First Glimpses of Americana
After five days of sailing on the ss Bremen we reached New York City on Wednesday, January 16, 1963. I was overcome by the thought of finally landing in America. I could see the skyline from a distance as the ship made a slow approach to the pier: a thick conglomeration of tall, grey buildings packed next to each other. I could not spare more time on the deck as I had to return to my cabin to get ready to disembark. Other passengers were also doing the same. I followed the directions provided by the crew and made sure I had all the documents required to pass through customs. After customs I had to finish the last leg of my journey: a bus ride to Norman, Oklahoma.
We anchored at Pier 88 on the City’s west side. I was looking forward, with great anticipation, to seeing if America was as I had read about in brochures and seen in movies. I was expecting a world altogether different from the one I had left behind in India. I wondered if it was some magical place like in science fiction, highly efficient and technologically advanced. Soon I was to face the reality.
I went through the immigration checkpoint with no major hurdles. When I came out I saw an area that looked like a covered parking lot. Among a group of people I noticed a man holding a piece of cardboard with a hand-written one dollar sign. He was of medium height, slightly heavy with brown skin and long unkempt black hair. He wore wrinkled white cotton pants and a dark brown, waist-length winter coat. I had no idea where the bus terminal was and how to get there. The man with the dollar sign appeared friendly and was offering a ride to the 40th street Port Authority bus terminal. When I saw a few passengers gathering around him I figured that he was reliable. I paid him a dollar from the money I had converted in Bombay, which he stuffed in his pocket. He waited until he had a group together and took us to the bus terminal in his van.
View of the Port Authority Terminal
As we drove the short distance to the bus terminal I got a glimpse of the New York City streets. Pedestrians were walking briskly along the crowded sidewalks — not on the streets as they would in India. The storefronts and the large billboard advertisements reminded me of similar scenes in Bombay, except everything was bigger and cleaner.
The driver dropped us off outside the terminal after a 15-minute ride. I followed the people inside to look for the gate where my bus would be departing from.
It had been almost a month since I had any contact with my family. Making long distance international calls was extremely difficult and inconvenient. One had to go through an operator to place the call, like making an appointment, and the cost was prohibitive. If the call was placed from a coin-operated phone one had to have sufficient change.
That didn’t matter anyway, as we didn’t have a phone in our house in Hyderabad, nor did any of our neighbors. I had left instructions to forward my letters care of the foreign students adviser at the University of Oklahoma. If anyone sent letters to me I would have to wait until I reached the University to read them. I felt homesick. My father was in Dresden, Germany. Prabhakar, my elder brother, had left Hyderabad for Pune to start working in a defense ammunition’s factory. There was no person at home in Nallakunta to manage the day-to-day affairs and make decisions. What would happen if someone got sick? I wondered who was in charge and how they were managing the daily chores. I hoped everything was okay.
The buses were parked parallel to each other. Each one had a number in the front and the destination where it was headed. I found the Continental Trailways bus that was going to Norman, Oklahoma. It was much larger and sturdier than buses in India. The seating was not assigned, so I sat by a window so I could look outside through the large glass panels. The leather seats were wide and comfortable, which was good because I had a two-and-a half days journey ahead of me. There was space to store heavy luggage in a separate compartment accessible from outside and overhead racks inside to store small bags. The bus driver wore a uniform and a cap. He checked the passenger tickets and stowed away the luggage in the storage area. I saw the family that was sharing my dinner table on the ss Bremen. I waved at them but we didn’t talk.
The Continental Trailways Bus
The bus left New York City and traveled mostly on highways. I had never seen roads this wide with multiple lanes and traffic moving in a regular pattern in both directions. In India it was impossible for cars to move fast due to the chaos created by multiple people and vehicles competing for the same space to move ahead, all while dodging stray animals on the streets.
We traveled almost nonstop, day and night. The drivers were different every eight hours. Sometimes passengers would get off at stations and new ones would come in. I found most passengers were white, and there were a few black people. Most passengers kept to themselves. Still, the bus ride provided me my first close contact with Americans. I was in the world’s most affluent country, but the people I saw were dressed in casual winter clothes: jeans, corduroys and sweaters, winter coats — not in suits like they showed in movies. There were some tall people, some short, with regular features. Definitely not what you would call movie star handsome.
The bus had reclining seats that made it comfortable to take a nap at night, but it was difficult to stay asleep due to the constant whirring of the engine and being in motion. Some drivers would talk with passengers in the front seats or turn on the radio when no one was in the mood to chat. Songs like “Johnny Angel”, “Roses are Red my Love”, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” would fill the bus. I had not heard these songs in India, but the tunes were appealing.
Our route covered the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri. When on the bus I mostly looked out the window at the scenery or the cars driving by. I wished one day I would learn to drive a car like the ones I was seeing.
At every stop the driver would announce the location and how long we were stopping. The stops were anywhere from ten minutes to a couple of hours. No one left the bus during the short stops, but we were free to leave and walk around for longer stops. Some people would buy stuff like magazines and candy if there was a store in the station. Others would get off to smoke a cigarette.
The early morning stops on our trip were a time to complete the morning ablutions, using the toilets, brushing teeth and otherwise freshen up. This to me was a time of tribulation. I had never lived outside of home and found the use of public toilets particularly discomforting. I would take my small shoulder bag that had a toothbrush and paste into the bathrooms. But I wondered whether I should take it inside with me in the toilet or leave it outside near the sink. What if someone walked away with it? I had to figure out where the soap was (it was next to the sink in a nondescript dispenser). I hesitated to use the towel hanging around a drum or one made out of paper to wipe my face. Many other people around me were going about their business nonchalantly. I observed what they did and followed suit. For the two mornings that I was traveling by bus I didn’t shave or shower.
Most bus stations were in the old part of a city. Some locations would have white ceramic sinks; some would have a large circular cement basin with water taps in the form a metal tube that were turned on by pushing a pipe at the foot level. There were no people loitering around the station like in India.
Breakfasts were often at the local bus stations, but lunch and dinner were at a restaurant or diner in the middle of town. The diners had counters with circular stools with red plastic seats. People who were traveling together would occupy booths or tables. I sat alone and never struck up a conversation with anyone.
When I sat at a counter, I could sometimes see the cook preparing the food. I would get the smell of the meats on the grills. Thankfully, this didn’t cause me nausea as the smell of the Italian bread did on the T/N Sydney.
I was surprised that as soon as I sat the waiter would bring a menu and a glass of water with ice. Why was ice necessary when the weather was so cold outside?
“What can I get ya?” the waiter would ask or sometimes “What’ll you have today?”
The items on the menu were all new to me and I was intimidated to ask questions so as not to appear stupid. I had heard of hamburgers and hot dogs, but there were many new things that I was not familiar with. It was hard to know which dishes were vegetarian.
At one stop I asked for a bowl of vegetable soup. The soup I got had long rectangular pink strips in it. I kept looking at them without eating them.
The waitress, an elderly white woman wearing full-length blue floral dress and a white apron around the waist, was staring at me.
“What’s the matter, young man?” she said, resting the fingers of her left hand on the counter in front of me. “You not like the soup? Is it cold?”
I asked her what the pink strips in the soup were.
She said it was ham and tried to convince me that it was good for me. I said I was a vegetarian and could not eat meat. She appeared disappointed and asked if I wanted something else. I was glad she took it back. She recommended that I could have a grilled cheese sandwich. I confessed my ignorance when the waitress asked me what kind of cheese I wanted. It was news to me that there were different cheeses. I had eaten cheese only once, when Babu Mama had offered it to me in Hyderabad. It was white and had a pungent taste. I hadn’t liked it. I let the waitress decide. She brought it and said it was an American cheese sandwich. I could see the toaster marks on the white bread with a melted yellow cheese inside. It tasted really good. From then on, I ate grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, things I was sure didn’t have any meat. I also noticed that Americans were coffee drinkers, but I always got hot tea with milk. A refill of coffee or tea was usually free.
The bus trip took two nights and part of the third day. The stop in Norman was around 10 in the morning. Norman was a small town, almost like a village. Main Street, where the bus station was located, was calm with light traffic. The bus station was also very small compared with the other stations I had seen. It was a midsize room with a counter and a wall telephone.
This is it, I thought. I’m finally at my destination and at the place where I was going to make a new beginning.
I called Mr. Gene Russell, the Foreign Students adviser at his office. I had received all paperwork with instructions before I left Hyderabad. Luckily he answered the phone.
“Oh. You’re here already! Stay where you are,” he said cheerily. Mr. Russell’s voice had a southern tilt and the inviting quality of a good host welcoming his guest. “I’ll come and get you.”
Mr. Russell arrived about thirty minutes later. He was a thin man with light red hair and was wearing a brown patchwork sports jacket and dark trousers. He had a broad smile on his face. He put my bag in the trunk of his car. If this was India that would have been done by coolies.
“Let’s first go to my office,” he said.
His office was in the administrative building, a red brick structure. He made a few calls as I sat in a chair in front of him.
“Hmm, looks like they’re not in their rooms,” he said.
As it turned out, he was trying to make contact with some students at the University who were from Hyderabad. When he could not get in touch with anyone, he suggested we go out and look for a space for rent around the main campus. It didn’t take him long to locate one that was available, a block away from the main campus. The campus was surrounded by many private residences, some occupied by the owners who rented part of their homes to students. Sometimes a small cooking range was provided for individual renters. I was lucky to get such a room.
Mr. Russell said he had left word for a student named Dushyant to come and see me later and help me settle down. I thanked him as he left to return to his office.
“Be sure to call me if you need anything,” he said as he departed.
The first thing I wanted to do was to take a good shower. I looked around the room, let out a sigh of relief and started unpacking my suitcase. As I did that I could not help but ponder over the events that transpired over the past two years — the research to find a university, making my travel plans, the hiccup in getting the American visa, the mistreatment of Indian students on the T/N Sydney, the visit to the pyramids, the long layover in London, meeting the stranger on SS Bremen, and the bus ride from New York City to Oklahoma. One thing was certain: each part of this adventure would be etched in my memory forever.
- Image source for photo of Port Authority Terminal and Trailways bus: