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A scholar remembers a journey he made to New York in the 1980s, and reflects on the relationships he ...
2018-07-22 00:00:00

Difficult Journeys in New York

Photo by Anders Jildén on Unsplash
Difficult Journeys in New York
Difficult Journeys in New York

Journeys. The word has romantic connotations. We go on journeys of discovery. We travel to ‘broaden our mind’. A travel company invites me to go on ‘relationship journeys’ to make friends with accomplished people, with those who already have deep relationship with an established community. “Long car journeys are key to happy relationships,” announces an advertisement for Admiral Insurance. I often get unwanted intrusions on my mobile phone inviting me to go on a ‘spiritual journey and develop a relationship with God’.

Funny word that, relationship. I have never really understood what it actually means. Anyway, the words ‘journeys’ and ‘relationships’ are often combined to suggest that they have an affectionate bond. But in my experience, journeys seeking relationships are not particularly amorous. I first discovered this in New York in the summer of 1984.

I was on assignment to cover some now long-forgotten but then ever-so-important event at the UN. Staying at a hotel is part of most journeys. A journalist friend recommended I stay at the Tudor Hotel. “It’s not in an atmospheric part of town”, he said. “It has no colour, but it will be good for your heart.” He was convinced that all the ghee (the Pakistani fat) in my diet was escorting me towards a particular journey: a heart attack. “Tudor is the best cure I know,” he had said. No sooner had I arrived at the dreaded place, then I realized what he meant. The entire hotel was covered with a plastic carpet that administered large electrostatic shocks to anyone who was daft enough to walk on it. I have this nightmarish memory of being suspended between two electric charges, inside a lift that had polished steel for four walls, wondering whether I would get to the eighteenth floor before the lift. But I am sure that the shock therapy eliminated all fat from my body. That’s why I’ve been spared the journey to a heart surgeon.

I was allocated room 1814. On my journey to New York from London, I had picked up a collection of Aussie travel stories. “Telephones” by Thomas Shapcott, that’s the one I was reading. The narrator was looking through the New York telephone directory for a woman called Esther Kollsmayer with whom he had developed a close telephone relationship. That she was very motherly to him, this much is certain. Whether she had any other kind of relationship, we don’t know, but we can guess. The narrator, however, had never actually met Esther, but had long, intense, intimate conversations with her on the phone.  Now back in New York after several years, he was trying to trace this woman, hoping to rekindle his relationship with her.

In the story, the narrator actually lived at the Tudor. I shook my head with doubt. Can anyone actually live in a place like this? The room was barely eight by ten feet. The door was thick, with several locks, and from the corridor it appears as though it was guarding a fortress. In one corner, there was a dressing table (well, it vaguely looked like one) in front a chair with a single arm rest. A notice on the dressing table warned: ‘Thou shall not tempt. Please do not leave money, travellers checks, cameras or jewellery unprotected in our room – we are not responsible for any valuables unless checked’. There was less than a foot’s space between the table and the bed. And that bed! One of its legs was about an inch shorter than the other, so sleeping on it required the skills of a tight-rope walker. Above the bed, there was a lamp, loosely fixed to the wall. It had one of those small switches that you turn to put the lamp on and off. Except the switch had already made up its mind and refused to turn. Right next to the bed, there was a huge radiator, underneath a window with net curtains and a blind. Nice touch that blind. It kept me from looking at the view and throwing myself down. I contemplated the idea as a possible way of getting a good nights’ sleep. An air-conditioner sat on top of the radiator and the window latch. It made a perpetual whizzing sound to ensure that the occupier was aware of its presence at all times. I switched on the television, resting gleefully on a prehistoric table. There was something happening, but the picture was out of focus; it looked as though a storm was blowing. I changed the channel. No luck. I changed the channel again. Nothing doing. It was stormy weather everywhere. I got up to use the bathroom. It was just enough for one individual to stand in, but the wall paper, shiny silver and blue, had been specially selected to cheer the user. There was a small window with broken glass through which grey rain entered the bathroom. I flushed the toilet; it stayed flushed. I turned the cold water tap. Nothing happened. I turned the tap as far as it would go. Some water poured out, became less, then a few drips, then gushed out in huge quantities. I tried to stop the flush, but it continued. Everything in that room wanted to have a relationship with me on its own terms. I cursed myself for staying at the Tudor.

Apart from the running flush, the bubbling air-conditioner, the unbalanced bed, the storming television and the broken window, what was really bugging me was that I was paying a hostage’s ransom for the privilege of spending the night in this room: $90, plus state and city tax. I recalled the advice of Ibn-e-Insha, the Pakistani poet and writer. When he found himself in a similar situation in a Paris hotel, he decided to punish the hotel and walked off with the bed sheets, the bath robes, and anything else he could get his hands on. I looked at the bed sheets. Cheap nylons and cigarette burns. No. I looked around the rooms. Coat hangers. No, not quite. A telephone directory. Yes, I shall walk off with the telephone directory – that will teach them.

My thoughts were disturbed by the telephone. But I wasn’t expecting a call at this time of the night. “Hello, its Esther.” It was a croaking voice. “Who?” “Esther. I’m across the road at Macfaddans. Would you like me to come over? For a good time?” I slammed the phone. Esther. Esther? Wasn’t that the woman who the narrator in the story, “Telephones”, was trying to trace? Was it a coincidence? Or perhaps stories have a strange way of influencing the lives of their readers?

What was she doing ringing me, at this time of the night? Maybe she wanted to go on a journey with me? A short, sharp relationship. I thought for a moment. No. There was nothing I wanted to take back with me from the Tudor.

I covered my head with two pillows – I could feel the individual bits of foam inside them – and tried to forget where I was.

I woke up to the sound of a brass band. I came out of the Tudor to be greeted by a smiling young woman: “We have a beautiful message for you today.” She handed me a leaflet. “Come with us on a blissful journey.” The colourful brass band was on top of a large truck. A slim, South Asian man was holding an electric guitar close to his chest. Behind him an Afro drummer was sweating profusely. A white man, with a scruffy beard, was trying to sing. Every now and again he would stop and tell his audience “Jesus loves you,” then burst into song again.

“I ask you to receive Jesus personally into your hearts and lives. Join us on a journey of Salvation,” the bearded man used his lungs to the full. He was competing for attention with the sirens of an ambulance. He went to say something about entering the Kingdom of God, but I couldn’t quite hear him.

What I could hear, was the jingling of bells and chants of ‘Hari Krishna, Hari Rama’ coming from a few blocks away. I started to walk on 42nd Street towards Times Square. New York was in full swing. I had hardly walked a few steps when a young black man pushed another leaflet into my hand. It said something about fast food at its best. A few more steps and yet another leaflet. This one announced a perfect answer to all difficult relationships: visit the ‘House of Harems and be treated like a king. Have all your dreams fulfilled’. No sooner had I thrown the leaflets in the ‘trash’ can then I was confronted by a young white maiden. She seemed a relic of the sixties, talking mainly through her body. She looked at me for a full minute, passed on a warm, generous, benign smile and shouted: “Hi you.” I gave her my full attention. “I am trying to say something that is very important. So please STOP, LOOK and LISTEN. I want to take you on a LIFE-CHANGING journey. It changed my life.” She invited me to enter a shop with a sign reading SCIENTOLOGY and be ‘audited’.

Before I could say “no thanks”, my attention was drawn to the Hari Krishna ‘life boat’. It was all decorated in bright primary colours with lots of yellow thrown in for good measure. Inside sat a large human peacock surrounded by white female devotees in white saris. In front was a large plastic model showing various stages of the human journey from a foetus to a bony decaying body. “This body that you walk and sleep in is temporary,” the peacock was saying with a sense of original discovery. I looked into his eyes and saw that he was after a deep, permanent relationship. “We must learn to look beyond our physical self. We must look within our self. The journey of self-discovery begins within us – that’s where the universe is.”

The peacock had strong competition from a black man shuffling cards and exhorting passers-by to put money on ‘the lady’. Adjacent, a group of casual looking youngsters were singing a poem and handling out a green leaflet. They sang:


 

“There was once a man named Lucky,
Who tried to make a bucky
But day after day,
His buck wouldn’t pay,
So Lucky gave up on his bucky
Then he saw his uncle Otto,
Who told him to play Lotto
But all seemed lost
As he counted the cost
For he still hadn’t made any buckies
Then one day Lucky began to pray…
And his luck stopped being mucky
For he soon realized
That Y’shua did rise,
And believing in God’s son
Was the way to say “I’ve won!”
For he still hadn’t made any buckies
So, if you are wiped out on wingo,
And zonked out by zingo,
There’s no need to despair
For Y’shua, the Jewish Messiah
Spells BINGO.”

(Call or write Baruch Goldstein, Jews for Jesus…)


 

My gaze wandered off to the other side of the road where two hunky men were having a dispute. Just above their head was a large placard containing the words ‘Male Burlesque’. Behind them, a South American woman, small and indifferent, sat inside a glass cubicle. Someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“You look like an Arab, brother.”

He was all dressed in white with a turban, and looked as if he had just crossed the Sahara. He carried a handful of joss sticks.

“You are not too far off the mark,” I said. He grabbed my hand and shook it warmly. “You are a Muslim, brother? I am one of the Ansars.”

“Ansars?”

The two men across the road were now shouting at each other.

“Yes. We are followers of Al Mahdi as-Salaam. You know Muhammad Ahmad from the Sudan who was sent in 1845 to restore Islam to its purity. This was the man called ‘Imam of Allah’. He was the only true Madhi al-Salaam. It is his journey that we are following.” I looked at the man with amazement. There was a big black grin on his face. He placed a packet of joss sticks in my hand and asked for a dollar.

I crossed the road. The two men were shouting abuse and pushing each other. I stood next to a clean cut man, wearing a red band around his shoulder and holding a large American flag. He looked at me and smiled.

The fight between the two men had now reached its peak. One of them pulled out a small hand gun, shot his opponent in the groin and ran, pushing over several spectators. His victim gently fell to the pavement, as if acting a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film. Eventually, he rested his head on the pavement clasping his stomach with his hands. He was drenched in a pool of blood.

“Don’t worry too much about him,” said the clean cut man. “He probably deserved it.”

“And what journey are you on?” I asked.

“I am for the United States,” he said. “I represent the majority of the people of this greatest, freest and most civilized nation on earth.” Naked nationalism is also a journey of relationship, I thought. He pushed a leaflet in my direction. I took it, placed it in my jacket pocket without reading it, and decided to ring my friends Alfred and Mary.

I met Alfred and Mary some years back when they interviewed me for a phone-in radio chat show they hosted. It was aired from one of many public broadcast radio stations at 2 o’clock in the morning. “You will be surprised how many insomniacs there are in the city,” Mary Houston had said. “And not just insomniacs,” I remember her saying. Boy, was she right. We were inundated by calls. “Why is Mrs Thatcher so popular?” “She is not popular with me.” “Do you know V.S. Naipaul?” “Not personally, and I have no wish to know him” “What do you think about AIDS?” “I don’t think about AIDS.” “Will Islam reform to accept homosexuals?” “Maybe.” “Can this guy from England who speaks with an Indian accent tell any jokes.” “Yes, and not just with an Indian accent.”

Whenever I am in New York, I always get in touch with Mary and Alfred. They are my insanity index. I can judge the whole pulse of the city by discovering what new craze they are in. When I first met them, it was jogging. Then aerobics. After that, AIDS. All journeys of relationships. One year before my visit, it was Spalding Gray, a stand-up alternative comic. This year, well, I decided to find out.

I rang Mary. She was glad to hear my voice. “I am going through a difficult patch with Alfred,” she said. “Our relationship is not working out. He has taken to disappearing. He just disappears for days.”

“Where is he now?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s here,” she replies. “He has been around since we began our new journey. I think it’s bringing us closer,” she said. There was a pause to suggest she was thinking. “We are having a meeting tonight. But you can come over, if you want to. It’s no bother. Honest.”

I arrived at Mary’s apartment right in the middle of the meeting. A woman with dark curly hair was talking; slowly, pensively. “I have got so many hopes pinned on this aeroplane. It’s gotta come through. It’s gotta.” She paused to adjust the cushion. She was slightly overweight and very over anxious. Brushing her fingers through her hair, she continued. “Steve and I have a good relationship. We are planning to have a child now. We can’t really afford to raise a child. The aeroplane is my only hope. If it doesn’t come through soon, I don’t know what we gonna do. We gotta move it. Fast.”

“You are right. We gotta do something.” This tall, exquisitely slim girl, a walking advert for Playtex bras, was very conscious of herself. At intervals of about two to three minutes, she would examine various parts of her attire; first it was her hair, then fingernails, then she kept pulling her skirt hoping (or pretending) that it would suddenly increase in length and cover the remaining four-fifths of her legs. “We gotta do something,” she replied to herself. “You know, it’s difficult in this city to find a guy who isn’t gay or married. Mario and I are getting on well now; we have a real relationship going. He is just a cook. Don’t get me wrong. He is a real hunk, my Mario. And it’s a fashionable restaurant in uptown Manhattan. But he is not well paid. I earn for both of us. I am getting lots of assignments now, but who knows? In our business, anything can happen. Anyway, it’s a very short career, being a model. Maybe I got another two or three years. Who knows? I can’t afford to lose any money. We got to see this aeroplane through. We gotta.”

She then turned round to me. “Have you come to buy a seat on our aeroplane?”

I was taken aback at her question. “What aeroplane? What seat?”, I mumbled to myself, shrugging my shoulders in reply.

“Oh,” said my friend Mary, bringing coffee from the kitchen. “Poor Zia, he doesn’t know what’s going on. I will explain. Better still, you explain it to Zia, Alfred.”

It turned out that Mary and Alfred’s new journey was called Aeroplane (or some variation of a flying machine). “It’s a game,” Alfred explained. I noticed that whenever he was intense, which was quite often, his thick bushy eyebrows would become more pronounced. It gave weight to whatever he said. “But it’s much more than a game. It’s a movement; a spiritual movement. A journey. It promotes confidence, brings people together and at the same time rewards people financially. It’s a way of making friends and having relationships without travelling. We believe it is the future, as it’s also the easiest way to make money. That’s why everyone in New York is playing Aeroplane.”

“Sounds like the stock market,” I retorted. “Actually it started in California, where big money is changing hands. Within months it swept through the entire country. Everyone is playing aeroplane,” Mary said, with unreserved, ardent zeal.

I looked at Alfred, whose intense face told me he was preparing a long explanation. “Each aeroplane has a pilot and two co-pilots,” he began. “There are eight empty seats. Each seat can be bought for $1500. When all eight seats are sold, the pilot collects $12,000 and leaves. The plane now divides into two, and each of the co-pilots become pilots of the two new planes; two of the passengers become their co-pilots. Each plane now has six empty seats which have to be filled with new passengers. And so on. So you go in with $1500 and leave with $12,000. Simple.”

“You do need to know a lot of people to make an aeroplane fly,” Mary continued with her enthusiasm. “And if you don’t, you soon get to know a lot. This is where the idea is so good; it brings people together and makes them work for a collective good. The idea is based on establishing trusting relationships. Since I started playing, I’ve made numerous new friends. I’ve already made $12,000. Now I am pilot of two aeroplanes and co-pilot of another two. Alfred has made a lot more money.”

“What if you haven’t got $1500?” I ask. Alfred was ready for my question. “You can start off with as little as $150. That buys you a seat on a chopper. And if you have more, you can get on a rocket – and fly to the moon! $5,000 in; $40,000 out.” Alfred had a gleam in his eyes.

“I’m flying a chopper,” Nelle, Mary’s teenage daughter, jumped in. “But it’s stuck. We need to do something to make it move. Do you want to join our chopper?”

“One of my aeroplanes isn’t moving. We have three empty seats. That’s why we are having this meeting. We hoped you would buy a seat on this plane.” Mary looked straight into my eyes.

“That would be good. Get things moving a bit,” said the woman with curly black hair who wanted to get pregnant. “Yeah!” exclaimed the model who was going to marry Mario, the cook. 

“Come on, Zia. You are guaranteed a return of $12,000. What could be simpler?” Mary was now turning on the persuasive charm that had made her a popular radio show host, and which was now responsible for launching her on public broadcast television. Alfred looked at me as if to say, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you recognize a good thing when you see one?”

I knew I was in trouble. Deep trouble. Usually on such occasions, journalists resort to a time honoured tradition of making prosaic excuses and leaving. But there was no way I could get out of this journey. I bought a seat on Nelle’s chopper. It was a thwarted journey; the chopper never flew. It did, however, teach me an important lesson. Journeys of relationships never go anywhere. This is why I would rather stay put. Besides, I have a very good relationship with my home.

 

Ziauddin Sardar’s latest books include “Mecca: The Sacred City” and “A Person of Pakistani Origins”.

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Ziauddin Sardar

Ziauddin Sardar

is a writer, intellectual and scientist. A researcher of Islam, he is also interested in links between culture and science. Some refer to him as a postmodernist thinker. He feels that we are living in a “post-normal world”.