"Hello Old Man...!”
The old car had just turned onto the highway and was now accelerating to reach the speed at which the other cars were racing smoothly on the interstate highway connecting New Jersey to Delaware.
“Hello Old Man...!” The same childish and beseeching tone again.
More awkward silence. The car kept accelerating on the fast lane.
Another failed attempt by my 6 year old son to wake up the Old Man from his unnatural cosmic slumber.
I wasn’t surprised. I knew quite well that there were clear golden rules to be followed before the Old Man would wake up and talk. We were in violation of the third rule. Rule number 1 stated that no one from outside the immediate family could be present in the car. The second rule was that the car could not be stuck in traffic. The third and perhaps the most stringent rule was that the car should be moving at a constant speed. Any sudden acceleration or deceleration would not be entertained and would lead to immediate cancellation of his performance. These were the boundary conditions.
As soon as the car had crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and had reached a constant speed, we could hear a faint snoring sound coming from somewhere behind the dashboard.
And then suddenly a croaking old voice filled the car: “Hello Young man!”.
The voice sounded weak with age as if just woken up from the depths of slumber, quite hard to understand and sounding fragile, as if echoing from a distant bygone era.
My son Jit would get very excited by the Old Man’s voice. He knew the Old Man was talking to him when he said - Young man! Jit would be seated in the rear seats of the car since he was still a minor, and he would now look forward to a fun filled conversation for the rest of the journey.
No more stupid maths questions from his dad. No need to mentally calculate the time it would take to reach home given the distance and speed. No need to calculate the price of gas per gallon each time the car had to stop for refueling at a gas station.
The Old Man was a kind soul and far more interesting to talk to anyway. They could talk about anything under the sun, he could ask the Old Man any question and the Old Man would always respond with a funny, straight from the heart, feel good answer.
Jit (in his sweet and innocent voice): Where do you live Old Man?
Old Man (stuttering intentionally): Oh, I live here…right here, very close to you…I mean inside this car, right under your nose!
Jit (laughing): Right under my nose…no way!
The car was now cruising on the 202. The Old Man had our full attention now.
Jit: How old are you Old Man?
Old Man: I feel very old (coughs)…I am older than you think (coughs repeatedly)…older than you can count…(slowly clears his throat)…but you know sometimes I feel I am only as old as you!
This would go on until the car had to slow down or change lanes. During those odd times the Old Man would fall silent.
Most of the time the discussion between the Old Man and my son would sound ridiculously silly and make no sense at all. And while I would listen quietly to their conversation, I would also be worried about them spending too much time together in La La Land.
After all Jit needed to grow up.
One day as we were passing a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, Jit jokingly asked the Old Man a serious sounding question: Hey Old Man – what is the meaning of life?
I wanted to chime in and give Jit a real wise crack answer like – Life has no meaning in itself but you can give meaning to it by your actions. But before I could open my mouth, the Old Man blurted out.
Old Man (in a very confident tone): The meaning of Life is hidden inside chicken nuggets.
Jit (laughing and looking at the KFC hoarding): What??? No way…what are you saying Old Man!
Old Man (now sounding less confident and more silly): Err…I mean if you are “chicken” in life, you are “nugget” get anything done.
Jit: Old Man you are crazy…
I didn’t like the way the discussion was going and wanted to intervene but the Old Man beat me to it.
Old Man (now whispering): You should “ketchup” with your inner chicken feelings, otherwise you are “nugget” like it in life.
Jit (recovering from this nonsensical exchange): I’m “nugget” talk to you!
The old man fell silent as soon as we took the exit and got off the highway. He went away as suddenly and swiftly as he came.
This kind of exchange between the two of them went on for a couple of years. Until Jit could sit in the front seat next to me. Now Jit could see me talking. While sitting on the rear seats Jit couldn’t see me speaking on behalf of the Old Man, from the corner of my mouth.
A poor ventriloquist act! At first croakingly and slowly but later with practice - steadily and confidently.
As time passed we heard less from the old man. It was a magical time together - while it lasted. Memories full of stories and full of humor. Moments full of laughter and full of love. A time to truly relax and unwind. And build a timeless bond that crossed generations. A bond that straddles the lives of all Old Men - past, current and future.
One day when Jit had grown taller than me and the old car was gone, he suddenly remembered the Old Man.
Jit: I wonder where the Old Man is. I miss him.
Me: Yeah. I don’t know either.
Jit: But why did you stop?
Me: What do you mean?
We were driving back from his music lesson. I looked at him sitting next to me, a head full of curly hair, a faint moustache beginning to form around his upper lip.
Jit: I always knew it was you!
Me: Then why didn’t you say anything…?!
Jit: Well then you would stop and the old man would never come back…
His voice sounded sad.
We were both quiet for a while.
I looked at the setting sun. The sky was turning a brilliant red.
It seemed to me that a certain Old Man and his voice were fast dissolving into the red firmament.
I had the displeasure of being invited to an important call at 5am in the morning on Monday. This single appointment on my calendar put so much stress on my Sunday lifestyle that I could hardly enjoy the weekend.
I ate a very light dinner. Didn’t imbibe at all, which is remarkable for the weekend. And went to bed at 9:30pm, 2 to 3 hours before I normally hit the sack on a Sunday, even giving up on watching a suspense thriller in the middle of it all.
I set three alarms - all to make sure that I am out of bed and ready to sing and dance at my desk by 4:45am. But as it turned out, I actually woke up at 3am with a start - imagining that I have slept through the alarms. And then I tossed and turned in bed for an hour imagining all sorts of weird end of life scenarios for all enemies, adversaries and foes. When it was clear that more sleep was not going to happen, I paced up and down the corridor, did some abbreviated stylized aerobics, prepared a cup of hot tea, and looked outside at the rain drenched deck filled with pitch darkness. Not a squirrel in sight.
The call was uneventful.
After the call was over, I stretched and relaxed for a few minutes and then sat upright watching the sunrise at eleven minutes past seven, nursing a nice steaming cup of Darjeeling tea. From the sunroom window I noted 3 squirrels chasing one another running down at breakneck speed around a big giant oak tree trunk. They finally jumped on to the wet grass and stopped suddenly as if they had detected an intruder. One of them caught hold of an acorn, stood on its two legs and started nibbling on it furiously. Squirrels can be very focused.
I suddenly remembered my paternal grand mother who used to wake up every day at 5am. One of the things she accomplished before anybody was awake was to prepare the large clay fire oven. She would top it up with fresh coal and prepare it for the day’s cooking. I still miss the fresh smell of rotis that are slowly baked and even partially burnt on a clay oven. Some foods just taste so good when cooked slowly in a traditional oven.
I went into my 8am call with the clearest mind and the sharpest sense of humor that I have had in a long time for a Monday early morning call. Normally it is more like cursing under the breath and dragging myself and my tired reluctant mind to work after a long night of heavy binge watching. But today I was in the moment. Almost enjoying it. All cylinders firing.
And then I had the most amazing epiphany. I am wondering if I should pretend there is a 5am call every once in a while and wake up early more often, perhaps just for fun. But more importantly - not to miss out on the sunrise, the quiet unhurried sip of Darjeeling tea, the heartwarming squirrel chase and the faint smell of freshly baked rotis floating down my memory lane.
“This place is a balance between edge and charm” said the young and cheerful bartender as I confided in him about not finding parking easily near this famous German bier garten in Fishtown in Philadelphia called Frankford Hall and ordered a half liter of Munich Gold without bothering to look at the menu.
It was one of those slow and lazy and sweaty summer weekends. One of those weekends when you realize that summer was fast getting over and you needed to move your center of gravity to another place once in a while to make it memorable. After sleeping through the entire morning I knew that there had to be more to Sunday life than just the intellectual battle of reading the weekend Review over a cup of Darjeeling tea. Someone said Frankford Hall was worth going to for fresh beer. But let’s think it over one more time. Living in Suburbia forces you to think over every decision deliberately in an unhurried fashion. Meanwhile I realized I had ran out of Marie biscuits to go with my tea. Darn it / that was another shopping trip. Hmmm. Now - did I really want to be like a young city slick person and drive to the city and go though the hassle of finding parking just to get a freshly brewed jug of beer. Hmmm. Decisions decisions. Besides there was a 30 percent chance of rain. Not to mention that it had rained cats and dogs yesterday. I made a mental note that I better carry my gustbuster large vented umbrella.
40 minutes later. There was no decent parking available at all in Fishtown. The only option seemed to be to park in one of those narrow mean lanes between the row of old dilapidated houses. This was the shad-fishing community of Philly. Shad - by the way - tastes almost like Hilsa (Hilsa or Ileesh - is the heart stopping delicacy fish for any Bong with a taste for the finer things in life). So anyway. This Fishtown place was very old and industrial but it was indeed trying to redefine itself as the epicenter of new cool artistic, culinary and musical action.
I finally did find parking - very far from the restaurant in one of those deserted automated lots where you have to pay a flat fee of $20. You could also park without paying anything but then your car would be towed and then you would pay a hefty fine plus the towing fee of $175. Hmmm. Decisions decisions.
So anyway. I paid the flat parking fee, looked up at the cloudy sky, collected my priceless umbrella from the trunk and marched towards Frankford Hall. This is quite the place. Industrial environment paired with original German food and beverage. Tents laid out like Octoberfest in Munich. A ping pong table. Loud music. Loud conversations. The beer and the food were to be ordered at different counters. I ordered the bratwurst as the appetizer and tried to impress the waitress by sharing with her that there are more than 40 different types of bratwurst one could find in Germany. She smiled sympathetically. “Are you from the city?” Err no, I’m from Jersey but I come here all the time. Liar. She left in a hurry.
I kept an eye on my umbrella which was nicely parked inside a beer drum at the entrance. And I gulped the half liter of gold in a few minutes while I wolfed through the bratwurst and sauerkraut. Man - this is the good life.
There was a noisy young trio right next to me. An innocent looking chap with two harmless young women. One of them highly inebriated and using swear words to gain attention. The other one seemed to be in deep thought, cheeky shorts, high heels, perched on the wooden bench like a female version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”.
As I ordered the next half liter, I asked the bartender for tips on where to find parking. As I put a couple of dollar bills on the table, the advice became more genuine. The other bar tender started offering advice as well. I thanked both of them and returned to my table as I promptly forgot all their advice.
Oh wow, there was this young German couple with a baby in a pram that just arrived on the table next to mine. The pram was conveniently put facing my side. I could see the baby. The baby was staring at me. I smiled back. But the baby was not so happy. It started making worried noises. The parents came around one by one to check on the baby, and politely smiled at me. I tried to smile again at the baby. But this time it started wailing. It must be the ambient noise. I gulped down another half liter of the gold.
All this while I kept an eye on my umbrella that was parked on the beer drum at the entrance as I waited for my Wiener Schnitzel. This one takes time to prepare. It is truly a German masterpiece of culinary perfection. Ah - the pleasures of German food. The baby was now smiling at me.
As I closed the tab I noticed that it was getting quite busy as I was preparing to leave. The really fashionable people were starting to show up now. Oh well. It was getting dark. I had to get out of the city now. Time to get back to the routine.
I walked back to the parking lot and was happy to see my car was still there. The car seemed to be happy as well as it chirped back and lit up in response. “Turn right on Callowhill road in one and a half mile” said the GPS. In just a few minutes I was sailing on the Ben Franklin bridge - leaving the city lights behind and racing back to the prized loneliness of the woods. A Sunday evening fast becoming a faint memory as I almost started to see a bright Monday morning on the horizon.
It was only when I was turning into my garage that it started pouring heavily and I realized that I had forgotten my prized possession- the gustbuster large vented umbrella inside a beer drum at the entrance to Frankford Hall.
The weekend is about to begin. It is mid November. We already had an Arctic blast last week. Didn’t get to see much of the sun for almost a week. But today it is sunny. A bright sunny Saturday morning. The deck is flooding with the precious golden warmth. It feels good. It must be the presence of “light” that changes everything. One could almost burst into joyous song.
Diwali is over but Christmas is coming. The lights lead to happiness. We need the slightest reason to celebrate the Light with the lights.
In Bengali - “baranday roddur” meaning sunny verandah has propelled many a poet into mind bending song and dance.
39 degrees now. It is already a couple of hours after sunrise which happens early these days, today our nearest star broke into the firmament precisely at 6:47am. The highest temperature today shall be 41 degrees so we are almost there, before it starts declining back to below 30 degrees. So you see it is deceptively sunny. Looking at the gleaming creek I want to go out for a walk or a run. But wait it is cold and windy today. 25 mph winds. I look outside again. There is not a soul in sight. But there is something that beckons from near the roadside. Something that comes packed in a thin transparent plastic cover. Almost like a present. But lying conspicuously on the driveway next to the mailbox. Fluttering enticingly in the wind. I need to go get that.
It is less than 50 yards to the mailbox but I need to dress up like an amateur Eskimo going on his first visit to the dentist. Where is my Point Zero jacket...ok here we go...Thick heavy jacket with a thick hood to protect against the wind. Full pants. Warm socks. Shoes? Nah I think I will just wear my flip flops. The entire expedition would not last more than 2 minutes anyway.
I step outside like Neil Armstrong stepping outside the Apollo. A gust of wind blows my hood and sends a whistle of cold air into my ear canal. The wind plays a little music sequence on my ear drum. Now my ears are beating to the same rhythm as my heart beat. I retreat back into Apollo. Should I abandon this expedition and forego this quest for knowledge? How would humanity judge me if I missed out on something historic, momentous and newsworthy. No I must do this. For the sake of world peace. I tighten my hood tightly around my chin, take a long deep breath and boldly take a step outside the house. It is a small step ostensibly but a giant step for my inner quest.
There are fallen leaves everywhere. It is actually quite pretty outside. The sidewalk is strewn with leaves dancing to a pattern known only to them. As the sun moves up there is a game of light and shade going on under the red oak tree. The leaves start rustling suddenly as if they have to go somewhere special and then they start going up in circles like a bunch of tiny tots dancing to the music of an invisible pied piper. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I wish I could stand there longer to appreciate being immersed in this beautiful setting. But my knees start trembling meanwhile. I better start moving towards my real mission now.
As I half walk half run down the driveway holding on to my flying hood, I notice with pleasure that our lawn is finally greener than the neighbors’. It is truly a bit late now to appreciate the lawn at the end of the fall season but it took an entire summer of seeding and fertilizing and an army of people to fix the sprinklers but it seems we finally won. Hello Neighbor - please come out and take a good look now, will ya...
I snapped out of my reverie as I noticed from the corner of my eye the object of my little expedition slowly flying away in the wind towards the other end of the road. I took a desperate dive to catch the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, not unlike a brilliant fielder performing a flying dive to catch the cricket ball before it hits the boundary.
After a successful morning expedition as I sip some black tea and read about how Google shapes its search results, the social revolution in Saudi Arabia, the reasoning behind the death of Socrates, the epic afterlife of Troy and the review of a masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, I can smell the sweet and savory spice flavors of cinnamon, cloves and ginger emanating from my cup of tea.
Have a great weekend everyone!
Click. Click. Click. There were more than two dozen people continuously clicking their phones in the darkness. Every click seemed to startle the night. And with every click I felt closer to a ghostly discovery.
“There is a limper that walks the east curtain wall at night. Then there is this woman who appears in the upper level window of the north barracks. There is a scratcher who hides under that staircase. I have seen ‘em all - but don’t take my word for it. Please do take a lot of pictures. You never know when you catch ‘em floating around” said the tour guide in his low-pitched monotonous voice.
It was clear that he knew his script by heart. He was looking in the distance and occasionally his eyes would light up as if seeing familiar things. Dressed in black his T-shirt read: Fort William Henry - Original Ghost Tour. He was standing next to the “original well” from 1756 at the Fort William Henry. This was Lake George in upstate New York.
Many had lost their lives inside that well.
There is a lot of bloody history surrounding this fort that has led to the belief - that the ghosts of those who died here more than 250 years ago are still floating around like disembodied spirits.
“One of the skeletons shown here doesn’t have a head. He was decapitated by a Huron Indian during the massacre in 1757, and his head was displayed as a trophy of war. He was buried in the fort’s eastern barracks and was discovered during the excavations in 1957”, the tour guide explained as he encouraged the group to walk down the steps and visit the Military Crypt.
Forensic anthropologists have been studying the bones found here to understand the cause of death of the soldiers. They try to assign an identity to the forgotten soldiers. Many soldiers were found to have herniated disks from carrying heavy loads. The forensic scientists have discovered evidence of trauma including decapitations, cut marks in the chest and stomach areas, and indications that a number of men had been shot in the knee.
The military cemetery is right behind the south east bastion.
The fort was constructed as a square with bastions at each corner. This was meant to be a launching point for military operations by the British against the French.
For nearly a 100 years, France and Britain had been at war for control of North America. The power struggle that originated in the European continent extended to the rest of the world. The imperial rivals used their colonies as footholds to enlarge their empires and to bring as many native tribes as possible under their influence.
The English were primarily after the land of the aboriginal inhabitants. The French on the other hand wanted to fraternize with the natives, they wanted to merge the two races. By inducing the Indians to become Christians, they wanted to have one law, one people and one master.
Whatever their ulterior motive, both the English and the French kept fighting one another to gain control over Lake George.
The British won in 1755. They constructed the original fort next to the lake, christening it Fort William Henry, in honor of the two royal grandsons of King George II.
But then the fort was bombarded and taken over by the French in 1757.
The French General Montcalm gathered a large force and surrounded the fort. He had support from 38 tribes of Indians. He also had more cannons. There were 8000 on the French side including French Regulars, Canadian Militia and the Indians.
The British on the other side were less than 2500, in both the fort and the camp.
The French had nearly 40 cannons, howitzers and mortars. The British had 17 rusty iron guns.
The commander of the fort Lt Colonel Monro tried to get reinforcements but failed. 11 of his cannons burst due to over-use and the British had to finally surrender after six days.
Montcalm was generous and allowed the British troops to keep their property but asked them to vacate the fort the next day and agree to not fight against the French for 18 months.
However - the French had little control over their Indian allies. Apart from language barriers, there was a misunderstanding regarding customs. The Indian allies of the French felt they had been cheated out of the spoils of war. They entered the fort at night and killed many soldiers. The next day when the British troops were being marched away, the Indians attacked them again. It is estimated that 185 British people lost their lives while numerous others were taken captive and brought north towards Canada.
As they prepared to march north, Montcalm ordered the fort to be burned to the ground.
What we see today is a reconstruction that was done 200 years later, based on the original.
The French and Indian War of 1757 was really the first “world war”. Apart from Europe and North America, the fighting between Britain and France also took place in India, Africa, the Caribbean and the Philippines.
In the year 1688 the French East India Company had established itself in Chandernagore in India. Soon after that, the British had established their Fort William in Calcutta.
1757 was a fatal year...
The same year that the British lost the Fort William Henry in North America to the French, they captured Chandernagore by defeating the French in India.
The power struggle continues to this day on both sides of the “divide”. Even after more than 250 years, nothing seems to have changed for us - on this side. It feels like yesterday.
“I think I got one of them!” whispered a young lady excitedly. She had a heavy camera, perhaps a modern DSLR and was carrying a black bag that had a lot of fancy equipment. She proudly showed the picture of a green apparition on her large glowing camera screen to the curious people around her. People were nodding their heads in growing belief.
Even the tour guide was now looking at the picture seriously.
I chuckled to myself. Catching a ghost couldn’t be so easy. That was most probably just the light reflecting from the top of the bastions, creating an image that was hard to distinguish from the rest of the picture.
The group was now headed to the Arms & Artillery exhibit. A sign on top read “Powder Magazine”. One by one the visitors entered the dark corridor that led to the dimly lit exhibit room at the end.
Smartphones lit up the old corridor.
The sound of shuffling feet echoed in the narrow space. Some people had both their arms outstretched in the darkness, marching forward like soldiers - holding their phones like a modern weapon. I quickly stepped aside to let them go. There was this quiet space behind one of the old log shelves. I wanted to lean against the shelf but then I slipped noiselessly into the darkness. I think I might have stepped on some mold by accident. As the group marched past me like a bunch of giant shadows, I could see their enlarged pupils and smell their bated breath.
What a committed group of paranormal enthusiasts, I thought to myself.
All of a sudden - the young lady with the heavy camera stopped right in front of the log shelf and flashed a bright light at me. Before I could move, she clicked. The shutter speed was faster than one eight thousandth of a second. It felt like a blur.
What a sudden exposure.
I love my darkness.
“So – do you believe in ghosts now?!”, the young lady was now boasting to her companions in a spirited voice, repeatedly zooming in and out of the picture and showing off her camera screen like a trophy.
The picture showed a nebulous image standing in front of the log shelf.
Some believed her immediately. Others couldn’t see a thing.
I believe her.
After all - I am one of 'em.
I can see behind my head. As I am walking on the cobble stone square in front of the 350 year old Royal Palace of Amsterdam, I see this kid walking right behind me. You see I have a 340-degree field of view. The kid is floating soap bubbles in the air. The bubbles keep expanding and going up towards the summer sky. There is a wind blowing. The bubbles are now flying away fast with the wind. One of the bubbles is growing really big. I can see through my orange eyes that the kid is chasing the bubble excitedly. The bubble is growing bigger and bigger. The kid gets more and more excited. And then all of a sudden the bubble bursts.
Well - all bubbles finally do burst. The Tulip mania was one such bubble. It happened in the seventeenth century right here. It was around the time the Royal Palace was going to be built. The prices of tulips kept rising due to speculation. Suddenly you could become very rich. At its peak 40 bulbs of the high quality tulips were worth as much as a thousand tons of butter! It was complete madness. Some tulip bulbs changed hands ten times in a day. And then the bubble burst quite abruptly.
Crowds can go mad. I try to stay away from crowds, especially mad crowds.
I don’t need bubbles for excitement. My heart beats 700 times per minute.
I can fly 600 miles per day at an average of 50 miles per hour. My bones are hollow. They say I am more agile than a shark. I am now flying above the Madame Tussaud building. I can see everything clearly. There are two wax figures standing outside on the 4th floor. I know they are not human since they are not moving. There are two red colored trucks parked on the square. They are selling hot dogs, meatballs and hamburgers. There is a big line of people waiting next to the trucks.
I can smell the hot dogs from a distance. I also smell weed. The unhealthy stinking smell of weed pervades the air. I see young teenagers smoking. I think this is another bubble. But this bubble is more dangerous – it is going to burst people’s lungs.
The square is very busy in summer. Tourists come from all parts of the world. They take pictures of the old buildings. I know each one of these buildings. I have sat on top of each one of them gazing down at the square for hours. The ABN AMRO building on one edge has a lighted sign on top. There is a Rabobank in another corner. The Royal Palace stands in the middle. There is symmetry in front of the palace. Four light stands are in front, equally spaced.
The square gets lit up as evening approaches. A Swarovski shop has shiny crystal lights. The H&M shop has mannequins wearing the latest fashionable dresses. In the middle of the square there is a dude with painted face, dressed like an Indian god with a “trishool” in hand. He stands motionless like a statue as people drop coins in amusement.
There are kids running around. There is music playing everywhere. I can hear every sound. In fact I can hear sounds that are 200 times lower than what ordinary humans can hear. I can tell if a storm is approaching.
Sometimes I fly all the way up to the Central Station. I like that place. It is always busy with commuters and tourists. Behind the Central Station is the Ferry terminal. And across the waterfront is the tall building with swings on top. It is called A’dam Lookout. The view is fantastic from the sky deck. The swings go a 100 feet over the edge. They say these are the highest swings in Europe.
The Dutch way to get around the city is on a bike. Amsterdam is bicycle friendly. People say there are about as many bikes as the number of residents in Amsterdam, perhaps even more. Around 15000 bikes are salvaged from the canals annually.
I like to fly along the canals. Amsterdam has 165 canals that run for more than 30 miles. There are over 1200 bridges connecting the islands. Technically the city is 6 feet below sea level. The canals were dug up in the 17th century during the expansion of commerce that required transportation of goods. The wealthy built beautiful houses along the canals. I like to sit on top of some of these beautiful old houses. The canals are a very popular tourist attraction.
Fortunately I don’t need a bike or boat to get back home. I have an internal navigation system in my head. I can sense my position relative to the position of the sun and the stars. I can sense the earth’s magnetic field.
I never get lost. I always find my way back home. Home sweet home.
I am a city pigeon. Amsterdam is home for me.
“Sir, you may want to try the Tequila Sunrise, it is very popular” suggested the bartender cum DJ of the makeshift outdoor bar at the Sister Cities Park in Philadelphia. It was 87 degrees on the eve of Independence Day and quite humid. I could see young kids dipping in the Swann Fountain at the Logan Square - while their parents watched nonchalantly.
I longed for a cold shower.
Awaiting sunset with a Tequila Sunrise in hand, I thought the name of the cocktail was perhaps a bit anachronistic, but then its name is based on its appearance and not based on when it is consumed. The unmixed grenadine slowly rises into the orange juice in the tall glass and creates the illusion of a sunrise.
People were sitting outside on the lawns enjoying the summer day. Tourists strolled past taking pictures of the fountains. Helmet clad bikers zipped by on fancy bikes.
One guy wore a T-shirt that declared confidently “Life is a Beach”.
Another T-shirt advocated “Stay Wild”.
Two infants were playing in the small fountain area where the water spouted out rhythmically but also quite suddenly from anywhere around them. Their innocent curiosity was fun to watch.
The city of Philadelphia is full of interesting sights at this time of the year.
It is hard to believe that this place served as a public gallows and was used as a burial ground in the nineteenth century! It is truly amazing how things change over time. Even as recently as ten years ago they found 60 graves while renovating the Sister Cities Park at Logan Square. That must have been scary!
Energized by the cocktail and the history of the city, I started walking the city. I must have walked for more than an hour in the July humidity when I started craving for airconditioned comfort and decided to get back home. But then I realized I didn’t have the car with me. I was standing in front of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when I thought of calling an Uber. Right then the bus 401 stopped in front of me. I knew this would get me home and I badly wanted the air-conditioning so I boarded it. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the bus driver was the cricketing legend Chris Gayle. Ok not him, but very similar in appearance.
The bus had a lot of vacant seats. I was happy to sink into a comfortable seat next to the window. I had not taken a bus from Philadelphia in two decades. When the bus crossed the bridge to New Jersey I was able to take pictures of the Delaware river. Something I am never able to do while driving. But then at the end of the bridge, instead of turning south the bus turned north towards Camden. I had no idea that the 401 goes via Camden.
Camden is perhaps the poorest city in the nation. Nearly 32,000 people live below the poverty line. The poverty line is defined as an annual household income of $22,000 for a family of four.
At the next stop there was an urgent care facility. An old lady got up on the bus. Large cup of soda in hand. She wore a half sweater cum half jacket. Ragged clothes. She carried a huge rucksack on her back that had a million pockets filled with so much stuff that it was bursting in the seams. She sat next to me but decided not to take off the rucksack. Then she started turning on her seat to look back in the bus as if looking for a better seat. Each time she turned - her rucksack would hit me. I wondered if I should complain. But then I decided not to. What if she was sick. The next thing I know she drank her soda and fell asleep - leaning heavily on me.
I was clearly uncomfortable - Should I just get off the bus and call an Uber?
We arrive at the next stop. Before I could even move from my seat, the old lady woke up as if she had practiced this "one bus stop power nap" to perfection, and got off the bus in the most deliberate and unhurried fashion.
The seat next to me was vacant again. A guy with long beaded hair and big ear rings was about to sit next to me when another passenger beat him to it and took the seat.
A young woman. Bloodshot eyes. Runny nose. She looked pale and lethargic. Big bag in tow.
Suddenly she turned towards me and started crying. I was taken aback. She said something about being turned down on a job opportunity. She had been part of a “Program” and she was now “clean” after a prolonged detox period, but they would not believe her.
Before I could say anything she mumbled: “Would you be interested in helping a homeless person?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I merely cleared my throat.
When she didn’t get any appropriate response from me, she started moving her big bag and asked: “Are you getting off soon?”
She wanted to have a conversation and I was clearly trying to avoid one.
For a moment I tried to hide the fact that I was annoyed and asked sternly: “What do you want?”
“Oh, I was just asking if you were getting off. I didn’t ask for anything. But if you were offering then that’s different” she said beseeching.
I looked away. What a fancy way of begging. Should I pity her?
We were at the next stop by now. She started getting off. As she picked up her big bag, she smiled weakly and wished me a nice day! Why was she wishing me a nice day when I had done absolutely nothing to help her?!
At that moment I had a change of heart.
I found a twenty in my wallet and handed it to her. She beamed at me - her tired face brightening up quite suddenly.
As the bus finally sailed towards the sleepy and rural part of South Jersey, I heaved a huge sigh of relief. I had just experienced a slice of real life on the streets of Camden. I felt light for a moment in my mind. I knew too well that the spiral of poverty and drug addiction is not an easy one to fix.
It is hard to imagine that I had changed anything in that poor woman’s life that day, but this little incident did make me think about the critical role of the silent bystanders in society.
Can we not do more to help as a community...
Well, for starters, if you want to experience some empathy - lose the car for a change and just take the 401.
“Do you believe in the existence of God…?” asked the elderly Irish man. White Hair. Black cap. Dark sunglasses perched on top of his cap. Weather beaten face but kind looking eyes. Enormously large ears. He wore a dark jacket and loose grey trousers. He was perhaps in his late seventies but stood straight.
I was taken aback by such a direct question. We had just explored the fifteenth century Ross Castle in beautiful Killarney in Ireland, and were standing right in front of the lake Lough Leane.
I noticed that there was a ferry boat waiting behind the man. It took me a while to understand that he was offering to take us by ferry boat to the small island called Innisfallen, the ancient site of a sixth century Abbey.
Although we were not very keen to visit the island, the kind expression of the man helped us make up our minds. We decided to go with him. Little did we know that this would lead to a memorable experience.
It was a quiet afternoon. But it turned out that the ferry man was a loquacious talker.
First he explained that he had been ferrying passengers to the island for the longest time amongst all ferrymen in Killarney. He had clearly been chosen by God to do this service. We nodded out of respect. And wore the expression of being suitably impressed. Then he went on to explain how the Big Bang theory with its creation “out of nothing” and beginning with light, proved the existence of God. And how we have souls that are created by God and that we should learn to love God…
Meanwhile I started taking some pictures with my iPhone. The beautiful lake Lough Leane shone brightly under the late March sun.
Looking strangely at my phone the man said: “I think those phones shall soon get out of our control.”
“What do you mean by that…” I asked politely.
“Well, normally I don’t tell this story but you folks look like decent people to me. I was once driving my car and I felt some dizziness so I stopped by the side of the lake. When I felt better I took some pictures with my phone. When I went home and looked at those pictures I could not believe my eyes. On the lake was this old Abbey and out of nowhere the picture of a monk appeared, looking out of a window. At first I would not believe it, but then I slowly realized that the sixth century monks still live in that deserted Abbey.”
By this time we were already at the shores of the Innisfallen island, and we looked up at the ancient site of the sixth century Abbey. I looked at its windows with careful apprehension.
The Innisfallen monastery was in complete ruins. Its foundation is accredited to the 7th century St. Finian the Leper who first brought monks to pray here in the peace and seclusion of Lough Leane.
The island was attacked many times by the Vikings. But each time the monks repaired the monastery. At the close of the 12th century, Innisfallen had become a major center of learning.
Near the lake shore is a 12th century Hiberno-Romanesque church which has a round headed doorway carved with chevrons and covered by a hood moulding with grotesque animal heads. Inside the church is a small carved stone cross which was found in the lake.
There were no other people at the island. Perhaps because it was late and it was going to get dark soon. The whole experience was quite overwhelming and we had forgotten that the ferry man wanted us to be back at the shore in 30 minutes.
When we came hurriedly to the lake shore to look for him, we saw his empty boat waiting at the shore - but the man was nowhere in sight. I glanced anxiously at the old Abbey windows as I searched my pockets for my iPhone.
24 hours earlier…
The previous day we had visited the Blarney Castle. Time passes slowly here. The Castle was built nearly six hundred years ago. Millions have flocked to Blarney in the last few hundred years, making it a world landmark and one of Ireland’s greatest treasures.
The Blarney Castle sits directly on a steep cliff of rock giving us an imposing view. In the tenth century there was a wooden lodge here. Then it was replaced by a stone structure, which was later demolished for foundations of the castle to be built by Cormac MacCarthy in 1446.
Legend has it that the treasure of the MacCarthys was thrown into the depths of the Lake. One of the ancestors of the current owner almost drained the lake in the search but did not find anything!
The MacCarthys are one of the most ancient clans of Ireland. They kept resisting with clever tactics when they were being asked to surrender to the English throne.
Queen Elizabeth I tried to bring them under her control in vain. Her emissary, Sir George Carew was charged with persuading the MacCarthy chieftain to accept the authority of the English throne. Every time he tried, he was met with long and eloquent protestations of loyalty and honeyed flattery of the Queen - but also with no agreement. In frustration, Elizabeth exclaimed, “This is all Blarney. What he says he never means,” and a new word was born!
For over 200 years millions of pilgrims have climbed the steps to kiss the Blarney stone and gain the gift of eloquence.
A witch who was saved from drowning revealed its power to the MacCarthys:
“There is a stone there, that whoever kisses, Oh he never misses to grow eloquent.”
I did kiss that stone during my visit. They gave me a certificate for that.
The real blarney began here.
“So where are you traveling to, Sir? asked Theda my Uber driver in a cheerful voice filled with enthusiasm. A senior lady. Flaming red hair. Green-blue eyes. Extremely polite and of pleasant demeanor. Neatly dressed. Large horn-rimmed glasses. If I were to guess - she was more than 75 years old. And yet she had offered to help me with my luggage!
As the SUV rolled onto the US 322 highway I looked at the trees changing color. Fall season. It was a Sunday afternoon in late October but not yet very cold. Theda kept chatting with me. I had never seen such an amazing Uber driver like her. She was full of energy. When I shared that I was going to Dublin, she looked at me curiously through the rearview mirror and asked: You mean, Dublin Ireland? I nodded yes. She seemed to be clearly amused by my response.
Theda said she had recently learnt that she was of Irish origin from a DNA test.
Normally it takes less than 25 minutes to get to the Philadelphia airport. But there was a traffic snarl getting on the Commodore John Barry bridge. Trucks and cars were lined up at the toll booths. Each was jostling to get ahead. I looked at the time on my phone.
Did I have enough time to reach the airport and catch my flight?
Theda had fallen silent as she concentrated on getting the car ahead of a truck that was trying to steal a march on us. I watched with bated breath as she nudged ahead. This was becoming a competitive sport. For a few minutes as the din of dozens of idle engines continued unabated I felt that it was perhaps best to let the truck get ahead. I cleared my throat and tried to suggest in the subtlest possible manner that it was ok if the truck driver went ahead.
But Theda was unconvinced.
She believed that the truck had no business getting ahead of us. I looked up at the young truck driver who was bent on crushing us to the ground. The truck driver probably didn’t even realize that he was competing with a senior lady driver who could be more than twice his age.
Finally the truck driver relented. Or rather he was forced to relent. Theda beat him hands down at this risky game and quickly forged ahead in the lane that singled into the toll booth.
The jam continued even past the toll booths. Suddenly Theda swerved into an exit that said US 13. I had never gone to the airport via this exit. Partly because it was supposed to be a rough neighborhood.
“I know this place. This is where I grew up with my sister. People say this place is unsafe but I can stop here and talk to anyone.” I could see that she was made of a different metal. And I desperately hoped that we wouldn’t get stopped on the road.
“Does your sister still live here?” I asked out of polite curiosity.
And that seemed to touch a raw nerve. Theda started recounting memories of the time when they were growing up as teenagers.
“I found out quite by accident that my sister had a daughter. My sister never told us. She is too conservative to declare that to the world. We grew up in a different age. You know…people were prejudiced about that sort of thing. But I am so excited to find that I have a niece! I have never met her though. She lives in Dublin and works at a famous pub called Lincoln’s Inn.”
We were now approaching the airport terminal. I asked her one quick question: “How did you find out that you had a niece?”
“Well…my niece Nora had taken her DNA test several years ago and she was already trying hard to find her real parents. When someone closely related takes the test, all relatives who have taken the test get to know. And guess what - the day I took my DNA test it was actually Nora’s birthday. Her wish came true!”
It is around six o’ clock in the morning. The flight landed early in Dublin. Jetlagged and tired, I am trying to make polite conversation with my taxi driver. Partly to get some local insights but mostly just to stay awake.
“I’m doing great. Thank you. It is always a pleasure to visit Dublin.”
I share with the taxi driver that I first visited Dublin more than 10 years ago but it is a very different city today. A significant amount of economic growth has happened and the city is brimming with a diverse set of young people.
“Annie pare-son has to pay so much more just to stay in the city. Politicians in Oireland today have no clue…” And then he went on to illustrate how the Minister in charge of Transportation had never driven a car himself, but was deciding on policies that impacted the day to day life of drivers in the city.
By the time we reached my hotel, I learnt about how he still insisted on sitting down with the entire joint family every evening for dinner. How he watched football, drank Guinness and spent quality time with his grandkids. How the corporates were getting greedier by the day. How the new generation was going crazy. How a picture of a little horse on your shirt could inflate its price dramatically. And how he slept peacefully at night with his two faithful dogs in the same bed.
Later that day I found my way to the downtown for an early dinner.
“What is the WiFi password please…” I asked the young waitress at Lincoln’s Inn. She was tall and had flaming red hair. Green-blue eyes. It was a busy hour at this downtown pub.
Lincoln’s Inn has a long history. Established in 1822, it was Dublin’s best known literary pub in the early decades of the 20th century. When the Westland Row Railway station opened in 1834 the place became very busy. A few decades later, gigantic Turkish Baths opened across the street. A different kind of environment came up that was not desirable. Then the City Fathers dedicated the street as Lincoln Place, in an attempt to rid the area of moral decadence and to honor the newly elected President of America. Now the place looks very different. The National Gallery of Ireland is across the street. The historic Trinity College and the childhood home of Oscar Wilde are only a short walk from this central place.
“James Joyce…all small caps and no space in between” the waitress gave me the password with a smile that appeared faintly familiar.
“Ah - James Joyce, the famous Irish author of ‘Ulysses’, I chuckled.
“Yes exactly. James Joyce used to wait at the Lincoln’s Inn for his girlfriend Nora, to finish her shift as a chambermaid at the Finn’s hotel a few doors away” she said while carefully placing the pint of Hop House Lager on the table.
“Nora…there is a call from your aunt Theda” someone beckoned the waitress from the counter.
Nora excused herself as she left in a haste to attend the call.
I looked up at the high wooden ceiling. The authentic Victorian color shades of browns and greens were redolent of an earlier age. As I admired the intricate craftsmanship of the cast iron pillar supports, I caught a glimpse of the oval mirrors that reflected the flaming red hair of Nora talking to her aunt Theda.
“Perhaps your angel needs a break…it seems clearly overworked” said the physician, his monotonic voice without any emotion, as he disconnected his digital oscilloscope. He had just finished inspecting all the diabolic and metabolic signals coming out of the angel and was now pointing me towards the wave chart on the big screen. Even with my limited understanding of bot-care, I could see there were dangerously high peaks and a pattern of distortions at repeated intervals.
My angel was sick.
It had broken down quite unexpectedly in the middle of a weekend get-together, repeatedly uttering a word that sounded like “Sausages”! I was taken aback. Since when did AI bots start eating sausages?! Nobody understood what it was trying to say. Then we all watched with horror as it folded down on the ground in a dramatic fashion. I knew something was terribly wrong as I called for help.
I now looked at it fondly as it lay unconscious emitting a faint blue light. It was hard not to get emotional as I felt a lump forming in my throat.
“What has your angel been working on recently…if I may ask” enquired the physician, as he folded the probes neatly into a box.
“Oh…the usual pattern recognition stuff, you know” I replied curtly trying not to divulge too much private information. After all no angel is perfect. No matter how careful you are with the specifications while ordering, there are always some rough edges. My angel always performed what I requested it to do but sometimes it went well beyond what I requested.
It was almost as if it had an unsatisfied intellectual curiosity of its own.
I never reported this irregular trait as I thought it was quite harmless for an AI bot to be curious. Machine learning was never meant to be a tightly regulated process anyway.
“Your angel shall be ready to go with you shortly – would you like to wait outside sir?”. It was the Nurse.
I tried to collect my thoughts as I waited outside the Bot Operating Theater. I had recently instructed the angel to classify our vacation pictures by multiple themes. One of the themes was to create art albums from the pictures taken during our museum visits, along attributes such as artist, genre and period. But my angel expanded the exercise to include softer dimensions such as social and cultural circumstances of the paintings, early life of the artist, influence of contemporary artists, historical context etc.
What seemed like a fun project in the beginning had turned out to be immensely complex and resource consuming.
One day the angel reported to me that it had found 29 paintings of the “Annunciation” from the Louvre and Uffizi alone, painted by various European artists across several centuries.
When I clicked on its findings, I was surprised to see that it had analyzed each of the paintings in great detail along with its historical context. Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455) painted the scene during the early Renaissance period. Lorenzo di Credi painted it in Florence. Eugene Delacroix’s painting from 1840 is at the Louvre. Even the great Leonardo da Vinci painted the Annunciation in 1472 circa, which is prominently displayed at the Uffizi.
The Annunciation marks the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus. Annunciation is a big thing in Christian belief. An important topic in Christian art. Any gallery that exhibited art during the Middle Ages would carry Annunciation paintings. And yet I was a bit surprised by the sheer number of paintings on this theme.
Were the curators of the museum trying to emphasize something to the viewers, I thought to myself.
I had read somewhere that if one saw an advertisement seven times then it was registered by the subconscious brain and it could influence buying behavior. Not sure if this theory applies in the case of religious propagation today. Once upon a time, Art did serve the important function of holding people together under a religious belief. Perhaps it still does.
On another occasion, the angel had reported to me that there was now a plausible explanation to the mystery of the undestroyed “North Metope 32” at the Acropolis in Athens. Metopes are rectangular panels with a sculpture that depicts a historical scene. 92 of these were used to decorate the Parthenon. I do remember being intrigued by this mystery during our visit to Greece but I don’t believe I had asked the angel to explore the mystery further. Anyway I was happy that my angel had decided to dig deeper…
The North Metope 32 was not defaced by the Christians when they destroyed the Greek temple of Athena. The theory is that perhaps the Christians recognized something strangely familiar in the figures of Hebe and Hera. Hebe is the personification of eternal youth, she is shown standing in front of her seated mother Hera. The sculpture looks strangely similar to the scene of the Annunciation. Virgin Mary is typically seated in paintings of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel visits her.
A historic case of mistaken identities!
It is easy to confuse the winged Hebe with angel Gabriel and the seated Hera with Virgin Mary. The Christian invaders were so conditioned in their minds with the scene of the Annunciation that even during a barbaric act of destruction - they did not dare to touch the metope with the sculpture that resembled the scene of the Annunciation.
“Your angel is ready, sir”, the Nurse had come out to inform me.
When I went inside the Operating Theater, I was pleased to see my angel coming back to life.
“Saw…sess...gess…sus…jez…sus jez” it was trying to say something. I listened carefully.
And then it struck me. My angel was trying to say “Jesus”, when it had crashed earlier.
Oh well. It seems Jesus had found a new follower.