Goodbye, Wall Street: An Indian Story
The $3,000 flat was suddenly a burden. Her husband applied for 20 jobs a day, cut his asking rate from $130 to whatever. For Nikhila Natarajan, the great American dream is dying.india Updated: Oct 05, 2008 12:49 IST
"Anand, should I pack your Monday lunchbox or no?” I hollered, watching telly from my walk-through kitchen. “Bear Stearns collapses,” said CNN in its signature red colour. “I’ve changed baby’s diaper long ago, Niki,” he said, towelling himself after a shower. “JP Morgan has bought Bear. It’s on TV,” I yelled back. He stood there, his hair still wet. The house went suddenly very quiet.
Outside, it was cold, rainy, very windy. I remember everything about that evening. We had just come back from a walk along the Hudson. Back to our extra large three-bedroom apartment with a breathtaking view of the Long Island Sound. Here, they call it the Sound, I’ve always called it the beach, my way of hanging on, desperately, to everything that’s home. Like baby’s underwear hanging out to dry in the patio, my jasmine creeper, daal-chaawal (lentil-rice), weekend idlis.
That was five months ago. Many years after I left college with an economics degree, never having understood much. Many years after I’d begun to think I was the most well-organised, best-prepared person I knew for complex situations. Everything in boxes, labelled, neat and clean. Life too. Anand was ‘let go’. He applied for at least 20 jobs daily. So that’s close to 100 jobs a week. And waited. Waited for e-mails. Waited for interview calls. The bad news kept getting worse. Anand kept cutting his asking rate. From $130 an hour to whatever. For days and weeks, clicking the refresh button on the computer screen and checking missed calls was the only thing to do. And, pay the bills. Grocery, house rent, electricity, water, cell phone, car insurance. The house rent cleaned us out. Almost $3,000 every month.
Suddenly, the view from my living room window wasn’t so hot anymore. The extra bedroom felt like a $500 fine. Friends who lived in cramped studios in Manhattan came, ate, drank and gushed about the freedom of space, and here we were, out of a job and wondering how we could cut and run from this $3,000 headache. By 4 pm everyday, the wait would become unbearable. So we would put on our running shoes, get baby and baby food into the car and do what we’ve always done to escape: run.
Half hour for each man, and when we’re done, jhoola in the park for baby.
With no money left, we took a loan, and our usually overstocked fridge started looking very different. We bought just enough for the next two days, no extras. We stopped dining out, stopped buying toor daal from the desi dukaan in Queens and instead bought Hispanic pulses at one fourth the cost.
I put most of our furniture up for sale at sky high prices. Anand said it won't work, this is America. I revised the price downwards everyday. One week to go for our apartment lease to end, still no job and a house full of stuff to cart out. Should we take the flight to Chennai?
Anand wanted to hang on. I didn't care either way, I didn't want last minute confusion. That same hang up of mine. Planning, planning. We drove to New Jersey to look for a stop gap solution — Indians sub-letting their apartments for a month or two. What we saw made us feel like our socks were soaking wet and stinking. Damp carpets, dingy bathrooms, what a fall, my countrymen.
So, what next? “Ok, let’s at least dump all the stuff in storage,” I said, thinking with all the neat compartments inside my head. “At least pack your clothes,” I nagged Anand. I'd already done my packing. More boxes outside my head.
Anand listened politely, but did nothing differently. Every day, on the same red armchair, I’d see him with his head down, hands folded, eyes shut, willing God to pull off something supernatural while things fell apart. With no money left in the bank, no money left to take the India flight, no job, no home to move into and just one week left for the lease to end, nothing changed. Same red sofa, a prayer on his lips.
Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, AIG died, Merrill Lynch sold out. Thousands of people are going to lose their jobs or have already lost it. Anand's phone rang. In the afternoon, when you think nobody will call. “Can you join on Monday? The job's in DC,” the voice said. That evening, we put on our shoes and ran on Wall Street, or what’s left of it. The riot has just begun. I’m unpacking boxes now, somewhere in Virginia.