My Few Months in the US – Part 4: The Perks & Pains of Community Living
More about the Indian standard time (IST) schedules that we kept… The psychology department at the university wanted people for conducting experiments on sleep. Great job – go in at 8am, sleep for six-seven hours, and leave—US$50 per day (an enormous sum those days when the minimum wage was US$2.70 per hour and a Big Mac meal cost 95 cents). The chaps at the sleep lab would attach some wires to your head to record the electrical currents in your brain.  All you had to do was—sleep.
Where is the catch, you ask?
Ah—the sleep had to be totally natural—no sleeping pills, no intoxicants.
The only people on campus who could sleep naturally for six-seven hours, starting at 8am, were—you guessed it—Indian PhD students adhering to an IST schedule. These PhD guys earned a bonanza for the six weeks when the sleep experiments were carried out.
There was another job ideally suited to our lifestyle. A nearby gas station was popular with students and faculty, particularly because it stayed open all night. It needed an attendant for the graveyard (10pm - 6am) shift for which it paid well—US$5 an hour, or US$40 a night. Yet, the normal American people did not want to do this job because you had to stay up all night—no sleeping—and hit a time recorder every hour to prove that you had kept awake.
This job became the monopoly of Indian students on IST timings, so much so that the gas station owner reserved the graveyard shift for us. A roster was kept at the gas station. If you wanted to earn US$40 any night, you had to put your name down on the roster. 
The job itself was very easy. Whenever a car drew up you had to fill gas, collect the money and put it in the till. There was a table and chair for you, and you could bring your books and study for most of the time. Perfect job—good study time (with interruptions, of course) plus US$40 a night.
For protection against thieves and muggers—you would be alone all night with plenty of cash in the till—the gas station owner provided a dog that lived in the gas station and slept all day, like us. It was a big dog, not as big as Toby the Irish wolfhound, but bigger than an Alsatian and very furry, which made it look bigger still. 
Whenever a car drew up for a fill-up at night, the dog would saunter up to the car, put its front paws on the driver’s door and bare its fangs next to the driver’s window so that the occupants saw what was in store for them if they stepped out of line. The result: no hold-ups ever.
Dogs do have their uses!
I also had some learnings about ‘community living’.
The apartment which I shared with two PhD students was one of many apartments located in two tall towers. Many Indian students, almost all being PhD candidates, used to live in some of the other apartments. Thus, there was a fairly close community of Indian students staying in these apartments.
There were two unwritten laws about life in this community:
- Apartment doors could never be locked, though you could lock your room door if you wished.
- You could help yourself to whatever was available in the open area of any apartment.
The main focus of the second rule was—food. 
If you were hungry and there was no food in your apartment, you could wander into any community apartment and eat whatever you found, on the table or in the fridge. That meant that I might have prepared a delicious ‘macher jhol’ (fish curry) with tender love and care, gone for class, and returned to find that most of it had been eaten up already by person(s) unknown. There was nothing to be done but make a sandwich, or go searching for food in some other apartment.
There was another item available for sharing, of great interest to me—a car.
Days after landing in America, I found out that NY state would give me a driving licence by swapping my Indian licence, provided I passed a simple written test and an eye check-up. I was on to it in a trice and had my US licence in no time.
Now the car.
All of us shared a battered old Chevy Impala, of unknown vintage and uncertain ownership. In India, an Impala was a super-luxury of the ultra-rich—Uttam Kumar (Bengal’s superhero film star) owned one. This car had been handed down from student to student and was used by one and all. The key was kept in one of the apartments. If you wanted the car, you had to find the key, and then the car was yours for as long as you liked.
The very first thing you had to do after taking the car was to go to the (aforesaid) gas station and fill US$1 worth of gas, which got you about 1.5 gallons (6 litres). You drove around all you liked, parked the car in the parking lot and replaced the key. 
One time, six of us set off for Niagara Falls in the Impala, with me at the wheel. At the gas station, I proudly announced, “Fill ’er up”. The attendant, who knew us, looked quizzically at us for buying so much gas at a time, but filled the tank anyway.
Then the car refused to start.
The wisecrack was inevitable: “You have starved her all this time, now she can’t handle a full belly!”
Then I got a car all to myself, an ancient Dodge with auto gears, operated by buttons on the dashboard. The ‘owner’ was a chap who had got his PhD and was going home. He found that nobody would buy the car, and to junk it he would have to pay US$50. So, he gave it to me, for free.
There was a catch.
The gas pedal, i.e., accelerator, had a problem with its linkage. If you pressed it, it wouldn’t come back. You had to hook a toe under it and pull it back. Sounds scary, but I got used to it with a little practice, so it was all fine.
As you would expect, nobody ever wanted to borrow my car!
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
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