Kaieteur News – She was a distant relative who had been living in the United States for a number of years prior to my arrival. I was awaiting my permanent arrival status; she was already a full-blown immigrant with citizenship.
She thought it necessary to invite me over so that she could give me a few pointers on how to adapt to my new home. I felt obliged to go since she was older than my grandmother and respect had to be shown to the seniors in the family.
As we disembarked from the car which was driven by another relative, I looked up and saw an imposing two-flat building with a large driveway interrupted by a small but elegant stairway which led to a brown metallic door.
I walked ahead of her admiring the luxury of the house: its large windows which provided a perfect view of the road; its well arched windows and tiled roof striking an image of an immigrant success story.
As I stepped onto the lower stair, I received a sudden tap on my shoulder and the old lady leaned and whispered, “Not there. We have to go around to the side entrance.”
As a new immigrant to the country, I was puzzled as to why I had to use a side entrance. It later became clear. The old lady was not the owner of the house. She was a tenant and occupied a small crevice below ground-level which is commonly known as the basement.
After tunneling our way through dark corridors filled with the stench of wet and unaired carpets, we eventually emerged into a small hole which was the door to a tiny apartment.
As I entered, my head almost collided with the ceiling. I had to bend in order to prevent this from happening and was quite relieved when I was offered a seat in a worn-out sofa which was set in a corner of the small room.
It was cold inside and this explained the heavy clothing that the old lady wore. She noticed my surprise at her home and tried to shy away the embarrassment by going into a long story about how she need not be living in such conditions, but because of the arthritis, she could not climb stairs.
“This is why me and your uncle never bought our own home. It made no sense since we knew when we arrived 30 years ago that one day we would get the arthritis and therefore we said why bother with a house when we would not have been able to climb the stairs. We are quite happy in this apartment. The rent is cheap. We have water and we get heat four hours every night. No use wasting money on a more expensive place. That same money we can send back to Guyana to help the family who are not doing too well.”
I said, “I understand.” And I did but not in the sense that she intended. She had projected herself to her relatives back in Guyana as someone who had done well in America. They thought of her as a success story, as they do of most who come to the developed world. She was treated like royalty when she went back home, and she carried herself with the uprightness of a lady of the castle. But in reality, she lived like a rat in a damp, cold and miserable basement.
She brought out some apples and grapes, which had seen better days. Since I was newly arrived, she wanted to impress me with food. I said, “We get these back home.”
“But they must be expensive? Things hard in Guyana you know. Not everybody can afford to buy these things. Eat your belly full. I buy these at the grocery down the road. Eat as much as you want.”
I really did not have an appetite for food and my taste for continued conversation was also fading. I said, “My throat was becoming dry. “Can I have a glass of water?”
She got up, went to the cupboard, took out a glass and placed it under the tap. The glass quickly filled up. She handed it to me.
I placed the glass to my mouth and leaned the glass. The water was cold and touched my lips, but I did not swallow. I instantly recoiled after recalling an article I had read about the sources of tap water and the pollution.
We spent the remainder of the hour chatting about things back home. It was a way of passing the time.
When it was time to leave, I wished her well with the arthritis. As I was going through the door, she handed me an envelope. I asked what it was and she said it was a little help, “I know how things are when you first arrive.”
Not wishing to offend her, I did not object. Later when I opened it, it contained twenty-five dollars. My first installment in a new life as an immigrant.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.)
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