Natural Born Drivers
We vacationed by car, mainly because it was cheap and private and we were poor and strange, but also because we each loved driving. After five grueling attempts even my mother acquired her driver’s license, the first amongst all the Indian aunties, some of whom never got theirs, spending their American days being chauffeured by grumbling relatives. After obtaining her license my mother promptly began getting into accidents, though she never damaged anyone else’s property. She eventually totaled four cars by diving into a ravine, crashing into two of our other cars, and flipping over a road island.
“Is that your mother?” My father paused as his blinker ticked, craning to see in the opposite direction of his turn. He always rubbernecked, part of a shameless immigrant nosiness I found undignified. I did not look out of spite.
“You’re so nosy,” I told him.
“That looks like your mother,” Appa insisted.
He was now leaning over the steering wheel, his Buick crawling forward. Behind him a car pulled up.
I repeated what I had heard on the radio:
“You’re causing traffic.”
“That is your mother.” He sucked his teeth. How could I not recognize my own mother? He slipped into traffic with uncommon speed, normally an infuriatingly cautious driver, once ticketed, twice shy.
Fifty yards away my mother stood on a road island that split eight lanes of traffic, half of which merged on to the beltway that circled that DC. Wind generated from the traffic whipped her braid and long skirt. Glass glittered on her. Behind her wedged against the road island was our Datsun mini station wagon upside down on its roof, one tire still spinning. After climbing from the upturned vehicle she had managed to extract her purse, which she held instead of wore, as was her habit.
“Sorry,” Amma said when we reached the road island. She winced in the Datsun’s direction.
She was sheepish because accidents cost money. Deductibles, repairs, lawsuits—we shuddered. Each could be calamitous to the paycheck-to-paycheck household, which was a mindset as well as financial reality. A decade later in Rock Creek Park when my father was driving a car I had rented that was suddenly totaled by a hit and run, his first response after the impact, despite being sprinkled in windshield cubes, was not to ask “Are you alright?” but to order me to switch seats with him since I was the insured driver.
My brother and I had better luck with accidents, each of us driving long before we officially had licenses. At fourteen, my father permitted me to tear around our neighborhood in the Datsun with my Indian neighbor Shereen who worked the radio like a deejay while I rolled through stop signs in my way. My father understood how a learner’s permit worked, that it required I be supervised, but he also knew how liberating a car could be. He loved driving.
This love made him a prize on road trips. In addition to camping near Sugar Loaf Mountain and overnight trips to Atlantic City, Ocean City, and Rehoboth, Appa managed to cart us to every American city about which he had heard: Boston, New York, Chicago, Niagara Falls, even Disneyworld. These trips were executed within the thinnest of margins, in rented economy-class cars over the course of a few days, always concluding with a harried dash to Hertz Rental in order to avoid being charged an extra day, or so that he could squeeze in a few hours of sleep before he was due back at one of his two jobs. He worked both of these full time jobs five days a week, sleeping four hours between shifts, working, he often joked, “like a machine.”
Of the two jobs he held for most of my childhood, I disliked night auditor at the Holiday Inn. It was less prestigious than what he did at the Indian Embassy—typist—where he seemed not only at ease but jolly. When I accompanied him to the embassy, he introduced me to minor diplomats in an aging mansion on what he cheerfully told me was the part of Massachusetts Avenue known as Embassy Row. An old man all elbows and white undershirt made mutton curry in a basement cafeteria and my father’s car, which had Maryland plates, had to be shuffled from one side of the street to another because of DC’s punishing parking laws.
This might have been unbearable for the typical employee but it suited my father. An informal part of his job entailed being in his car—picking up less important emissaries from Dulles, escorting them around The Mall, finding their relatives’ homes outside the beltway. His knowledge of DC’s infamously labyrinthine streets accorded him respect as a uniquely useful fellow. This, coupled with his wide-ranging handiness, reliability and mildness, made him popular at the embassy.
At his second job at the Holiday Inn, on the other hand, Appa worked behind the front desk with American customers. At night. There was nothing glamorous about it. The job’s very existence as a second job illuminated our poverty—adults were supposed to have one job I knew, any more or less was an indication of dysfunction. The only tangible perk of the Holiday Inn was the discarded hotel furniture.
This furniture included sturdy lamps and cumbersomely heavy tables and chairs, some embedded with call buttons I would find kitschy today but found humiliating then. On rare occasions my father also brought home artwork, oils framed in laminated cardboard with holes where they had been bolted to the hotel’s walls.
My favorite was a dreary cityscape of what appeared to be a soupily rendered National Mall from a grimy point of view. The scene, cast entirely in muddy greys and blues, stretched panoramically from The Capitol to The National Monument, though the national obelisk was wider at the base in the painting than it actually was. There were other anomalies such as the foreground was off (where was the Potomac River?). I toted the melancholy rendering from dorm rooms to condos long after Appa was fired from Holiday Inn, after thirteen years, for falling asleep upright in a chair during his break.
In addition to overall handiness (he built a picnic tables in a single afternoon, cross stitched patches on the too-tight jeans I wore as a teenager) and mechanical knowledgeableness (he repaired televisions, installed toilets), my father fixed cars for extra money. He replaced rotors and timing belts, scrounging around junkyards for starters and undented fenders. On the way to his favorite junkyard one Saturday was when I first discovered my father had worked at 7-Eleven, too.
“Which 7-Eleven?” I asked.
Langley Park, if lacking in greenery and affordable grocery stores, had its fill of second ring ghetto staples: rows of Lego-like apartment buildings; liquor stores of all sizes, including the widely fabled Tick Tock Liquor, patrolled by off duty cops and open late even on Christmas; and half a dozen 7-Elevens.
“The one by the library,” My brother answered from the front seat.
“How old was I then?” I tried to remember Appa dressed in an orange patterned housecoat behind a high pharmacy-style counter, addressing impatient customers in his singsong English. By then I had already grown accustomed to seeing Appa dressed in bright franchise colors; every morning he came home from the night shift at Holiday Inn dressed in a kelly green blazer.
“You were just a baby,” my brother answered, bored already.
I melodramatically envisioned my father’s handsome Ricky Ricardo face with his jaundiced eyes having to deal with cocky teenagers and morning commuters, handing over change and cigarettes, smiling, yesthankyouhaveniceday.
Next, my brother pointed at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. “He used to work there, too.”
That was also a surprise. The only fast food I recalled were McNuggets and fried apple pie that came in a sleeve the same green as my father’s Holiday Inn blazer.
“You must have been small baby then.” Appa smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “I used to work in all the places.”
When we reached the junkyard in Laurel it was already hellishly hot out, the Plymouth’s vinyl seats burning our legs. Neither my brother nor I wanted to shadow our father as metal flashed in the sun and dusty plumes of silky construction dirt stirred with each step. Better to sit in the hot shade where we could at least fight over the radio. So while Appa searched for alternators and fuel pumps among the bleached wrecks, my brother and I sat on the Plymouth’s hood pretending to tan as we had seen white people do and waited for the freight trains to rage by.
When Appa came back drenched, he came prepared with sodas because he knew to expect complaints from his bored children. He would eventually learn he could never pick the right kind of soda, however, our preferences contingent upon complex algorithms of what was available, but that day he chose root beers to our disgust.
“Excuse me sir,” Appa said in his lilting voice. He hoped to exchange the sodas.
“Can you change the soda? My son, he wants the Sprite soda.” Appa had a long-standing patron’s friendliness. One mechanic to another.
Eyes down, too busy to be bothered with a faithful customer, the man shoved the brown cans from the counter with such emphasis that they cracked open, sepia suds bubbling at the tabs. I never saw the cashier’s face, only the roof of his head that was sunburned magenta; out of his rudeness he never raised it.
“Hey,” he called to another attendant, “Get this guy a fucking dollar.”
I knew “fuck.” I knew even then it was word I wasn’t allowed to say though I did not yet know what it meant. I knew it to contain violence as well as lightness. I knew it was the worst bad word and also the funniest bad word. As Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz has delineated so carefully, “fuck” might be western civilization’s oldest, greatest word.
When this man cussed at my father, I was five, full of television and the young adult novels I had been precociously reading. I immediately knew why this man had played Appa this way. It wasn’t our poverty—expressed plainly by our seasons-old attire from Sears and the decade old sedan we drove. Poverty was routine. Laurel, MD was rural in some ways then, mostly patches of inexpensive homes separated by unused plots of land and semi-vacant office parks. It wasn’t a vibrant landscape.
We were only nine miles outside of DC and Langley Park, but here were occasional cornfields yet to be overtaken by townhouses and immigrants. Yet to become the third ring suburb it would become in the new millennia. Back then we were always the only people of color in the junkyard, this in part because a minority of desis fixed their own cars, a propensity of the upwardly mobile class to which many desis belonged. We were Indian yet poor, somewhat uncommon, certainly at this junkyard. No one smiled with recognition during our regular visits, neither the white customers nor the white employees. Yet my father continued to shop there because he needed to work, whether it was repairing cars, toting diplomats, or working the night shift at Holiday Inn.
In 1984 we took our grandest family road trip: three days from DC to San Diego, the relentless pace split between my father and my uncle. It was my uncle’s purchase of a 1982 navy blue Ford Crown Vic that provoked trip. Such a car removed all need for renting a car; its engine size and newness meant it could absorb a drive like this without a hiccup unlike the aging beaters we generally drove.
In the front seat were all the males: my father, uncle, brother Alfred and younger cousin, Jesudas. In the backseat, the rest of us: me, my mother, my aunt, my infant cousin Vasanthi, and two older cousins, Tina and Anita. On the three-day race to the West Coast we stuck to major highways, missing the many national parks to the north and south of us. The men primed for the final leg where the speed limit was often 75mph. We sang all the songs we knew and ate sardines out of the Vic’s cavernous trunk.
It was a testimony to the spaciousness of American cars that we fit, though without enough seatbelts. In the bench seat era before mandatory safety belts no one wore seatbelts, not even the foursome up front. The baby slept propped on pillows between my aunt’s knees, no car seat. Neither my aunt nor the rest of us complained about the length or discomfort of the trip, the purpose of which was to visit relatives and sights like Disneyland and Sea World, the foremost of which was Universal Studios. Like all Americans we watched a lot of TV.
When we got to Universal Studios, it was instantly apparent that our mothers had misjudged the formality of the place: children swarmed in shorts and bathing suits while each of us girls were in dresses, socks, and loafers. It is unclear why; we had all been to our local roller coaster park King’s Dominion dressed appropriately. Though our parents seemed only slightly perturbed by the miscalculation—they mostly dressed the same regardless of occasion or location—we girls understood immediately how fresh off the boat we looked, how utterly uncool. Worse, my brother and Jesadas had inexplicably escaped in shorts and t-shirts. Only we girls were screwed.
Anita and Tina suffered worse than I did in their long sleeved blouses and tweed skirts. I at least was in my favorite dress, a Little House on the Prairie number that didn’t require a slip. Still, as we posed by a talking replica of Knight Rider’s talking car KITT and toured movie facades like that of the Bates Motel, I felt visibly out of place. The cheap plastic visors we hurriedly bought, unprepared for the unrelenting sun despite perpetually despairing at getting “dark” in the sun, clashed with our prim outfits and made our outsider status indisputable.
Somehow this is my main memory of a trip which was, by any yardstick, a fantastic achievement of frugal planning and driverly determination: feeling outcast at the Hollywood amusement park, a place as American, and thus as holy, as it got. For the seven-year-old me, it was like arriving at our traditional Episcopalian church on Sunday, the only family of any color, in hockey facemasks. In this sunny Hollywood, where a golden Ricky Shroeder wandered from the set of Silver Spoons to wave at us, our attire felt like neon immigrant costumes.
Our fashion crimes threatened my sense of belonging, which had always been tenuous and desperate. What, I often tortured myself, if I had been born in Sri Lanka like my brother and not in DC? What if I didn’t have my natural born citizenship? My navy blue passport that announced I was an American, that I wasn’t, whatever else, an immigrant? Here in a blonde California, humiliatingly overdressed, I knew no one could tell I was American like them. In many of the photos I am scowling. I would have known what to wear, I was thinking. My parents were dragging me down.
Years later, at Mount Hood in Oregon, beneath skyscraper arches in Utah, in view of Mt. Denali in Alaska, I would of course be ashamed of my childhood mortification. My father had given me a satisfying love of driving and travel. He had traversed continents and undertaken immeasurable sacrifices to give me a taste for both, each becoming, as they are for many, trustworthy salves for disappointment.
My father’s fingerprints would end up all over my travels; by thirty I had visited every continent save Australia and the Antarctica. On every trip it was the driving around I looked forward to most. Zipping along coastlines in Japan or Mexico, I would recall Appa’s panicky sprints to return the rental car so he could return to work at Holiday Inn the same night.
It was only in Paris in my twenties that I realized the painting from Holiday Inn I loved, the gloomy depiction of DC’s National Mall skyline, was in fact a cityscape of Paris. What I had mistaken for a bottom heavy National Monument was actually the Eifel Tower, what I had thought was The Capitol was really the Dome des Invalides. It had been Paris that I had been gazing upon for all those years.
Alone at night in Paris—my first solo adventure—I recalled that Orwellian year of Thriller and Reagan and our dash to California. What a sight we must have been to onlookers at rest areas: four brown adults and half a dozen brown children happily crammed into a sagging American sedan headed manifest destiny west, joyfully singing “Oh my darlin’ Oh my darlin’!” out of rolled-down windows since we didn’t use the AC. The mournful content of the song must have been drowned by our up-tempo take and lilting Indian accents: “You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorrow, Clementine!”
If the axiom “It is always darkest before dawn” has a converse, it would describe the period before my father was unceremoniously fired from Holiday Inn, when we plunged mid-step Wile E. Coyote style down the rabbit hole of my childhood’s worst fears. Though Appa would acquire a similar job at Ramada Inn within the year, the setback was catastrophic, coinciding as it did with an unprecedented opportunity for my father to realize his life’s dreams: a green card for my brother.
The Immigration Act of 1990 increased immigration to the US by prioritizing family-based visas, designating five employment based visas, removing barriers for gay immigrants, and by establishing a diversity lottery for immigrants from “low admittance” nations. Although none of these categories applied to my father, mother, or brother, they could expedite their existing immigration situation by reapplying for green cards from outside the US. This meant my brother, mother, and father were advised to exit the US (though they were legal residents) in order to restart their green card application from a US consulate in India, where they each currently had citizenship. The transcontinental trip would cost a fortune but to my father there was no question we would go.
The green card, which meant the permanent right to work in and eventually become a citizen of the United States, was the entire point of my father’s efforts. The point of him leaving his wife and son continents away in Colombo to enter the US on a tourist visa several years before my birth; the point of him fleeing to a Canadian YMCA when that visa expired, to wait for word of an employer sponsorship (a friend of a friend knew someone at the embassy). Now this. Financing this trip to India after being fired from Holiday Inn would require credit card acrobatics from which he would never fully recover; the stress of which cost him his hair. Afterwards, he looked his age for the first time.
Before this worst of times, when he was unceremoniously fired before having to finance this odyssey for his family, the dawn before the dark per se, our father elected to purchase, on a whim and at his children’s urging, our family’s most precious sacred cow: a brand new Chevy Blazer. The vehicle had no amenities or whistles, a stock engine and pizza cutter tires, but its size and newness, never mind its very American truckness, instantly made it our family’s most treasured item. We fawned over it, cooed over it, took pains to baby it we never took with our other interchangeable vehicles. We even washed it. We each loved it separately, my mother sneaking off to drive it when she wasn’t allowed, me bursting into tears at the sight of it smashed after an accident, my father arriving for the first time in the Blazer to a wedding, admitting with shy pride as he pulled into the church parking lot filled with his milling, staring peers, “It is some prestige, no?”
Despite how universally we loved The Blazer, as we called it, we felt equally guilty about owning it. It was an unnecessary extravagance we couldn’t really afford. No one knew this more intimately than our father of course; deciding to purchase the truck took hours of mulling. The monthly car note frightened my father. If the fridge broke or the basement flooded or I got pneumonia again as I had last year in fifth grade when I had to be hospitalized, we would be screwed, so close did it put us to Appa’s margins. If anything at all surprised his budget, “That’s it!” Appa lamented at the salesman’s desk. He flinched at the thought. Moreover, we had no need for anything like a truck; its terrible gas mileage only added to the long list of cons. In fact, there were no reasons to buy it, he pointed out. Yet there it beckoned from the dealership lot, within reach.
My father paced the showroom for hours, consulting friends who were called in to advise him. We ate lunch from the snack machine. Then, as the sun went down on the dealership, my father had to choose: he was due at the Holiday Inn in a few hours. Finally, he shimmied his head side to side, the Tamil gesture for yes, yielding at last to his son’s adolescent need: my brother had just turned sixteen.
As my father signed the papers, I suddenly filled with dread. Buying the Blazer seemed, I decided, an incredibly foolish decision. Who did we think we were? The Jeffersons? The Cosbys? Did we think we were normal? No, I winced. We were overreaching, being greedy. We didn’t know our place. Since when were we the type of people who just bought brand new cars? What if something did go wrong, I wondered. What if Appa couldn’t afford to make a payment? What if? As a child, I didn’t realize that little could happen, of course, other than the car being repossessed. The stakes felt high. I began to panic.
“Don’t do it, Appa,” I pleaded. “Don’t!”
It felt too good to be true. We were going to drive home in that gleaming white American truck? How could we, with our mismatched clothes and smelly food, really own such a car?
“What will you do if something happens, Appa?” I cried.
He had no idea that something of course would happen, that in a few weeks he would lose one of his jobs and simultaneously be required to come up with twenty grand, half his income. He had no clue we would come to the edge of financial ruin, that he would sit with his glasses perched on his nose at our dining table surrounded by folded white paper and envelopes, bills. In that moment, at the dealership, he knew none of this lay shortly ahead. He only knew that the Blazer, like the green card, was something he wanted my brother and me to have, so that we knew we deserved things, things like America. We belonged, said the Blazer. My shame was a farce, it said, my alienation baseless. Anything was possible, it said. He signed the dotted lines.
“What will you do?” I repeated in tears as adults shushed me. “What if something happens?”
My father turned to me. He gathered his jacket and smiled, optimistic. He handed my brother the new keys. “What could happen?”
Rumpus original art by Wendi Chen.