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A round peg in a world of square holes...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

When so little means so much...



A mixed bag of feelings tonight. There's this Mexican restaurant opposite campus, on Franklin Street, that goes by the name of Henry's. It is staffed by 3 very friendly ladies. They have a limited command of English and I have a very poor grasp of Spanish, so our conversations are usually restricted to formalities such as, "Hola! Como sta? Mui bien?" "Gracias!" "Adios!" More complex exchanges would require creative hybridization of English and Spanish, generously garnished with lots of pantomime.

Despite this, we would always be able to communicate the gist of our day across. Their cheery "Hola, Amigo! Como sta?" will always brighten my day when I step in. They would know by a glance whether I am enjoying a rare siesta or being an ant on a hot plate by the manner in which I consume my lunch. Some of my notes have enough red and green salsa stains on them to play a game of Risk on. Often, I step in there and order chips and salsa just so that I can read Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak to blaring Mariachi music. Don't ask me why, but Spivak seems easier to understand with Mariachi music in the background and larger-than-life posters of bikini-clad women touting Corona. Loco, yes, I know.

Tonight, they found out that I was going to be leaving the area in short order, and not only insisted on giving me a free dinner, but cooked a double portion too. I tried to put the money in the tip jar but they were quick enough to hide the tip jar under the counter. I tried my best to insist. They tried their best not to understand English. They won.

The high that I have been feeling all day--since this morning (it is amazing how one voice can bring so much joy, but I digress)--was temporarily disrupted. I was touched. Greatly touched. But it was also tinged with a sense of melancholia. A kind of sadness that is felt when one only realizes the existence, significance or value of something (or someone) just when one is about to lose it (or him, or her). How often do we touch lives in passing, never realizing the significance it has on people? I largely view myself as an outsider, someone always on the periphery, looking in. It is a role I have long accepted, even gotten comfortable to. Sure, it does get lonely at times, but by the same token it also grants immunity from the fascism of group identity and the quagmire of group politics. It also frees me to indulge in fringe activities. In short, I see myself as a nomad. Thus, to suddenly realize that I mean something to these 3 ladies who I can barely converse with; who I only see a couple times a week; stunned me: I am part of the community--their community. A fajita steak dinner is probably an hour's wages for them, and yet they did not hesitate in giving it as a going-away gift for someone whose name they do not even know. Come to think of it, I don't know the names of any of them either.

I think some of the most generous and beautiful gifts are those given spontaneously, without expectation in return, and sometimes, to complete strangers. Years back, when I was living in Palo Alto, rushing for the train one drizzly morning, I hopped on before I realized I didn't have enough cash on me for the fare. After playing catch with the conductor for 15 minutes--slinking from carriage to carriage--he finally cornered me in the last car. As I was futilely trying to convince him that I do have money by showing him credit cards and ATM cards (cash ONLY please!), just before he was preparing to kick me off the train at the next station, another passenger intervened and paid my fare. When I approached the good samaritan later to thank him and to get his address so that I can send him a cheque, he simply replied, "Just help out the next person in your position." It is something I remember and practice today. Whether I give a spare tire tube or a patch kit to a biker with a flat, or a quart of oil, a gallon of coolant to a stranded motorist, I refuse compensation--just help out the next stranger.

When the food was ready, all 3 ladies stood before me, with smiles, and hugs, and blessings for my journey ahead.

I still don't know their names. But do we need to know names to care for someone? For them to mean something to us? For them to be part of our world?

What's in a name? I rather know his or her thoughts, dreams, hopes, hurts, regrets; what makes them tick? What makes them cry? What makes them laugh? What makes them them. What makes them more than a name.

I have always envisioned myself as a nomad, distantly viewing in from the periphery, never knowing that in my solitary journey, I have been creating a community whose borders span beyond the horizon of my hopes.


Postscript
I did manage to slip a twenty into the tip jar under the counter when the ladies were all looking away. (See? I told you, I have long arms.)

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