My father left his hometown in 1985 to pursue his dream of making it big in the west. He has told me stories of his first years there and it is really hard to believe some of them aren’t fiction. I’m putting together a collection of his tales, you judge for yourself.
Chapter 1: Anywhere USA
‘The whiskey one is 1L and is 36% for $8, but the beers are 4L and 8% for $7’, said Pratap doing some quick math in his head. ‘So, we get more alcohol per $ with the beer’
‘Whatever you say, let’s get out of here’, I said looking around the almost empty Costco. ‘It’s getting late and I still don’t know how I’m getting to Ann Arbor tomorrow’.
‘Will you relax? It’s a big deal this apprenticeship you’ve been invited to give. We need to celebrate properly. Next step, the American Dream’
‘Would be a bigger deal if they paid me earlier. I can’t afford to get there’
‘Pfft.. just hitchhike, it is very common here.’ Pratap said without looking up, ‘Now the Vodka gets us…’
‘Man! Get the whiskey. Let’s just go home.’
It was the fall of ‘86, I, a fully certified MD from India, had flown into Amrika to see if I could find a job.
After a month of sending out resumes and waking up to hear Pratap’s (whose house I was crashing at) 5 year old daughter go ‘Uncle! Another rejection’ I had finally got an offer to do an apprenticeship in the university hospital at Ann Arbor – with the caveat that I would only start getting paid when I got there.
The first thing I did after a customary ‘Hoorah’ with Shweta (the 5 year old) was go to the local bus stop. Well, actually, the first thing I did was go to the local library to find a map to see where Ann Arbor actually is, then I went to the bus stop. Where I quickly realised I had enough money to either buy a bus ticket or a place to stay for the first night in Ann Arbor.
On the day, I woke up, predictably hungover and picked up my backpack to go stand by the side of the road with my thumb pointed east.
I got picked up fairly quickly, ‘Huh’, I remember saying, ‘Pratap was right, this is fairly common’ and the really nice gentleman said he’d drop me at the interstate (American for highway) where he said I could get a ride to Ann Arbor.
At the interstate, buoyed by how well my first hitchhiking experience was going I stuck my thumb out again. After waiting about 20 minutes another car pulled up. This time though it was a police car.
Apparently, it is illegal to hitchhike on interstates or ‘limited access highways’ – which is something they don’t tell you in the movies – an argument the officer did not buy. He took me down to the police station saying ‘Ignorance of the law is not a legitimate reason to break the law’ and started writing up a case report.
‘Where are you from?’
‘What do you do’
‘I’m a Doctor’
‘Huh? A Medical Doctor? Not a you know.. faith healer?
‘What the hell are you doing hitchhiking?’
After explaining the vagaries of american medical licensing and my predicament of roof vs bus fare he said, ‘Yep, it’ll be freezing in Ann Arbor’ and agreed to drop me to a spot in the road where it was legal to hitchhike.
After about an hour, it was close to midday by now, a car with 3 people in it stopped, asked me where I was going and agreed to drop me to the bus stop in Ann Arbor.
America is beautiful. The landscape is majestic and just so so big. Those 4 hours looking out the window and talking to these young people so bright eyed and full of optimism brought back many enthusiasm to make my way there.
We pulled up at a petrol station just outside the city and I went to use the facilities. My co-passengers were waiting for me when I got out and informed me my share was $15.
‘Share of what?’, I said
‘You know fuel. For the car’
‘But I thought it was a free ride’
‘What the F… why would I give you a free ride? There isn’t anything here you get for free’
‘How much do you have?’
‘About $10, But I need it for..’
‘I don’t care, fork it over. Now.’
The mood in the car got a lot different after that. Gone was the unbridled optimism and what replaced it was an understanding of the law of this jungle. Everything came with a price.
They did, true to their word, drop me at the bus station. And after some terse and perfunctory goodbyes I went into the bus station and thought to myself, ‘What the hell do I do now?’
I had no money, was more than a little hungry and stranded at a bus stop on a freezing Sunday afternoon in Michigan. And that pesky hangover hadn’t gone away either. I swear ever since turning 25… but I digress.
I couldn’t even call Pratap since he’d be at work so I ambled about for a few hours trying to catch someone’s eye to get some help and got summarily ignored.
Resigned to sleeping in the bus stop, finally at about 7 PM I walked to their phone booth with the last of my change to tell Pratap about my predicament. I happened to pick up their phone and noticed that it had a few doctors with Indian sounding names who lived locally, so to try my luck I started calling them.
At about the 5th call I got on to the phone with this doctor who worked at the university I was supposed to start work at in the morning. To my genuine surprise after a brief conversation he agreed to come pick me up at the bus stop. I half expected him to not show up. But, he came to pick me up and I had dinner with him and his wife.
The next morning he drove me to the university. As I was saying goodbye and many many ‘Thank You’s I asked him how I could repay him. He thought for a second and said, ‘the next time you see someone who needs help pass on the favour’.