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Sunday, 24 May 2009

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Cents and sensibility

Legend has it that most immigrants, before they came here, believed the side walks of New York are lined with gold. They are not.

But those with a keen eye for anything that glitters will not be disappointed. For, on the pavements splattered with blotches of chewing gum are often seen small copper coins. Pennies. Most New Yorkers hardly ever pick them up when they see one and let them be if they happen to drop one, or two or even ten on the ground. No one here bothers about this one cent coin no matter how hard hit they might be financially, because there is nothing you can do with a cent these days. Except make a friend.

Thus a penny it was, that helped me get to know a guy called Universe.

Yes. His name is Universe and he lives in one of the red brick apartment blocks on Kissena Boulevard. The first time I noticed him was when I saw a penny lying on the pavement near me while I waited for the Q 64 bus to take me to Forest Hills. I said "Excuse me" to the guy standing in front of me as I bent to pick up the penny. "Hey" he said as I opened my purse to drop it next to a dozen others I had collected during these past eight months. "That was my lucky penny".

Feeling slightly embarrassed I kept the penny on my palm and extended it towards him. "Sorry". I said sheepishly. He laughed and asked "I was kidding.You from India?" Even though this question irks me no end I shook my head and gave the usual answer. "I am from Sri Lanka." The bus came just then and we went our separate ways. That was all, that first day.

A week later I met him again while waiting for the Q 64.

He gave me a salute and said "I put Sri Lanka on Google and found out quite a lot about your country. Sounds like a great place for a holiday". By the time the bus came we had introduced ourselves and he had spelled each letter in his name out for me when I thought I had not heard him properly when he said he was called Universe. He had migrated with his parents from Bangkok when he was two years old way back in 1970. I tried to calculate his age but before I could deduct two out of seventy and count the years he out -witted me by saying "No need to count your fingers. I'm forty one". When it was my turn to say how old I was, I kept him guessing. "More than twenty. Less than sixty?".

"Yes. Very clever" I said and was glad to get off the bus just then.

Universe was on his way to the City Hall in downtown Manhattan to get a copy of his son's birth certificate. We travelled on the E train upto Lexington and boarded the 6th train down town.

Before I reached my usual stop at Astor Place I had heard everything there is to hear about the re-election campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg from Universe. Apparently he had a grudge against the Mayor for seeking a third term in office. "How could a billionaire like the Mayor sell himself by saying he understands the average New Yorker?" asked Universe and continued "He's not in touch with the people,look at taxes, traffic fines. The man lost touch a long time ago."

As I listened while the train sped through the dark underground tunnel, I recalled the ad I had seen on TV titled "Middle Class Squeeze," where the mayor is seen talking to people on the street saying, "it's hard to make ends meet . . . I understand these challenges."

"That's not true" said Universe. "He wouldn't bend down to pick a hundred dollar note if he happened to see one let alone a penny like you did the other day. He doesn't mean it when he says I feel your pain..."

I stopped listening to him just then because another speaker who had entered our carriage drew my attention. The subway trains carry strange characters every now and then, and on this day a gentleman dressed entirely in black made a loud speech against the "system".

"Brothers and sisters" he shouted at the top of his voice. "I was not made here. I was imported... '

Amidst Universe's grudge against the M-ayor, amidst the strange gentleman's speech about how he became homeless thanks to Madoff who was now having a good time in prison I heard the announcement "This is the local train bound for Brooklyn. The next stop is Astor Place.

Please keep clear of the closing doors".

I bid a hurried goodbye to Universe as I got off the train.He waved and then, apparently had a brain wave. "I know how old you are.You have to be..."I missed his last words. The doors closed just then and a noise like that of thundering typhoons, to borrow a phrase from Captain Haddock, made by the departing train, drowned out all other sounds.

I wonder if he had guessed my age right. Would you, now that you have seen my photo?

Catch you next week when I meet Norman Freeman at Madam Tussauds.

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