Friday, May 21, 2010

Getting lucky in New York City

I was towards the end of my exchange semester at Rice University in USA. I had seen nothing of the US until then besides Houston. So I decided to take a week’s trip to the ‘big apple’ or New York City, as more commonly known. I was super-excited. NYC baby! Hellz Yeah! Times Square, Broadways, Empire state building, central park, tall buildings – here I come.

I was staying with a friend of mine who had an apartment in Jersey City, right across the Hudson river, so it was at least an hour’s journey to his place. I landed at La Guardia airport on the 1st of May. As soon as I landed, I took my brand-new, bought-in-usa camera out of my backpack, ready to click pictures as soon as I came out of the airport. However, my excitement took a bit of a hit when I saw the city outside the airport. It wasn’t anything like I had dreamed of. ‘Chill. Just wait for sometime. Airports are on the outskirts’ - was what I told myself and slung my camera on my left shoulder instead of putting it in the backpack. I bought a week’s worth of unlimited metro card and boarded the m60 bus towards Manhattan.

The bus journey was uneventful. I kept my eyes wide open scanning the view in search of the America that I had imagined. I got nothing. I got of at the subway stop and reached the turnstile across which I had to take my subway. Obviously, you have to swipe your pass at the turnstile to cross through which I did. The sign indicated – ‘Swipe Again’. Alright. I did. Same sign. Same action. This continued for about 10 minutes. I tried all kinds of speeds possible. Superfast, excruciatingly slow, casual medium pace, the hurried New Yorker swipe, the cautious touristy one, the desperate traveller swipe – nothing worked. Besides me, there was a guy simply standing and watching me. He did not speak much English (not at all uncommon in NYC). He was indicating me ways to swipe a card, but nothing helped.
I was getting frustrated. So I went to the lady at the ticket-counter. She took my card, tested it and then asked me to swipe it at the machine in front of her. I did. Didn’t work. She gave me a hard look and said dismissively – ‘if you gonna swipe it like that, then I can’t help you’. My expression was ‘WTF – it is such a pleasure to meet helpful, polite people like you’. I tried a couple of times more and then walked dejectedly back to the turnstile. Right across that stupid machine was the subway that I had to take. I gave it a couple of final swipes and then said – fuck it.
If I am from any city in the world, it is Delhi and I take a significant bit of my ideology from it – the city that makes you street-smart like possibly no other. I had been a good Samaritan until now, but now it was time for ‘jugaad’ – the undefeatable motivation to find a solution to any problem in the world, usually by slight bending of the rules.

So I took of my backpack, pushed it across under the turnstile and then crouched down and voila – I was through. I did not stop to look around and hurried through with my backpack, just in case someone had been watching. Cool as a cucumber, I reached the platform, took the subway that I wanted, put my backpack down and relaxed. This was to be extremely short-lived though. The doors were closing and I subconsciously patted my left ribcage area to make sure that my camera was there. I hit empty air. Alarm! Pat myself all over. Not there. Holy shit! Check backpack, just to make sure. Not there.
Panic! Catastrophe! Where is my new awesome camera? Had I just lost it within 2 hours of arriving in NYC. I started sweating all over. I had no idea what to do. At the back of my mind, there was also the thought of being in NYC for a week and not having a camera. The idea was hideous.

The only solution that presented itself was, get down at the next stop and take the next train back. The ride until the next stop was the longest ever. I mean, literally the longest over. Took like an eternity to reach the next stop. It was spent pondering over all the possible locations where I could have possibly left my camera and cursing myself. I rushed out at the next stop and went to the ticket counter. There was a cop also inside. I asked the cop that I had lost my camera at the previous stop and please call them and ask them to look for it and see if they can find it. The cop listened to me and then said something to the woman behind the counter. She started writing something. I thought, this was USA, things happen instantaneously here after you approach the police. He would call up his buddies near the previous station, they would swarm the station and look for an unidentified camera and find it in all probability. Hollywood dreams went crashing down after the woman handed me a note with the number of the lost & found. She said - 'If anyone found the camera and returned it, this is where I would find it'. Wow! That is really great. Everyone is so helpful here. After someone finds my camera, and knows where to return it and then decides to return it, then I can call up and find it. Awesome! Can you not just call up the ticket counter there? There was no network inside the station, so I found a payphone on the platform. It’s coin slot was blocked. Really NYC. What a welcome. While I was banging on this phone, the train going back arrived. I got on it, hoping against hope that I had left it at the ticket counter and the ticket-lady had kept it with her. I was reaching back in like 20-25 minutes.

I rushed out of the train like there was no tomorrow and ran to the ticket counter. Panting, I told the lady that I might have left the camera here and did you see anything. She gave me her usual stare that makes Dementors feel like charming little ingĂ©nues - ‘Do you see anything in here. I am in here. So I only know what’s in here. Outside, I don’t know what’s outside.’ I had heard about the lack of hospitality from new Yorkers but she took bitchiness to a completely new level. I was so mad at her, I wished she could see which finger I was mentally pointing at her.

I was dejected and about to cry. I felt lost. I did not know whether to go to my friend’s place or stay here at the station and cry until some fairy angel comes to return me my camera. I walked back to the damn turnstiles. There I saw the same person still standing there as I remembered him last. Besides the turnstiles, simply looking at the crowd. I walked up to him and asked if he had seen my camera somewhere. I might have dropped it here. He heard me for 3 seconds. Then he lifted the jacket that he was carrying on his arm and lo and behold – underneath it was ‘my precious’. My camera was right there in front of me – untouched and prettier than ever before. He gave it to me and I checked the contents. All there!!! I felt cold water washing over me. This did not just happen. But it did. He pointed that I had dropped it when I had pushed my backpack beneath it. I had dropped my expensive camera on a New York subway station with hundreds of people going through every minute, rushed back around 25-30 minutes later with all hope lost and found a person standing there waiting (it seemed like it) to hand me my camera back.

Thereafter, one guy besides me said that my savior wanted to go across the turnstiles. He did not have the ticket to do that. I had the unlimited pass so I said ‘of course’ and I swiped him through (in one try!). After swiping once, I cannot swipe until 15-20 minutes. So did I wait for that long? Hell no! The delhi-ite in me refuses to accept such rules. I just pushed my backpack across again and keeping my camera safely tucked with me, I simply crouched through the turnstiles for the second time in 30 minutes in NYC.
(Sorry to disappoint if you had different expectations from the story after reading the title :))