Words flowed from him like song, and a warmth filled his chest as if he was sipping on a cup of masala chai.
The boy had been saying he was “New York-bound” for about four months before he actually arrived there. The Fung Wah bus he boarded in Boston was scheduled to arrive in New York, Chinatown, at 11:35 p.m. It didn’t get in until 1:53 in the morning. The boy only brought one bag with him: a green duffle that was stored in the rack above his seat. Inside, he had his mandolin (wrapped tightly in a wool blanket since he had lost the case in Boston, after moving out of his father’s place), two picks, a toothbrush, two tubes of toothpaste, a razor (though he had given up on shaving), a pen he pinched from the doctor’s office, a leatherbound notebook, three pairs of underwear, a black t-shirt, a nice button-down for playing gigs, a second pair of jeans, and a letter from his older sister, Pooja, with the address of where she was staying in New York.
The bus driver was a middle-aged Chinese man with eyes that looked like they hadn’t been closed in a week. He didn’t seem to blink. It was as if each time he closed them, even for an instant, he ran the risk they might never agree to be opened again. The driver’s accent was so thick, the boy could hardly make out the names of each stop he announced. Syllables melted together, consonants disappeared, and vowels were distorted. The boy tried to decipher the names of the first couple stops, but as he drifted further into sleep, he saw no point in attempting translation. He imagined he was being chauffeured through an adjacent but unfamiliar world—a Chinese America—a patchwork place, not quite real, yet at the same time more real than either place which informed it.
The bus barreled down the hundred miles of relatively open road between Providence and New Haven, weaving between lanes almost like a motorcycle. But in southern Connecticut, the traffic intensified. For the painful three hours that followed, the bus did not once exceed ten miles per hour; it rarely exceeded five. The boy, who had been sleeping soundly, was woken by the erratic stop-and-start motion of the bus in bumper to bumper traffic. The woman to his left was still sleeping, the side of her face pressed against the window. Inside the bus was dark and narrow. The lights were off. Out the window, the highway looked like two rivers of light. The road stretching ahead was illuminated by thousands of red brake lights, and across the divider was another stream, traveling faster, lit up by the white of headlights. It reminded the boy of veins and arteries, circulating human blood cells into and away from New York, which was—he thought—certainly the heart of the world, if the world had a heart.
The boy recalled a faint image. He had dreamt he was the bus driver, traversing a liminal landscape between his distant home and the place he physically occupied. Connecticut. It is a connecting place, a place traveled through but not traveled to, a blank place, especially at night. The landscape of his dream was built on this one, but populated with foreign images. He drove past endless rice fields worked by peasants in bamboo hats. He drove past open air markets selling exotic fish with spines and tentacles, whole pigs, fresh produce, tubs of shrimp, and hard-boiled eggs with dead fetal chickens curled up inside. He drove past villages of thatch-roofed houses, past the arches and domes of Confucian shrines, past green hills, rainforests, marshlands, and mountains.
How ironic, the boy thought, that I might fall asleep and dream I am this man who doesn’t even have the privilege of closing his eyes. He tried to make this thought altruistic—as if he were sleeping on behalf of the sleepless man—but, when he saw the driver’s face in the rearview mirror, that illusion was dispelled. The driver’s eyes appeared just as tired, his eye bags just as dark as before. But he did not feel sorry for the man, either. He resented his position as a silent witness to the driver’s dream. He was jealous of the driver’s agency and autonomy. By driving over a foreign land, the driver lays claim to it. By driving the same route, making the same turns, seeing the same views, over and over, ad nauseam, the route becomes a part of him. It is inscribed into the folds of his brain. It becomes his.
The boy dreamt most nights, and he took the bus often. But this particular dream, and this particular bus ride, shifted something in him. He had hitch-hiked, he had train-hopped, and most of all he had walked. But he had never learned to drive, or even given much thought to it. He had spent his childhood being sent away and brought back to different places he was expected to call home. He had spent virtually his whole life, up to that point, being moved, but he had never moved himself. New York was the first destination he had claimed. That was why he ran away from his school in Vermont in the first place: to take control of his own movement, but on the way he had been blown off course, pulled this way and that. He had let himself be blindfolded and walked in circles. Even leaving Vermont took him longer than it should have. He had spent weeks, nominally a guest, but because of his isolation and compromised mental state, essentially a prisoner, in the attic of his girlfriend’s old red farmhouse, spending nights with her and days alone with the mandolin he found there. And when he finally got out of Vermont, he was stuck in New England, living in Boston with his father. He hated Boston and hated his father more. After all of this, he decided to take off the blindfold and start walking straight.
Now the bus had almost arrived. The boy could see the faint glow of the New York skyline on the horizon, and, standing above all else, what he assumed to be the lights of the Empire State Building lit up blue and white for the New York Yankees. Slowly, the bus made its way through the Bronx, across the Harlem River, and down the length of Manhattan. After crossing the bridge, the bus slowed even further, and the boy got the feeling that he could get out and walk faster, even with his cumbersome duffle. But, seeing as that was not an option, he sat anxiously and stared out the window. He watched Harlem give way to the old, stately buildings of the Upper West Side, then to the dull, gray towers of Midtown. Out the other window across the aisle from him, the boy could see the Hudson River and the lights of Weehawken on the other side. They passed the USS Intrepid, which struck the boy as an interesting piece of Americana—what a blatant display of American military violence to turn a warship into a museum. It disgusted him, but he resolved to visit regardless. He was fascinated by Americana, probably because of his strange, liminal relationship with America. Before he could plan museum visits, however, the boy had to attend to other matters. It was 1:48 in the morning, and he wasn’t sure if he would have a place to sleep. His only lead was the letter from his sister, Pooja.
The two of them had not been in close contact for the past six months, mostly because neither of them had retained a consistent address or phone number during that time. Despite their recent lapse in communication, the boy felt there was a deep, mystical connection between him and his sister that could not be severed so easily. This mystical link informed him, when he received her most recent letter (which was weeks ago, while he was still at his father’s), that something was not right. It was not so much what Pooja said to him as what she didn’t say. The return address was a Manhattan apartment, but she had never before revealed any plan of coming to New York. The last he had heard from her, she was still living on the commune in Virginia where she had learned to juggle and grow tobacco. She said that he should visit and stay with her, but she didn’t mention who she was living with, where, or for how long.
There was something else in the letter that piqued the boy’s curiosity. She wrote “I have made good friends here, one of whom I think you ought to meet. He is well-connected. Maybe he can help with your career.” It was a strange inclusion on her part, and there was no elaboration. It was the first time a family member had referred to the boy’s music as a career, and that excited him, but there was something unsettling about it. He wondered about who this man could be and how he knew Pooja. He hoped they weren’t fucking; he tended not to get along with Pooja’s boyfriends. There were no other clues about the mysterious friend; the only mention of him was buried in a paragraph about Pooja’s favorite place to go dancing downtown. Otherwise, the letter consisted mostly of complaints. Pooja loved complaining about America. She complained about the price of food and clothes, the weather in New York, and the attitude of white society towards immigrants and brown people. Despite having been older than the boy when they first came to America, Pooja retained a childlike idealism about Kashmir. In the realm of her memory, it lived on as a kind of paradise or fairyland. Ironically, her love of complaining was her most Kashmiri quality.
At this point, the bus had turned off the West Side Highway and onto Canal Street. As they made their way into the heart of Lower Manhattan, the boy was hit by the concreteness of his arrival. He was no longer traveling to New York; he was there. His immediate response to that fact, however, was not to look out the window and appreciate it. Instead, he found himself looking for a new next destination. “When my luck runs out here, where will I go next?” He had heard Nashville was a destination for folksingers. He would like to see the South. From Nashville, he could make his way to Mississippi, maybe find the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul. From there, he could head to Texas. Maybe he could go on tour, driving a big bus like this one over the open roads out West, laying claim to the land he traverses. He wanted to travel the length and breadth of the nation, from New York to California, from Canada to Mexico. Maybe then he would be an American and the question of identity that plagued him would be settled. Of course, he would like to go to India as well, and there was the one destination that would always haunt him: Kashmir, the place of his first memories, where he first became a conscious, speaking, walking creature. But that was beyond his reach. It was shrouded in fog.
The bus turned on to Mott Street. They were in Chinatown now. It was disorienting to the boy; he felt as if he had been transported, once again, into the bus driver’s Chinese America, except now it was real. The street was lined with tiny, nondescript storefronts with their names written in big Chinese characters on awnings and signs. Some had strange subtitles in English of names that were fundamentally untranslatable, sprinkled with words like “super,” “deluxe,” or “genius.” The bus pulled over at the end of the block, in front of a building with a red awning with three elaborate characters written on it in yellow text. The sidewalk was empty except for three people: a little old woman carrying a clear trash bag full of aluminum cans, and two men making hushed Cantonese conversation over cigarettes.
After the bus stopped, the lights came on, straining the boy’s eyes. The woman sitting next to him woke up, looking disoriented. The driver yawned loudly, opened the door and stood up. He announced,
“New York! Last stop!” Then he stepped outside while the passengers collected their things. The boy took his duffle from the rack above him, then sat down and placed it on his lap, waiting for the aisle to clear. He watched the other passengers trickle out. It is always interesting to see people traveling. It was a diverse crowd: college students, retirees, tourists from Asia and Latin America (Europeans take the train). Most of them had packed light, like the boy, except for one elderly couple who were struggling to drag their two suitcases down the bus’ narrow center aisle. He wondered how many of these people were going home and how many were leaving. He wondered where they would be staying and how they would get there. How much further did they each still have to travel? He wanted to ask them. Then it occurred to him that if he were asked any of these questions himself, he would have no answer. The only home the boy knew was found in music. It seemed that was the nature of his musical endeavor: to construct a vehicle of song that could bring him home.
When the boy got off the bus, he saw the driver outside, stretching. He watched the man reach up above his head, elongating his spine as far as possible, then fold over at the waist so the tips of his fingers touched the pavement. The driver repeated these movements accompanied with an audible pattern of breathing: up and in, down and out, up and in, down and out…
The boy unzipped his duffle and found Pooja’s letter in its envelope, tucked behind the strings of his mandolin. He inspected the return address. East 86th Street. He had a destination, but he was unsure of his means of transportation. He had ten dollars in his wallet, enough for a cab or breakfast the next day but maybe not enough for both. He liked the sound of a hot meal, so he decided to start walking. He remembered passing descending numbered streets in the bus, so he headed north up Mott Street, retracing the path of the bus. After a couple blocks, the neighborhood began to change. The language of the shops and restaurants became English again. He had finally left the liminal Chinese-America that he had occupied in some capacity for the past six hours.
As he re-entered everyday, prosaic America, the boy’s thoughts became more pragmatic. He rationalized that he could not be lost because he knew he had to go north and he knew which way that was. But, even if he wasn’t lost, he was completely, undeniably alone. He looked up at the lofts and apartment buildings around him. Most of the windows were dark, but he knew that there were hundreds of people sleeping in each tower, completely unaware of him. He imagined them each in their own interior, hidden world, lying in their most vulnerable repose, alone or beside a lover. It saddened the boy to be surrounded by so many human souls and still be so utterly alone.
Being alone is dangerous at 2:00 a.m. on a weeknight. The only people outside are drunk, homeless, or up to no good. Like the drunks and the homeless, the boy was an obvious target for anyone with nefarious intentions. He was walking alone with all of his possessions in one bag that could be easily torn from his shoulder. And, even if he wasn’t lost, he looked the part. The boy wouldn’t have been concerned about being robbed if it weren’t for his mandolin. Having that taken from him would be like losing an arm. He hadn’t let the thing out of his sight since he first found it in the attic at his ex-girlfriend’s place. He had parted ways with her before leaving Vermont, but the thought of losing the mandolin, too, made him shiver.
Mott Street came to an end at the corner of Bleecker Street, a name the boy recognized from the Simon & Garfunkel song. The boy stopped there, confounded by the simple choice between left and right. As he stood in decision paralysis, the words of an old spiritual came to him, and he started singing softly,
“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming down to carry me home.” He was unsure where the song had come from, or why it had come to him at that moment, but it felt like the truest thing he had ever sung. It was charged, like an incantation, with some force beyond his understanding. As he was singing, a car came racing towards him down Bleecker. It was a yellow cab. The boy thought about hailing it, but he was frozen. Then, miraculously, the cab stopped anyway. The driver was an old, turbaned Sardarji (Sikh) with a silver beard and a long, crooked Panjabi nose. His mouth was obscured by gray whiskers, but his eyes were smiling. He rolled down his window and said,
“Get in, brother.” The boy did not hesitate.
“Where to?” the driver asked. The boy found the envelope in his pocket and read the address out loud. The sardar laughed,
“Were you planning on walking?” The boy laughed, too,
“I guess so. Is it far?”
“For you, maybe, but not for me.”
And, with that, they were off, speeding through the dormant city. As he drove, the sardar asked the boy questions, and the boy realized he hadn’t spoken a word to anyone in forty-eight hours since the blowout fight with his dad, except for the cop who kicked him out of the park in Boston at six that morning. Words flowed from him like song, and a warmth filled his chest as if he was sipping on a cup of masala chai.
“Is this your first time in New York?” the sardar asked.
“Yes. I was just in Boston and in Vermont before that. My mother lives in Illinois, and I spent some time with her as a kid, but I’m here now looking for my sister and, hopefully, a job.” The sardar nodded,
“Don’t stay too long, brother. I have been here twenty-four years, and it eats you alive. You see my beard? I didn’t have a single gray hair when I came here. I was like you, young and skinny. I must ask, are you Indian?”
“Kashmiri.” The sardar smiled.
“So we are brothers. Do you speak Hindi? Punjabi?”
“A little Hindi.”
During the twenty-five minutes he spent in that cab, the boy experienced some respite from his many anxieties. Everything was uncertain. He didn’t know if Pooja would be awake to let him in when he arrived. He didn’t even know if she was still living in the same place; every letter seemed to have a different address. But all of these anxieties were dissolved by the smell of sandalwood and the bhangra rhythms from the car radio. Before the boy got out, the sardar stopped him, speaking Hindi now,
“Do you have a pen?” The boy fished in his bag and procured the doctor’s office ballpoint. The sardar began to write something in elegant devanagari script on a scrap of paper from the center console.
“Here is my name and number. Call me if you need a ride.” The boy took the slip of paper and pocketed it.
“Thank you-ji. Sat sri akal.”
“Sat sri akal.” The cab sped off, the headlights shrinking into the night. The boy was alone again, but he no longer felt it. He found the door, down half a flight of stairs, marked with three faded numbers: 225, and he knocked as loudly as he could, praying for an answer. After five seconds, he heard footsteps growing louder. Then the door swung open.