New Rochelle, NY 1994: My parents have left after spending nearly a month with me here in the US. This is not vacation anymore. My new life starts here and now. I wanted this. I planned for this. My then boyfriend; a rock n roll guitarist named James (name changed) and I had devised a grand plan to get out of India, me first – since mine would have to happen with complete parental involvement and support. And here I was. Alone. For the very first time in my life. No one to lean on, no one to turn to except myself. Except I didn’t know how. I had never done it before. Never been completely totally alone. Yes, my parents traveled, without us, but they left us with family, or friends who were closer than family, and there were maids, building people, just people who knew us and would watch out for us. Because that’s how the community was in my world. Everyone was up in each other’s business. Mostly annoying, but then, when stuff happened, it was nice to know there were people out there watching out for you. Even the elevator operators in the building (liftman), and the watchman (security guard) knew me. Growing up in India, this always made me nervous, because they were so loyal to my mom, that I was sure that one of these days they would rat me out to her when she returned from a trip with my dad. “Aapki beti to pura raat bahar rehkar, subaha subaha doodh wale ke sath vapas aati hai!” (your daughter stays out all night and gets back when the milk man arrives) Yep, on a side note, our milk was delivered fresh to our door each morning, as was our produce, meat and even fish. And oh, this was way before home delivery service was ever a thing here in the US! This is the age-old way that housewives got their food – fresh! No grocery stores. Outdoor markets that were not nearly as sexy – perhaps they would have been, if we called them farmers markets – but to us, they were the ‘backward’ way that we lived. No brick and mortar market places, produce, dairy, meat, poultry and fish nearly from the source itself. But I digress; but before I go back to my new life here – it’s important to me to point out, that the going out all night was purely to dance the night away in clubs with friends who I had grown up with. We had this tight knit group of friends, most of us who had known each other since kindergarten, others who had come along and become as close as if we had known them since kinder. Clubs closed at 4am, we’d go get breakfast at an ‘omelette cart’ and then get home ‘with the milkman.’ It was always a wonder that my mom didn’t ever hear of these shenanigans. Never mind that I was well past 18. If she had her way, I would have had 11 pm curfews till I turned 30!
So back to my master plan. I arrived USA in August of 1994, and James was to arrive as soon as he could. His prospects weren’t so good. He was a single guy, a musician, not intending to go to college. Rather, intending to apply for a tourist visa to USA and just never leave. Mind you, even though this was before ICE and DOJ. It was simply INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) and even though it was tough to get an American visa (lines at the consulate were notorious for running around 2 blocks with people camped out there for a full day or more), he managed to get a visa and made plans to arrive NY in the summer of 1995.
But, here we are, Fall 1994.
I found a job at the local Boston Chicken and also worked as a barista at a coffee shop, long before Starbucks came along. New Rochelle, like most suburbs had terrible public transportation, so either I was waiting a long time, or I was barely making the bus. I dropped my class load to 1 class per semester; both to stretch out the money, but also so that I could work more as I muddled through figuring out how much everything would cost to live. As a tourist or a student in the United States, you don’t have the right to earn too much money. After all, the intention is that you’re there either just to visit, or then to go to school. So while you can work on campus you’re not supposed to really have full time work. I don’t know how I skirted this, or how a company like Boston Chicken hired me with the credentials I had then. But I am so glad they did – and till date, I have a fondness for Boston Market food and Thanksgiving continues to be my absolute favorite holiday. I had a lot of people take chances on me through the years and for this I am truly grateful to them, and to this country that gave me a chance to make a life of my own.
My parents had started me off with 3 months rent, so I didn’t have to worry about that. My biggest expense at the time were phone bills; mainly to James still in India, who I missed terribly. Long distance calling was terribly expensive, and I am still mortified when I remember that I had one phone bill that was nearly $2,500!
I made a friend named Maria who worked in the International Student affairs office, she was from Morocco and was always so chic-ly dressed. Distressed boot cut jeans, white collared button down shirt with the sleeves scruffily folded; which for me added to her allure, a fedora and motorcycle boots; the kind that had the square toe and the round metal buckle on either side of the ankle area. Hers were worn in by years of use and I thought they were the coolest boots ever and resolved to save up enough money to buy a pair for myself someday.
Maria was as broke as I was, so routinely we would go to the North Way Diner across the street from our college, and make a meal out of a plate of fries perfectly salted and crisp on the outside and soft inside; and endless refills of coffee. This was dinner and it cost us all of $6.50.
In December that year, I got a call from the International Affairs office on campus that my student visa status had been denied. Within days, I received a deportation notice that asked me to leave the country within 30 days. I was devastated. I remember being on a bus with a couple of friends from work at Boston Chicken wondering what I should do. One of them very practically said – just ignore that.
I had just gone from being legally in the United States to being considered an illegal alien (yep, that’s what we were called back then!)
I couldn’t keep my job at Boston Chicken, probably because of the immigration status, but also because it didn’t make me nearly enough money to survive. I remember weeks when all I could spend on groceries was about $20. Frank, the Greek owner/manager at the North Way diner is the reason that I didn’t starve. One of my work friends recommended an Indian restaurant in NYC where all the people who worked there were Indian and that they might be sympathetic to my status. The restaurant turned out to be a fine dining establishment in midtown Manhattan within a 20 minute walk of Grand Central Station. The manager there was indeed sympathetic. He did require me to ‘get a social security number.’
Back to my very resourceful colleague and for $100 he got me a social security number and card to match; no questions asked. Now, I went from making $4.50 an hour at Boston Chicken to making $2,25 an hour, but the tips more than made up for the pitiful hourly rate. The hourly rate check became the little bonus I would look forward to, each week. The pay stub showed all the taxes that were being deducted on my behalf. I was grateful every single day for this opportunity to work; to prove that I could live this life on my terms, in my way and without any help from anyone. My parents were a huge presence in my life; and I knew that they were just a phone call away if I ever needed anything. I was determined not to need anything as best I could. My father’s batch mates in New Jersey kept tabs on me ever so often but again, I worked hard not to need anything.
For the next year, I would leave New Rochelle on a bus by 9:00 am, taking it to the very last possible stop; from there I would get on a subway to Grand Central and walk to the restaurant, getting there by 11:00 am, just in time to set up for the lunch rush. After lunch ended at 2:30 pm, we would clean up and then had to ‘kill time’ till the 5 pm evening session. Since I lived as far as I did, going home wasn’t an option, so I would study there, or nap, or occasionally when I wasn’t exhausted from being on my feet, walk around NYC. Dinner shift would end by 11 pm, and by the time we cleaned up and closed up, it would be after midnight. I would walk to Grand Central and take the last Metro North train back to New Rochelle and take a cab home to my place. The restaurant had slate floors and since we were a fine dining place, wearing sneakers was not an option; even though I was only 21, my back hurt every single day for being on my feet as much as I was. I kept up this grueling schedule 6 days a week, going to school one night a week.
But I loved every minute of it. Yes, there were days where I despaired, and days when I really didn’t want to work so hard, but for the most part, I was grateful and mostly disbelieving that I was actually living here in the United States.
My little attic room on the 3rd floor of a single family home within walking distance of my college was furnished with a bed and a desk. I had to climb a staircase through a hatch in the floor to get in and out of my room. I had a window to the outside, sloping walls which I covered up with pictures of my family and Jon Bon Jovi and oh, a wired telephone.