It was almost six in the evening as he stared out of the large bay window of his sons' 34th-floor suite in Essex House. Central Park sprawled beneath him.
As the sun set on the park, it too was setting on the penultimate day of their Christmas sojourn in Manhattan. The trees turned copper under the fading sun. Skaters traversed the large ice rink, some gracefully, a few timidly, holding on to each other, while one dared to execute a salchow jump in a secluded corner.
His bird's-eye view of matchstick men parading the park or clustered around a cafe gave an impression of walking into a museum of paintings by L.S. Lowry. If he could have peered at the gathering through binoculars, it would have turned into a winter scene by Bruegel with the same air of pleasure and bonhomie.
He snuggled down on the oversized sofa, swaddled in thick fleecy blankets, his head on a large white fluffy pillow, reading, then gently succumbed to sleep.
"Pops, wake up! It's almost nine!" Chris, his younger son, exhorted. "We have to go. They'll be closing off Times Square soon for New Year's."
Observing his wife grimacing, he charged to her rescue. "You go with your brother," he answered. "It's too cold for us. We'll watch the fireworks from here."
Alex entered the room. "Pops, we're hungry. Can we order room service?"
"You must be kidding. Do you know how expensive that is? AND there's a 20% charge before tip to boot. No thank you. How about pizza? There's an Italian takeout behind our hotel.” He yawned and stretched. "I'll go if you like. It'll be a lot quicker than ordering. What do you fancy?"
Having got his marching orders, he put on his arctic outerwear and proceeded to the elevator.
Whereas exiting the front entrance of the Essex filled you with awe at the vista of Central Park across the avenue, the back entrance deposited you onto a narrow street the size of an alleyway. The pizza joint awaited him. He rotated through the revolving door, holding his breath to fit, and walked straight into blinding snow. Disoriented, he stumbled into a police motorbike, the size and build of a mini tank. To his amazement, the whole street was lined with police bikes. There must have been hundreds of them – as far as the eye could see – all parked at an angle within inches of each other. He squeezed through a gap between them, praying he wouldn't knock one over causing a domino effect of fallen and crumpled motorbikes. Finding his balance, he zigzagged his way across the street.
Portabella hadn't the room to swing a cat. A foot-wide, stand-up shelf across the window acted as its only table. To have two customers there would have been a crowd. The place was packed with close to fifty policemen. For a minute, he thought he had stepped into an episode of “The Simpsons.” The cops, all outfitted with large, gold-rimmed sunglasses, appeared piled on top of each other. They were so burly that he couldn't understand why their uniforms hadn't burst, let alone how each had managed to negotiate an entrance that barely allowed his 5'4" frame to pass.
The welcoming smell of baking bread, garlic, and sizzling meat restored his sense of well-being.
"A large Hawaiian and a large Meat Lovers, please. And a large Coke," he said when it was finally his turn to order. An 18" fully loaded pizza for $20. Not bad in the heart of New York.
"It'll take half an hour. We're really busy."
He was sure there were a dozen cops ahead of him.
What was he to do in the meantime? Walk this narrow alleyway? In the darkness outside, thick snow muffled the streetlights like a scene out of a foggy Victorian London. Pedestrians scuttled from one shelter to the next on their way to Times Square to glimpse a sight of the silver ball about to topple from the roof of a nearby skyscraper. If he retreated home, he would never want to come again. In answer to his dilemma, two policemen vacated the stand-up table. He occupied the spot immediately, breathing a sigh of relief.
He leaned forward on the shelf, almost touching the misted window, while gusts of cold air attacked him every time the door opened. Periodically, he wiped away the mist in front of him with a discarded paper napkin and stared out at the miserable weather.
This was precisely why he didn't want to come to New York in the first place. It was much like his first winter in Canada when his instinct was to pack his bags and return to England on the next flight.
His mother's words echoed through his mind. "Calgary? Where's that? You're in London holding a well-paid job. Why leave for a hole-in-the-wall cowtown? What a waste!" His friends and colleagues had said the same.
Suddenly, a spectre appeared before him of an octogenarian who served him behind the counter at Petrossian. He relived her infectious smile, despite her kyphosis forcing her to permanently bend forward and the vivid Versace blouse she sported with such obvious pleasure. He remembered the gift of the Magi Gund bear given to him out of a walk-in safe in the nether recess of Bloomingdale's; his joy at retrieving first edition copies of Hyman Kaplan his family had to leave behind in East Africa. In truth, he had never wanted to go to England either.
His English family – the Asletts – who volunteered to look after him as his mother couldn't, loved him more than their own. Yet, his mind, given the slightest opportunity to roam, wandered back, time and time again, to his home in Africa. What did he miss the most? To belong. To be accepted unconditionally.
He never had the chance to thank the, at first, belligerent Manhattan bus driver who wouldn't take cash and showered his family with timetables and route maps, even made an unscheduled stop in front of Grand Central Station to save them a walk in the unforgiving snowstorm. This went beyond the practise of hospitality. It was as though, in that one moment of time, the driver had suddenly connected with these foreign, bedraggled water rats and treated them as she would have her own family or friends.
Unquestionably, she made him think of an equally overweight, initially grumpy and intimidating partner of the Canadian firm that hired him from England. The outwardly hidebound partner had, against all expectations, stooped his six-foot-six frame to participate in completing an all-red jigsaw puzzle with him, thus cementing a bond of solidarity and friendship.
Sitting here in a Manhattan pizza parlour, constantly demisting the window to witness the mayhem of a frigid winter outside, he realized it wasn't the balmy weather of Africa or the Bahamas at Christmas he missed. It was the welcoming arms of a community.
A decade after he moved to Calgary, he was returning from Los Angeles from yet another Christmas holiday. As he looked down from his cabin window, he sighed to himself.
"Home at last."
That's when he understood.
Calgarians didn't notice his colour or pedigree, nor did they practise the manners of hypocrisy against him that he witnessed in England, once away from the hearth and home of the Asletts. Calgarians judged you by your character and action. You were rewarded for your contribution to society, not for the impeccable accent you cultivated. And why shouldn’t they do so? They were, in the majority, recent immigrants, all trying their best to equally make their way. Calgarians may have been gentler in manner than their New York counterparts, but to him and his family, New Yorkers, beneath their gruffness, showed them exemplary hospitality.
Many years ago, in Calgary, while he was still young and single, a friend took him to a town hall meeting held by The Forum Group. The pitch was directed to those dissatisfied with themselves and their environment. For $600, they promised you a weekend course to turn your life around.
The facilitator, uncannily dressed like a Mormon in a smart black suit and tie, addressed the audience from his lectern. With a beaming smile, he asked, "How many of you have dared to follow your dream? Have dared to unleash the amazing potential within?" The question must have been rhetorical as the facilitator continued for a further fifteen minutes before he stopped.
At the end of his speech, he waited for someone to put her hand up.
Fed up with the man's smug and condescending manner and noticing no response from the rest of the audience, he raised his hand.
"I have," he said. "And I wish I never had. I failed at everything. Almost went bankrupt several times and am still paying off the debts I incurred. I should never have unleashed the potential I wrongly thought I had."
A hush descended upon the room. Someone in the back attempted a desultory clap before being silenced. The facilitator's smile froze as he asked someone to respond. No one did.
While working at his first job in Calgary, he began to trade in gold futures. He failed, racking up a debt half the size of his annual salary. He shifted to stock trading, investing heavily, then went down in financial flames when the recession hit.
Squinting through the rapidly misting windows of Portabella, he analysed each deal he had failed in as objectively as he could. With hindsight, each had the potential of making him a millionaire overnight. But the chances were less than one half of one percent. The ultra high-risk investments he enthusiastically participated in had a 99% chance of failing, each time burdening him with insurmountable debt. After years in a well-paying profession, all he possessed was a sleeping bag in a rented bachelor suite. Why did he do this to himself time and time again? As an accountant, shouldn't he, of all people, have known better?
During all this time, he had been in a four-year social relationship with a Muslim Ismaili girl. Being an Ismaili, with four strapping, traditionally minded brothers, insured that policy of behaviour. From both sides, particularly from his mother, there was considerable pressure put on him to marry as soon as possible. She was also a professional accountant, a pukkah Ismaili and showed all due deference to his mother.
But how could they marry when they had endless arguments? To him, she was extremely controlling and, much to his mother's liking, demanded daily attendance at their mosque. They would fight, split up, then return, treading the same mill over and over again.
Through sympathetic friends, he found a counsellor and invited his girlfriend to attend. She came once, then never again. It was the last time he saw her.
He continued the sessions for nine months.
The counsellor was petite, like his mother. She also wore her hair in a bun and always dressed immaculately, her back, ramrod straight. She was an ardent follower of Joseph Campbell – the father of the theory of family myth.
"Imagine you were your father at your age now. What would be your concerns? Imagine you were your grandfather at your age. What would be your concerns?"
"How do I know? My grandfather died when I was four."
She gave him a look that shrivelled all resistance.
The same questioning carried through on his English father's side and then on to the females of both his families.
Once the answers were written down, it was curious how simple a thread ran through them. The family myth mirrored was the same for both his families despite the disparity in their geography and culture.
Both families struggled to survive, barely keeping their head above water. Later, as the counselling progressed, he understood that, subconsciously, he carried profound guilt in having a well-paid job and living a life of comfort so far above that of mere survival. The almost fanatical lack of furniture, the use of a sleeping bag provided a path back to living in survival mode. The investing in high-risk-taking ventures was a subconscious desire to force himself into constant high debt to struggle as both his families had from one generation to another.
What of choosing girlfriends with whom he would constantly fight for an equal share of power and acceptance? It was to win his Indian mother's love back, reliving the old battles with her, now that he was an adult with more power than he ever had when facing her as a child.
No matter the hocus-pocus conclusion, he began to adhere to a strict financial policy of low to no risk, rather than concentrate on the lottery chance of hitting a jackpot. His lot in life improved. He analysed each encounter with a female in the same light, sifting away troubled characters, saving so much time and stress. The sessions taught him the art of patience and the confidence to believe in his future.
"Pizzas up." The Italian-peppered Brooklyn exclamation recalled him to the present.
He left, trampling the snow-covered street like a drunken sailor on his way back to his ship, the bag containing the Coke swinging haphazardly from side to side, while his hands tightly clutched the two large, boxed pizzas. His glasses steamed up, then iced as he faced the hurdle of police bikes again with growing trepidation.
Arriving back at Essex House, the boys crunched through their pizzas, guzzling down tumblers of Coke before disappearing down the corridor and out. Their mother's voice rang after them. "Don't forget your gloves."
Kids gone off on their own, husband and wife sat huddled together under warm fleecy blankets, resting their heads on oversized, down-filled pillows, patiently awaiting the fireworks.
He had found a local FM radio station broadcasting Classical music. Elgar's “Nimrod” began its ascent. Out of the corner of his eyes, he gazed at Laura in awe. They had been married twenty-three years.
"You watch. Your marriage won't last six months" his mother had said. Yet, here they were, still hand in hand, with two boys ready to conquer the world.
His thoughts intermingled with the music, his mind, like Elgar's, reflecting on what had been, what could have been, and what was now.