cops. But that isn’t the whole story. One is of Filipino origin and the other is originally from Spain. Are the trigger-happy cops who thrive on race listening?
American diaries } STORY OF TWO CABBIES
One, an Afghan who has been in the U.S. for 36 years. He fled Kabul when he was young. Went to places like Germany and Italy, then finally settled in the U.S. “There is no Kabulians in Kabul now”, he said. All jobs are taken over by Iranians and Pakistanis. “Because the lives of people in Kabul were torn apart by war and they could not get education. When you don’t have education, you do bad, stupid things”. You can see the sadness in his eyes. When we spoke of food, he spoke proudly of Afghan cuisine. “You must try our bread, you’ll love it”, he said.
Evening. Another cabbie. Old and jovial. “I’ve served 22 years in Vietnam. I was in the air force.” But don’t ask him about flying the planes yet, because he was a cook. The conversation moves to politics and he talks fondly of Trump. “He will save the economy and he will deal with the terrorists. They come in normal attire, you know. When we were in Nam, it happened the same way. The congs came disguised as civilians”.
Two sides. Two lives. Stories of survival and resilience, power and fear.