Immigrant Bengalis

The “Kind Of” Girl

Utpal Sengupta

On a Friday evening a few decades back, I was looking at the Arrival/Departure schedule at the Providence, RI airport.  It showed our American Eagle flight to Chicago O’Hare as ‘Delayed’.  It was already 7:00 pm in early January.  While Providence could be blessed with a relatively moderate winter, being situated not too far from the ocean, Chicago was not so lucky.  I had checked and found that my hometown of Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, would have a sub-zero temperature and 6 to 9 inches of snow.  Depending on the actual departure time, it could be past mid-night and icy in Chicago!

My boss, David (Dave) R. Wilson, Jr., Executive VP of our power generation company, looked at my sullen face and asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told him.  Dave, a Canadian American, was a sexagenarian grand-father with thin, white hair.  A devoted family man, he was suave, kind and compassionate. He was too humble to reveal his academic credentials -- with MS, MBA and Ph.D degrees and many publications.  His best quality was his reticent positivity in life.  He hired me to manage the Fossil Power Generation Group and he liked me, indulgently.  We had flown from Chicago for a 2-00 pm meeting to finalize a potential contract for a. utility company in Rhode Island; Dave had talked about the finances and I of engineering.  The president of the utility company was pleased and hinted that we had won the contract.  We had left happily for our flight.

Dave looked at his watch, 7-15 pm, overheard that our flight could be delayed by 3 hours and mumbled ‘Paul –   Let’s make the best of it in the bar’.  I smiled, ‘Well, you are the boss’!  As an International Airport, Providence was small compared to its competitor and much busier Logan International in Boston.  We walked downstairs to the bar on the ground floor and found a couple of restaurants, some gift shops and a bookstore; the cocktail lounge was nestled next to a restaurant.  We stepped into the lounge, which was not a big place. It had a crescent-shaped counter at one end and a dozen high stools around it. There were also  six tables, each with  two sofas.  Behind the counter was space for a bartender, racks of liquor, wine and beer, and the taps. We grabbed two empty stools.

The lounge was impressive with its tidy, quiet ambiance, and comfortable.  A young woman appeared with a menu. ‘How can I help you, sirs?’ We both ordered cheeseburger and French fries with coleslaw and pickles on the side. Dave was surprised, ‘Beef’?  ‘What do ye mean?’ I said.  ‘I eat every damned thing in the restaurant!’  He tenderly smiled! The woman took the order and left. I whispered, ‘Dave, I was craving for a lobster dinner with New England clam chowder but will settle for the sandwich for your sake!’ ‘Let’s see what she gets – it may not be bad!’ We looked for drinks and spotted a young girl at the other end.  Dave beckoned and she showed up instantly.  “Yes Gentlemen, Mary will get you fresh food from the restaurant!  I am Jane, the bartender, and welcome to the lovely city of Providence!”  Dave ordered a Scotch on-the-rocks and I, a glass of Italian Lambrusco. The girl brought us a platter of cashews, peanuts and fritters. ‘‘I will get the drinks’ and she whisked away to other customers.  The bar was busy.  Dave commented, ‘Pretty and smart, right?’

We talked about the contract.  Dave, a tech-savvy executive, said, ‘Paul, you got to be creative to improve the plant efficiency and heat-rate within the given budget and schedule, and I know you can do that’.  ‘Sure!’ ‘But I have a deal -- you beat the target and I buy you a lunch at the best restaurant in Chicago.’  ‘Just lunch?’ His eyes twinkled – ‘Well, you will meet the deadline anyway but if you beat it, you earn a lunch – that’s a bonus!’ ‘So generous!’- I said, when Dave welcomed the bartender. ‘Here you are’ – she served the drinks – ‘and you are engineers, I guess’.  ‘You are right, but we are more than that; we are good listeners, quite garrulous and pretty argumentative,’ Dave pointed his finger at me! ‘You seem to be quite a bartender, young lady - handling the customers well – preparing cocktails, serving and filling in, and running around deftly’, Dave used his soft grand-fatherly tone! She smiled and quickly excused herself. 

We watched her – smart, efficient, and elegant; aptly helping customers who were mostly business executives.  Dave suddenly nudged me. ‘Young man! What are you doing, ha?  I am doing all the talking with my grey hair and you are just watching! Be respectful and talk to her – such a pretty, smart and engaging lady!’ I blushed. ‘Well, I will!’ ‘Do it and get her contacts’! ‘Why contacts’? ‘It is the culture here, ok?’ Dave knew I was a bachelor.

Our burgers came topped with piles of fries – hot and fresh, smelled tasty! Mary added the coleslaw and pickles in tiny bowls, smiled, thanked, and left.  We  had some mouthful of bites – ‘Oh my God, delicious!’ I exclaimed as Dave smiled. There she was -- the bartender – ‘Oh, you liked it!’  ‘You bet. Can I get a glass of water please?’ ‘Any ice’? ‘No’ – my Indian habit! ‘You got it’.  She returned. ‘Your water, sir – no ice’.  She breathed and paused.  I took Dave’s cue to break the ice.  ‘How come you work here as a bartender?  You are so young, beautiful and smart; should go to college and build a professional career for yourself’.  She was taken aback. ‘What a question? I need money, sir’- she laughed like a child!  ‘I understand, but…’.  She was gone to the other end. Dave, bewildered, stared at me. She was back – ‘He is so generous, 25% tips!’- she showed the gentleman, leaving.  I said ‘Well, my boss would do better if you are good’.  ‘Am I not good?’ ‘You are”, assured Dave.  The crowd was slowly thinning down, and she got a respite.  I looked at her: dressed in a yellow top, white skirt and shoes; a young white woman with headful of black hair tied in a ponytail, might be in her early twenties, slim- about 5’-4”, agile and ebullient.  I murmured ‘She is lovely!’  Dave whispered ‘Don’t forget the contacts!’

She stood right before me across the counter. Combative!  ‘What is wrong in being a bartender?’  I avoided a direct reply. ‘May I call you Jane?’ She blushed ‘Yes, Sir.’  ‘Where are you from, if I may ask? You don’t have a New England accent; you are not local. But your English is so good, and you are articulate.’ She looked at me – ‘Toronto. and I live with my parents there’.  ‘Did you go to school there’?  ‘Kind of’. ‘What does it mean- ‘Kind of’?’ She nodded ‘yes’. ‘Any college?’  She hesitated, moved away to another guest. Back again – ‘Kind of’.  ‘You mean you did your Bachelor’s, too?’  ‘You can say that and I am not that young sir, I am 28.’  ‘You don’t look 28 but anyway, anything beyond that?’  ‘What do you mean? Isn’t it good enough for a bartender?’  She challenged as Dave and I silently gazed at her.  I fumbled, ‘Yes, I was just curious’. ‘Master’s?’  ‘Kind of!’  I swallowed and paused. ‘I don’t mean to flatter you but from your talk I surmise you might have gone further.’  She smiled and went away to bring refills.  Dave was amused and winked. ‘Keep going’! 

After a few sips, I signaled as she was pacing up and down.  She obliged and stood in front.  I tested ‘Dear Jane, I guess you did your Ph. D, too’.  Again ‘kind of’.  ‘You serious?’  She blushed and smiled at me.  It was now my turn to blush but I could not stop.  ‘But why  at Providence Airport, away from your home, and Toronto is the largest cosmopolitan metropolis of Canada with more job opportunities for sure.  You could teach in a college or work in a prestigious office!’  ‘By the way, do you like poetry, literature?  Robert Frost, Jane Austen, the Brontes - I was being pedantic!’ ‘Sometimes. But I like Maugham, Christie, Grisham and Aldous Huxley, too.’ Hmm, intriguing!

I wondered why she chose Providence, a small coastal town of about 160,000 people.  Yes, it is the capital and the most populous city of Rhode Island. It is also one of the oldest cities in USA, having been established in 1636.   It is the home of Brown University, an Ivy League School, and the Rhode Island School of Design, famous for its Museum of Art.  It also has the WaterPlace Park forming the backdrop of the lovely WaterFire art installation which lights up the surrounding tidal basin most nights in the summer and for special events.  And many fancy seafood restaurants for the epicures. Moderate weather unlike cold, icy Boston. But that’s all for the tourists; why her?

Back to Jane.  ‘So you did your Ph.D and your specialty?’  ‘Why bother?’ ‘I am interested.’  ‘It won’t make any sense to you.’  ‘Try me.’  ‘Well, Social Anthropology’ – her eyes sparkled. ‘You mean you wanted to follow the likes of Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall, who made it so scholastic, informative and yet popular to the world?’  ‘I am too small, but yes!’  She fired back to me.  I mused for a second when she remarked, ‘So engineers do know some names!’  ‘They do indeed.  At one time I studied Mead’s eventful biography on social activism and anthropology; and Goodall, the ‘Mother of Chimps’, fascinated me with her life and work in the African forests to study chimpanzees.  But let’s go back to Providence.  Why Providence?’  ‘Any refills?’ We both nodded.  She returned with the refills and stared at me. ‘You are persistently curious, sir.’ ’ Yes, I am!’

She stood right before me, straight up.  “I told you I needed money.  I did my Ph. D at the Univ of Toronto, not McGill as I did not get a good fellowship nor a guide of my choice there.  A few days after my ‘Defense’, my guide Prof. Jacob called me into his office.  He looked serious. ‘Have a seat, Jane.  Your work on the Canadian Indians, their life and preservation, has been pretty good.  The feedbacks, especially that from the HR Dept. of Ontario Government, tell me that your ‘Dissertation’ that recommended to improve their lives by offering extensive education for self-reliance, employment opportunities and bringing them into the mainstream Canadian life as true Canadian Citizens, not only as Aborigines with their indigenous culture and heritage, has been highly appreciated.  In fact, the Dean of our Academic Services told me that the University never saw such a brilliant dissertation in the past 20 years. So, I have a few words for you – I want you to publish your dissertation as a book. It will be an authentic reference or textbook for graduate studies’. ‘But, I don’t have any money!’ ‘Well, that’s your problem.  That’s it, and we can talk later’.  I left; my head started reeling - was it good or bad?

I slept over what my guide had said – publish a book!  Two days later, I knocked on Dr. Jacob’s door.  He looked up.  ‘Will there be any grants available?’ ‘No, I will rather assist a new Ph. D student!’ I thanked him and heard ‘God, bless you!’ while leaving.

‘Next 3 weeks I saw all publishers in Toronto and called agencies outside if anyone would publish my book. ’Ma’am, Your dissertation is excellent for reference but has no market for us; if lucky, we can barely sell a few copies to libraries and graduate students. So…..!’  Exasperated and frustrated, I finally took it as a challenge ‘I will fund it myself!’  ‘S-o-o-o, I needed money’!

‘In the next two months I looked for jobs in Toronto in teaching, sales, banks, department stores and so on -- even for a meager salary or commission --but tough luck! It dawned upon me one day to talk to a high-school friend who tended bar at a TGIF. Paula listened to my heart and mind, and suggested “why not work in a bar at an airport? You could make good bucks on commission or hourly wage plus handsome tips from the travelers who would mostly be corporate executives on business trips! You are smart, pretty and intelligent – try it!  You do not mention your graduate degrees– the employers would be intimidated and think you might not stay. BA will do. But not Toronto, you will not get anything here; try USA.@ C$1.40  for $1US!” I took dear Paula’s advice and started exploring jobs at bars in USA.’

‘I used part of my savings to attend a bar-tending school and got a professional license in  three months.   I called various airports around Boston and thought Providence, not far from Boston, could be a possibility; it has a good culture and reasonable standard of living at lesser cost.  I drove down   ten hours to interview, and lo and behold, I got hired!  I talked to my retired parents that I would move to Providence and assured I will visit them every other week and call twice a week; they were glad that I felt relieved and happy.  I rented a  two bed-room apartment to share with a high-school teacher my age and moved here six months back. My roommate is a friendly woman and we get along very well.  Yes, we discuss literature and I make good money including tips, but am not rich yet!’

‘That is my story of why I needed money and why Providence! You happy, Mister?  Now please excuse me - still some chores to do!’  She disappeared to clean up the bar.  Dave and I were transfixed!  Two hours just went by; it was time for our flight!  Dave paid the bill.  I wanted to pay the tips. No, he took out his wallet.  30%? No, 50.  He left a $100 bill for her. Wow! ‘She deserves it!’  We readied to leave when Jane came back - ‘You got a minute, sir?’  We sat down.  Jane leans forward and gives me a pad and pen.  ‘Would you mind writing down your name, address and phone number for me?’ To Dave’s surprise, I obliged happily.  We shook hands.  I kind of muttered ‘Goodbye, Jane and may your dreams come true!’ She waved at us, sad.  We left, pensive!

Time flies when you are busy. Dave once asked- ‘Paul, did you hear back from Jane?’  ‘No.’ ‘Well, you will hear. She was a good girl!’  In the interim I got married; we settled down in a nice small condo near Northwestern University and Lake Michigan.  Scenic and you could hear the waves kissing the shore like Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’; we would frequent the nearby Bahai temple for peace and tranquility, and the Art Institute of Chicago.  A year went by.  Dave kept his words and bought me a lunch in the best restaurant in downtown Chicago.  Life was good! The bar at the Providence Airport slowly got buried into oblivion; I did not get a chance to revisit.

But that was not the end of story!

One evening in cold February, I returned home from office.  An Express package lay at the snowy door front.  I picked it up and entered as my wife opened the door.  She hugged me and said, ‘Looks heavy – open it’!  What it might be?’  I tore open the package and saw a deep brown, gold-rimmed ornamented bound book, a big album size, 2-1/2“ thick, heavy.  I turned the front cover and read the lovely handwriting “To Paul – with best compliments – Jane, ‘The Kind-Of’ Girl’!  My heart danced like daffodils in a breeze.  I quivered and quickly flipped to the Preface.  On the opposite page, it read: “Dear Paul – down the memory lane, you may remember meeting a bartender at the Providence Airport, a young woman struggling for what she wanted in life.  I never found anybody who could care so much for me, wanted to listen to my story with such fervor, love and affection, and with umpteen questions!  You did make my day on that lovely January evening over a year back and helped make my dreams come true! I am indebted to you forever.

Warmest regards - Jane, Toronto U.”

P.S.  This is my ‘Dissertation.’  ! hope you, if not anybody else in the world, will read it! Below is my Contact…….

Next day my wife bought me a lovely ‘Thank You’ card and said, ‘Write back – she is a good girl!’

I still carry that amazing ‘Dissertation’ with me, and I did read it!!

(Posted August 1, 2020)

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