Immigrant Bengalis

The Unforgettable Lady of My Early Immigrant Years

Amitabha Bagchi

Little did I realize when I first met Miss Patterson that she would have such a profound impact on my early years as an immigrant in America.

I first met Miss Margaret Patterson – that was her full name -- in 1965 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The story behind how a small-town woman from America’s Midwest showed up in Calcutta at that time is an interesting one. In 1961, I was among the group of that year’s high-school graduates vying for a scholarship under the auspices of the Jagadish Bose National Science Talent Search (JBNSTS). Years later I learnt that the contest was modeled after America’s hallowed Westinghouse (later Intel and now Regeneron) Science Talent Search. The Indian version was set up under the guidance of the Ford Foundation; and Miss Patterson, as one of the Foundation’s employees, played a large role in setting up the new program. Our batch represented the second year of the competition since its inception.

When Miss Patterson was in India in 1965, she met and had lunch with a few of the JBNSTS scholars who were planning to go to USA for higher studies. It was a pleasant gathering, and the lady answered with patience and good humor our myriad questions about the unknown land we would soon be setting our feet on. At the end, she shared with us her address and phone number in the US and encouraged us to get in touch with her once we arrived in her country.

It so happened that Miss Patterson was living in Washington, DC at the time. Since I came to the University of Maryland, which is situated in the College Park suburb of that city, it was easy for me to make contact with her. She invited me a few times to her apartment for dinner with her friends, often followed by slide shows of scenic spots of America. One of my abiding memories from that period is of her showing us wonderful photos of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. They inspired me to visit both places later on.

Toward the end of my second semester, I felt bold enough to invite Miss Patterson to dinner at my place. Then I got cold feet and felt scared of my culinary shortcomings. So I bought cans of Chef Boyardee Spaghetti and Meatballs and made those the major part of that evening’s repast. Miss Patterson remained cheerful throughout the meal and declared the fare to be delicious, although I knew deep down that the compliment was overblown.


*** *** ***


In the first year of my stay in USA, Miss Patterson became something of an aunt-like figure – someone I would turn to frequently for counsel and guidance  I remember three occasions in the summer and fall of 1966 when Miss Patterson loomed large in my life with plans and advice.

The first time was when she invited all of us JBNSTS scholars in USA to the annual awards ceremony of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search in Washington DC. The guest of honor was Professor Glenn T. Seaborg, of the University of California Berkeley, who had won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951 for his discovery of a whole series of transuranic elements. This was the first time I would meet a Nobel Laureate in person, and it was especially meaningful to a young would-be physicist like me.  I had a picture taken with Dr. Seaborg (since misplaced) where he had to lean a great deal on a table to bring his over six-and-a-half-foot physique within the same photo frame as a person of a far shorter stature like me.

The second occasion was when I turned to Miss Patterson for advice as I planned to travel to New York City by myself to do some sightseeing. I was sufficiently confident of my bearings by then to venture on the trip alone,

As I look back on New York of 1965-66, I am amazed to remember the many things that were there then but are not there now. The first time I saw New York, very briefly and superficially, was in the fall of 1965. I had flown into JFK airport as my initial point of entry to the US. Someone from my university had come to meet me. He directed me to take a bus to the East Side Air Terminal, then a cab to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and finally the Greyhound bus to Washington, DC. (My final destination was the University of Maryland campus.)
The East Side Air Terminal no longer exists; the sprawling structure once occupying an entire city block has since been demolished to make room for a condominium. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Side_Airline_Terminal.)

In the summer of 1966, I did the usual things tourists do in New York: I went to the top (104th floor) of the Empire State Building, and also to the crown of the Statue of Liberty and looked out through its small windows. (Such ascents were permitted then, and I was young and fit for climbing the stairs.) I took the subway and rode around randomly in the underground trains. But these were a few things Miss Patterson suggested that have remained etched in my memory.

  • She told me to stay in the YMCA in midtown Manhattan, for economic reasons, and instructed me especially to stay on a family floor where men would be more discreet with their clothing. (Clearly an oblique reference to male nudity on Men-Only floors.) That YMCA, alas, does not exist either. (Per Wikipedia: The Sloane House YMCA, also known as William Sloane House YMCA, at 356 West 34th Street in Manhattan was the largest residential YMCA building in the nation.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sloane_House_YMCA .) 
  • She told me to eat at Automats – automated cafeterias where hot foods were kept in lockers with doors openable by dropping the correct change in coins through slots. Automats were a New York City institution, but they could not compete with fast food joints when those became preponderant. The last Automat closed its door in 1991.
  • She told me to take the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. That was when I first learnt that Manhattan is an island, connected with the Mainland USA only via tunnels and bridges. To my mind, Circle Line remains one of the finest ways to look at New York City.
  • She suggested that I visit Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, which I did. While there, I recalled the Beatniks who once frequented the area, and Allen Ginsberg in particular for his association with my native city of Calcutta.
  • And she told me to visit the Coney Island beach for sure. It resulted in one of the most horrifying experiences of my life – riding my first roller coaster, known as the Cyclone. I can still remember the sheer terror I felt as the car carrying me went slowly up and then hurtled down at breakneck speed (and near-zero gravity) as I felt in my guts that my end was near.


*** *** ***


The third occasion when Miss Patterson influenced the events of my life happened almost by accident.

In the fall of 1966, I was changing graduate schools – transferring from the University of Maryland to the University of California San Diego. When I told Miss Patterson that I would have to travel across the country, she surprised me with the suggestion: Why not do it by train?

Until that time, I had not thought of traveling cross-country by railroad. Nor had I been on a railway train in USA even once. But two things drew me to her plan. First, I was very familiar with railways in India and had enjoyed my travels by train. I was curious to see how their US counterpart compared with what I was familiar with back home. Second, Miss Patterson seemed eager to set up the itinerary and help me with getting the tickets. It was not long before I was won over.

The itinerary was to take a night train from Washington, DC to Chicago, spend a day there, and board the California Zephyr the next day for Oakland, California. The plan included a day in Chicago for sightseeing and tourism.

As the day of my departure approached, and I started bidding farewell to my Maryland friends, I confessed to some concern for my physical safety in Chicago.

“What if I got mugged?” I asked plaintively. Thoughts of Al Capone and the Sant Valentine’s Day Massacre were dancing in my head.

My friends guffawed. “Aren’t there muggings in Calcutta?” they quipped. “At least I can understand their language!” I replied rather weakly. I knew it was a lame response, but Calcutta was my own city, for Christ’s sake, and I still had trouble following accents from many parts of America.

Miss Patterson was there to see me off when I went to Washington’s Union Station to board the night train to Chicago. The experience in that train was amazing. I was all alone in a single, narrow sleeper compartment equipped with a private toilet and washbasin. As evening approached, the conductor appeared, He pulled down two ends of opposite walls to form a bunk for sleeping, and made my bed with sheets and a pillow, I put my head and legs inside the holes in opposite walls and had a restful sleep. It was unbelievably luxurious for a poor graduate student like me.


*** *** ***


I was tense yet excited while I walked around in Chicago. Shortly after checking into my hotel, I made a beeline for the Field Museum of Natural History. There, again following Miss Patterson’s advice, I went looking for the series of bronze sculptures made by Malvina Hoffman titled “The Races of Mankind.” It was a spellbinding display of 104 bronze statues depicting people from around the world as representation of “racial types.” I will never forget my pleasure and pride when I saw the sculpture of a Bengali man. It said under the figure that racially my people were a mix of proto Mediterranean and Australoid. (It actually made sense to me.)

(When I returned to Chicago nearly 50 years later and went back to the Field Museum, I was deeply disappointed to find out that “The Races of Mankind” exhibition had been withdrawn. Originally unveiled in 1933, the idea of racial stereotyping based on physiognomy had since fallen into disfavor in this age of genetics, the double helix and political correctness. A subset of Hoffman’s sculptures was subsequently brought back as an exhibition under the title “Looking at Ourselves.”)

After Field Museum, I wandered alone along the edge of Lake Michigan, loosely tracking the Lake Shore Drive near Grant Park. The other memorable sight from that day was the Buckingham Fountain, especially the magical lighting that illuminated it in a spectacular show that evening.

Next afternoon, I boarded the California Zephyr at Chicago’s LaSalle Street station. This time I did not have a compartment to myself; instead I was allotted a comfortable chair that reclined and swiveled all around. On the train, I was overwhelmed by my luxurious surroundings. There was a glass-enclosed “Dome Car” for looking out at the scenery outside – absolutely breath-taking as the train snaked through the Rockies after Denver or cut through Sierra Nevada as it crossed into California from Nevada. There were enormous bathrooms with multiple shower stalls and sinks with electric outlets for shaving with electric razors. The only downer was what happened when I walked into the dining car.

I remember it well to this day. I walked in smartly, seated myself at a table and spread the napkin neatly on my lap. Then came the steward to hand me the menu. The cheapest item was chicken roast for $2.50. It was probably the one and only time when I stood up and abruptly left the table at an “eatery.” Afterwards, for 48-plus hours, I subsisted on 99-cent hot dogs, chips and coke at the train’s café.


*** *** ***


My communication with Miss Patterson grew infrequent after I settled down to my studies in California. One thing I remember, though, was her sending me a large box of cookies for my first Christmas over there. It was a kind and sweet gesture.

For the next few years, I heard from her now and then. That way, I learnt that she had moved from Washington, DC to her native state of Missouri and begun to live with her sister in the St Louis suburb of St Charles.

Four years passed and I left California for a research job at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Sometime in late 1970 or early 1971, I learnt of the screening of Satyajit Ray’s movie, Nayak, at Washington University in St Louis. I decided to drive to the show and thought it would give me an opportunity to get back in touch with Miss Patterson. I gave the lady a call.

She was happy to hear from me and excited about seeing the movie. I offered to drive her to the show, and she in turn offered to put me up for the night.

After the movie show, I was surprised to see how smitten Miss Patterson was with the looks of the film’s hero, Uttam Kumar. I have to admit that, perhaps from immaturity, the thought of the romantic or feminine side of the middle-aged lady had never crossed my mind. Also, I was a bit too young to be an Uttam Kumar fan and had not till then bothered to notice how supremely good-looking Bengal’s Mahanayak was. Looks were in fact a major reason why Satyajit Ray cast him as the hero of his film, Nayak.

The next morning, I bid adieu to Miss Patterson and headed for Illinois. I did not know it then, but it would be the last time we would see or speak to each other. St Charles is situated on the Missouri river close to its confluence with the Mississippi. As I crossed bridges over the two mighty rivers, I reflected on my long association with Miss Patterson. She was a woman whose impact on the first year of my life in the United States was profound. In important ways, she helped acculturate me to America. But four years after my early Maryland days, the dynamics of our relationship had changed. I was no longer the callow youth who sought out her guidance, nor did she have a need to counsel me any longer. Perhaps that realization had dawned on both of us near simultaneously. While I admittedly did not try harder to maintain connection with her, Miss Patterson remains for me a cherished memory – an unforgettable part of my early years as an immigrant.

 


(Posted April 1, 2020) 

Note: Readers interested in commenting on this article should email their remarks to debsmee572@gmail.com or amitabhanj@gmail.com.


Comments received from Vishnupriya on April 1, 2020: "It was absolutely delightful to read both your articles. Such a wonderful window into another America. Very enlightening indeed. And what delectable language! Thank you for the treat."


Comments received from Bobby P. on April 9, 2020: "Thank you for compiling a couple of lovely articles  with wonderful penmanship and language. You two are truly appreciated for keeping the Bengali spirit alive and evoking such indelible memories which has universal  interest. -- I will be purchasing next week a couple of extra copies of your Book to gift to my daughters who constantly marvel about our old culture and are intrigued.  Keep up doing the priceless work ! "


Comments received from Kamala (Bashu) D. on April 11, 2020: "Enjoyed reading both of your articles. Reminded me of my own past. Those days seem more enchanting every year as I get older, perhaps truly they were and perhaps partly colored by my golden remembrance.


Comments received from Shyamal G. on April 11, 2020: 

"Enjoyed reading both articles, wonderfully written. They remind me of two of my experiences.

At end of July, 1960, few days after my graduation from IITKGP, I went to W Germany. I was on boat SS Roma, for two weeks, sailing from Mumbai to Genoa, Italy. It was a smaller (unlike cruise ships) boat. Australian Rabbit meat was usually served for dinner. I got sick while crossing choppy Indian Ocean. We reached Aden and crossed Suez Canal in a few days. On August 1, 1960, I boarded a train (TEE) to Hanover from Genoa. While crossing Alps, night  temperature dropped so low that I thought that I would freeze to death. The train was crowded. I was unable to get my new overcoat(New Market) out from my suitcase. Language barrier was also a problem. It was probably the worst  night of my life. Fortunately, I survived and reached Hanover next day. I started working from August 3 in my first job, in Peine/Hanover, which I lined up in my final year. Surely, in a small industrial town Peine, hardly anybody spoke English. 

On January 31, 1970, I arrived in JFK from Kolkata, and my friend took me to Clinton Arms Hotel, NYC, on Broadway and 99th Street. Like many others, I came without a job and with limited fund. Goal was to find one soon. So very next day, in freezing rain, I walked up to 41st Street to look for an employment agency. I walked because I was not familiar with the NYC Transit system. It was another miserable day of my life. When I enquired about the building, I was told that building was “torn down”. Trip was wasted, but I learnt a new word. Luckily, I could land a job in two weeks time in Huntington."  


Comments received from Toopan B. on April 19, 2020: "Enjoyed it very much!  Was unaware of the East Side Air Terminal and of Automats", Long Island, a small consulting engineer’s office, looking for a german  speaking crane design engineer. I could plan to bring over my wife and son to the land of opportunity."