The Greyhound bus finally arrives, but my box of books is lost in transit. Three people, including me, sit there arguing with the manager about how this has been the consistent principle of Greyhound, and how its time they took responsibility. After three days in the bus, this is the final straw. I would have spent about the same amount of money if I had tried to get a cheap airline ticket, I realize belatedly, instead of spending another hundred dollars in transportation and hotel charges. But there is nothing to do. Here I am in Albuquerque, a day before school started, stuck in a small town of superb suburban sprawl and no public transportation. I call up the Yellow Cab, and I call the Zia Hotel, prominently displayed in the Albuquerque's information booth.
“You are Indian?” the very Indian voice at the other end asks me.
“Nepali,” I answer.
“You are alone?” the woman says, with the curiosity that tells me I am once again stepping into a very small, very surveilled world.
“Is that a problem?” I snap. I am in America, for god's sake. People are not supposed to be asking me that question.
“No, no.” says the voice at the other end, hastily. “I just wanted to know how many people there were.”
The Zia Hotel, I realize too late, is a dilapidated motel with flaking blue paint and rickety planks nestled in-between downtown and the posh area. Three straggly characters are hanging out in the stairs – a Native American woman who doesn't look towards me; a young white man, in his twenties, his eyes peering out to the world with the haunted look of the abandoned; and a thin, weedy man reeling drunkenly in a red t-shirt splattered with white paint.
I push the smeared glass door, but it will not open. “The bell. The bell.” The three of them yell at me. “The bell!” they say, as I fail to grasp that the door is locked from the inside. I look around desperately, trying to see the bell. Finally I locate it, on the side of the plank of the wall.
The door is opened by a middle aged Indian woman with broken teeth and a warm smile.
“Come in,” she says, giving me a conspiratorial look. “Bring your bag in here.”
She makes it sound like somebody could make a snatch for it in the five minutes it will take me to check in. But I drag my heavy bag two feet into the room. It is a long passageway, converted to a convenience store, stocked with bright, clean bottles and tins with colorful labels. It is a contrast to the dingy, drab porch. A long counter slices the room in half, horizontally. The Indian woman stands behind it.
“You are staying one day?” she asks me.
“I'll leave tomorrow morning.”
“I'll charge you twenty then.” It is more than advertised on the billboard, but I do not ask any questions. She gives me a key marked 203.
“I've put you in the back, so you won't be disturbed. This key is for 207,” She says, looking at me meaningfully. I do not ask her why the key for 207 says 203. I am sure there is an explanation, but it seems like not the time to ask about it.
I give her the three dollars for the key deposit, and am about to leave.
“Twenty dollars,” She says, eyeing me grimly.
“I'm sorry. I didn't realize I had to pay right now.” My voice trails off as she looks at me as if she suspects that I will walk off any moment without paying the bill.
“Somebody will help you put your bag away.”
A man in a pink cotton shirt, with strange still eyes and long blonde hippie hair carries my bag up the rickety wooden stairs. He had just been standing in the office. I assume he is a resident.
“Over here.” I beckon to him as he starts walking off towards 203. He puts it down outside 207 without a word. There is something about his eyes that make me feel like I am staring into the eyes of a man on the run.
“Thank you.” I say effusively. Thoughts of serial murderers and young women disappearing from motels cross my mind. He looks at me and can read the thoughts in my eyes.
“Don't worry about it,” he says as he leaves. His voice is a deep cultured East Coast voice.
I put my bag down and look around the room. A smell of urine, like it has been seeping into the dingy brown carpet and the old furniture for the last three years, hits my nostrils. It is acrid, and makes it painful to breathe. The heat has been keeping it in gentle circulation in the room. There are five grains of dried rice on the table with the telephone. The lock in the door has apparently been cut twice, and the chain hangs limply, with no metal implement on the doorjamb to receive it.
I decide I cannot stay here for the night. I have to call the Yellow Cab and get out of here, even if it means forfeiting my deposit. Now I know why the woman had insisted I pay today, and not tomorrow. I lift the receiver and try to dial out. A cheerful dial tone trails off into dead silence each time I hit a number.
I decide to go down and see if I can find a bank. I need to withdraw some money if I am to plan an escape from the Zia Motel. I walk out of my room, and lock my door. In the next room, I can see a man with terribly thin limbs lying on the floor, leaning on the bedframe. He looks straight at me with a glazed, terrified look in his eyes. We stare at each other for a few seconds, and then I walk away.
The Native American woman, the man with the haunted eyes, and the drunken man in the red t-shirt are still sitting on the stairs.
“Do you know where I can find some food?” I ask them.
“Over here. El Paso,” say all three, eager to be of assistance.
Then the man says: “What kind of food place? Do you want a restaurant?” He looks at me intensely, as if he suspects that I am one of those rich broads who frequents fancy restaurants. I am dressed in my sleeveless brown dress and green bangles.
A burrito is fine, thanks, I say.
“Over there. I'll show you.” Says the Indian woman, walking with me.
“What's your name?” I ask as we walk.
“Shelly.” She says beaming, giving me a hand to shake.
At the edge of a major highway, she stops and points across. “Over there.”
The burrito is dripping with yellow cheese.
“Do you know a bank around here? An ATM machine?” I ask desperately. The young woman behind the glass window pops her head out, looks at me blankly, and says with a heavy Spanish accent: “Oh, maybe down there. I'm not sure.”
I ask three people walking down the street. Nobody knows where the nearest bank is. I wonder whether people survive on a barter economy here, or they are so used to cars they can only drive to their nearest, most intimate banking institution.
I walk back to the Zia Motel, resigned to my fate. The three people are still hanging out in the stairs.
“So where you from?” I ask Shelly, the Indian woman. She said she is half Cheyyene, half Navaho. She had left Phoenix fifteen years ago because there was nothing there, and it was hot. So she came here, and looked after the office when the owner was not around, and made sure the residents had toilet paper.
As I stood there eating, I noticed a faded sign on one of the posts. Halfway home for young adults, it said. I was a bit confused. Did the motel also functioned as a half-way home during off seasons? My understanding of motels was that they were institutions for temporary residents. This house seemed to be full of people who looked like they had been living there since the bomb went off in Hiroshima.
An older woman with big blonde bangs and a bright pink blouse came out and sat on the stairs with me. She was followed, very quickly, by a long woman who was so thin her t-shirt hung on her body, and the huge frames of her glasses hid her face. I had a sense that the two of them were coming to suss the new resident out.
The blonde shakes her head in silence as she sits there on the steps and counts a huge handful of quarters with the painful concentration of somebody who is counting out a very important amount of money. “Angel, do you have enough?” The long woman shakes her arms out and asks the blonde.
Angel shakes her head anxiously, then puts them back on the ground and recounts them all over again.
“Hello.” I say.
The long woman looked at me. There was a moment of silence. Then she said: “The federal attorney was shot and killed and they finally realized that they made a mistake, but since the Indiana federal judges did not want to admit their mistake, they kidnapped me and took away my military uniform - I was in the Army, where they do brainwashing and other experiments, and put me in the federal court in charges of killing the attorney, but since there was no evidence they could not let me off because there was no evidence, and therefore it proved that the federal court had been right to prosecute and the American judicial system and the psychiatric system was a big scam, and the federal attorney had been killed and they were still after innocent people without proof and I know that people are out there dressed as military to harass people who did not kill the federal attorney…”
This was addressed to a man with military pants and a big, built body who arrived briefly in a racing bike, disappeared into the building, came back and unlocked his bike, gave the federal attorney's murderer a dirty look, and then left again.
“What do you think of the federal judges?” I ask Angel, wondering if she can enlighten me about her friend. The woman seemed to make complete and logical sense with each sentence. And yet, when I listened harder, all of the sentences did not link together. Her story was a bit like Escher's drawing of the house that looks like it leads somewhere and seem to make complete sense, until you look really closely and you realise that it actually leads nowhere. The woman, like the drawing, was making me doubt my own perception. Maybe she was a fugitive of the McCarthy Era, still hiding because she didn't realize that it had been over for the past four decades.
Angel shook her tinted blonde curls and started counting her quarters again. “There she goes again,” she muttered, as her friend started looping her story in incredible, brilliant logical sentences that encompassed everything from the US military system to the loss of modern sanity, without a beat. “Telling the same story over and over and over again.”
A malnourished man came limping down the verandah in a red tracksuit. A car stopped and disgorged a flamboyant couple, an Indian man with a cowboy hat and a blonde straight from a B rated Western movie. Only she came nearer and I realized she had a white plastic implement on her throat. It looked like a upright plastic capsule and appeared to have a hole that she could close off with her finger, like a flute, after which she proceeded to speak in a whisper.
“I paid her fourteen dollars but I still owe her nine,” she whispered. “Where is Daisy? I need to talk to her.”
“ Oh, she just left, then. She left to go to church. To her mosque.” Shelly replied. She talked about Daisy in the hushed tones that people usually reserve for Very Important Persons. In the tone of Shelly's voice I suddenly saw how they must view Daisy: as a woman with a small empire, riding around in her car and her fur coat, all of her minions waiting for her beck and call. Shelly has a black fungus like growth on her cheek, and having shaken hands with her and then eaten a burrito with the same hand I am gripped by paranoia. I can feel the black fungus slowly spreading in my stomach linings.
The motel, I began to realize, was peopled by people on the margins of life - junkies, alien kidnapees, Indians with lost souls and schizophrenics.
“And why are you here?” I ask Angel with mounting anxiety. The place makes me feel like how my bus-seat companion Sarah had described her childhood in Arizona. "I felt I would never get out of here," she had said. They will suck me in here for ever.
“I am here because I happened to be here,” She replied.
That's a good reason as any, I reply.
I had a brief moment of paranoia as I wondered if the owners were dealing in heroin, and if so, I was going to get framed and busted for something that I would never know about as I ended my life in a maximum security prison in the state of New Mexico.
I take out my chupi, a small knife that I had bought from a Tibetan nomad in the mountains of Mustang, and stuck it by my bed. The shower scene from “Pyscho” was not far from my head as I got into the tub and opened the rusty taps. I left the door open, in order to have easy access to bite any aggressors who might show up at any moment. The door had one flimsy lock, and it looked it had been broken in already.
The phone rings, shattering the urine saturated, stuffy heat silence of the motel room.
“Hello, Tara?” The bright voice of the owner. Instantly, all my anger falls away. They should warn people about this place, I was thinking. They should let unknowing people walking out of the bus-station that this place is a transitory home for disturbed youth. But as I hear the kind voice of the woman, benign, completely uncomprehending, I realise that I am on a different plane.
“My daughters are going to the mall.” Her voice continues. “Would you like to join them? They are a little bit younger than you, but they are good girls.”
“Thank you so much.” I say, all my anger melting away. I sincerely appreciated anybody who would take me away from this urine smell at that moment, for any length of time. “I will come right down.”
I walk down. Shelly is still sitting on the steps, the left side of her face powdered by some dark fungus, her eyes furtive as she looks at me halfway. I try, without success, to start up a conversation with her when I see a red car arrive. There she is, says Shelly. A teenage girl in a short bob drives up. She gets out of the car, looks straight ahead, and gives no acknowledgement of our presence. I try to catch her attention, but she gets out and rings the bell without looking at me.
A woman in her mid-twenties, with shoulder length hair and flowing mauve cotton pants, opens the door. She is brown as henna, with a smile that reminds me of small towns baking in the heat of India, bread frying in hot oil, bangled hands clapping out the rhythm of large weddings.
“There she is,” she says, a smile breaking open her face as she sees me. “Tara, this is my sister Ruhi. She is coming with us to the mall.” She informs her sister.
“Oh really.” The teenager is cool, slightly curt. She is crisp as a potato chip in her short bob and a no nonsense denim overall dress.
“Hey baby! Give me a ride, give me a ride.” A man starts yelling from the balcony. Ruhi looks straight ahead, with no sign that she has heard any of the commotion, gets in the driver's seat and drives us off.
She is nineteen, I find out. In college in a biology program. She wants to be a doctor.
I am confused by the sudden shift from a halfway home to a causal, suburban reality that pervades the car as we head out to the mall. Do the sisters ever talk about the people who live in their motel? Are they even aware of the poverty, the mental illnesses, the welfare lifestyles that surround them? Or is this complete denial one way to create a transparent, plastic boundary that allows a teenager to live in the ghetto and still go to medical school?
My first instinct of irrational anger and confusion wants to blame these two women for the poverty and misery of their mother’s tenants. How could they not see the unsanitary depths of poverty that their tenants were living in? How could they make their livings from such direct exploitation? Zaida looks at me and talks about her grocery store with such warmth and openness I feel silenced. What could I ask her: By the way, have you noticed that half the people who live in your motel seem to be mentally ill, and living in abject poverty? And by the way, how do you feel about that?
“Dad was saying the milk had run out. He was asking me where he could get some more, so I gave him Jeff's number and asked him to give him a call later.”
Zaida turns to me and explains: “We have just started a convenience store, you know. It's so difficult, the business. We started that three years ago and still we have no profit. We just break even.” She looks at me directly in the eye. I have barely met her for half an hour and already I feel like I have known her all my life.
They are from Kutch, in Gujarat. Their grandparents moved to Kenya. They had grown up in Kenya before moving to the US eight years ago. They have that warmth of people who grew up in a tight-knit community, and who can radiate a sense of inclusion without even trying.
The business is hard, she explains. A friend of hers was supplying the convenience store with milk. They put a sign saying: $1.49 for three gallons and the milk ran out in two days. So now they had to get some more.
We stop at the mall. “We are going to a birthday party after this. I hope you will come with us.” Zaida says causally. I am charmed by their easy, informal inclusion.
The two of them head towards Gap Clothing. They start browsing in the sale section. Eventually, they pick a grey shirt. “I think he has one of these grey shirts, Ruhi. Are you sure he's not going to be wearing that tomorrow?” says Zaida.
“I can't remember.” Says Ruhi.
“How do you guys know what he will be wearing tomorrow?” I ask. This omniscient knowledge strikes me as incredible. I didn't know what I would be wearing tomorrow, how could these two girls know what their friend was wearing on his birthday party?
“Well, you see, we see them all the time so we know what they wore yesterday, and we know what they will wear tomorrow. We also know that these three brothers share their clothing, and one of them is moving out to college, so we are getting him this grey shirt even if he has one like this already since he's going to lose half his clothing in a few days.”
We drove up to a glitzy diner with red neon sign saying: COME HERE FOR FOOD. We walk up the wooden partition, and behind the screen is a long table with twenty Indians. Ruhi and Zaida say hello to Hasina, the wife of the birthday man. It is going to be a surprise party, so he is not here yet. I walk behind them and sit down at the table. There are hugs and kisses. Ruhi sits next to a young boy and talks with him intensely all night long. Zaida holds conversations with everyone, talking on her cellphone every once in a while. The men ignore me completely. I feel conspicuous in my tattoo and short sleeved shirt.
I start talking to a couple from Kenya with the desperation that overcomes uninvited guests when they find themselves in a strange party. She is a community nurse, working in mental health counseling. She had a pointed pixie face, and henna red hair. He is in hotel management. He is wearing his safari hat, and looks like a South American. They are Ismaelis, she tells me. They are East Indians from Kenya.
Hi, I'm Salma, says a beautiful young woman who sits next to Zaida and sits chatting with her. We are best buddies.
Zaida tells me that there is pressure from her parents to get married, that they said she could always marry now and go to school later, but she wanted to set herself up first, have her business before she got involved with anyone. Yes, she knew all the men here, they had grown up together. She felt like they were kids, always going to clubs. One of the men had recently gotten married, to a woman from Vancouver. Her parents wouldn't mind if she chose her own husband, as long as he was a Shia Muslim.
Finally, Ruhi decides to drive home, and I go with her. “Salman and I are in the same class. Its good to have him there, so I can have someone to study with. I want to have fun too, when I see all my friends going off to have fun. But when I know he's studying, I know there's somebody out there who's studying with me.” She drives with the consummate skill of a born American. Her sister, on the other hand, still doesn't know how to drive.
“Now I can't study if he goes home. If he leaves, I go too.”
She drops me off. “Well. It was nice to meet you. Keep in touch and come down and meet us during the weekends.”
“Pest control! Pest control!” somebody bangs on my door the next morning. I wake up, my throat sore, having dreamt terrible dreams that my best friend from college, Naomi, was being murdered by her boyfriend. I open the door to see the friendly face of Daisy, the owner.
“Wait. I'll leave,” I say, as I see the two fat men waiting behind her, with cans full of pesticides. A sudden horror washes over me. All the tenants, lying wasting in their roach and urine infested apartments, were going to be cleaned by pesticide. They were too stuck in the place, like dogshit brought in on dirty shoes. They were going to be sprayed.
I drag my bag out and ask the pest control men: Can you drag my bag down?
Wait, says Daisy. Let them spray the place first.
So I wait, holding my breath and trying not to inhale any chemicals as the men spray around the bed, and then shake off the drops of pesticides at the end of the rubber pipe into the floor. One of the big men, a beefy man with a kindly face, finally drags my bag down the stairs.
“What is it?” I ask, pointing to the big metal container with the rubber pipe that he was holding in his hands.
“It is Conquer.”
“An orthophosphate. It attacks the neurological system of cockroaches, and kills them,” he says. I have a sudden vision of all the malformed bodies of the tenants in the house. Most of the people in the building wandered around, looking like they had gone through a metamorphosis, transformed into misshapen beings with limp hanging arms and twisted joints. How did the orthophosphate deal with human pests?
“We also use Baygon.” The man speaks hesitantly, seeing the horror in my face.
Daisy comes back, and pays them their twenty dollars. “Thank you, maam,” says the man before he heads off. I make a phone call to the Yellow Cab company to come pick me up and take me to the airport.
“Tara,” Daisy says to me. “Do you drink coffee?”
“Yes,” I answer. “I would love a cup.” I am suddenly overcome by a huge hunger.
“Come on in. We can sit down and have tea more comfortably inside.”
I drag my bag into the small apartment inside their store. There is a windowless kitchen with white formica kitchen cabinets, a big white fridge, and counters. There are giant jars of margarine and peanut butter on the side. Inside is their drawing room, another windowless room full of leather couches, a big television, and a dining table set covered with fake white leather. A chandelier with many glass pieces hands a feet away from my head as I sit down.
The couches are covered with big brown cardboard boxes full of Marlboro cigarettes.
“It is a mess in here. I haven't had time to unpack yet.” She says, as she fixes me some toast. She puts the food in front of me. I eat as if I am starving, which I am after my three day trip across the country. She starts cutting up a papaya.
“You like papaya?” she asks.
“I love papayas. I was just remembering how much I loved papayas. My grandmother used to put them in rice husks and let them ripen.” She puts the plate of fruit by me, then sits besides me.
“It is hard living in the US. We have lived here for nine years now. It has been hard. We cannot send Ruhi to school, she is working and paying for it herself. And Zaida - she wanted to join the pharmaceutical school, but the store was not doing so well so she said she would stay in for a few years and help her father.”
She points to the big TV.
“We get footage from India. And how much it has changed! So many people. And competition, competition, competition. We cannot do competition anymore. Even here, it used to be much less business. But now its starting to be competition.” She looks worn and tired.
“Do you think you will stay here in the US?” I ask her.
“I want to go to Canada. Ruhi is a citizen of there. But she wants to stay here. She wants to make it here.” She says. “We have already spent nine of our years here. It takes long time to get business started, so we have to keep it going.”
The bell rings outside. Daisy leaves to answer. I sit there, looking at the mess on the counter. There is a half sliced bread on the table, and bags of wilting vegetables. I suddenly realize that the unsanitary conditions are not striking in these circumstances. Both the kitchen and the living room have no windows. They are simply partitioned cubicles from a larger room. I can understand suddenly why this family can tolerate the residents as much as they do. The crowded, unsanitary conditions are part of life.
She comes back to me and says: “Let us sit outside. People are coming and ringing, we can sit out there and talk.”
A dashing young man walks in. He has big muscles, and a rakish cap over his head.
“Daisy!! Love the dead cockroaches,” he says, smearing the room with his charm. Daisy smiles at him. He walks in and takes a Coke out of the cooler. “Can you put it down in the book?”
She glares at him. “Again? What if you run away and you never pay all this?”
The man laughs nonchalantly. “Yeah, Daisy. I'll do that.”
Daisy looks at him steadily for a moment.
“Then I guess if I'm gone, I'm gone,” he says. And smiles.
She takes out her book from beneath her cash register and writes down the credit that she has issued him. He leaves the store whistling.
“Are most people here long term residents?” I ask cautiously.
“Yes. Ours is a local business, you know,” she says. “Otherwise we would be all empty. Tourists come sometimes, and students, but it would be empty otherwise. Our business is with local people.”
“What do most people do?”
“Oh, they are all kind of crazy people, you know. They are on welfare, social security and all that, mostly. Here you can get money for food, hundred and twenty dollars, even two hundred dollars without doing anything if you know how to fill out the papers.” She says. “People are lazy here. They do not want to work. They want to get their paycheck. They pay their rent with that money. The rest they use on food and cigarettes.”
The woman accused of killing the federal judge walks by at the moment, skipping behind a small black dog.
“In America, its not like our country, where families take care of each other. Here, people are very lonely because they have nobody to listen to them, so they become crazy. But most of them pay their money in time, so I like to not lose the business.”
“What about her?” I ask, indicating the woman who killed the federal judge.
“Oh, she likes dogs and everything. But she is crazy.” Says Daisy, tapping her head to indicate the extent of damage. “She thinks she knows everything. When you first meet her, you think she is a very smart woman, but then you realize that she talks and talks the same story many times. One day, she was calling up the police and everything, and they came and took her away with handcuffs, but not to the police station. To the hospital. But she was good - she called me from the hospital and said she would like to rent the room again, and I could put her things in the basement for two weeks. When she came back, she paid me all the money that she owed me.”
Daisy looks at me, hesitates, then confides: “I think she was beaten when she was a child, you know. And her father and her grandfather was probably angry at her, and told her bad things. That's why she is the way she is now. But she pays her money in time, so I do not like to lose my business. So when she talks, I just humor her.”
I look at Daisy as she talks and realize that this woman has far more tolerance and understanding for the lifestyle and foibles of the people who live in this tenement than any middle class American ever would. For her, the residents were people - lazy, crazy, dirty, but still comprehensible people. She could imagine doing business with them in a way other people never would. My first instincts, to run far away as possible from this environment, returns to me as I watch her talk to an old man who comes in at the moment, buys a loaf of wonder bread, and walks out.
“People here wait for payday, then they all come in, one by one, and pay the rent. The rest of the money they spend on food, and Coke, and cigarettes. Most of these people, they keep moving, from one motel to another. But I try to be nice, in order not to lose the business. Some of them have stayed here for three years.” Daisy explains to me.
Angel walks into the room.
“Daisy! It is so good to see the cockroaches falling…” she makes a dramatic gesture to the floor, “Down to the ground, instead of crawling up on the wall. And now I have fixed the fan on the windowsill with some tape, and now it actually feels cool. I am such a happy camper.” Says Angel, doing a little pirouette.
“And you won't believe this - today I got a call from a buffet company, and I am going downtown to work for three days at the convention center. I am going to be serving the buffet, handing people coffee and all that. Doesn't sound bad. I don't mind doing that. And on top of it all, they pay me for it, can you believe it? All I have to do is supply the pants and the shoes, and they will give me the shirt and the tie. So I have three days of work.” Angel is so happy she cannot stop talking. She sticks her finger into her ear, and scratches her hair once in a while. Already I see why she would be fired after three days. There is an odd consistency to her tics, inspite of her seemingly calm and strong exterior.
“And this afternoon, I am going down to Taco Bell to have lunch at one. See, everything eventually falls together. Everything comes together, I knew it.”
I am so glad, says Daisy.
“Taxi!” yell the three people sitting in the stairs. The Yellow Cab has finally arrived. Daisy, with the help of the woman who killed the federal judge, and Angel, drags my bag and drops it in the boot.
“Thank you.” I say to them. “Thank you.” The woman who killed the federal judge waves triumphantly, then limps away. Angel waves to me kindly.
Daisy says: “Come down on the weekends and visit us now.”