Immigrant Bengalis

Of Pigeons and Sirens:
Early Struggles after Landing in America

Asit K. Ray 

Introduction: As I look back and reminisce on my early days in America, my heart fills with the  sense of accomplishment that I was able to overcomeall odds along the way. The purpose of this  article is mainly to bring to light for our children and grandchildren the kinds of hardship had to endure when we first came to America. I also wanted to share my personal interactions with others like me who immigrated to the U.S.  around the same time.

Dilemma: Thanks to the Immigration and Naturalization Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. I did not face any problems in getting an immigration visa for the United States. After the law was passed, the immigration floodgates opened up for professionals such as doctors, engineers, accountants, pharmacists and scientists. Many people like me who held  good job in India and were responsible for supporting their families were rather hesitant to take the plunge and move to the U.S. As for my situation, my father had just retired, and I had taken on the role as a major bread winner for my middle class family. Moreover, my wife and I had only been married for eighteen months, and we had a   three-month old daughter.  In those days, the Reserve Bank of India was allowing Indians leaving the country to take only $400 in foreign currency with them. Some of my colleagues who had been to the U.S. before discouraged me. ”The job market there is very poor. You are going to starve with only $400,” they said. The only people who lifted my spirits were the Late Hiren Dattagupta, the managing director of my company, and my mother. Mr. Dattagupta encouraged me to take up odd jobs until the job market picked up. My mother had full faith that God would protect me. After thinking long and hard, I finally decided to go to America in pursuit of my boyhood dream.

I took a British Airways flight from Calcutta to London via Bombay, and stayed in London with my aunt for two days. This was my maiden flight. Before that I had only caught a glimpse of the cockpit when my uncle who worked at Dumdum airport took me to see an empty plane. The last leg of my journey – from London to JFK -- was scheduled on a TWA flight. When the Boeing 707 took off from Bombay, a sense of nervousness began to simmer deep inside me. The faces of my daughter, my wife and my parents were floating in my mind. Many questions started to surface as I bade farewell to Mother India: “Where am I going? Am I going to starve as Dr. Sen had said?”

My aunt received me at the Heathrow airport, but since she was very busy working as a nursing supervisor at a hospital, she could not give me company during the daytime. In order to make the most of my sojourn in London, the city I had dreamed of since childhood, I went on a self-generated walking tour of places that had intrigued me from my reading of English history,  poetry and novels. The places I visited included Hyde Park, Fleet Street, London Bridge, Westminster Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square.

On the day of my flight to the US, my aunt dropped me off at Heathrow airport. She had been living in London for twenty years, never married and had to face many hardships when first starting out. She did not offer me any words of wisdom, except for one piece of advice - “Maati kamre pore thakbi”, meaning “stay put in the US by any means”.  Her words resonated strongly in my heart and I continued to follow her advice as a mantra in later days. However, when my plane took off, I felt a void in my heart. I was completely on my own and had only $400 and the telephone numbers of two strangers in my possession. I was not sure if any one of these strangers would be there to receive me at JFK airport, and I had no idea where I would stay. I focused my attention on my surroundings in an attempt to relax my mind. I looked through the window. The huge Boeing 747 was silently gliding over the clouds. I was quite impressed. Soon it was time for dinner.  I was unfamiliar with most of the items, but I ate them anyway.   Later, I learned that all the items I had eaten were beef. It tasted fine to me, and I was able to dispel my prejudice against eating beef.  Finally, the jet landed at the TWA terminal. The date was November 13, 1971. The aerial view of New York was spectacular. The terminal was mammoth with beautiful architecture. I was utterly awestruck.

I searched for the two Bengali guys who had said that they would try to pick me up.  They never showed up. I had to devise my next move.

The YMCA: My makeshift home: To my great surprise, a young South Indian fellow who had come to receive his older brother asked me if I needed a ride. In those days, if an Indian person happened to see a fellow countryman on the street or subway, he would introduce himself and spark up a conversation. I asked the gentleman to drop me off at a YMCA in New York City. He was kind enough to drop me off at Sloan House YMCA on Eighth Avenue. The rent for the room was $5 per day. My room was on the third floor. The window was shut and it was sweltering with steam coming off of the heater. I was sweating but was afraid to crack the window open for fear of getting cold. The first thing I was going to do was to take a shower. I did not know that a big cultural shock was awaiting me.  I saw big guys freely walking around in their “birthday suits”. I felt very uncomfortable and rushed back to my room until the coast was clear. Around 7 PM, I decided to take a walk and send a telegram to my father to let him know I had reached NY safely. In order to save money, I composted a short yet clear message: “HAPPY WITH THE NEW YORKERS.”  – I heard a food peddler shouting “Pretzels! Hot Pretzels!”  To me it sounded like pizza, which was suggested by my colleague Dr. Dasgupta before I left Calcutta as a good choice for a cheap meal. I bought one large hot pretzel thinking it was pizza. I did not like it at all but ate it anyway to satisfy my hunger. Later that night after a dinner consisting of fruits and candy, I tried to sleep, but tossed and turned all night long, often awakened by the deafening sounds of sirens blaring from fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. I wondered why they had to be so loud. The next morning, I walked to the Social Security Office to obtain a temporary card. I spent the rest of the day on a walking expedition of New York City.  I bought a subway map and went down the stairs at a subway entrance. I was startled by the roaring sound of the trains operating at two levels below street level. I decided to postpone my subway escapade for some other time. 

Culture shock: New York was a thriving metropolis, as it is now, with people from all over the world. I was amazed by the arrays of big cars parked on the streets and immense storefront glass windows that made even fast food places look like fancy restaurants in Calcutta. Everything here was big – the skyscrapers, the cars, and the super busy streets. There was a constant flow of people. To me people appeared to be very busy and rather on edge, unlike what I saw in London. The hippie culture was fading away but its legacy was reflected in the music and fashion trends preferred by young Americans. The Vietnam War was still raging.   Recent immigrants like me were required, like all American citizens, to register with the Selective Service Commission  for serving in the military. Fortunately, my draft number was way at the bottom of the list, so my chances of being called into the army were practically nil.

Meanwhile, I continued to encounter interesting moments that offered some comic relief  in spite of the serious challenges I was facing each day. There was a Cuban convenience store nearby and I once tried to engage in a conversation with the owners. I praised Fidel Castro without knowing that they were actually Cuban dissidents who had fled from Cuba to avoid persecution by the Castro regime. Needless to say, they were not too happy with my comments. Another time, I was sitting on a bench in Central Park when a beggar asked me for a quarter in a very dignified tone of voice. When I gave him the quarter, he said, “I guess you are from India. India is a very poor country.  I will pay you back.”   Later back at the YMCA, I decided to call the two Bengalis whose telephone numbers were with me. Through one of them, I heard that somebody named Sujit Datta was looking for a roommate to share his rent. After spending five days at the YMCA, I moved into Sujit Datta’s studio apartment.  It was in an old house in a depressed area near the George Washington Bridge on 175th street. Sujit prepared a meal of rice with boiled eggs and potatoes, which I relished very much.

Job Hunting, Loneliness and Assimilation:   While reading the “Help Wanted” section of the New York Times, I came across a posting from an agency that was seeking a chemical engineer with exactly my background. The next morning I took the subway to attend the interview. I was very disappointed to find out that they required five years of US experience. I tried to reason with them, but to no avail. I realized right away that I had to focus on finding an odd job first that would help make ends meet. I was aimlessly walking along the streets of the city when I noticed a small park adjacent to the New York Public Library. I sat on the bench and ate the lunch that I had made for myself. There were many pigeons in the park and I started to feed them, which had a calming effect on me. Unfortunately, odd jobs were also hard to come by. Very soon, my daily ritual became traveling from door to door inquiring about odd jobs in the mornings and hearing the same response each time- no, no, no! Then, in the afternoons I would come to the same park to eat my lunch and feed the pigeons. At times I would spend a few hours in the library reading newspapers and magazines. That park was, symbolically, the silent witness to my  pangs of frustration  I suffered in my early days of America. The worst part of the day was to go back to the confinement of the four walls of our small room.   The loud fire trucks continued to drive by our room, breaking the silence of night, and adding to my  mental  torment. This was, in fact, the lowest point of my life. What really kept me going was my aunt’s advice – “Maati Kamre Pore Thakbi”.

Someone told me there were a few temporary employment agencies that hired low-level clerical staff I visited “Office Force” and “Kelly Girls” agencies. Office Force gave me a long-term assignment in FNCB (now City Bank) at a rate of  $2 per hour. The good thing about my assignment was that the office was located on the 80th floor, and there were about fifteen Indians working there, who were in the same boat as mine. During lunch break we used to talk about the job market and the different kinds of odd jobs we had heard of. There I came to learn about the job of security guards. I was looking for a part time guard job so that I could send some money back home to support my family. Most of the people who had come from India before me were doing just that. But I was disqualified from a guard job due to a minimum height restriction in NYC. It was depressing to me that I was unable to work as a guard.  Meanwhile, my funds were depleting steadily. Thankfully, I soon saw the light at the end of the tunnel. My classmate Biren Bhattacharjee joined me from Calcutta. I had everything set up for him and he was going to stay with us. I went to receive him at JFK airport with four of my new friends. I also had a security guard job lined up for him. Since he was quite tall, he had no problems getting the job.

Soon after, we moved to Jersey City, New Jersey with our new friends Mr. Reddy and Dr. Chirde. I landed a full time job as a mail room clerk with an insurance company in New York City. I cannot help mentioning an episode that happened when we moved to our new apartment. We did not have any beds or mattresses, without which we would have had to sleep on the floor. We used to keep an eye out  for any furniture thrown out on the curb of the street and would venture out to pick them up late at night. Eventually, we found decent chairs and mattresses at the local Salvation Army. Unfortunately, that Salvation Army center did not have a delivery truck service during the weekend. Mr. Rao suggested a daunting way of transporting the furniture back to our apartment. Mr. Rao and Biren carried two mattresses one on top of another on their heads, and I carried two chairs on my shoulders and walked half a mile through the busy urban streets. People were looking at us and laughing at our expense. For us, it was a matter of survival, so we did not pay any attention to them. Shortly after that, Dr.Chirde left, and two Bengali fellows whom we met on the street moved in with us.

Our apartment became a central place of adda for recent Bengali immigrants. Our adda was a venue where everyone would vent his frustrations. We saw grown men cry, and many vowed to go back to India as soon as they saved enough money for the plane fare.  They are still in the U.S. to this day!

Since our expenses were divided among five people, I was finally able to save enough money to support my family back home. We started to learn the American accent, including American English vocabulary and slang.  We saved up enough money to jointly buy an old Ford Falcon at $200 ($50 each). We learned how to drive, got our driving licenses and saved enough money to buy our own cars.  My first car was a 1965 Pontiac Catalina, which cost me $300.  Fortune smiled on me again and I found a weekend job as a security guard at a new car dealer yard in Jersey City.  Fortunately, they did not have any height restrictions.  When I reported to my security job, my bosses gave me a gun to put on my waist. I told them I did not know how to operate a gun. They replied, ”You don’t have to know. Just put it on.” They also gave me a choice of two jobs I could do: either drive a car the whole night at a speed not to exceed 10mph to avoid damaging the new car or walk the dog. I tried walking the dog first, but to my dismay, it was huge and looked as if it was about to jump on me. I quickly decided to change my mind and opted to drive the car. 

One day when we had some free time, my friends and I decided to drive to the beach town of Asbury Park. On the way, our car got overheated, so we stopped, opened the hood and decided to rest on a beautifully manicured lawn. All of a sudden, we saw two police cars approaching us from opposite directions and stopping just before us. We calmly walked up to the policemen, who knew right away that we were harmless  “FOBs” (fresh off the boat). We showed our green cards to the police, and they left. 

After another four months, I landed a job as a chemical operator in a modern chemical plant by hiding my engineering degree. The job offered a higher remuneration and plenty of overtime. I noticed that other engineers, who were recent immigrants like me, did the same. But soon the management was able to figure out that we were, in fact, all engineers. To our great surprise, they did not fire us, instead they started liking us. I moved to a nicer apartment with the intention of bringing my family from India and settling there. My friends did the same. 

Over time, all of us were gainfully employed in our respective professions, our families joined us and we built up a tight-knit community of Bengali immigrants.  .  

This was the story of my early days in America, when I was chasing my dream and trying to transform it into a sustainable reality. More than four decades have passed since then, but even to this day, when I hear the siren from a fire truck passing by, I feel a sudden shiver -- and  am momentarily taken back  to those agonizing early days  I spent in New York City.

(Posted October 23, 2013)

Comments from PKC on Oct 25, 2013: "Liked all the articles but mostly Asit Ray's and Shyamal Sarkar's. Sumit Roy reviewed and critiqued the Toronto Banga Sammelan well. Satya Jeet's writing is also good."

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