Looking for America

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

How does that Paul Simon song go? Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America. I don’t know if I was looking for America. I don’t know that I’ve ever looked for America on the New Jersey Turnpike. But I have looked for signs of home. Most times, I’ve found it somewhere around Exit 14B, when the twin towers become visible across the Hudson River.

I couldn’t get a flight into Newark International Airport the Friday following the attacks on the East Coast. The closest TWA could put me was Philadelphia, where I lived for two years. From there, I rented a car and drove north, along an 80-mile stretch of the turnpike I’d navigated at least a thousand times before.

This time, where the twin towers should have been, I saw a fat column of smoke curling like the precursor to a cartoon genie coaxed out of a lamp. My foot hit the brake, in a reflex. I pulled over to the side of the nearly empty highway to watch the cloud, lit up by floodlights and almost beautiful against the 4 a.m. sky. I didn’t expect that nearly four days later, there would still be smoke.

Home has never been an easy place for me to pinpoint. But Jersey City, a once-upon-a-time factory hub directly across the river from Lower Manhattan, is probably as close as I’ll ever come. It’s where I grew up after the age of 6, when my family left Guyana, the former sugar colony that was England’s only imperial foothold in South America.

Jersey City styles itself as a gritty sixth borough of New York. Its row houses cluster tightly together, staring at the back of the Statue of Liberty like a bunch of lewd old men ogling a symbol. But she’s not the only symbol to be ogled. Until two Tuesdays ago, the World Trade Center cast its perfectly symmetrical altitude over the squat landscape of my hometown.

From most points in the city, I could see the towers. I knew where I was, by looking at them. I could fix my coordinates on a literal axis (say, close to Mahatma Gandhi Plaza) or a figurative axis (try, in “a dreary afterthought of New York,” where “the people all had that look of being noplace,” as novelist E.L. Doctorow once described Jersey City). Now, that compass was no longer there. Did that mean that home, so elusive a concept to begin with, had also somehow shifted?

Doctorow might more accurately have said that the people, or many of them anyhow, have that look of being from someplace else. Someplace foreign. That has always been the case in Jersey City. At the century’s start, its immigrants came from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe. In the last two decades, they’ve arrived mainly from South Asia, the Philippines, Latin America, the Middle East, China and the West Indies. About a third of the city’s residents were born outside this country.

One of them died two days after the attacks. She was my aunt, Romewatee Chandan, nicknamed Baba. I went home for her funeral.

Others of them are being held as material witnesses in the FBI’s investigation of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Two Jersey City residents were picked up on an Amtrak train in Fort Worth, carrying box cutters. They worshipped at a mosque just blocks away from my elementary school; around the corner from the first newspaper I worked for; and a short walk from the strip of shops where I like to buy hip-hop remixes of Hindi film songs and syrupy gulab jamuns — and where my mother bought the white silk sari that my aunt asked to be cremated in.

But the proximity of the pair in FBI custody extends beyond what can be sketched on a street map. They look like me. They look like the people close to me. And they implicate me and the people close to me, in the eyes of some. It doesn’t matter that their actual national origins, in India, don’t exactly match ours. Or that the origins of other suspects — some from Egypt, others from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East — are even farther afield. (My grandfather was born on a ship called The Clyde, which ferried indentured laborers from Calcutta to the sugar cane plantations of Guyana in 1903.)

Someone even kicked in the door of the Malaysian woman who lives in our old apartment, shouting, “You foreigner, get out!” In San Francisco the weekend after the attacks, an Australian software engineer was stabbed with a Phillips screwdriver while out clubbing with his roommate from Calcutta. Their assailants called one an Arab, as though it were a slur. That same weekend, gunmen shot to death the Sikh owner of a Chevron in Arizona and the Pakistani owner of a grocery store in Southeast Dallas. Both are possible hate crimes.

Now, it seems almost everyone with a skin color, accent, name or habit of dress that even appears to connect them to the Middle East or South Asia could be a target of backlash, if not a potential suspect.

I did get a flight back to Austin from New Jersey. It, like the hijacked plane that crashed off-target in Pennsylvania, embarked from Newark airport.

A TWA employee behind the ticketing booth suggested I check my carry-on luggage, since it contained a make-up kit with tweezers. “Best you do it, honey,” she said. OK, I said, not a problem. I made my way to the airline’s cluster of gates, a purse with four forms of ID slung over my shoulder. I cleared the metal detector, and my eyes caught those of a security guard down the corridor. He stopped me and asked for identification.

I offered my American passport, with an 8-year-old photo and my place of birth stamped on it. He looked long and hard, then walked over to a superior, another guard at his heels. As the three scrutinized first the passport, then me, once, twice, thrice, I handed over my Texas driver’s license. Another few seconds, and I gave them my American-Statesman credentials. Then, finally, my press pass for the floor of the House and Senate at the Capitol.

“What’s that? The Austin American-Statesman? Is that a newspaper? ” one asked. I nodded assent, and another guard smiled. They returned the accumulated proof of my roots and stake in this country, and I found a spot with a view of the checkpoint. Over the next hour, I watched them stop every single person with brown skin, searching the contents of some bags and patting down some men. And I watched them gesture along every single white, black or East Asian person, even those reaching for ID, eager to present it.

I suppose I should be grateful I was allowed to leave with my flight. A Delta crew in San Antonio told a New Braunfels man, on the first leg of a journey back to Pakistan for his brother’s wedding, to get off the plane. His presence unsettled the pilot. All I had to contend with, once onboard, was the occasional glance from a nervous passenger.

I’m still trying to process what I witnessed — like I’m still trying to process the fact that my aunt, the one who opened up her two-room apartment to me, my baby sister and my parents when we came to look for America, is gone. A quiet woman, who lived for others, is gone. A part of the geography of my family is missing. Soon her sons, their heads shaved to mark their mourning according to Hindu rites, will scatter her ashes in the Hudson River, a skyline no longer anchored by the twin towers looking on, itself bereft.

What other parts of our landscape, I wonder, should we fear losing as Americans from someplace else?

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