Tom’s Diner

I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten a full meal in two days. Two days ago, I went to the Hungarian pastry shop, where I was eating the amazing Häagen-Daz and drinking the good coffee when my purse was stolen. I walked out of the buzz of exciting conversation and put my hand inside my coat pocket, and felt only emptiness inside. A minute before, I had seen a man consulting three watches on his palm like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. I had wondered what the watches were for, and why he was looking at them so intently as he hurried by on Amsterdam Avenue. Now I knew. He was probably scoping out his day’s loot from the pastry shop, where unsuspecting out-of-towners had fallen victim. I am stranded in New York with no money, no bank card, no credit card, no keys, no passport.

Fortunately, I am leaving today, so there is no need to panic. I have borrowed twenty-five dollars from Rachel, a student at Bank Street. She is almost as bankrupt as I am. I look at my two notes and put them back in my pocket. I need them to buy my return ticket. If I can make a successful call from a public phone and make myself understood to the Dominicans who run the San Miguel Van Service out of South Providence, I could return home on just ten dollars. This means I could buy myself breakfast. However, if my English is incomprehensible to the nice Spanish speaker on the other side of the line, I am forced to take the metro to Port Authority, then my twenty-five goes to Greyhound, and I can’t have breakfast.

I am taking the minibus we call the Jalapeño bus service, and it is all that — sharp and pungent with Spanish accents from all over Latin America, with hot salsa music blasted at full volume…

Home. What an ironic way to think of Providence. I am taking the minibus we call the Jalapeño bus service, and it is all that — sharp and pungent with Spanish accents from all over Latin America, with hot salsa music blasted at full volume all through the ride. I’ve taken it so many times they know me by now. Once I was so enchanted with the beats of “La Machina!” that I asked the driver where he had bought it. The driver offered me the pirated tape as he dropped me off at my door.

“No, no,” Jason said, hastily. “You can’t take his tape. Here, let us give you some money.” He’s worried about taking things from people without paying. He even wanted to pay me for all the dinners that I cooked. “Jason, you don’t have to give me money for a dinner I made,” I say. He, one of five kids who spent half his childhood on social security benefits, knows that this is not logical. “Food costs money,” he says. We eye each other across the divide of two cultures that cut across our psyches like a visible line. For me, food is hospitality, a way of showing kinship. Food had appeared magically on the plate when growing up, and even now, as a foreign student without money, I make strange buckwheat pankcakes and pumpkin curry and don’t worry too much about where the next meal will come from. For him, food is a commodity bought at a supermarket, something that costs me money. And he knows that I have no money. So I try not to get too mad at him, and he tries not to get too mad at me, and somehow, so far, we work out our differences.

I take the tape and thank the driver and will not let Jason mediate the transaction with five dollars. Because I know the man does not want money. He may have just arrived and found himself in a land where he can not speak the language, but he can afford to give away music to people he likes. I became a regular patron of the Jalapeño bus service after this. It is also cheaper than the regular buses. The quarter slides into the worn-out public phone. A woman with a thick Spanish accent miraculously picks up and says “Hola!” and despite my desperate inability to understand a word of her responses, I manage to communicate that I need a ticket to Providence. “Dama-yanti?” she has my name in her list. I’m set. Three hours before I go back home, I can afford to buy myself breakfast before I leave.

I head out again, on one of my long walks down Broadway. Everywhere there are smells of onion and garlic frying in hot oil. Unidentifable spices floating out of doorways in almost unbearable, taunting ways: cumin and coriander, lemon grass, sesame oil. The colors of food — tangerine, squash, scallions, rotting in the cold January air. Strawberries for fifty cents in the middle of winter. Only in this city. And I am still starving.

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