Wednesday, January 6, 2010

* * Play with me! * *

Shift #10

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27 -- 1:45 p.m. -- Fremont/Mission to Pine/Baker -- $10.30


I AM WALKING OUT OF NOAH’S BAGELS
with my afternoon mug of vanilla/hazelnut coffee in one hand and a Noah’s “Heavenly Chocolate Chip Cookie” in the other when I see her standing at the curb, just ten feet from my cab, a daypack-on-wheels at her feet, her hand in the air, scanning down Fremont Street.

“Need a cab? Mine’s right there behind you…”

She grew up in India and has been in the States for five years. In June she will graduate from Heald College with a “medical assistant” degree, and today’s classes have left her “very tired.” The States have been great for her, invigorating and exciting, but she’s been back to visit India several times and she finds that, “People there are more relaxed, not so busy as they are here.”

I tell her I found people in India remarkably ready-and-willing to play, ready to drop whatever they were doing and simply play with, or listen, or talk to you.

She says, “People in India have time for each other. Here we all have so much we have to do. We’re always late for something. Always tired. But I do love it here. It’s so different.”

I tell her: “For a while my closest friend was an Indian man -- from Calcutta -- who told me that when he went home to visit he would always spend the first week asking his parents, ‘Why can’t we keep this place clean? Look at all the trash in our yard, in the street in front of our house, in our neighborhood…’ But when he’d been home a week he didn’t even see the trash anymore, it stopped registering with him. He said he ‘became Indian’ again.”

My fare laughs. “Yes,” she says. “I know. It’s very dirty there. India will never change.”

I tell her I’ve been there twice. She asks what places, and I tick them off: “Bombay, Goa, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Dehli, Udaipur, Srinigar, Ahmedabad…”

She says, “Ahmedabad! -- I am from Ahmedabad...”

I say, “My favorite Indian story is from Ahmedabad… May I tell you?”

“Please…”

“My wife and I missed our train connection or this would have never happened. We arrived at the station in Ahmedabad at midnight, and we didn’t realize that the connecting train would leave in, literally, 60 seconds…”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I know that one. There is no time to waste on that one.”

“The next train was twenty-four hours later, so we found a place to spend the night, and the next morning we started walking around the town. We came to the river, very wide, but it was the dry season, and there was no water. In the middle of the riverbed, poor people had built shanties. A slum. Houses of cardboard and scrap wood and burlap. I told my wife, ‘Let’s just go out there and see what it’s like.’ She didn’t want to go, but I talked her into it.

“We started walking out there and were immediately surrounded by about thirty or forty kids: ‘Ball pen! Candy! Baksheesh!’ And I noticed this one boy who was dragging a snake, as fat as a firehose, and about six feet long. He had a rope tied around it, and was dragging it through the gravel and dust. I fixed him with a look I thought would scare him, but as soon as I turned my back that snake came flying through the air from behind -- perfect throw -- and it wrapped around my neck -- whump-whump-whump -- three times. I clawed it off, threw it down, chased the boy, but he outran me. And there I am, standing in a riverbed in India at mid-day, with a fat dead snake at my feet, surrounded by laughing kids, and I am very very very very upset…”

She: “Oh, I can imagine...”

“And I’m looking at my wife, and we’re thinking, ‘Now what!’ and then I see this young man -- he’s about fifteen, tall, dressed all in white linens -- and he’s walking across the riverbed right toward me. He’s about a hundred yards away, but I can tell he’s coming right for me. The air is shimmering -- it’s like he’s a mirage, maybe. But he’s real, and when he reaches me he does this little bow and hands me this piece of paper. I take it. It’s a letter: ‘Dear Sir, I saw you and your wife walk past my shop just now, and I was reminded of the many happy days I spent in your country. Won’t you please follow my boy and have tea with me…’ So we go. And the man is an absolute delight. Gives us tea. Tells us stories of his wonderful days in America. We are sitting on carpets in the backroom of his carpet store, but he doesn’t even once try to sell us anything. He apologizes for the snake. After tea he takes us to a restaurant and treats us to the best lunch we had the whole time we were in India. And then he gives us a ride on the back of his motorcycle, back to our room...

“And what was so amazing was that those two experiences, so different, happened exactly back-to-back.”

“That’s India,” my fare says.

We have a little tussle when I tell her about this being my free ride for the day. “No, no, no,” she says. “I insist.”

I tell her she’ll be doing me a favor if she will accept my gift. She has spent time with me, listened to my story, a story from her own home town. She has “played” with me...

We are both smiling when she gets out of my cab.

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