“Only when I left home, I realised that not everybody is a Muslim,” said Kausar Jackpot. “I mean, I knew that Muslims were a minority in some countries but I did not realise that it meant having to deal with non-Muslims all the time.”
Kausar was called Mr Jackpot because he did not have to go through what others do for settling down in this country. He got his visa in a diversity lottery, came here, learned driving and became a cabbie. He never had to work at half the legal wage at gas stations, grocery stores and restaurants as most people on non-working visas do.
“I also learned that those who believe in other gods are nice too and some Muslims are bad as well,” said Jackpot.
This was another weekend evening at the Tavern and we had just finished a dinner of “aloo parathay” with matar-qeema. Now we were waiting for green tea and shisha.
“Yes, you are always right, Sir,” said Teaspoon Hameed. “Living with others jolts your entire belief-system.”
“There’s a reason that they call you Teaspoon,” said Johnny Jumper, laughing at his courteous response. “But you are right; living with people of other faiths does change your outlook.”
Hameed is a sweet man and is always very courteous. Some of his friends think that he is too sweet, so they call him Teaspoon Hameed.
And Johnny is called Jumper because he always carries a jump-starter in his cab and when other cabbies need help, they call him.
This was a winter evening and it was snowing outside. It was also the beginning of the weekend. Snow on such evenings, if it’s not severe, always means good business for cab drivers. People use cabs even for short distances, which in summer they prefer to walk.
So the Tavern gang finished their tea and drove away to downtown Washington. They would spend most of the night driving people to and from Adams Morgan where most of the bars and restaurants are.
It was past midnight when Khalid Simple parked his car outside Madame’s Organ Blues Bar. Khalid was called Simple because whenever somebody came to him with a problem, he would, “OK, no problem. It is simple.”
It was a productive evening. Simple had already earned $150, so he decided to take a break. Although he was parked outside a bar, Simple could not drink as he was driving. Most cabbies in his group did not drink and those who did, visited bars on Sunday evenings when the business was slow.
Simple loves winters, even the harsh North American winter. The temperature drops. The wind stops. A complete silence fills the space. It gets so quiet that he can hear the leaves falling.
Then comes the rain; the slow winter rain. It begins with little drops that leave their mark on the roads but cannot be seen. Soon it starts to snow. A white powder covers everything – from roofs and trees to cars and streets. Everything assumes a new shape, mysterious and beautiful.
Simple was trying to remember an Urdu or Punjabi couplet appropriate for this freezing night but could not. “They are all written for our mild winter, not this deep-freezer night,” he murmured.
As he took another sip of hot coffee from his cup, someone knocked at the window. It was a homeless person who asked him to buy him coffee and some food.
Simple opened the window an inch and asked the man to go to a nearby donut shop. “The manager is my friend, I will call him. You go,” he said. Soon the man returned with his coffee and donuts, thanked him and walked away.
“A winter night is neither mysterious nor beautiful if you are homeless and have to sleep in a park under the falling snow,” thought Simple.
“You need to be in a warm room, under thick blankets to enjoy it.”
Criss-crossing the city on a cab, looking for passengers, was not comfortable either but it was better than being homeless, he said to himself.
When Simple first came to America, he did nightshifts at a gas station facing a park. In the winter, he often saw people sleeping there, during the snowfalls too. Hiding under heaps of blankets and plastic sheets, they barely moved as the snow piled up on them.
Simple often wondered if they would wake up! But they did. Every morning, while returning from work, he would see them outside a fast food restaurant, waiting to be served.
He wanted to know how they felt sleeping in a park in sub-zero temperatures. So he asked one. The man asked Simple to buy him a cup of coffee. He invited him inside and while the homeless man was enjoying his coffee and donuts, he asked: “How do you sleep in the park during snowfalls?”
“Come and try,” said the man and resumed munching his donut.
Simple apologised. The homeless man accepted his apology with a smile and asked if he could buy him another cup of coffee. When Simple nodded, he said: “Not now. Before you leave.”
“Why not now?” Simple asked.
“It will give me an excuse to spend more time in this warm room,” he said. Then pointing to the park, he added: “It is cold and uncomfortable out there.”
This under-statement disturbed Simple. He thought the man would be full of bitterness about his homelessness and the harsh weather. May be he was but he did not say so.
“Did I really need to learn it from him? Their misery should have been obvious to me and to all others who watch the homeless,” Simple thought as he waited outside Madame’s Organ. “Why should he confide in me? Just because I bought him a cup of coffee? It was very mean of me.”
Then Simple remembered how people walk past the parks where the homeless spend snowy, winter nights. “We ignore them as we ignore other ordinary things that we do not need to notice, like walking by a row of homes,” he said to himself. “We do not notice them because we know it’s none of our business what people do inside these centrally-heated homes.”
Simple then recalled how all faiths encourage people to help the poor. Simple was a religious man, but in his own way. He believed in God and always tried to do what he thought would please the Almighty. But he did not spend much time bothering about religious differences.
“We must do something about these homeless people,” he often said to other cabbies. “I know we cannot do much but we can at least feed a certain number of them every night.” He also suggested setting up a fund for this purpose.
Simple’s thoughts were interrupted by another knock at the window, louder than the previous.
“What do you want?” he asked, sliding his window a little. The man gave him a piece of paper with an address written on it.
“Drop me there. It is too cold. I cannot walk,” he said and showed him a 10-dollar bill. “I will pay you.”
Simple looked at him. The man was not much different from the homeless he bought coffee for. He opened the window a little more and immediate felt a strong odour. He looked closely at his dirty clothes and drove away.