Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My first visit to the U.S.


I first came to the U.S. on a visit in 1975. My sister and I traveled unaccompanied from Port of Spain, Trinidad to New York City on American Airlines. We were to meet our parents at JFK airport. Our excitement bubbled over during the entire trip. We received our wings from the flight attendant as we stepped onto the plane. Although I had flown before on my trip to St. Lucia, my sister was a virgin flier. Thus, I received a first flight pin when I did not respond after the attendant asked me if it was my first flight. She just assumed it was. Those plastic wings seemed like gold to me and I wanted one.

Unaccompanied kids on flights are often well treated. We sat in first class before I even knew what first class was or old enough to take advantage of the open bar. I always think about this fact when I board planes as an adult. Because, before I even get to my seat in coach, first class passengers are throwing back rum and coke looking at me as if to say “keep on walking to your cramped up space in the back. There is nothing for you up here”. As a child in first class, my alcoholic fix was candy and chocolate.

We arrived in New York’s JFK Airport where our parents swiftly wrapped their arms around us and my mother planted wet kisses on our cheeks. We had not seen my mother in nearly a year and a half and my father in six months. But this was the first time seeing them in their natural habitat – New York City, U.S.A.

My father drove a souped-up Chevy that made so much noise it seemed out of place in an urban environment. We got in the car and my father and mother’s first question was how was your flight? Why is that always the first question when people greet you upon arrival? I appreciate small talk like anyone else. But the “how was your flight” question should be retired.

Just once I would like to respond, “I had a rotten flight! I got mugged half way through the flight by the guy sitting next to me. He stole my money and promised to kill me if I revealed his crime to the flight attendant. Not only that. A baby threw up on my head as his mother took him to the bathroom. Not only that. The airline lost my luggage and said that it accidentally got put on a plane to Nigeria. Not only that. Someone’s luggage fell out of the overhead compartment during our very turbulent nonstop six-hour flight and hit me one the head. According to the flight attendant, I was out for 3 minutes and may have a concussion. Oh and the bag of pretzels and water I was served were excellent!” Just once I would like to respond the way I really felt about the flight. But on that day, we responded to our parent’s inquiries as most people do to the ‘how was your flight’ question – it was okay!

New York City unfolded in front of us like the vibrant colors of the costumes worn by the characters of the play ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. Traveling on the Van Wyck Expressway on the way to the Bronx was breathtaking. The modern cars, wide highways, and beautiful houses that whizzed by at 70 MPH were all things that we were seeing for the first time. Our eyes were pressed against the glass of the car – opened wide and fixed on the amazing landscape as we tried to capture as much as possible before it exited our view.

We traveled to the Bronx and the scene became a bit more dismal. The houses were a bit drab, things were a bit greyer and run down, and the houses seemed stacked on top of each other. There were lots of people milling around in the streets and hanging on corners. We stopped in front of a two family house off Gun Hill Road. My parents rented a two-bedroom apartment in a three family house. It was a small place and did not have the yard space as we had at my Grandmother’s home in Trinidad. As was expected, we were pampered and tucked in for the night.

Parents often over compensate during periods of reunification with a child that had been separated from them for some time. We were asked at least ten times each day if we wanted something to eat. My parents certainly exhibited the trait of guilt for having lived apart from their precious children or they just really cared about their children.

They showed us this electric organ that they had purchased because my Grandmother communicated to them that I had liked music. I learned later that it was bought for another reason. My father was especially interested in my academic achievements. I didn’t want to venture anywhere near that topic so I skirted the issue since I was did not really want to describe how my bottom periodically found the shaft of Mr. Orosco cane.

Our journey into Manhattan the next day was awe inspiring. We took the subway for the first time and were slightly scared and excited at the same time. The rocking back and forth, the conductor’s garbled voice over the speakers, and the people rushing in and out seeming to be on a deliberate trek to a purposeful destination all added to the rich experience. Our verdict was in – the subway was a thrill!

My impression of the subway would change later in life to the point where I dreaded the thought of going underground. But in between those two periods in time, I would have many adventures riding the IRT and BMT lines.

We stayed at home with our parents in the Bronx for the week and a half we were there – venturing out frequently to see the sites.  We visited the Empire State Building and the Statue of liberty – the beacons of New York City. We walked down Time Square and were amazed by all the flashing neon lights and the huge billboards. I also noticed all the nicely dressed young ladies standing around on 42nd street. I would learn the word prostitutes later on in life.

I had developed some sort of atrophy in my neck at the end of two days of sightseeing primarily due to looking up at the tall buildings. Even to this day, one could easily pick out tourists in NYC by seeing more of their Adam’s apple and up their noses than their faces. Pointing up in the air also is a dead giveaway.

Soon it was time to return to Trinidad. Our parents dropped us off at JFK and I remember crying uncontrollably not knowing why we were going back to Trinidad and not staying in NYC. I did not want to leave. I loved NYC. I loved having indoor plumbing and not having to use a chamber pot at night. I loved the lights and definitely was sold on the glitz and glamour. I longed to be together with my parents and did not understand why we were being sent back.

“Why can’t I stay?” I remember saying over and over again to no avail. We were put on the plane and promptly seated in coach next to an elderly White woman who talked our ears off the entire flight. She must have thought we were invalids because she tried to do everything for us. The final straw was when she grabbed my sister’s bread and started buttering it. I firmly told her that my sister could butter her own bread and that she should not put her hands all over my sister’s food. My vociferous repudiation of her behavior cut short the pleasantries and resulted in a moratorium on communication between the woman and us.

We returned to Trinidad where our Grandmother met us at the airport. We were so excited to see her. However, my glee was tempered with the fact that my parents where in the U.S. and we were in Trinidad. In fact, apart from my boisterous outburst at the elderly woman, I had cried the entire flight. That was probably what made our neighbor on the flight act as a motherly figure to us. More than once she asked me why I was crying. I never replied. And in my opinion, unless she had some amazing power to turn the plane around, it was not any of her business why water was flowing from my eyes.

That night, my sister sat with my Grandmother and great aunt recounting our travels in NYC. I heard her laugh and seem enthusiastic about her description of the Statute of Liberty and the trip to the crown and all the other sites. She talked about our parents and how well we were treated. I did not want to be around anyone the night we got back. I lay on my bed in the dark, cried, and wondered how it was so easy for my sister to be happy and at the same moment in time my heart throbbed with a piercing and numbing pain.  

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