The World in Twenty-six Blocks
They fell in two phases. First, the plain bagel came tumbling out of the window, bouncing silently off of the trimmed grass below. The two slices fell to each side of the point of impact in graceful, simultaneous disunion. As if not content with the absurd actions of its skydiving friend, a sesame bagel followed the plain bagel abruptly, landing with a soft rustle on the flowerbed of tulips planted earlier that spring. A glass window above me with a wax-dripped menorah on the sill slid shut and the apartment building that I had been jogging past was once again silent and still, oblivious to the fact that two freshly cut bagels had been tossed onto the communal lawn below. Surely, within moments the pigeons that New York City is so famous for would crowd around the food and begin to peck at it without hesitation, their ever-changing reflective necks bending back and forth with impeccable speed and precision. I let the obscurity of the bagels subside and carried on racing across the sidewalk to the crossing light. The broad street stretched forth with an inviting zebra walk, but the blinking red light of a halting hand sprang up before me and kept me rooted to the sidewalk.
I wiped a drop of sweat from my brow, my hands numb and dry in the cold December air. I reprimanded myself for not remembering to wear gloves. My muscles eased and my sneakers skidded to a halt on the gum-studded pavement. The pause would add a costly minute to my time. Reluctantly, I leaned forward to stretch my calves and my nose nearly came in contact with a dark blotch of gum. The hundreds of blackened gum spots on the sidewalks of every borough of the city have always reminded me of the spots on the hides of Dalmatians. I would not be surprised if the truth was revealed that the streets of New York had once been covered in the skin of the beautifully spotted dogs, thus staining the sidewalks in a way that seemed so tarnished and yet perfect. Not a single square of pavement in New York looks the same; I can assure you that each is as different and unique from the next as a litter of Dalmatians would be.
The light flashed back to a bright white “walk,” and I sprinted across the zebra walk, passing a man in a large, round, traditional fur hat that the Hasidic Jews in my neighborhood so distinctively wear. He lowered his eyes to the ground and kept his gaze off of me, fiddling with a large brown book against his black coat. I remembered that it was Friday afternoon and he was probably hurrying to get to his family before sunset in order to celebrate the Sabbath, or for him, Shabbat. I suddenly felt guilty about running in tight leggings just hours before Shabbat with my iPod blasting the latest pop-music hits through my eardrums. Had I been a truly good Jew, I would have been at home rolling the challah with my mother, pouring sweet wine, and making sure all electricity in the house was off. .
But there I was, sprinting down West 246th Street on a mission to reach the northern end of Manhattan Island in less than thirty minutes. I watched as the Kosher delis around me shifted to Mexican and Chinese take-out restaurants and as the flattened tops of synagogues puckered up into the steeples and bell towers of Catholic churches. In the Irish pub across the street from the Buddhist “Temple of Enlightenment,” I could hear faint but fast-paced Celtic music accompanied by the sound of quick feet. The streets around me buzzed with the chatter of tires on winter roads and the incessant hum of cell-phone conversations. Adults just getting off from work slipped out their gold and blue Metrocards and boarded an array of Bronx-bound buses. The screech of the No. 1 train above me momentarily drowned out the song in my ears and once again, I was hauntingly reminded of how the first three notes that the subway cars screech as their metal shifts once again down the track is nearly identical to that of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story score theme. I often imagine him riding the subway trains down to Broadway for rehearsal in 1957, finding hidden music beneath the cacophony of the ancient metal.
The song on my iPod changed as the No. 1 train sped down the elevated track. A throng of subway riders soon cascaded down the green-painted staircases, rushing, always rushing, filling the streets already breathing with noise. I cranked up the volume on my iPod and keep running. I flew past men handing out flyers to the latest comedy show in the bar down the block, past basketball courts and swing sets laden with young children soaking in the last few hours of daylight on a Friday evening. I saw the bare heads of young boys, their hair cut short near their scalps, and suddenly my bouncing ponytail failed to warm my own scalp and I pulled my hood up over my ears. Finally, flashing with the promise of the halfway point nearing soon, the fluorescent “DIVORCE – $399” sign in the window of a law office invited me to the start of 225th Street, the last subway stop before the bridge that connects the two boroughs.
I glanced at my watch: 29 minutes and 11 seconds. Forty-nine seconds to make it to the bridge. It’s five blocks away. The adrenaline pumps through me, the cold air beating through my lungs like a whip against the hide of an animal that is too cold to feel the sting. The clouds of moisture that would usually form around my face fly behind me and mingle with the curls of my furiously bouncing ponytail as I race down the Dalmatian skin streets. The last Puerto Rican bodega on the mainland Bronx zooms by me in a swirl of yellow and red letters and sale-priced item signs. Lactic acid sends pinpricks between the muscle fibers of my calves, but I push forward. Finally, in a rush of blood to my head and with air streaming back into my lungs, I pass the starting point of the bridge denoted by the black top beneath my sneakers shifting to the wet metal grating of the bike path. The sun has fallen beneath the Palisades; the last shining beams of gold on the waters of the Hudson River have sunk back to join the pollutants and mutant fish (that is not an urban legend: I once found a fish with three legs on the shores of the Hudson). The darkness envelops the hazy purple Manhattan skyline with an omnipotent authority, and I am forced to press the light-up button on my Timex watch. The verdict is 30 minutes and 17 seconds.
I kick the concrete pillar between the bike path and the shaking highway in frustration. Despite my defeat, I cannot help but admire the winter sky right after sunset. The sun has left a peachy glow around the rims of the Palisades where she took her final bow of the night. Above me, the seven bright stars of the city peek out from behind the fading mask of daylight. In a flood of nostalgia I recall a time when a boy and I took it upon ourselves to count the stars that we could see from a roof in Manhattan on a warm June night. We found the only seven that could be found, but turned to the each other in unison and whispered “eight” as we caught each other’s eyes.
The biting cold in my hands hurls me back to the current December night. The sky is darkening quickly and the run back north will undoubtedly take another thirty minutes (and those irritatingly persistent seventeen seconds). I drink in the last moments of the darkening satin sky mirrored by the ice sheets floating down the Hudson, re-set my watch to zero, and once more begin to hurry past the street sign now sporting fluorescent “IMMIGRATION” in place of the much more somber “DIVORCE – $399.” In the sudden splash of the sun’s dive behind the Palisades, the soft silk above me shifted to the deep velvet sky.
As I ran, I realized that unlike far too many, I indeed had a place to sleep in. My mattress on the fifteenth floor of my beige-brick apartment building would be waiting for my chilled body. Somewhere in that apartment was a passport stating that yes, I was a United States citizen. Further beneath a pile of paperwork would be my parents’ marriage license verifying their intact marriage. We didn’t need the fluorescent signs advertising help for those dealing with marriage and immigration issues, but I feared that far too many did.
As the synagogue where I attended pre-school unfolded against the now velvety sky from behind the tallest church bell tower, I pushed for one last sprint down the street where I had been forced to stop at the traffic light. I looked down at my watch, squinting in the dim glow of the Christmas lights already lacing the terrace railings of apartments that lacked menorahs at their windows, and noted with a surge of triumph: 29 minutes and 54 seconds.
The moment that I walked into the airport the air around me shifted. The foreign magic of the glorious New Delhi sun outside dissolved into the starchy white and painfully Western illumination over cold tiles and huge suitcases being dragged around by middle-aged white couples wearing kurtas over jeans. My loose hair flared around my face. I felt bare and exposed before the world that I had been trying to escape. The United States was only sixteen hours away. I could have cried.
The taxi drive to the airport had been a nightmare for my parents. For my brother and I, it was an eye-opening explosion of rural and urban India, both of us too young to understand the consequences of a less-than-punctual arrival for a flight after a seemingly eternal third-world traffic jam. As we left the suburban towns of Panchkula, rural Haryana rolled past my open window. Dust and the occasional insect flew into my sun-darkened face as the hot air darted everywhere; in my ears, between my lips, under my eyelids, down my shirt, dancing across my skin and between each curled strand of the golden-brown Jewish hair that did not fit my Indian face. Rural Haryana, quite different from the cornfields and breadbaskets of my very own red, white, and blue land of the free, was in full bloom. At the time, the wheat was being harvested and piles of the excess stalk lay in glittering heaps by the road like golden reeds. Dark faced, strong-armed boys and girls bent over the crops, some with plows and some with knives, harvesting, sweating, and smiling with the promise of the rewards the grain would reap.
No red and white barns, chicken coops, or quaint farmhouses lined the rows of fields. These farmers all lived in rough-hewn, multi-family complexes that dotted the landscape every mile or so. These homes included a single floor, light blue roofs, and uniform double paned windows. The harvest festival had just been carried out the night before, so flower petals, strings of marigolds, and incense stubs laced the roads around the houses.
The sweet scent of wild flowers, however, was not the prevailing smell. In 115 degrees Fahrenheit heat and the smoldering dry sun of the Northern Indian desert, it was impossible to miss the dung domes. Farmers here make use of all products produced by the sacred cattle, including the excrement. The brownish-yellow dung is patted into plate-like dishes the size of a large hamburger, left to dry in the sun, and then expertly stacked in domes twice as tall as a full grown man, the patties creating truly magnificent designs on the sides. They look like temples of dung. The patties are then sold to neighboring farmers or commuters as a fire-starting aid. According to my expert cousins, dried cow dung catches and burns like a sponge soaked in kerosene.
Three hours after the last beautiful ‘temple’ of dung patties had passed by my rolled down window, we found ourselves driving, or rather crawling, through the darker, noisier, and heavily packed streets of New Delhi. Girls here strut in traditional Indian attire, but with heels adorned with Bollywood rhinestones alongside their brothers, uncles, and sisters. Less fortunate ones string the back alleys of the forgotten corners of the world, their mouths and eyes thick with cheap make-up and rigid purpose, waiting to catch the eye of another paying client. Most girls in urban India, if not employed in the red light districts, are overly protected by their fathers, uncles, and brothers. I only saw two women walking the streets alone during the entire car ride. One young woman with flaring henna-streaked hair was riding a motorcycle down a crowded street, and the other was an older, hunched figure walking completely alone holding a bag of groceries and strolling down a narrow path as the highway buzzed by her. On the other hand, boys as young as five years old run and curse without adult supervision past sundown. I remember glancing over at my younger brother, imagining the two of us running through the New Delhi streets at dusk, paying one rupee for a greasy treat. In my fantasy, I cleverly remembered to dress up as a boy, tying my long hair up in a bun like a young Sikh boy and loosely hanging my basketball shorts from the United States around my thin legs. We had done it once before, parading me around as a boy so I could play in the park after dark. At the time I was merely eight years old. At thirteen the illusion became more difficult to achieve, and by fifteen we gave up all together and I was forced to retreat to our stucco two-story home when the last glint of the sun was swept from the horizon. I remember tightening my fists with anger the first time that I was told to go home by the rest of the boys. When I made it to the front door, my mother, always trying desperately to assimilate her blonde American self into the backdrop of the Indian suburbs, wanted me to fight for the right to stay out in the park. “Suffrage!” she said emphatically.
“Ma, I can’t be the only girl in India who stays out after dark.” I told her, disheartened. She cleaned the red dirt from under my fingernails and sent me to bed in pink pajamas. The memory still irks me.
As we approached New Delhi, the population and pollution thickened simultaneously, the heat increased, the sun lay back in the Western corner of the sky, the dust flew faster, the mingled noise of merchants, beggars, and impatient drivers screamed in my ears, and my time left in this country, so rich and full of untold stories and hidden joys, ticked by, moment by moment, until the last one slipped away.
The last moment that I was in India, my body sat in a blue airline seat above a runway. My heart was left hidden in some wheat pile, marigold bud, or perhaps a sentimentally pungent dome of dung, as I felt the wheels below the plane leave the ground with a subtle grunt from the metal. I buried my consciousness somewhere in the crummy airline pasta. I rose higher and higher into the inky sky until the uneven lights of New Delhi faded into the memory that I recite here and our aircraft lifted above the clouds. As I ate myself back to consciousness, I was so preoccupied searching for one last oil lamp burning somewhere in the sleepy towns around the city that I failed to realize the millions more that burned eternally over my head.
The stars that night were ethereal, and yet somehow as I stared up at them through the thick glass of the plane window they grounded me in their ancient omnipresence. The stars would always be there, and always had been. It didn’t matter that my world was being turned around sixteen time zones; the stars would be constant. They would be there on an overheated brick rooftop in Haryana as well as on my way home to my chilly apartment building in The Bronx. The same stars would always be watching.
As my eyes listened to the sky tell stories older than any human civilization, my mind wandered to the two worlds that I was between. I was somewhere over Saudi Arabia by now, India already many miles away, and the world that I had called my own in a corner of The Bronx seemed like a vague past and a future, but not the present. However much I wished to be in one steady place, I was not. Aboard an aircraft hovering between two antipodes, I was crossing a delicate bridge in time and space – a bridge that was eerie, but ultimately trustworthy. In a few hours the Manhattan skyline would burn into my retina. I would see the flashing lights of theater bulbs bright on Broadway, the George Washington Bridge where I had watched the Fourth of July fireworks; all of my truly American memories. But that was at least ten hours and thousands of miles away. Miraculously, amidst the turbulence of the night sky and the uncertainty in my own heart as to my forever shifting cultural allegiance, I felt ever so perfectly content. Right here, right now, I was staring up into the greatest abyss of our universe, and at the same time down onto my own strip of heaven. It didn’t matter which direction I was flying in. I was going home.
Saara Kumar, Age 17, Grade 12, Bronx High School of Science, Silver Key