Heart of New York
The snow-flaked, fog-bound skyline of Manhattan loomed out at him as though through a powerful magnifying glass.
His family had been promised a suite from which they could "experience the breath-taking vista of magnificent skyscrapers while sipping champagne from your balcony." No skyline could be perceived. The giant buildings stood so terrifyingly close that they obliterated any sense of perspective. Through the swirling maelstrom, row upon row of offices soared to dizzying heights, bringing on such claustrophobia that he had to turn his back to retain his balance.
Why had he consented to come to this seemingly forlorn and inhospitable city, and at this time of the year?
Each Christmas, for a decade now, Paradise Island, Bahamas, had beckoned his family to sunshine and warmth. A steel band welcomed them at Nassau airport, enthusiastically rattling out their favorite Christmas carols to a Caribbean beat. Ducking into the nearest washroom, they immediately abandoned their -40C winter garb for shorts, t-shirts, and crocs, which would sustain them over their two-week sojourn. The weather colluded, with warm 70F temperatures and cool tropical breezes culminating in perfect sweat-free harmony, day or night.
Christmas Eve was celebrated with a traditional Bahamian lunch buffet savored at the British Colonial Hilton overlooking the palm-fringed, azure and turquoise sea with its flotilla of humungous cruise ships. They'd catch a ferry, a stone's throw away from the hotel, back to Paradise Island, then float on rafts down the lazy river that meandered through the island resort of Atlantis.
When they were boys, his two kids loved the Bahamas as much as their own home in Calgary, Canada. But as they morphed into teenagers, rumblings of discontent grew ever louder.
"Bahamas? Not again? Why can't we go to New York for a change? That's where the action is." This from Chris, the younger of the two, now nicknamed "The Monster." He had blossomed from an unappetizing, continuously colicky baby into a fully-fledged hybrid Goth rapper with his
spiritual Valhalla in Harlem.
"I thought you loved the Bahamas?" his father retorted. "Do you really want to spend Christmas snow-bound and stranded at LaGuardia airport?"
The Monster may have been a Goth rapper from hell, but he was a smart and accomplished conspirator. At the next family summit, his poor father was outvoted three to one in his bid for Christmas paradise.
Now, here he was, tottering backward into a comfy chair, overpowered by the giant edifices of Manhattan.
His reverie was interrupted by a storm of voices.
"Pops, my buddy Dinesh is here visiting with his mom and dad. Can we meet up?" the Monster asked in a syrupy tone.
"Pops, Saks has a sale on Armani leather jackets. The Book of Mormon is playing. Can we go?" Alex, "The Poodle" (named after his hairstyle—or rather the lack of it), glanced up from his laptop pointing to an "I luv NY" website.
"Mum, where do you want to go?" Their voices rose in chorus.
"Bing's coming in by train from Boston. Can we pick her up at Grand Central Station?" Her soft Filipina pleading won the day. None in the family could refuse for fear of hurting her. Besides, Aunty Bing was their favorite.
"Don't forget your gloves and scarves!" she warned, as they departed.
He peered at himself in the tall mirror by the door. Where were his shorts and t-shirt?" His oh-so-comfortable golden crocs? He saw himself in black jogging pants and some old battered black Rockports—he still refused to wear winter boots. Instead of a down-filled winter jacket, he wore a hand-me-down leather jacket with a thin lining. Underneath, he compensated with a chunky dark blue sweater to combat the cold. A bright orange-and-blue striped bobble hat crowned his head, always slipping upwards into a pointed cone before tumbling sideways to the ground, while his elastically-challenged jogging pants kept sliding down. He had forgotten his gloves.
Stepping out of the hotel onto Central Park Avenue, he could see nothing but fog and flakes of snow softly falling in slow-motion accumulating like dandruff upon his shoulders.
Suddenly, the weather changed. A howling wind bit into him. Lines of taxis across the road blocked any sight of the grand old park. Even the taxis could only be seen when they started up and their headlights penetrated the fog.
"Let's take the subway," the boys said.
In a flash, they were gone, and he was left clutching his wife to follow them into the void. He heard a clatter of clip-clops and almost ran headlong into a horse's face. Was he hallucinating? No. Horse-drawn carriages were operating joy rides across the park that he couldn't see.
The couple skidded to a halt at the entrance to the subway. The boys hurtled up the stairs towards them.
"Pops, the ticket machine's broken. We can't get in. We'll have to take a bus. Look, there's one."
A blue and white bus emerged through the fog, crunching to a halt.
The thickset, bulging-eyed black female bus driver stared out at him through her thick, black-framed glasses. Mammy stepped out of Gone with the Wind come to intimidate him.
"Where's your MetroCard?" she insisted.
His family stood behind him in the biting wind and snow, along with half-a-dozen passengers stamping their feet, impatient to escape the winter blast.
"We don't have a card. The subway machine's broke. I have cash." He handed her some dollars.
"We don't take cash!" Her voice rose to a significant decibel.
Close to tears, the wind howling in his ears, he beat a retreat joining his family out on the street.
"Hey! Who told you to get off my bus?" she bellowed imperiously.
"But you said..." he snapped back.
"Come in and sit right there." She pointed to the handicap seats behind her.
Confusion, despair, and her steely glare penned him in his seat. Passengers streamed past them in relief, and the bus proceeded. It occurred to him that, in his haste to escape the cold, he didn't even know if they were on the right bus. He leaned forward hesitantly. "Excuse me, but are you going to Grand Central Station?"
"No. We go past it but don't stop." Her demeanor softened. "Where are you folks from? Don't you know you need a MetroCard?"
The driver glanced back at them just as she attempted a lane change. A deafening honk was heard within inches of them. She had almost bumped into a taxi. She remained unfazed, still waiting for an answer. His eyes surveyed his family. His wife seemed petrified. The Poodle had covered his face with his hands in embarrassment. The Monster glared at him. They had squeezed in beside what appeared to be a pre-revolution Russian dowager, wrapped from head to foot in plush brown fur, including her hat. She stiffened at the intrusion.
He smiled feebly at her. "We're from Canada. It's our first time here."
Still driving, she turned her head toward them. A fleeting smile lit her face. Was it his English accent, or the fact they were from Canada, or motherly pity for his bedraggled family?
She stopped the bus in front of Grand Central. "Next time the machine's broke, knock on the office door beside it. Someone will come and help you." She moved to one side, reaching out her hand. "Here, take these."
She handed them route maps and bus and subway schedules. Again, she waved him away when he offered to pay, then vanished, along with her smile into the maw of ongoing traffic.
Back outside, the bitter Atlantic wind assaulted them once again, reminding him of his first equally frigid winter in Calgary.
Each day, he would stare out of the floor-to-ceiling window at the back of the ninth floor of Gulf Canada Square. Mile-long freight carts flew across the crisscrossed railway lines, puffing and bleating their way into the horizon with the wind and snow blowing every which way to slow them down. Why had he sought so cheerfully to leave England and, prior to that, Africa, to arrive at this Siberia of the North? BOREDOM.
At the age of twenty-four, he was a qualified Chartered Accountant with a well-paid and respectable career ahead of him. Did he really want to spend the rest of his life commuting to London from his suburban home? A path, routine and predictable, lay in front of him with an obligatory maisonette and silver watch at the end of it. He was single and craving adventure when an ad enticed him to apply, partly as a joke, to an accounting firm in Canada. A place called Calgary—a queer juxtaposition of "Cowtown" and modern oil boom with a Scottish name endowed upon it by its querulous Calvinist founding fathers.
"You're mad!" his all-knowing mother expostulated.
"But it's the fastest growing city in Canada. It's swimming in oil."
Recent years in England had been an economic nightmare. Margaret Thatcher had waged war on unions and specifically coalminers in Wales, leading to unremitting strikes, riots, and blackouts amid blizzards and deep snow—dubbed “The Winter of Discontent.” In training, he had accompanied his manager to Wales and Sheffield and Gateshead to close down coal mines and steelworks where proud and tradition-bound workers were forever discarded on the rubbish heap of redundancy. There had to be a better place to work and live, somewhere with a boundless future.
"You can't even make your own bed" were her last words of admonishment to him before he boarded the plane for the seven-hour flight.
He was now a "Team Leader" with a glass-fronted office facing a bullpen of carrels full of trainees to assist him in managing the accounting assignments of his employer, Collins Barrow, Chartered Accountants.
Instead of an English dingy, smelly attic, sharing a large oak table with three other incumbents, he was privy to an air-controlled gray oasis of sterile loneliness, equipped with a standard desk, one reclining chair, and a single bookcase identical to his neighbor. Every action formalized, any deviance strictly proscribed.
One gloomy day, eaten up with remorse at his chosen life path, he rebelled.
From a storage room of broken and discarded furniture, he borrowed a coffee table—a sin beyond redemption in the eyes of his colleagues. On this, he emptied a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. His wayward action brought nothing but dismay and consternation to his fellow inmates. Was it the jigsaw puzzle itself or the fact that it was all red that caused the furor? He couldn't tell. His action cemented their notion of how wrong the management was in recruiting such an oddball. And all the way from England too!
"Old Collins won't like it," Gary, a colleague, whispered to him, unsure of how to break this precious intelligence to him.
Mr. John Ewart Collins was the bane of the office, the senior partner of the firm his English father had founded. Tall and beefy, he barely spoke, yet exuded a whiff of disapproval in his wake whenever he stepped out of his office to consult his minions.
A day later, the reckoning came in the form of a knock on his door. It was the boss himself.
"Is that yours?" Collins pointed to the puzzle.
"Yes," he answered in a panic.
"Well, it's a mess."
"Sorry, sir. I'll clear it up." He began to box the pieces.
Collins eyed him thoroughly. "You've got it all wrong."
“To do this properly, you must sort the pieces into groups, not pile them into heaps. Look..."
One minute he was standing up, his six-foot-six frame blocking the glass front of the office. The next, he was on his knees sorting out the pieces into straight ends and rows of similarly shaped pieces, like a child playing with his favorite box of Lego bricks.
"We do this every Christmas at home. To do it right, you have to be organized and methodical. Like an accountant.”
An hour passed. Staff walking by at their usual brisk pace stopped sharply and about-turned. Some brought their colleagues to witness the spectacle.
At noon, John Collins asked if he cared to join him for lunch. Passing the window overlooking the train lines now obliterated by the swirling snow, the boss remarked, "You came from Africa, didn't you? Did you ever see snow there?"
"Yes sir, at the movies," he smiled impishly.
The weather in New York had grown ever colder, ever wetter, and yet a large grin plastered his face as he remembered Old Collins. His family stared at him in bewilderment as, for once, he led them through crowd-beset Park Avenue to enter Grand Central Station.
About the Author
The child of Ismaili Muslim parents, Emil Rem was born to a middle-class East Indian family living in Tanzania. At the age of five, amid the political upheavals in Tanzania at the time, he was uprooted and shipped off to England, where he was brought up by a working-class English family. His teenage life was spent commuting between one culture and the other. Eventually, considering himself an alien to both cultures, he emigrated to Canada. Emil started writing to pass on his heritage to his two teenage boys. The stories compare individuals he met on his travels to those left behind or long dead in Africa and England. The Lowestoft Chronicle was one of the first to recognize Emil's writing, publishing his short story ‘Masquerade' in June 2015. Since then, Emil's stories have been published worldwide, and are available in full on his website www.chasingaphrodite.ca.