The City Block That Encompassed A Childhood

dropfocus The City Block That Encompassed A Childhood

She was an Indian-American growing up on a block in Bayside, Queens that resembled Sesame Street. Only instead of muppets, she had imaginary friends that kept her company while she played in the dark, cavernous basement of her family home. To the left of her house were the Ongs, who gifted her family a box of fortune cookies every Chinese New Year. The Ongs had four children who were all older than her. Cynthia, the youngest, was her friend, neighbor, and occasional bully. She was fascinated by Cynthia’s older teenage brothers, who’d do karate in slow motion in the backyard (later she’d learn it wasn’t karate but tai chi).

She always wondered whether this was meant to teach them gymnastics or because they genuinely believed it was impossible for children to pee their pants while upside down.

A few doors down on the right stood the Synagogue where she attended nursery school. She remembers a few things about the Synagogue Nursery School. First, they used to wash dishes with pretend dishwashing detergent in pretend sinks and they took their afternoon naps on towels laid out on the floor. Second, if a kid hit another kid, the teachers would line up the students and have them each take a swing at the offender. Last but certainly not least, the teachers would gather them up to go use the bathroom but they had to do headstands against the wall until it was their turn. She always wondered whether this was meant to teach them gymnastics, for distraction, or because they genuinely believed it was impossible for children to pee their pants while upside down.

Further down on the left were the Rabins, who served as local grandparents. They were Jewish and had the fanciest car in the neighborhood – a Cadillac. They were very sweet and bought her the most beautiful dresses, which she would only wear on visits into Manhattan. Every Saturday, she’d catch up with the Rabins on their way to the synagogue and fill them in on what she’d been up to.

Directly in front her house was Queens Community College. She was unsure what to think of it because her parents told her it was dangerous to take a shortcut through the college when walking home from school because some of the college students did bad things, like drink and smoke and have sex. Yet every weekend, for years, was spent attending swimming and violin lessons within its confines.

 Trying to stave off the fear latchkey kids carry with them in their pockets alongside their house keys

Most days, she took the shortcut through the college but didn’t tell her parents about it because she walked home with Mindy Park, a Korean-American girl in her grade who lived between the college and her house. Mindy refused to walk home with her if she didn’t go through the college. Mindy was also the first person to teach her a pop song, “Shadows of the Night” by Pat Benatar. They would sing it together as they walked home and she would continue to sing it on her own as she made her way alone from Mindy’s place to her home, trying to stave off the fear latchkey kids carry with them in their pockets alongside their house keys. Years later, she ran into Mindy during Freshman orientation at a small liberal arts college and Mindy was a bitch. She wasn’t surprised by this. Instead, it was somehow both sad and comforting.

The lots in her neighborhood could have been called “cookie cutter” yet each had a charm all its own. Their own small front yard was sloped and for a long time she thought it was the highest hill she’d ever climb, ideal for sledding or tumbling down into a pile of dried leaves. Their backyard was bordered on each side by trees and they had a simple swing set, which they swung on until Cynthia’s teenage brothers broke it by trying to use it for pull ups.

She learned to roller skate and ride a bike on that block, which meant she scraped her knees and elbows on that block. She played hide and seek and tag in adjacent yards. Her first Halloween trick-or-treaters were neighbors, as were the customers for her first (and last) lemonade stand.

She didn’t know then how many cities, states and countries she would later visit and live in. But years later, when she hears the word “home,” these memories keep her company, now that she has outgrown her imaginary friends.

The Decline Of An Arm Wrestling Champ

easylocum The Decline Of An Arm Wrestling Champ

On my birthday recently I was out at a bar in Rochester with my wife and a few friends. We were sitting at a corner table, 80’s music competing with a football game on screens overhead, the slow build of intoxication easing away inhibitions. Pitchers were being steadily drained and, as is often the case with men robbed of the masculinity that comes from manual labor, an arm-wrestling match was suggested.

“How about it birthday boy?” Bren asks.

Normally I’d beg off, but Bren had the unfortunate beginnings of a mustache growing on his upper lip. If I didn’t attempt to knock him down a peg, what kind of a friend would I be?

“Let’s do it,” I answer.

Space is cleared. Elbows are placed. Palms are locked together. Someone counts it down, “3-2-1-go!” and we’re fighting. Bren gets off to an early lead, I get it back, but eventually he gets my arm down. There are cheers, spicy buffalo wings arrive, and the moment is quickly forgotten. Only I can’t help returning to it throughout the night, replaying how it went down in my mind to see what I did wrong. It sounds ridiculous, but I was genuinely perturbed. Here’s why:

Grade 5, Montreal. I’m sitting in the front row during French Class when the teacher, a Falstaffian figure named Guy, shows up nursing what I would later understand to be a wicked hangover. He slumps down behind his desk, squints up at the fluorescents, and proclaims today to be a “Fun Day”.

We exchanged excited looks. Guy was a notorious flake, a subject of open ridicule by other teachers who were simultaneously envious of just how much students liked him. Guy once held a tasting party with fancy hors d’oeuvres and grape juice in place of wine to show us how true Frenchmen ate. Other “Fun Days” were spent having snowball fights outside and watching French New Wave movies we were clearly too young for. But the suggestion he made that day was the weirdest of all: “Which one of you children is the strongest?”

Guy turns two desks towards each other. Then he selects two students to arm-wrestle, with the victor taking on a new opponent. I hooted and hollered during the initial matches while knowing, along with the rest of the class, who the eventual winner would be.

Eating dried Ramen noodles for lunch five days a week yet still somehow managing to beat up Grade 6 kids with ease.

Karl, the freakishly large class bully. Loud, braying voice. Veiny arms like tree trunks. Eating dried Ramen noodles for lunch five days a week yet still somehow managing to beat up Grade 6 kids with ease. I’d gotten into a fight with him a few months back and he’d broken my glasses beneath a large black boot. Sure enough, once he was called upon he won. And kept winning, leaving a trail of vanquished in his wake.

Down went Danny with the puffy hair and breakdancing skills. Down went Mike who only wore football jerseys. A succession of strong kids, all eliminated. And there sat Karl with a maddening grin on his face, basking in the attention. When I got older, I’d realize he was someone to be pitied. After all, Karl didn’t eat Ramen noodles and wear secondhand clothes to be cool. It was because he lived in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town with a Mom who never attended parent-teacher conferences. But you don’t look at things that way when you’re young.

I wasn’t a contender for anything besides spelling bee contests.

Guy, fast running out of competitors and facing the prospect of actually having to teach something, decides to call on me. Karl laughs. Even Kam, the pretty black girl I’d nursed a crush on since first grade, rolls her eyes. After all, what hope did a skinny Indian kid with peach fuzz and giant, gold-rimmed glasses (check out Anish’s Timeline for a picture) have against such a behemoth? I wasn’t a contender for anything besides spelling bee contests.

Guy places our hands together. He counts it down. Immediately I feel Karl’s strength like a bludgeon. It should have been over in seconds. But it wasn’t.

I felt myself disengaging from the match and thinking about what waited for me back home. A mother steadily descending into madness, trying on new personalities like a woman tries on clothes before a party. A Dad scrambling to keep things together, heating up TV dinners and meeting with doctors as the ground beneath us fell away. And me in my room, escaping into books and playing music extra loud to drown out the sounds of Mom talking to the voices in her head. That’s all I had. That’s all I was. And I felt a bright, uncontrollable rage well up inside.

Karl had been struggling for too long. In his overconfidence he’d given me his true measure. And my thin brown arm was still up. And the rage poured out, overwhelming him even as I remained in that secret place away from it all.

His arm slammed back against the desk. I was breathing fast.

No one could believe it. Guy was so dumbfounded he insisted on a rematch. Same outcome. And then came a mass rush by the other students to set up matches of their own, rows of desks facing each other, girls versus boys, large versus small. Even when the bell rang for recess it didn’t stop. In fact, the fever spread to the other grades in our school so that when I went outside, clutching a juice box in one hand, I was treated to one of the most surreal sights I’ve ever witnessed:

A playground filled with kids spread out on the pavement facing each other. Arms up, eyes bright with the exhilaration that comes from saying no to everything you believed in, every rule that says you can’t. That you don’t have enough. That the strong win and the weak lose. Because if a skinny Indian kid could beat the class bully, the entire world was up for grabs.

Sitting in a bar 22 years later, drinking beer and listening to Phil Collins, I couldn’t shake the feeling of having lost something. That somewhere in this journey from horror to happiness, in building a life I’d actually regret losing, I paid a price. It’s one I’d gladly pay again, but it doesn’t make the realization easier:

I will never again be as strong as when I had nothing.

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Indian Dogs Are Snobs

419116182 0d3f371566 Indian Dogs Are Snobs

On the morning of our third day in Kolkata, my wife and I woke to the pitiful cries of a dog and her puppies in the alley adjacent to my Aunt’s apartment. While animals are everywhere in the city, the sheer alienness of seeing cows dozing on sidewalks and goats bleating alongside beeping cars on the street made their plight seem distant, removed. But the cracked and keening sound these dogs were making was familiar; we’d heard it coming from animals in the States and instantly felt the same kind of culpability.

“What should we do?” Erin asks.

We are sitting cross-legged on the bed in the guest room. The door leading to the rest of the apartment is mercifully closed, offering a few moments to gather our wits prior to being swallowed up by a tidal wave of family get-togethers, excess food, and jet-lagged wandering. The air conditioner is chugging away but I’m already sweating.

“What can we do?” I ask.

Another cry sounds outside. I can hear frying noises coming from the kitchen, where Lokhon, my Aunt’s servant, is preparing breakfast. The heavy stench of mustard oil creeps in beneath the door and stings my eyes. I rub them and try to ignore the low-grade panic in the pit of my stomach.

Erin pulls a backpack onto the bed, unzips it and takes out a few items we’d brought from the States: a granola bar, a fruit bar. “How about these?”

Circumventing the tight, predetermined order of events, even with something as simple as feeding street dogs, wouldn’t be easy.

We exit the guest room and inch down the hallway. I’m holding the snacks and Erin is holding a small metal bowl filled with tap water. We draw in close approaching the living room, where Auntie is dipping a biscuit into a cup of tea. Circumventing the tight, predetermined order of events, even with something as simple as feeding street dogs, wouldn’t be easy. Though in her 70’s, my Auntie has strong opinions, boundless energy, and the mildly disapproving air of a former teacher. Will is respected: courtesy is steamrolled over.

She spots the offerings: “What’s that for?” Face open and smiling, eyes sharp. A powerhouse in a faded white housedress.

“We’re just going downstairs for a second, Mashi” I say.

She frowns. “What do you need?”

“Nothing, we just want to…”

“Lokhon!” she calls out. “Oh Lokhon!”

“It’s fine, he doesn’t have to…” Erin begins but it’s too late: Lokhon’s lined face peeks out of the kitchen. He’s been with my Aunt for years, silently carrying out every possible request, but that only makes the situation harder. The last thing we wanted was to add to the burden of a white-haired man who slept in a shed on the roof.

“We’re going to feed the dogs,” I said. “Ourselves.”

“Which ones?” Auntie asks, and, as though on cue, another cry rises up from the alley. “Those?”

“You didn’t hear it this morning?” I ask.

She nods slowly, but it’s clear this is for my sake. Few Indians keep dogs indoors as pets. Instead they’re left to fend for themselves along with other animals and the vast multitudes of the city’s poor. I realized that to her, the mewling was just another sound you learned to ignore, like car horns and loudspeakers and the endless hubbub of conversation. Picking out a few particular dogs to feed was a little like polishing silverware on the Titanic.

Erin unlocks the front door and steps into the stairwell, committing us. She mouths the words, “Come on” and waves me towards her.

Auntie opens her mouth to say something, then thinks better of it. A sly look comes into her eyes. “Try,” she says. “No knowledge without experimentation.”

The dog was leaning up against the crumbling facade of the building next door. Black fur with white spots. Her nipples were swollen an ugly shade of crimson yet her mewling puppies fought amongst themselves for whatever drops they could get. Around them swirled frantic negotiating at rattletrap stalls, a lorry belching gas fumes, men in dirty dhotis smoking cigarettes and watching two foreigners attempt a good deed.

I unwrapped the granola bar and came up close to the dogs. The mother turned her face towards me. Large, liquid black eyes and a lolling tongue. She looked near death but weirdly cheerful about the whole situation. I dropped it a few inches away.

She leaned down with difficulty, took a sniff, then looked back at me curiously.

“Try the fruit bar,” Erin says.

I do the same with the fruit bar. Again, she sniffs but doesn’t eat. A few of the puppies nuzzle the water when it’s offered but no one touches the food.

The dhoti-clad smokers crack up. One of them says something to me, advice maybe, but I can’t make it out. The dogs continue to starve, ignoring the food mere inches away. The sun is glaring overhead and I can feel the heaviness in the air: it’s going to be a rough day in India.

“They didn’t eat, did they?” Auntie asks upon our return. When we tell her what happened, she bursts out laughing, even calling Lokhon in from the kitchen to share in the hilarity.

“They might later,” Erin says.

“Never,” Auntie says. “They won’t eat American food. They don’t even know what it is. Give them rice, a little sauce with meat and they’ll eat it right up.”

“They’re snobs?” I ask, incredulously.

Auntie smiles and sips her tea. “They’re Indian.”





groupshot 300x200 Welcome!

My name’s Anish Majumdar and I’m a writer of Bengali origin, raised in Canada, currently living with my Irish-German-Lithuanian wife and two mixed-breed cats in Rochester, NY. I started to answer a question: are there others like me? People who participate in the culture of their parents as well as the myriad joys, heartaches and annoyances of American life…without really feeling like they belong to either? I’m fascinated by the unique outlook possessed by the children of immigrants because I’ve spent my entire life walking that tightrope.

6551888983 01ec731f89 Welcome!

I grew up in a grim Montreal suburb known as LaSalle, a place memorable (if at all) for its Eastern Bloc-inspired architecture, French-Canadian rappers, and an unfortunate tendency amongst natives to refer to the place as “Texas” (examples include, “Don’t Mess with Texas” and “Everything’s Bigger in Texas” usually while spray-painting a wall). My parents, who had emigrated to Canada from Kolkata in the late 70’s, worked hard to create a safe haven in our home. There was Dallas on the television, chilli chicken on the dinner table, and, from age seven onwards, a younger brother to record improvised routines with on a battered tapedeck. I think of those long-ago times as “The Nerd Years” primarily because of the godawful glasses I wore, but there was a sense of belonging between the four walls of our home that I sorely missed in later years.

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It’s hard to pin down the exact moment where I transformed from a studious painfully shy teenager into a rebellious painfully shy teenager but my parents can certainly attest to its happening. Sometime during Grade 9 (1994) I must have looked up from my homework, asked myself why I was studying subjects that didn’t interest me, what the point of working so hard was when I didn’t have any friends and hadn’t even kissed a girl…and couldn’t come up with answers. So I stopped studying everything except English and Drama, which remain passions to this day. My grades in all other classes dropped precipitously, but it didn’t matter. I’d become friendly with the popular kids, a motley group of athletes, rejects, and trust fund babies calling themselves the Crook Clan Crew or CCC. I listened to ODB and Elastica. Ingested copious amounts of herbs and psychedelics (FYI: if you’re tripping during a high school dance, it’s time to re-evaluate your life). I actually made out with a girl, which was so heartstopping I nearly passed out. My father had grown seriously worried about me, but he was in the midst of dealing with my mother’s worsening schizophrenia and that had to take priority. I acted in plays, left school three months early to tour with a Shakespeare-in-the-Park troupe, and tried to ignore the loneliness that was becoming a constant in my life.

6551888899 0d6f930082 Welcome!

I spent my twenties acting in movies, tv series, and forgettable commercials in Toronto and Montreal. I got pummeled by Hugh Jackman in The Fountain, played a slimy tv exec in IFC’S The Festival, and became known to Quebec’s French population as Rajiv Amitraj, a hard-up Indian man on a show called Pure Laine. It’s funny, because acting has always struck me as a fundamentally social occupation: you network, audition, take classes and generally try to stay relevant. But aside from a debauched year of theatre school in New York City, a typical day for me consisted of little-to-no social interaction. There would be DVDs to watch, books to read, bills unpaid to worry over, and a terrible fear of losing control of the reins as my mother had. Three years passed with me living a kind of hellish half-life. I got evicted from apartments. Saw my credit rating plummet. Felt soul-sick every time I had to ask my father for help (which was often). I remember asking God, over and over again: what am I not seeing? What lesson are you trying to teach me? Finally, I made the decision, at age 26, to press reset. With nothing besides a duffel bag filled with clothes and a laptop, I crossed the Canada-U.S. border and returned to the only place where I’d felt truly happy: NYC. I worked manual labor jobs found on Craigslist. And in October of 2006, I met a girl who turned out to be God’s answer.

6551889093 97b2cb9413 Welcome!

The past five years have been defined by learning: how to put someone else’s needs ahead of my own. How to be a good friend. How to feel comfortable in social situations instead of doubting myself. Being a good Bengali-Canadian-American is a project I’ll be working on for the rest of my life. The difference is now I have someone to share the journey with.

Thank you for being a part of something truly close to my heart. Dhonnobad!