All Rivers Lead Home

Photo by Matthew Britton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.
Photo by Matthew Britton/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

My shift today is 2-10 PM. During deep winter, the sun sets at around 5 PM. Now rapidly disappearing, this store and the occasional speeding car are the only sources of light. There are no streetlights outside and no moon to be found on this particular dusk. Obscured perhaps by thick clouds, or maybe it’s just late. Outside, two rivers parallel each other. The first is the west to east railroad, linking the end of the island and the mainland. The second river is another west-east route, exclusive to trucks, cars, bikes, and pedestrians. For now, these rivers rest.

The square-gridded windows reveal a precipitation with a strange speed. In one square of the grid, water drips and drops. In another, a white powder collects. A drizzle? A flurry? I step out for a few seconds to settle this dispute: A flurry that melts…no, a drizzle that freezes. Back inside.
The television inside tells tales of distant happenings: a town by the name of Flint suffers from a lack of water. A group of migrants crossing the Mediterranean suffers for the opposite reason. A weather report speaks of a snowstorm bound to hit sometime tonight. The man disseminating this last piece of information has the look of the mad scientist in the movies who warns the government of a disaster, but to no avail. Perhaps he is this man. Despite this, he is of good cheer. These three stories have been on repeat on this channel from the beginning of my shift, so I turn down the volume completely to let only images flow.

At first, all I see are his eyes. Alice first seeing the Cheshire Cat’s smile. From afar, they are nondescript. As he crosses the store, they seem furious. As he approaches the counter to clock in, the proportion of eyebrows to eyes reveals determination, a fixed face to match a fixed gaze. He is suited with a black beanie with “PHYSICIAN” spelled out in bold white letters, and a matching black jacket with the insignia of the Oakland Raiders, one of the meanest organizations of men to ever participate in organized sport—indeed, a strange combination of clothing. Seeing that I have been studying him for the past fifteen seconds, he smiles, releasing both the facial tension and a pearly smile. I smile back and exchange a dap of the knuckles. Mohammed Z. Miah of Dhaka, Bangladesh to the United States of America, Zamir to anyone else. As Zamir goes to the back of the store to change into uniform, I am reminded of the promo pictures of the Compton/Los Angeles rap group N.W.A. by the combination of his gaze and Oakland Raiders jacket. I can imagine him between Dre and E, staring at the lens, 40 oz in hand.

Coming back to the front, I ask out of curiosity, “Are you a PHYSICIAN?” (The rest of the Bengali workers here all claim they were doctors back in their homeland. An inside joke maybe.) He says plainly, “No.” He looks straight ahead, studying the windows of the store, grid by grid. I then think to ask him, “Why did you come here?” But I stop myself. If someone asked me that, my inner peace would be sure to have a fit of some sort. Instead, I ask, “Are you from Oakland?”

“Oakland?” he replies.

I refer to the insignia that his coat donned.

He understands now. “I’m from Dhaka, Bangladesh,” he says. “It was a gift from my daughter.” He gives me a quick, judging glance.

For a while, I listen to his silence. A customer enters, ordering a black coffee, a guacamole-breakfast sandwich, and a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Zamir still wears the tight look from before, all his focus concentrated in his pointer finger, pressing the right buttons on the register. In a split second, Zamir whips both his finger and his crazy gaze towards the unsuspecting customer and asks, “In a cup or cone, sir?” He holds this pose.

I see all this and am amazed. He would make a fitting game-show host. After the customer leaves, at about 7, he takes the remote to change the channel to NBC and turns up the volume. For the next hour, he stares at the television, euphoric—his face loose and mouth open, partly smiling. If you search on Google Images, “Best of Ben E King,” that first image hit is precisely it.

Zamir asks me, “Jaime, what is this ‘what is’?” I tell him I don’t know, but that Alex Trebek is always up to something. At 7:30, Wheel of Fortune makes more sense, as winners and losers are made by their own hands. None of this “what is” business with Alex Trebek as existential gatekeeper. I ask him what he thinks about American television.

“Same in Bangladesh,” he says. “They make anything seem good.” I laugh, telling him it’s the same everywhere. He tells me of his love of old Bollywood actresses, imaginary girlfriends of yesteryears, such as a certain Asha Bhosle. He pulls out his phone to show me the song ‘Yeh Hawa Yeh Fiza.’ I’m blown away; it’s the best thing I’ve heard all week. I tell him to look up a certain Filipina, Celeste Legaspi, and her song ‘Magtaksil Man Ikaw,’ a song passed down in my family’s collection ever since my grandmother first heard it.

The program ends, the channel changes back to the weather report. The man is back, telling of the snowstorm again, this time with volume. He is still cheery. Zamir is watching but his face is no longer wonderful, reverting back to that look, as if to say, “This snowstorm had better watch out.” Now, it is 8:30 and there have been no customers ever since that man with the most curious appetite. Zamir says I can leave early. As I gather my things, his eyes are fixed to the television screen. The three stories from before loop. He urges me to stay warm and keep my feet dry.

My next shift is right after the worst of the snowstorm, two days later. Trekking 15 minutes through thigh-high snow, I am not surprised to find the store empty of customers. Nor am I surprised to see Zamir at the register, where I left him two days before. The television is off. After greeting him, I ask, “Do you remember the monsoons?”

With a wistful smile, he affirms. I know this story. I know he knows this story. My parents told my brothers and me about the same seasonal flooding. Year after year, the same old story: lack of a drainage system and the inability of the government to fill this lack. The Filipinos and the Bengalis know the same rains, the same pains. Although if you asked my parents or Zamir, they wouldn’t say “pains.” On the way to or from school, a second job, a playmate, whatever, the thigh-high water was simply an extension of the ground, their feet roots. Looking down, the only prints dirtying the floor are my own, chunks of melting snow marking my trail. I think about how my parents tie garbage bags to their feet on their way to work in less-than-ideal weather. Maybe Zamir knows this trick too.

Like the snow brushed easily from his hair, shoulders, and fingertips, the political circumstances of his time passed him un-weighed. While he was schooling in his home city of Dhaka in 1971, the partitioning of post-British rule created Bangladesh apart from its sisters, Pakistan and India. According to Zamir, “the British didn’t have big pockets.” (In any circumstance, what a great lesson. Know your pockets.) He left Bangladesh in 1980, in search of “wherever there was work.” This search first took him to Libya, Paris, the Bahamas, Miami, and finally, here. All along the way, he would save money to send back, and occasionally return back home to the family. Know your pockets. “With each visit home,” he says with a laugh, “a new kid.”

“Children?” I ask.

“My eldest daughter…” He pauses, judging me for a second with a father’s eye. “Married in Spain,” he finishes, “Running a profitable grocery with her husband. An arranged marriage, of course. Spain, however, was not arranged.” His middle child is in college, the same age as Zamir was when he left Bangladesh to begin his globetrotting. This son has asked to join his father here in America many times but has been made to stay with his mother and little brother back in Bangladesh. Zamir’s eyes reveal a longing.

“It’s a good thing,” I tell him.

He nods. Plan A is “saving money, waiting for the visas for his family.” When they arrive, the family will all come to join him. For now, he says he “shares the rent with the other Bengalis here.” All the Bengalis connected to this store came one by one to America and found work here. Some of them are relatives, each following a pioneering brother or cousin. Others, like Zamir, found this group of Bengalis by the same dice that governs a lone piece of driftwood disembarking from an even lonelier shore. Now, everyone’s rooted, saving money, waiting for their visas. The person who views these applications might just be tempted to quit upon seeing a petition for twenty-five-plus visas all to the same address.
I gesture towards the television. “It is difficult,” I say.

He nods again and proceeds to tell me his Plan B. “If the visas do not come through, I will go back to Bangladesh and get the family back all together,” he says.

“To stay?”

He shrugs, telling me he hopes to “know within the month; his middle son is set to graduate from college soon.”

“Is there a Plan C?” I ask.

He laughs and says, “No need.”

Now it is 8 PM. We’ve missed Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, but we didn’t realize it. The television has been off the whole shift. While all would-be customers are home—warm, eating, loving, laughing, growing—Zamir and I are at this intersection, here and now. For him, all rivers lead home, one way or another. If he takes a train east, west, north, south; if he ascends into the sky; if his feet gain the ability to drill through the frozen ground to China; if the shore decides to spit back that lost piece of driftwood, no matter. In thigh-high snow or flooding, what matters is he is not stuck. If there is family, he must keep moving. His roots are deep and the seeds are sown in faithful ground, whether in the coasts of Spain or the wetlands of Bangladesh.

Through the windows, the last remnants of the snowstorm blow by, illuminated by this store. A flurry, a drizzle, some entity in between. The wind is picking up, sweeping away the wispy clouds that were hiding the moon. It may have been sitting there patiently the whole time, turning the tides without fanfare. Zamir gives me permission to leave early and urges me again to stay warm and keep my feet dry. This time, his watchful eyes are fixed on me.

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