Dark Skies Over South Jersey
It has always been a matter of poetry. What I did not know in my youth is that the muse can be very elusive. I am not one to give up easily. My search took me to a job in an out-of-the way motel in South Jersey. Away from the madding crowd, I was afloat in rhyme, meter, similes and metaphors.
I was at the desk one late evening when I spotted her on the other side of the quiet lobby.
When I saw her in the shadow, it seemed
As if a ship-wrecked mariner in a faraway sea
Had spotted a cinnamon island lined with green grass. *1
“Welcome,” I said to her in a whisper as she made her way to the desk. As she came closer, I could see, her hair as if the dark night of long lost Vidisha, her face reminiscent of the fine works of Sravasti. *1
I was about to close up for the night. “Where were you all this time?” I asked.
“Por favor, may I have a room?”
The spell was broken. She was not the wandering vine from the dark forest. But she could be the model the Incan sculptors had cast, to create Machu Picchu.
“Of course, you can have a room.”
I switched to the arrival screen on the computer. “You want a room upstairs facing the parking lot or a downstairs room facing the pool?”
She avoided my question and went straight to the essential. “How much?”
I told her the price. She winced.
Not wanting to lose a customer and in her case, not wanting to lose her company, I made a second offer. “Do you have AAA, teacher ID or a state employee card? I can give you a discount.”
“I don’t know what is AAA. I am not a teacher and I do not work for the state. But Senor, I have these.”
She reached down to the hem of her T-shirt and lifted her shirt to flash me her finely shaped, ample bosom. Her naughty laughter reverberated through the quiet lobby and the twinkle in her eyes brought out the stars to glitter in the dark motel ceiling.
I burst out laughing. “I will give you a five percent discount.”
“Five percent for one, Senor. You see, I have two of them. Can you do 10 percent?”
In a battle of wits between a sixty-year-old man and a sixteen-year-old girl, there are times when the girl wins. Even King Dasarath was won over by the charms of Kaikeyi and the course of Indian history changed forever.
I was just a motel clerk in the middle of the night in South Jersey. She won!
In our youth, we had called the marshes of South Jersey, ‘Mosquito Land’. True, there has been some growth in the last few decades. The mosquitoes are gone but they have left their sting behind. Along with the golden arches, in almost every town, there is the adult bookstore and most often a gentleman’s club.
We have ‘Cheerleaders’ down the street from us. Most of our guests are sent to this motel by their employers as they are contract workers at the various industrial sites in this area. The work is dirty and downright dangerous. The men who take these assignments are a separate breed. Hard working and hard drinking is a generational way of their lives. Away from their home and family, a visit to ‘Cheerleaders’ after a day at work is a must in their cards.
I drifted into this particular motel a few months before the 2016 presidential elections. The motel offers free breakfast and the dining room is filled in the mornings. Every time Donald Trump was shown on TV, there was a loud cheer in the room.
I cornered Dan, a guest I had come to know over several stays.
“Dan, the last time we had a Republican president, the stock market crashed, the housing market torpedoed, and millions of people lost their homes to foreclosures. Are you sure Teflon Don is not going to take us down the same path?”
Dan looked surprised. “Don’t you know? Bill and Hillary robbed the government and built their foundation with billions of dollars. Bush tried to keep the government going as best as he could, but it was too much for him. The market sank.”
Now, I was surprised.
Over several conversations with Dan it occurred to me that there is a circuit of information sharing that did not register in my radar. My daily scan of the NY Times did not inform me how millions of working-class Americans felt or thought on a daily basis. I was not about to tune in to Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. We Bengali immigrants, one of the most literate classes of people in the US, are on a different planet of information as far as these blue-collar workers at the motel are concerned.
The harbinger of events to come became more apparent to me when the television news anchors reported on the Don’s encroachment on women. A chorus would rise from the guests, mocking the reporter, “Jealousy will get you nowhere, ha, ha, ha.”
Most of the workers took pride in the accusations of the Don’s many sexual encounters; he did what any man would do, given the opportunity. The workers felt the women were trying to collect a second time on encounters that the Don had paid for already.
It was not only the guests who were of a different breed; so were some of the staff.
I went to the laundry room to ask for an extra pillow for a guest. The laundry man was busy pulling bedsheets out of the dryer. “Micky, could I have a pillow for the handicapped guest in 129?” I asked politely.
“No,” Micky replied abruptly.
Seeing that Micky was busy, I tried to help. “Could I pick up that extra pillow I see on that shelf?”
Micky stopped what he was doing and walked over to the shelf. He grabbed the pillow and taking a large knife out of his side pocket, shred the pillow to tatters. “There is no extra pillow for your guest,” he shouted at me.
By the look in his fiery eyes I could tell Micky would not hesitate to shred me to pieces either. Without raising a fuss, I stepped out of the laundry room.
I ran into the maintenance man. “Jack,” I said in a hushed tone, “Micky just pulled a knife and shred a pillow to pieces.”
“Not again,” Jack replied shaking his head.
Jack stepped into the laundry room and said in a quiet but firm tone. “Didn’t I tell you not to bring that hunting knife to the motel. Give me that knife.”
Micky handed over the knife to Jack and went back to folding sheets.
Jack and I stepped out of the laundry room. “That dumb ass has not been the same since he came back from Afghanistan.”
Both Jack and Micky lived in a trailer park that was down the street from the motel. When I first came to this area, I was of the notion that most of the residents in the park were ‘cons’ who were milking the government for their unemployment or disability checks. The residents looked like able-bodied men and women.
Some of the residents from the trailer park worked at the motel when our regular staff called out sick for the day. Over time I saw a different side to these people. They were the disabled veterans or victims of industrial accidents. This was the other side of the American dream. PTSD ran high through the trailer park.
It is not a simple issue. What do you tell a girl when she gets pregnant on prom night and her boyfriend joins the army to feed the family? Six months later she stands at Edward Air Force base beside her mother as a C-130 pulls slowly onto the tarmac. The cargo door opens, and the plane is unloaded. She shakes hands with the colonel and brings his flag draped coffin home with her.
The check the government gives her does not last long. She tries to ease her pain with her prescription drug and then the ‘street’ pain medicine; Oxycontin runs its course and heroin kicks in. The offer from ‘Cheerleaders’ grows more inviting by the day.
Our proximity to Camden brought about a negative turn to the fortunes of this motel. Gone are the days when Camden was an industrial hub. The streets wear a deserted look now. The statistics of crime has gone through the roof. But there are a fair number of very caring, family-oriented people who still come to this motel.
They had been staying at the motel for about a week. The two were inseparable. She was too old to be his sister and too young to be his mother. It was Sunday afternoon. When many of the other female guests were swimming or sunning themselves by the swimming pool, she sat in the shade of a pool umbrella, reading to him.
I became curios as to what she was reading to him and I walked by their table.
Dressed in an old-fashioned, modest summer dress, she was reading the Bible to him. ‘If you can’t take your children to Sunday school, bring the Sunday school home with you’ must have been her motto. I was touched.
My feelings were short lived. Monday afternoon, they were screaming at each other by the pool. I walked over with the hope of mediating the family fight.
No luck! She walked out on me.
“She is as dumb as they get,” the boy told me.
Apparently, the conflict lay in a math problem. The boy was being home-schooled and the woman could not help him solve one of the problems in his book.
Donning my ‘Master-Moshai’ hat, I offered to help the boy.
The boy was bright. Over the next few days we went through a better part of his junior high syllabus. I made math ‘fun’ for him. I had gained his trust.
“Who is that woman?” I asked gently.
“What’s it to you? Are you a cop?”
The boy avoided my eyes and pretended to be busy solving a math problem
“No, I am not a cop. I was wondering, is she you mother, … I mean sister?”
“She is both. When our mother died, I was very young. She raised me on the farm.”
“I admire her for what she did for you.”
“So do I. But Dads left after the winter; we don’t know when he’s coming back.”
He paused. I was alarmed.
“Do you know where he went?” I asked.
“Nope, but the sheriff came; he wanted to take me away to the orphanage. Sis did not want them to take me away from her. We ran away together.”
The boy stopped doing his math homework and looked at me with steady eyes. “Mister, … we are fugitives from the law.”
If ever there was a time I would willingly break the law, I know it was that moment I was sitting across the table from this child. No, I would not let the law take this child away from me. I would hide him in a room at the motel and nobody would need to know better.
“I’m not going to tell… I am proud of what she did for you.”
The boy was convinced. He went back to his book. “But…. but why do you guys go after each other like cats and dogs when you know she loves you so much?”
He looked at me with steely eyes, calm as a clear lake at dawn. “Night after night, when you have to take off your clothes, in front of people you don’t know, you don’t care for, it drives you crazy, … and then she comes home and fights with me. She is a stripper. That’s the only way she can make enough money for us to stay together…. We get away every few months and come here so she can cool off.”
I had yet to learn about the world.
“We have been on the run for over a year. We can’t stay in one place too long. When she turns twenty-one, we will go back to the farm. She will be given my custody. She is ten months short, for now.”
Knowing Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, Newton’s Laws of Motion and the American Constitution failed me again.
The day Trump won the elections, the workers who were staying at the motel toasted each other with coffee at breakfast. Dan was at the motel.
“You are the grandchild of Italian immigrants. Your people were called thugs and Mafia. Trump won the election calling refugees from the south murderers and rapists. What gives?”
Dan was not disturbed. “You don’t get it. Nobody here believes the Latinos are thieves or rapists. That’s just a way of talking. It is a matter of jobs.”
“What jobs?” I asked.
“All the good jobs are going to you guys. Ask anybody: they all know an Indian doctor. Their calls are answered by Indians when they call the phone company or the credit card company. Everything they buy at Walmart is made in China. Trump is saying, he shares their concern. He says it in a language they understand. He wants to give the good jobs back to them.”
This was not a time to argue. Trump had won!
These are confusing times. There was a time we Bengali immigrants were welcomed to the United States with open arms. Now some of the people coming to our land are called ‘hordes’, their journey towards the United States, an invasion. Still, I remain hopeful and watchful because a motel is a very public place, and anything is possible.
For some time, I have been writing about my experiences of working at motels to inform Bengali readers of this facet of life. But if you will bear with me, let me tell you a story that took place in a motel far away and many years ago, that you may enjoy.
They were similar times and immigrants were called ‘hordes’ too by the powers that be. Late one night, one such unfortunate immigrant woman came to a motel. I should not call her a woman as she was very young. She was around sixteen and she was with a man, much older than her. You can never tell about these kinds of people. She was Middle Eastern, probably Palestinian.
We all know this type. She was wrapped in several layers of hodge-podge, thrift store clothing and was big as a house. It was late December and very cold. The motel was sold out. The manger took pity on her and told the couple they could rest up in the garage.
And would you believe it, in the middle of the night, before anybody had a chance to call the EMS, she dropped a baby, right in the garage!
The baby turned out to be just like the mother. He had his head in the clouds. He flitted away his time, hanging out and fishing with some friends by the lake. He could not step into his father’s business. (Joe was a carpenter.) If there was a saving grace about the kid, it was the fascinating stories he would tell. People stood around to hear him spin his yarns. His stories were a great comfort to the mostly unfortunate people who surrounded him. As expected, very early in life, the boy was in trouble with the law and that brought about his end.
But strangely enough, the boy’s stories kept making the rounds. In his name, people helped each other. In his name, some women took a vow of silence and devoted their lives to helping the widows, orphans and the sick. In his name, some men grew food in their fields and gave it away for free to those in need.
I do hold such do-gooders in mild suspicion and keep a safe distance from them. But in his name, a few people created the greatest music and those choral works take my breath away. And to think, all this got started in a motel on a late December night!
There is a new guy, Mehul, working with us. He has recently arrived from Gujarat and is not very experienced in the motel business. If Mehul freaks out one night and comes running to my room to tell me that a young girl had sneaked into our motel with an older man and dropped a baby before the EMS could arrive, I will run out to the parking lot, eager to hear that exquisite choral work that I have loved so dearly. I will look up towards the heavens with the hope I will be seeing the angels singing.
Wouldn’t that be a sight to behold in the dark skies over South Jersey?
#1 Bonolata Sen by Jibanananda Das
(Posted on December 1, 2019)
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