“He paid twenty thousand to come here. He has to work and doesn’t go to school at all.”
June 28, 2012
Part 2 of an Open City series profiling undocumented New Yorkers. (Read Part 1 here.)
On a warm Friday evening last fall in Richmond Hill I decided to cycle out for chapaatis—fresh Indian bread to accompany my home-cooked dinner. At the nearby Gulab Jamun Indian Restaurant, a squinting teenager calculated receipts at the cashier. I placed my order, and waited outside in the cooling air. After a few minutes, the sky became inky, and, with a hungry growl, a storm fell. I huddled underneath the red canopy, joining three patrons who had come out for a smoke. Walls of water enclosed us. An older man with a beard and an orange headwrap began speaking Punjabi to me. His clean-shaven friend interrupted him: Was I Indian? I looked Italian. After a humorous, circular exchange, we became acquainted: bearded Gurdeep; tall, clean-shaven, and loquacious Johnny; and Raj, a 24-year-old with an ox-like frame. When Johnny finished his smoke, he insisted that I join them inside until the rain subsided.
“Hello! Hel-lo!” Johnny and Raj called out loudly, one after the other, in mock-American accents. Peeking out from the kitchen was the young waiter: “Ek minute, please.” He seemed to do everything: busing, taking orders—even cooking. As we waited, Raj explained that they all worked on the same construction site. Shouting “Hel-lo” was how they got each other’s attention. Onsite, Johnny was the foreman. Gurdeep and Raj were heavy lifters. I pictured wobbly Johnny with a yellow hardhat and a clipboard. After work on Fridays, the three of them got together to eat and drink, Johnny said. Gurdeep clarified: “They drink. No sharab for me. These are my friends, I watch them.” Johnny confided that he met weekly not just to celebrate but also to mourn. After his wife’s two miscarriages, he had resigned himself to being childless. Raj clasped his back and Gurdeep told him to continue praying. Johnny opened the bottle he was holding.
The conversation turned to me. As an Indian, Johnny said, it was not good that I didn’t speak Hindi fluently. His mood improved, however, when he found out I was a teacher. He lifted his eyebrows, tilted his head and muttered, “That is an honorable profession.”
“I am young, I am lifting things now, but I too would like to go back to school,” offered Raj. These men left their spacious villages and status in Punjab and moved to cramped quarters in Queens. They worked daily with their bodies; Gurdeep’s tanned forearms were like planks of wood.
The spicy paneer and pakoras were finishing. I was fishing in my pocket for money when a young, smiling teen, dripping with rain, came in with some groceries. He exchanged greetings with Raj, who teased him. Raj looked at me, and then, as if remembering something, said: “Dev, come here.” The younger boy handed his bags to the older one, hung up his jacket and obeyed. He had a pleasant, oval face and bits of hair darkened the corners of his mouth. Raj became serious and said: “Tell this teacher where you go to school.” In halting but practiced monotone Dev said, “Saint Mary’s.” His eyes did not meet mine. “Teacher,” Raj implored me, his volume increasing, “ask him where is this Saint Mary’s!” I did. Dev, visibly nervous, opened his mouth once, twice. Unable to speak, he slowly backed away to the kitchen with a fixed, mute smile.
Raj doused himself with whiskey and looked at me. “He paid twenty thousand to come here. He has to work and doesn’t go to school at all. I didn’t have to do that.” As he spoke loudly, openly, Gurdeep implored Raj to stop. The mood at the table had dampened. Clutching my cold, bundled chapaatis, I rode home carefully through the wet, evening streets. I moved like I had rocks in my pockets, heavy with a secret.
I did not return to Gulab for a while. Richmond Hill is Little Guyana: I had been reading a history of Guyanese Indians. From 1838 to 1917, the British brought East Indians to South America under the brutal indenture system. The possibility of an Indian boy, in bondage, so near, felt too much to bear. After a few weeks, I mustered up the courage to return. It was a Tuesday, and the place was empty. As usual, the older, squinting boy was at the register. I ate quietly, watching bhangra videos of Preet Harpal. Dev popped his head out from the kitchen with several bags of food. Seeing me, he said, “Teacher,” and waved. He was wearing the white, stained outfit of a cook.
After I finished, I spoke a bit to the register boy. He opened up when I asked about their gulab jamuns, the round syrupy-sweet treats displayed in the counter, which he enjoyed. His name was Vish, and he and Dev lived nearby.
Two months ago, as spring began, I biked past nearby Smokey Park and heard a high-pitched “Hel-lo!” Vish and Dev were waving to me, smiling. I waved back and kept cycling; I hadn’t expected to see them bouncing around in the middle of day. Moments later I thought of Gurdeep and Raj, hoisting materials under the sun somewhere.
A few days later, I am shocked as I pass by Gulab Jamun. Its signage has changed. The economy, still cratering, continues to devour immigrant businesses like gooey sweets. The canopy is now sky-blue. A sign hangs: New Management.
I see Vish and Dev walking through the park the following weekend. Dev is wrestling with a Sikh boy. I ride over. Vish asks me if I am going to the kabadi match later on. I am; my father told me of the wrestling stories from his childhood, and I am eager to see this sport. They too are excited. Gently, I mention the management change at the Gulab. Dev smiles broadly as he releases his friend: “Yes, you see…we are… finally free.” I nod. His words hang in the air, like a question, like an answer. They say good-bye, politely, and begin wrestling again.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.