At the bottom of the bridge over Welland Canal, the overhead sign flashed once. ’30 minutes to 1 hour wait at the Peace Bridge Crossing.’ On cue, butterflies in Arun’s stomach emerged from their cocoons.
The first time, Arun and his family crossed the border to the US of A with their friend and family. They were pulled over and Arun was subjected to questioning by tough looking security agents. He did not have a job at that time and had migrated to Canada just a month before. Although the friend vouched for their safe return back, the patrol officers flexed their combined muscles. Finally he retuned the passports with a terse warning. Decoded, it meant that jobless people were not welcome; they let them through this time. Arun, Chitra and Arjun had since crossed the border, on an average, three times a year, twelve years in a row. The questions have reduced, wait times depended on the season and time of the day, but the butterflies remained constant.
“Perhaps you should let amma drive,” Arun raised his voice over the din of hindi music.
“He has done this many times.” Chitra pulled down the sun visor and looked at Arun in the mirror.
Arun eased his grip on the arm of the chair. His crossed legs flapped in rhythm to that of the butterflies. After 23 minutes and 34 seconds, Arjun rolled the window down and put the van in park. Chitra handed the passports to Arjun who passed it to the seated patrol officer.
“Where are you going?”The officer checked the passports one by one.
“When will you be back?”
Arun had a few theories. Border patrol officers were trained to sound intimidating; they never smile; by the time one approaches the officer a history of the car and its occupants would be on the screen; based on this information visitors would already be flagged green, amber, or red and were treated accordingly; always answer to the point and keep it short; let the woman or the person who can best explain their relationship to the occupants of the car, drive; he had voiced his opinions every time they crossed the border. Chitra and Arjun kept the windows open and turned deaf ears; the theories went out their merry way. Chitra stopped asking from where he got his theories after the fifth crossing.
“You are all set.” The agent returned the passports without making eye contact. The butterflies and Arun’s body parts stopped flapping.
Dunkin’ Donuts: – As one enters the US of A through Peace Bridge, one is in the city of Buffalo in the state of New York. Arjun pulled into a coffee shop. Arun stepped out and stretched back and forth. Bright evening sun shone on his thick forearm. The watch with black dial was synchronized daily with the atomic clock. He watched till the second and minute needles aligned over 12. 7 o’clock. He walked inside behind a giant woman, without touching either of the doors. Chitra was scanning the overhead menu; Arjun was seated and sipping his chocolate drink. ‘America runs on Dunkin’. The tag line in white over red ran across on top of the wall behind the counter. He looked around; the place had the effect of an unfinished canvas by an aspiring artist.
Outside, two stalwart women, who vied for the position of Dunkin’ Donuts’ poster models, dug into substances oozing and sticky. An even bigger woman stood in front and aimed a device at them. After a minute, she gathered her belongings covered by a colourful bed-sheet deftly tailored and swept into the shop. With the device aimed in front, her battering-ram-of-a-left-hand banged the glass doors open. Inside, she turned a full circle and took us all in with a small video camera. Arun collected his coffee and made way for her. The bed-sheet had five bands of colours – pink, dark pink, orange, sage green, and white – two inches high and fell over each other over to the ground over her dark skin. She left with her loot shortly.
A thin elderly Chinese couple nibbled around a table. An older gentleman sat near the door. Among Arun’s many talents was his ability to identify ethnic groups. The Jewish man, Arun thought, was dressed well in jeans, red and white checked full shirt and golfing sneakers. He sat next to the recycling bin with two large opaque plastic mugs on the table in front of him. He slowly stood up. He must be only in his early sixties. With deliberate movements, the Jewish man went to the counter and got two pink coloured sachets. He tore them, dropped its contents into the larger mug, stirred it, kept the stirrer on a napkin, held the glass with both hands, and took a long sip. A little more fluffy hair on his face, some heavy padding around his waist, and he could pass off as Santa Claus in a department store. Then Arun saw the Jewish cap.
Manhattan:- The smells woke up Arun. The windows were down. The cool night air stank. Arun’s impression of Manhattan was rooted in images of a glittering skyline. Behind the facade, he now saw, prowled humans and demons from all over the world basking in its neon lights; traffic lights signaled other traffic lights as far as the eye permitted; headlights kissed brake lights; small mounds of black garbage bags lined the pavements; and the smells and noises confused the senses.
“Doesn’t it remind you of Bombay?” Chitra leaned forward and looked up at the tall brick and glass walls disappearing into the darkness. “And so much of history.” Familiar signs came up. 5th Avenue. Madison Avenue; some of the best advertising campaigns came out of this glass corridor.
to be continued