The day I got a call from the cops


Everyone remembers their first day in a foreign country: the first view from the teensy aircraft window, the first meal, the first leak, the first place visited, the first foreigner who smiled.

This is the story of my second day in the United States. Like all Indian grad students who have relatives in this country, I visited them first. I went straight to their home and slept like a baby. That took care of the first day. The very next day, I had to leave for my graduate school as I had already missed the orientation. I woke up to a delicious home-cooked meal and a feeling of family warmth you experience particularly during the initial days of a visit. We had some essentials shopping to do before I flew. I bought an HP laptop the size and weight of a TV and a Verizon cell phone on a family plan (God bless relatives!). I would go on to regret the laptop decision within a matter of months. Ecstatic about the first purchase in the country and that I was all ‘teched-up’ for school, I said my goodbyes to my folks and promised to visit them during Christmas.

Toledo……I’m not impressed! (via google images, my doodle)

I had a stopover at Chicago, after which I would board the final flight to Toledo (It’s the home town of Katie Holmes). Blissfully unaware of the events about to transpire, just like everyone is, I looked around, studying the people in the flight like a bumpkin trying to make sense of an Opera. The language, I knew. The culture, I had no clue about. There was no free food, so I tried to read some John Grisham to kill time but—

“Ladies and gentlemen, due to severe storm conditions in Chicago, we have been re-routed to Milwaukee, and will be landing at the Mitchell International airport shortly. The local time there is 1:30 pm. We regret the inconvenience caused.”

There was a collective sigh of dejection throughout the cabin. Some were inquiring if they could get off at Wisconsin, since that’s where they were headed to, eventually. I was mildly excited though. Who wouldn’t want a different time zone squeezed into their first trip? Of course, my excitement turned to worry when the flight didn’t take off to Chicago for a good hour. When it finally landed in the windy city, it was already touch-and-go for my connecting flight. Now, my uncle had warned me about O’Hare but I wasn’t prepared for this Crystal maze of a place when I had a plane to catch in 10 min lugging around a bag that could dent the floor without much effort. Luckily, an Indian student happened to think so too, and helped me out with the gate. Apparently, I was in the wrong terminal. By the time I scurried across to my gate imagining they would be mispronouncing my name by then, I gathered that the flight had been cancelled due to severe weather. 

Ladies and gentlemen, if you can spot an eye shaped structure, please let me know (via ruthiedean.com)

Great! So, who’s gonna compensate me for the bone dislocation I am about to have due to incessant lugging around of luggage in an airport that didn’t have the common decency to inform that the flight had been cancelled. 

Well, if only I had stopped to read one of the scores of monitors announcing the same. Tiny mistake.

However, I was so drained out by then that I couldn’t summon genuine anger even at myself. As it would later be pointed out to me by a dear friend, I could have fished out five dollars, bought myself a nice meal, and simply ended the misery. To this day it escapes me why I didn’t do so. It was probably the guilty Indian in me, refusing to spend dollars on food, on the first second day in a country I had come to purely for academic purposes. Bah! It sounds fake even thinking about it, let alone writing it down. Let’s just leave it at that.

It was only when my name lit up on the stand-by list of the next flight to Toledo that I gained some semblance of cheer on my face.  My awkward arm partner on the flight was this woman wearing a leather jacket, a leather fedora hat and black lipstick. I have ‘Indian’ written all over my face; naturally, she launched on a verbal diarrhea of what she thought of the country, its people and its world famous culture. A kind word of advice—most Indians prefer absolute silence to talking/hearing about their colorful culture, the heritage and the diversity. It’s like bringing up the Ku Klux Klan to make small talk. 

As eloquent as she was about the goodness in Indian people, the woman walked right away as we landed at the Toledo Express airport at 12 midnight, without as much as a Bye. People often joke about how boarding and deplaning the flight from Chicago to Toledo often takes more time than the duration of the flight itself.

It seemed like another trip to India to me.

The school shuttle was supposed to pick me up at 6pm as per the scheduled time. I could have been dreaming about my NYT bestseller by now.

The whirr of the baggage carousel disrupted my pipe dream. There were a total of three bags on the carousel. None of them were mine. I was filing a baggage claim with the only airport official on duty that night, when my uncle called to check on me. He knew about the delay, so I didn’t have to brief him much, just that I had to survive on a single set of clothes and some documents until they tracked my baggage, if at all they did. And before I could talk to him about my transport options, my phone died.

So, there I was, at the phone charging port, one out of the four people in the airport that night: the official, two janitors and another passenger who was waiting for his ride. I was exhausted. I was famished. And utterly scared. Too scared to take a cab ride that late (I owe my pathological mistrust of cab drivers to my home country). Too scared to ask that guy waiting where he was going.

I was all prepared to spend the night at the airport—the serene silence gave me an odd sense of security. I picked up my John Grisham, again not concentrating, when the official walked up to me and asked if I needed a ride. All the people I have told this story to give me look of mixed horror and incredulity when they hear my reply “Yes, please” to a stranger, at midnight, and that too without as much as a thought.

“You thought hitching a ride from a stranger was less scary than taking a cab‽” is the unanimous reaction.

What can I say, instinct is a strange thing. And, how we choose to dive in blind, relying on them is even stranger. A year later I read Blink, and changed my narration to include the term ‘thin-slicing’ to describe my idiocy. Sounds a lot cooler.

Thin-slicing explains why I had no fear getting into a rusty jeep with him. It also explains why I spoke to my uncle from the car and casually mentioned (not in English, of course) that a man whose name I didn’t know was dropping me home for free. I felt nothing but overwhelming gratitude for the man until I reached home.

The cops called me when I was at the doorstep, about to crumble down but safe.

It was then that it hit me—‘the gravity of it all’ as my uncle later put it.

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27 thoughts on “The day I got a call from the cops

  1. Aparna! I’m confused! It’s late and maybe my brain isn’t working….what happened? Why did the cops call you? Did Rusty Jeep do something? That bastard! No really, please simplify for me, cause I got confused at the end!

    Plus…Toledo? That’s random. You ever go to a Toledo Mudhens game?

    • I don’t blame you for the confusion. Now that I read it again, I think I could’ve worded it better. My uncle panicked and called the cops, and they called me to check if I was safe. I slipped in the word ‘safe’ to allude to that, but I guess I need to work on my ‘creating an air of mystery’ skills.
      I watched a Walleyes game and actually liked it. They lost, but I loved watching the sport for the first time. I’ve been wanting to go to the Mudhens game. I am curious, are the Mudhens really that famous or do you have Toledo roots?
      Thanks stopping by and commenting! I appreciate it!

      • Ah! I get it now! Perfect sense, somebody slap me!

        Hey, i was riveted at the end, so your writing skills are a okay. So much so that I had to write immediately when the end perplexed my dumb ass. : )

        I grew up in a city that has a AAA baseball team, and they used to play against the Toledo Mudhens all the time, hence my knowledge of their existence. I like that Toledo, Ohio exists – it’s awesome that some little place in Ohio is named after one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It would be like there being a Paris, Texas. Oh wait, there is! Dumb America.

        You’re welcome! I always read – keep up the good posts, my friend. : )

  2. Poor triangle girl. Stranded at the airport. Good that things worked out well! In hindsight, it’s never a good idea to get into a car with a stranger. But what can I say—you got home safe! Nice post.

  3. Good to hear another FOP (Fresh off the plane) story. Almost everyone who has left the ‘secure’ shores of India has a story to tell. Yours could have been scary, but for the safe conclusion. On the lighter side, the place where I went for my Masters (Texas A&M at College Station), there was a practice that desi seniors would go pick up the landing freshers. If a girl was arriving, lots of hands would go up to take that turn. Of course, its not difficult to guess what happened when ‘Kiran’ was supposed to land :)

    • Sadly, I didn’t know many desi seniors when I arrived, although it has now become a common practice in my university. By Kiran, did you mean the unisexuality of the name? Coz I am really having a problem getting jokes these days!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

      • I was lucky since my parents managed to rake together enough money to accompany me from Pakistan. I think if they had not managed, they would have possibly not let me come to the US for my studies, even with my scholarship. Thank God, my nani was visiting from India, and came up with the idea that they should accompany me to the US for their peace of mind.

        I faced many misgivings when I first took a taxi alone from the airport. I had seen The Bone Collector a couple years before and it had freaked me out. It took me some time to convince myself that most taxi drivers just want to earn an honest living, and they would not try to harm me and then lose their source of income. Later on I became so used to taking the taxi at 2am from/to the airport that I can look back at my fears and laugh.

        Thanks for this post. It really reminded me of my FOB experiences and made me smile today.

      • I am glad this post brought back such lovely memories. I think all desis are super paranoid about taxi drivers when they first arrive here. You are lucky you had company when you first arrived here: it can be pretty unnerving. Thanks for stopping by taking the time to comment. I appreciate it.

  4. Interesting post. I liked the frankness in your writing. It must have been a gruelling experience, that too in a foreign country for the first time.

  5. Ohhh airports….. guess they’re the same everywhere really, no matter how well-versed you are in the language and culture of where they are. Thank goodness you managed to get home safe and sound! Your poor uncle must have been worried out of his mind, especially after you told him a strange man was taking you home. :)

  6. Great story! That was actually smart thinking of your uncle, as crazy as it may seem in retrospect. I once had a similar situation: a cab picked me up at an ungodly early hour to go to the airport, and a neighbor called the police when they saw his car idling in my driveway that early. I had to explain (from the back seat of the cab) that I was not being taken against my will. At first, I was annoyed, but then I realized that hey, if I have people looking out for me, it’s actually a TERRIFIC thing.

    And you are SPOT on about O’Hare being a crystal maze. That’s my hometown airport and I feel like I’ve just got it down, after 24 years of flying out of there :)

  7. You’re right. What my uncle did was probably freakish, but it needed to be done that day. You have one smart neighbor!
    As for O’Hare, I don’t wanna fly from there ever, if I can help it. It intimidated me like no other airport!
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate it :)

  8. Have you ever read “The Gift of Fear?” It’s an interesting book that discusses how our subconscious mind picks up on all kinds of clues that our conscious mind simply can’t process. That’s why we often seem to hesitate to go when the light turns green – and then what do you know, someone runs the light. Likewise, we get a vibe about a person based on information our mind is gathering that we aren’t really aware of. It’s a fascinating book. A bit creepy because you realize how many psychos are out there and how close you may have come to being a victim at one time or another, but a valuable read. In a nutshell: trust your instincts.

    • I agree with you. Our subconscious radar is far more pervasive than we’d like to believe. It was this niggling curiosity that led me to Blink in the first place. From what you describe, I think I’ll love “The Gift of Fear”. I’ll definitely check it out.
      Thank you so much for commenting and caring. And the blogroll addition….well, yay! for me. I really appreciate it :)

  9. Well, this happened to one of my girlfriend’s best friends and her father. They were driving along a country road on their way home from the cottage when they saw a young girl hitchhiking. They stopped and picked her up and she got in the back seat. She told the girl and her father that she just lived in the house about five miles up the road. She didn’t say anything after that but just turned to watch out the window. When the father saw the house, he drove up to it and turned around to tell the girl they had arrived but she wasn’t there! Both he and his daughter were really mystified and decided to knock on the door and tell the people what had happened. They told them that they had once had a daughter who answered the description of the girl they supposedly had picked up, but she had disappeared some years ago and had last been seen hitch-hiking on this very road. Today would have been her birthday.

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