Immigrant Bengalis

My First St. Patrick's Day in New York

Shyamal Sarkar

Memories of pain lose their sharpness with time…
After 35 years, what was once unbearable, has faded somewhat,
the guilt that shamed me then has become easier to speak of now.
Perhaps the life I led so many decades ago was not so bad, after all…
May be there was no better way to make my backbone strong, and
never again have I feared any physical task set before me.

I came to the United States from Kolkata with one my Jadavpur University classmates, Rathin Roy. We started from Kolkata on the 
last day of Durga Puja, the day of Bisarjan.

It was a clear, moonlit night while crossing the Alps. I could not fall asleep for fear of the unknown. I needed to know and learn many things; I did not have a job, nor a shelter of a relative -- and even worse, I wondered, would I be able to cope in the new country, the new environment, in the severe cold?  Would I be able to communicate in American English?

I looked at the ragged snowy terrain of the Alps, and a sad thought came to my mind: was this journey to be my own Bisarjan from 
my country, family and friends? After 35 years of living in the US, that thought still weighs on my mind. 


Our travel to the US was arranged by Mr. Arup Lahiri, the only travel agent we knew then.  Mr. Lahiri arranged our travel with Alitalia, the Italian airlines, because it was the cheapest. The Alitalia flight from Bombay to Rome was a jumbo 747, and getting the chance to fly in a jumbo jet was simply overwhelming for me. To understand the feeling, we need to go back to the era, the late seventies, when flying was not as commonplace as it is today. Rather, flying was glamorous and exclusive. It was the talk of the town within my social circle when someone flew anywhere.  I had only read that the 747 was the largest and most modern aircraft, but I’d never seen one myself. The wonder of it was awe-inspiring: more than 300 people could fly long distance; it had two levels, had a music system, and included bunk beds for the crew to take rest during long flights. I had also read about the hijacking of a 
KLM jumbo jet in 1973 by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The whole world saw the pictures of that ill-fated 747 plane 
and its passengers, a modern wonder transformed into a new-age horror.

That day on the Bombay Santa Cruz tarmac, I remember my jaw dropping when I first saw the gigantic size of the jumbo jet. I could not believe that I would be flying on this latest jetliner. Inside, it looked so wide and spacious. I was flying high before the plane was airborne.Then, I experienced another surprise: the Italian air-hostesses. The air-hostess gave me a pair of socks, an eye-shade and tiny sized toothbrush. It was the first time I had seen a white woman from up close. Before that moment, I had only seen the beautiful faces of Italian women in the paintings of the Italian masters; but that day, a live one was right in front of my eyes. She looked magical in the ambient darkness inside of the vast aircraft.

 Those airline socks, made more attractive by the touch of a pretty Italian air-hostess, became a nightmare for me. That was the first and last time I would ever wear any airlines socks on a flight. I was basking in the comfort and unexpected good service of Alitalia, so I took off my shoes, put on the airline socks and tried to relax, listening to music. The flight from Bombay to Rome was 
about eight hours. When the announcement came that we would be landing in Rome, I hurriedly took off the airline socks and 
tried to put on my brand new pair of Bata Ambassador shoes. But I could not - my feet were too swollen! I struggled hard, even 
trying to tear off the side stitches of the shoes, but my new friendly shoes were completely uncooperative, and I could not 
manage to fit them on my feet. I walked out of the greatest aircraft in the world with my shoes in my hands and mere socks on. 
I was so embarrassed that I left my friend Rathin behind and walked far away in a secluded transit area. We had to wait five or six 
hours for the New York flight; I walked around inside the transit area until I was finally able to put my shoes on again. I never take 
my shoes off on the airplane when I travel now.


Rathin had arranged to stay with a distant relative in Patterson, New Jersey, so he left with that relative, leaving me at the JFK
airport. I was a bit sad at being separated but I felt at home as soon as I met the group of six people, who had come to receive me at the airport. It was quite remarkable to me that none of the group members were my relative. Two of them were my college friends and the other four were friends of friends.  Another interesting thing was that not one of them had a car; they had all come to JFK via subway and bus. Later, I realized that they came to airport to offer me social solidarity. It was something I did myself for many other new arrivals in the weeks and months to come. It was as if receiving a friend, or a friend’s friend, at the airport was a way of saying, “We all are struggling but we have not given up. You should also keep your hopes up!”  I still remember the power of that feeling vividly today. It was an extraordinary demonstration of camaraderie.

It was October, and it was cool and windy outside. We took the Q10 city bus from JFK to Union Turnpike station to catch the F train
to 34th Street, and from there we took the PATH Train. That time suitcases did not have any wheels to roll on the ground, we had
to climb up and down all the stairs of the stations carrying the large leather suitcase I brought from India.  Bires Biswas and
Pijush Chakrabarti, two of my very close college mates, brought me to their Jersey City apartment.

I had just arrived directly from Kolkata. Naturally I was amazed to see the New York streets with their bright lights, filled with
hundreds of kinds of cars. In 1977 Kolkata, our eyes were used to the one and only Ambassador cars, and the neighborhood
streets were never lined with parked cars. In America, at every corner I saw something I had never seen before—immense
storefront glass windows and manicured gardens in front of houses. 

Bires and Pijush and a couple of other friends were living in a large three-bedroom apartment. I was impressed with all the
amenities in the apartment, particularly the hot running water in the bathroom and in the kitchen. I lived in their Jersey City
apartment for about fifteen days. Although no one had a decent or satisfying job, we all still had fun and feuds, like any bunch
of young people living together.


The job market was very bad in 1977. Even getting an odd job was a real challenge. Engineers, accountants, even
professors with excellent levels of experience were scavengers of jobs. Many accepted jobs as un-skilled workers, low-level
clerical staff, even as security guards.

One of our important Sunday activities was to get a copy of the employment section of the Sunday New York Times. In the
seventies, there was no or to search for a job; all the employers in the New York area
advertised their employment requirements in the New York Times. One of our important Sunday activities was to get a
copy of the employment section of the Sunday Times and examine each column of every page of the Employment section. We
knew that without American experience the chances of getting a job would be slim, still we used to make a bunch of calls on
Monday mornings anyway.

Even today I can recall the shock I had when I saw the size of the Sunday New York Times the first time. In Calcutta, we grew
up with Anandabazar, Jugantar and The Statesman newspapers; those newspapers used to have 8-12 pages only, with additional
4 pages as supplement on Sundays. Being curious one day, I counted the number of pages of the Sunday Times – it was 184
pages with All the News That’s Fit to Print. By the way, the cost of the Sunday Times was only one dollar which was not cheap for
us. We often bought only the Employment section, which we needed most, and paid 15 cents to a friendly newspaper stall owner
across the street. 

Before I left Jersey City, I was able to earn my first dollar in this country, courtesy of Pijush Chakrabarti. It was an important day
for me. Pijush was working in a restaurant called Ceylon India on 46 Street and Broadway. One night, the owner needed extra help. Before the owner could get anyone else, Pijush told him about me and I was called to work. That was my first job working in a
restaurant. I did not have any clue about what to do but Pijush said not to worry. He literally did everything, including taking orders,
serving food and drinks and cleaning the tables; I was an inactive observer, only pouring water in the empty glasses. I did nothing
that night to give relief to Pijush, but anyway, I got paid and I was pleased to be able to earn a few dollars for the first time in this
country because of Pijush. It was a remarkable day for me, and by the way the employee dinner was free.


I worked at 5-6 different odd jobs in that first year: two of them were far away, so I had to quit; one job required me to carry
heavy boxes which I was not able to do, and I was fired; one temporary job was for copying documents. I started to become
worried and frustrated for not having a steady and better paying job. I had to pay my rent at the Clinton Arms hotel weekly, otherwise. I would be thrown out on the street. 

Finally, a break came for me. Ranjan, another classmate from my college, got admission to City University of New York for
Chemical Engineering. Before leaving for college, he put me in his position at Shezan Restaurant, next to the Plaza Hotel on
58th Street, Manhattan. I spent my first winter in the US working at Shezan.

    In the month of December as the blustery wind whistles through
    the canyons of Manhattan buildings,
    I dash briskly, like a rabbit towards a safe hole, to the place
    where I work, the place where I earn my living… a basement restaurant.
    Above, the streets of Manhattan transform for Christmas,
    the homes glow with Christmas lights and wreaths,
    the windows of Bergdorf’s, FAO, 9 West and The Plaza Hotel get dressed up.
    Thousands flock around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree every night.
    Far away from all this merriment, I work and work twelve hours a day.
    No time to look around, just keep the job and survive.
    When I come out at night, it is late and people have already returned home.
    I run again to catch the late train, keeping my body covered like an Eskimo.
    I come to sleep in my room at the Clinton Arms,
    a room that is cheap and close and that I rent from week to week
    until I go back to the work-pit the next day for another twelve hours,
    I have to – even Ford Motors made Lee Iacocca unemployed.

Shezan was a landmark restaurant in Manhattan, known for fine Indian cuisine. The architectural design was thoughtful and
unique. The floor was made of marble, and the walls were covered with mirrors. The ceiling was of stainless steel. The pillars and
columns were wrapped with gray carpet to dampen echoes and noise. When candles were lit, the space looked magical, with
reflections of flickering candlelight all around -- and the dignified hush of the place gave it an air of exclusivity.  The cuisine was
“gourmet fusion” style that was not available anywhere else in the city. Like any classy restaurant, male guests needed to have
jackets to dine there. Shezan would provide jackets to use when guests would come without.  

Two restaurants, Shezan and Raga, were the sole destinations for fine Indian cuisine in New York City. Several corporations, such
as GM, NBC, IBM, and Exxon had charge accounts at Shezan, and many celebrities were regulars for dinner. Our advertisement in Playbill, the magazine of the Broadway theater district, brought many celebrities as pre-show dinner customers. While I worked
there, I saw and met quite a few well-known people, like Mohammed Ali, Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford, Timothy Hutton,
Sally Field, Henry Winkler, Chuck Scarborough, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Mayor Ed Koch.  The Cosmos Soccer Team had a
party at Shezan, and Ralph Lauran threw a party for the introduction of the new Polo brand of perfume. All of these people were
larger than life to me; meeting Mohammed Ali and seeing Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto brought me
unbelievable excitement.  

Shezan was a nice place to be in, but I was worried about my job security. I knew the reality of supply and demand; there
were many people available to work in my place. I had to come to work even if I was not feeling well. I did not ask for a day off nor
did I ask for a raise. I wanted to remain in the employer’s good book.

    Job market is terrible but I am lucky, I got one.
    Shezan is a better odd job place, a destination eatery of celebrities.
    I learn American English every day, moreover
    I do not need to cook, and that helps me save money.
    Everything seems good, but....
    A pain of guilt, working in a restaurant, haunts me all the time.
    Working in a restaurant is a cultural taboo, I tend to deny it.
    I hide the truth from my folks in Calcutta.
    Masking the fact is not right, I know that and I suffer.
    Still I do it knowingly because truth would be more painful for them,
    At night, after walking long hours in the dining hall,
    the pain radiates from foot to calf and above;
    still I don’t moan; quietly limp to the common bathroom and
    comfort my aching feet with soaking hot water.
    Pain of guilt is worse than the physical one.
    Sadly, both of them spend many sleepless nights with me.


I continued my job in Shezan with lots of dilemma and mental contradictions; I could not see myself spending my life in a
restaurant night after night. But no one had any better idea about what to do. Ranjan joined a 4-year engineering program -- and
what would be his future after being an engineer when many engineers were doing odd jobs? A couple of college friends were
working in pharmaceutical industry, not as professionals but as unskilled labor. There were lots of confusion and
dissatisfaction, and everyone was living in a state of chaos, no one had any definite direction to lead.

Then the St. Patrick’s Day came:

     In mid-March, when the Sun has come nearer,
     the marching band of St. Patrick’s Day parade rocks 
     the tall buildings of Fifth Avenue, wrapped with emerald color to commemorate 
     the Irish Diaspora, one of the threads of the American nation-fabric. 
     The sound of bugles welcomes the new cherry blossom, the clear blue sky, 
     the migrant birds flying overhead and 
     renews and invigorates the stale air of my basement.
     At that moment, all my fear fades away. Like thousands of
     Irish, Polish, Jewish and other immigrants who came before me.
     a novice I am but not alone in this sea of 7 million New Yorkers.
     I will bloom in spring, in summer and beyond.

St Patrick’s Day is a day of celebration for Irish immigrants. However, St Patrick’s Day inspired me as a new immigrant in this
country. Suddenly I realized that my struggle was not unique or extraordinary, it was very common. I came to know that 
many other immigrants had gone through worse situations than me. Many were illegal ship-jumpers and always scared of being
caught and deported, and their employers were exploiting them like slaves; still they lived in the city and were waiting for
better days. I realized that I was going to stay here no matter what happened.

From that day onward, I decided not to spend any more time procrastinating and pondering. I realized that indecision would be
worse than taking a wrong decision. I became bold and shook off all negative thoughts, decided to continue my present physical
but honest odd job without feeling guilty. I started preparing for getting a license as a pharmacist, so that I could pursue 
my true profession. 

Retrospectively, my revelation of 1978 St Patrick’s Day has been the symbol of hope for me since then.

(Posted May 7, 2013)

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