Champakbhai was a free man. He didn’t have to wake up at 6 am, get ready or catch the 7 am bus to Flushing. He didn’t have to trudge along a pedestrian made pathway on the grassy shoulder of the road that took him to the Day’s Inn Motel. He didn’t have to spend his day vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms and making beds. Not any more.
Retirement felt good. Champakbhai yawned and turned over for another snooze. He lay still, hoping that sleep would overtake him. But his system was not accustomed to retirement yet. His brain had involuntarily shrugged off sleep, and he was wide-awake, even if his eyes were shut. This was no good. He would get up and make himself a cuppa microwave tea.
Champakbhai settled down on his couch with his cup of tea and the previous day’s issue of New York Post that he had picked up on his way back home last night. When was the last time he had read a newspaper? Champakbhai didn’t think there was a last time. After all these years, Champakbhai still did not identify with the issues in the newspaper. He was a New Yorker. But his world was just the motel he worked at for over 30 years. After glancing through some of the pages, Champakbhai was bored. He wondered what he would do all day. He looked out of the window of his little second floor apartment, into the street below.
It was rush hour. People were rushing about like there was no tomorrow; they had to catch the subway or the bus on time -they had to reach their destination on time. Champakbhai grinned. New Yorkers never
walk- they always half-run, he thought. Well, he was part of the melee for 30 years! It felt good to be an observer today.
After a while, he moved away from the window. His gaze fell on the framed black & white photo of a young
Savita. The frame was gathering dust. He went into the kitchen and ripped a kitchen towel to wipe it clean.
“I’m retired,” he said softly to her, even as he gently wiped the dust off. “Mukeshbhai passed away last month, and his son Jay, who took over the motel thought I should relax in my old age.”
Champakbhai smiled sadly. “The truth Savita is that he didn’t want this old faithful any more.”
For a moment Champakbhai thought Savita’s expression softened. How he missed her- his wife and partner for almost 50 years. Until she passed away a couple of years ago, they had traveled through life’s experiences together. Through their journey from Uganda, where they married, to London for 10 years, to New York, which had been their final destination, they had seen it all together. They had worked in Mukeshbhai’s Days Inn as a team for years until her death did them part.
Champakbhai sighed as he set the frame back on the wall. Life had to go on. He had the sudden urge to talk to his two granddaughters. Was it too late to call? His daughter Minal and her husband Sanjay lived in Chicago, which was an hour behind. But it still was too late to call. He knew they all left home by 7 am. He would try later at night.
His turned back to the street scene below. He gaze fell on the Pakistani grocery store across the road. Imran stocked a good variety of Indian frozen vegetables. He would cook himself a good meal.
Champakbhai took a shower, dressed and crossed the street to Imran’s grocery store. He grabbed a can of chickpeas and some frozen
The grocer was pleasantly surprised to see Champakbhai on a weekday. “I’m retired,” Champakbhai informed him. “No more motel.”
Imran smiled. “Aish keejiye janaab. Open a video account. Now you’ll have plenty of time to watch Bollywood movies,” he said.
Champakbhai shook his head. “No no. I can’t sit through a movie. I fall asleep.”
He scurried back to his apartment and cooked with flourish. This was one job he enjoyed. The chole tasted good. The parathas were soft. There was some sweet mango pickle too which he relished.
What now? It was just 12 noon. Maybe an afternoon siesta would take some hours off his day. Champakbhai settled down on his couch and closed his eyes. He had eaten more heavily than he usually did, so he did slip into light slumber. He dreamt that he was walking down Lincoln tunnel. There were no cars, no people. It was just he walking and walking, even as Lincoln tunnel stretched on forever. He woke up with a start!
God, what a dream! He needed strong tea to revive him. Champakbhai made himself a cuppa with two tea bags. It was not even 1 pm. The afternoon stretched ahead of him. What would he do?
He had an idea. When was the last time he had been to downtown Manhattan? He would go up the Empire State Building. The last time he had been there was 15 years ago, when they had a visitor from Savita’s family.
Champakbhai stepped out again, with a new purpose in his step. After 30 years of slogging in a motel, he would enjoy his day out. He took a bus to the subway, and then the train to Port Authority. He walked along the crowded 42nd street at 8th avenue. What did the crowd do here? He had no interest in shopping, or in the Broadway shows. He walked until he was too tired to go any further. He decided to hire a cab to the Empire State Building.
The building was as majestic as he last remembered it. If anything, the crowd had grown bigger. He stepped out into the windy observatory on the 86th floor. What a sight! The whole of New York was beneath his feet.
It was 5 pm on a hot summer day. There was an metal enclosure around the observatory these days, probably to stop people from jumping off! He peered down into the wondrous sight below, and kept looking until his vision blurred. Visitors, tourists thronged around him, moving about and walking around the tower. But he was oblivious to everything. Somewhere in the middle of the concrete glass and steel mass, he could see his empty life staring at him. Reality had hit his windblown face. He suddenly felt lost. A lost entity, caught in the midst of a vibrant city. His days stretched ahead of him, empty, devoid of purpose, and he had no clue what he would do with his days. Retirement was not freedom. It was loneliness.
Champakbhai gripped the grids as tightly as he could, as if that would still the growing panic in his heart. For a moment, he wished the enclosure didn’t exist.