Immigrant Bengalis

Shards of Memory: Apartment Search

Benoy R. Samanta

(Posted October 1, 2019)


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Comments from Satya J, received on October 2, 2019: "I too have been accosted by a 'man with a gun' in the US. It is the most horrible feeling because one is totally at the mercy of another man and totally helpless. Coming from Kolkata, the situation was so much out of my imagination and expectation that the incident added another dimension of trauma."

When I entered engineering college in India over 55 years ago, I had neither the desire nor any inkling that I would head for the United States for further studies right after my graduation. America was a distant, far-away place. All I wanted was to finish my engineering education and get a job in the industry. Things changed, however, in my second year of college with a new roommate in the college hostel. He planted the seed into my head that going to America to study could also be a viable option.

My roommate, who was an orphan from an early age, had migrated from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) by crossing the border with India about two years earlier. He was a Hindu and naturally, wanted to be in secular India and join the rest of his extended family, who had migrated earlier. Though he came to study engineering in India, his ultimate destination was America. There he had an elder brother who was a medical doctor in Cleveland, Ohio. We soon became good friends.

During college breaks in the summer months, we often visited the United States Information Service (USIS) library in Calcutta looking for American universities where we could apply. Our search was random, as we had no specific university in mind. We were looking for colleges where financial aid was possible and there was no application fee. The application fees back then varied from eight to twenty dollars. Even for that small sum, we had to apply at the Reserve Bank of India. Dollar was in exceedingly short supply and not available in regular banks. I soon discovered that getting admission into an American university was not difficult. What was truly difficult was obtaining any kind of financial assistance. Furthermore, without any evidence of financial support, the U.S. Consulate would simply not issue a student visa. My friend had his brother to support him, initially, but I had no one. Or, at least that is what I thought.

While growing up, our parents always put forward an example in front of us of one distant relative, who was extraordinarily brilliant, had endured tremendous hardships in life, and gone to the United States for medical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. I was only five years old when he left. With much apprehension, I wrote him a letter, not seeking any help, but only informing him of what I was up to. To my surprise, he almost immediately wrote back. He arranged for my admission for graduate studies at Howard University and also arranged for a part-time job in a research laboratory in the College of Medicine. Per U.S. immigration law, a full-time foreign student could work for no more than twenty hours a week. By the time I wrote to my relative, he had left NIH and joined Howard University College of Medicine as a professor. He was quite an influential man in the university.

Therefore, I arrived in Washington D.C. with one suitcase containing a few books, a few personal belongings and eight dollars in my wallet. That was all the government of India allowed people with a student visa to carry, and it was handed to me at the airport when I produced my passport and the student visa. My friend joined University of Missouri at Rolla for his graduate studies.

*** ***

I lived for a month with my relative and, then, after receiving two paychecks, I wanted to have my own place. Living in the university dorm was too expensive and hence, out of any consideration. I decided to live off-campus in an apartment. I found another Indian graduate student to be my roommate. However, I had a few challenges to overcome about the apartment. I needed an inexpensive but safe place. I was looking for a place with easy access to public transportation and not too far from the campus, in case I wanted to walk to the campus to save on the bus fare.

I selected an area about three miles from the university and, during one weekend afternoon, I ventured out on foot to look for an apartment. I entered a high-rise building, near the intersection of 18th street and Columbia Road that had a vacancy sign outside. The building looked good from the outside, but not so clean in the lobby area. I could not locate the resident manager’s office and did not find anyone to ask, until I found a man near the mailbox area. He was a resident of the building and directed me to the basement, where I could find the manager’s office. When I took the staircase down to the basement, I heard a loud and angry exchange of words between a male and a female. I had no doubt that the noise was coming from the manager’s apartment. I thought of leaving the area immediately, but I did not. With some hesitation I knocked on the door. Instantly, it became silent. Several seconds later, a middle-aged African American woman slowly opened the door. Her face was calm, almost serene, without a trace of any agitation, whatsoever. She didn’t look like the woman who could have been screaming and yelling moments earlier. She didn’t speak a word, but the look in her eyes asked me, “What is it?”

“I am looking for an apartment,” I said.

“Come in, please, my husband is the manager,” she calmly said.

I had just one foot into a somewhat dark apartment and saw at a distance a bare-bodied African American man wearing only underwear. He was sweating profusely, and his body appeared to be swelling in rage. I had a quick glimpse of his angry eyes. The moment we made eye contact, he came running at me like a wild boar and slammed the door in my face. I had just stepped in, and therefore, was able to back out immediately, but my foot was hurt a little. Though I was stunned at the man’s behavior, I felt some sense of guilt because I went between a man and his wife while they were having a violent argument. Immediately, I went upstairs and saw the same man I had met moments earlier at the mailboxes. I had just started describing to him what had taken place downstairs, but I barely finished. The angry manager came up the staircase with a gun in his hand. He had put on pants but was still shirtless and barefooted. He put the gun on my chest and shouted right in my face, “Did you just now enter my room?”

I felt the pressure of the nozzle on my chest, but I remained calm and quietly replied, “No, I didn’t.”

He did not believe me and turned to the man I was speaking with while still holding the gun on my chest and asked, “Did this man just now enter my room?”

This stranger echoed my lies and calmly replied, “No, I have been talking with him here for a while.” 

“Someone entered my room just now and I am going to kill him,” he angrily announced.

The manager was not in his senses and ran amok, like a wild animal, from the back of the lobby to the front, and up and down the stairway to look for the man who had entered his room. Finally, he walked down the staircase to his apartment. During this time, I remained standing there with the stranger, completely unperturbed. I did not panic or make any attempt to run away. However, I was quite shaken up after I went outside.

I was in the U.S. for barely one month and knew nothing about America’s gun rights and gun laws. Even though I was appalled at the man’s behavior, I blamed myself for my own stupidity and did not tell anyone of this incident. Not too far from this place, I found another high-rise apartment building. It was ideally suited for me and my roommate and met all of our requirements. The building was protected by a security guard in the lobby. He was African American, and his name was Clarence. He sat at a desk in one corner of the lobby and knew all the residents of the building. He greeted everyone when they came in. He would always get up from his chair to open the door, if the resident’s hands were occupied with either groceries or other things. He was always in uniform, like a cop, and his demeanor was tough, but he was a man of few words and very kind. An equally kind, affectionate and endearing person was his wife, Emma, who treated me with compassion. Once, Emma scolded me for not wearing a winter coat on an especially cold day. She feared I would catch pneumonia and bought me a parka the following day. In the evening she came down from her apartment in the building and sat on a chair next to her husband. She knew my schedule and would often wait with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in her hand, wrapped in paper towels, to hand to me when I returned from school in late evenings.

​*** ***

Two years later, I graduated and got my first job with a company in Silver Spring, Maryland, just outside the D.C. border. The distance to the office was not much but the commute was long because I had to drive through the city with an endless line of traffic lights. So, I decided to move. An apartment complex on 16th Street, near the border of D.C. and Maryland, caught my attention. It was a huge garden-type complex with numerous three-storied brick buildings, surrounded by tall trees. It was located in a quiet area adjacent to the well-known Rock Creek Park, had plenty of parking spaces and an easy access to public transportation. Most importantly, the rent was reasonable. However, I was told by a very pleasant and attractive woman in the rental office that there was no vacancy. She asked me to fill out an application form and told me to check with her later. The rental office was on the main road I drove by it every evening. Therefore, It was not a problem for me to stop by and enquire. In the beginning, I started stopping by the office every week, but later, only once every two weeks. The answer from her was always the same: no vacancy. The woman was so pleasant, gentle and soft spoken that I believed her and hoped someday there would be at least one vacancy for me. I was aware that the Americans were mobile people, and the place was so huge that I did not lose hope. Also, my mind was so set on that apartment complex that I did not look anywhere else. I was willing to wait. Months went by, seasons changed, but nothing happened. My visit to the office became infrequent. Several months went by. Winter started and the days were becoming shorter. By the time I got out of work, it was dark. While driving by the rental office on an especially cold, rainy December evening, I saw that the lights were on in the rental office and decided to stop. I hadn’t stopped there for a long time.

Once again, I received the same familiar answer as soon as I walked in. There’s no vacancy. I was about to turn around and leave, but suddenly, a huge storm with heavy downpour, accompanied by thunder and lightning, had moved in. I waited near the door for a while, thinking about what to do, when the lady in the office told me not to go out in that rain and wait until it stopped. There was a sofa nearby and I sat down. No one was waiting for me at home in those days. I do not recall how the conversation started, but she reported that she was very sad. She had lost her mother very recently after a long battle with cancer. She started talking about her mother at first, but she soon discussed her childhood in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she grew up. Her story was long, very long, and she spoke very slowly and softly. Though I was wondering when her story would end and I could go home, I paid her my full attention. I didn’t even look at my watch. The story finally ended nearly an hour later. She was so much overcome by emotion, she started sobbing. I probably said I was sorry to hear about her loss but did not know what else to do. I remained seated and unmoved. There was a box of tissues on her desk and she wiped away her tears and regained her composure. That is when she said this:

“I know my story was long, but I do not think there’s a single person in this world who would have the patience to listen to such a long story. You did, and I am going to do something for you. I have four vacancies and I will let you choose one that you want.”

With that she opened up a map of the area to show which apartments were available and let me choose the one I wanted. I was equally surprised and amused, to say the least, though I still did not understand why she had refused to rent me an apartment for so long. I did not know what else to say, except to thank her. She, then, told me this:

“When you move in, you would be the first non-white person in the entire complex.”

Now I understood! This was 1971 in Washington, D.C. I stayed in that apartment along with my wife, after I got married, for six years.

These two incidents, first the man who once held a gun on my chest and then the woman who refused to rent me an apartment, perhaps because of the way I looked, took place nearly fifty years ago. I have not shared the experience with anyone. These are minor glitches in the overall scheme of things that we call life. However, I do remember the woman, who bought me a winter jacket when I had none, and who patiently waited for me so that she could hand me freshly baked cookies when I returned home late in the evening. She was elderly then and must be gone by now, as is my distant relative, who basically brought me into this country and became a father figure to me.

Finally, my college friend, who inspired me to come to the States, achieved enormous success in life -- academically, professionally and financially. Very recently, he confided to me that during the crossing of the border, he was apprehended by the Indian border security and was put in jail for two days. He appeared before the magistrate in a court at the border and was subsequently released. His story of hardships, perseverance and eventual success was indeed very impressive. He now lives in Detroit, Michigan with his wife and we remain good friends till this day.