Saturday, December 02, 2006


My American nightmare come true

Sandip Roy | November 29, 2006 | 19:42 IST

It was one of those chilly San Francisco nights. It had been raining all day, in blustery gusts. My cheap flowery umbrella, the only one that had survived of my brood of four, had literally come apart in my hands.

As I walked to my car at about 8 in the evening, I was just thankful it wasn't raining. I was looking forward to just going home.

Some god somewhere must have been chuckling.

As soon as I started the car and got moving, I heard the strange flapping noise. Slap. Slap. Slap. What was that? Did someone tie the carcass of a whale to my back bumper? I pulled over at a parking meter and hopped out. My tire was completely flat�-- squished, splat, dead. I did what most desi boys do when confronted with a situation like this. I scratched my head.

Now, when I was a kid growing up in Kolkata, I had tennis lessons, math tutoring, painting classes. But I didn't learn how to change a tire (or, for that matter, how to fix a leaking tap, or install track lighting). The other day, in fact, someone from an Asian marketing firm, researching a campaign to target do-it-yourself Home Depot style products, asked me how there didn't seem to be many South Asian household contractors. The Vietnamese had them, the Filipinos had them. I had to confess most desis were just used to calling the "electric-wallah" or the "pump-wallah" to fix things. I think we might have changed some bulbs, but that was about it.

Damn, I thought. It's after 8. Who do I call? Luckily, a friend was walking by on his way to a neighborhood bar. Though desi as well, he'd grown up mostly in the United States and was a little more handy than I am. "I can change a tire," he announced. We opened the trunk, peered in. But alas, there didn't seem to be anything like a jack. I found old magazines, newspapers, single socks, a flip-flop I thought I had lost long ago, two umbrellas, but no jack.

"Never mind," I told him. "I'll just call AAA." That's what AAA was meant for�-- helpless desis like me.

But, I wasn't carrying the card. In these days of extra security, I didn't want to have them come over and ask for my card and not be able to produce it. Next thing you know, one could be on a CIA ghost plane disappearing into Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, designated a suspicious person.

I hailed a cab, went home, picked up the AAA card, and took a cab back to my car. I called AAA and sat down to wait, sitting on the steps of a store, reading my Premiere magazine by the light of the streetlamp. The streets were still wet from the rain. Bored, I went to a nearby Indian restaurant (thank god, there was one nearby) and got some food to go. It's my little treat for when I get home, I told myself, as I walked out with my Styrofoam container of Mixed Tandoori Grill.

It was getting colder and I huddled into my jacket. The street was getting deserted. A couple of men walked out of the grubby neighborhood bar in leather jackets, and lit cigarettes. A man standing in an alley next to me eyed me curiously. I was afraid I was interrupting his drug transaction and concentrated on Premiere's Oscar picks.

Finally, 45 minutes later, the AAA van pulled up. I then realized I couldn't find my keys�-- the whole bunch, house keys, gym locker keys, car keys.

Right pocket, left pocket, jacket pocket. This is known as the sinking heart feeling. Could I have left them at home on the kitchen counter? But no, I remembered locking the front door when the cab arrived. I realized, with a touch of panic, that I must have left them in the cab. OK, I told myself, be still, wildly beating heart. Think. Think.

AAA-man got tired of my pocket-patting routine and left. He offered me a ray of light. "At least it's not street cleaning here tomorrow," he said.

I called the cab company. They said they'd call the driver. And miracle or miracles, they called back. Yes, they reached the driver. Yes, there was a bunch of keys lying on the back seat (be still, wildly beating heart). But the next passenger thought they were his and popped them in his pocket (beating heart hit rock bottom with a dull thud).

The only thing they knew was they dropped him off at a lounge club not too far away. They told me the name. It was like playing one of those endless treasure hunt games, where one clue only led you to the next tantalizing one. By now, I didn't have enough money for another cab ride.

My cell phone was looking like the battery might die anytime soon. I began walking through empty streets to the lounge. Cars whooshed by, oblivious to my plight. It was just six blocks but, by some law of elasticity, they had become huge. It was getting colder too.

Now, have you ever gone to a swanky nightclub and tried to explain to the burly doorman that they might have a customer who came an hour ago in a taxicab and picked up a bunch of keys that didn't belong to him? Try it, it's interesting.

I felt like a homeless person panhandling on the street corner. Inside the club, muscled bartenders made drinks and small talk. People sipped cocktails the color of jewels. Women with long eyelashes lounged on sleek white couches.

"Excuse me," I said barging into people's conversations. "Did you happen to come here in a taxi cab an hour ago?" If affirmative, I proceeded to question 2. "Did you happen to pick up a bunch of keys?"

Everyone looked at me oddly and some of them actually sidled away. I hoped they couldn't smell the Tandoori Mixed Grill I was still clutching.

One of the rooms had a private party where the bouncer would not let me in. So I stood by the door like the Ancient Mariner accosting every man who walked out with my sad tale. It was a long night, and a futile one. "You're out of luck, man," said one man sympathetically. "You already asked me," said another testily.

Finally, after midnight, I just gave up. A friend with my spare house keys came over to pick me up. At 1 am, I sat down to eat my cold Tandoori Grill. I decided I wouldn't floss my teeth. I needed to cut myself some slack.

Next day, I knew I'd have to get up early if I wanted to avoid getting a parking ticket. I got the locksmith, got new car keys, found the damn car jack (it had been there all along), changed the tire (under adult supervision), installed the spare, got a new tire.

There was a small feeling of achievement. I'd changed a tire. I had passed some kind of American ritual.

That night, I called my mother in Kolkata.�"What happened? I thought you were going to call last night," she said. Two oceans away, I wanted to become a little boy and crawl into the folds of her sari and become mama's boy again for a minute.�I told my whole sad saga�-- my begging bowl held out for some transcontinental sympathy.

"Oh my god," she said. "Leaving your keys in a taxi cab? Be careful. How can you be so absent minded? I know you don't get that trait from me."

Thanks, ma.�

Sandip Roy hosts Up Front, a culture radio program on KALW 91.7 in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is an associate editor with Pacific News Services and New California Media. He has won the Katha Prize for Indian-American fiction.

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