The first time I visited the United States was in 1972. I had heard a lot about the country, the diversity of cultures and cuisines and felt a frisson of excitement when the aircraft touched down on the runway. A first-time visitor often gets an idea of what to expect by the reception he is likely to receive by immigration and customs. Mind you, this was 30 years before all passengers had to peer through tiny cameras and get finger-printed and sniffer dogs wagged their tails over suitcases, and people with Muslim names were singled out and segregated and made to wait hours before airport intelligence interrogated them. But this was 1972. I had never before met such a friendly and attractive immigration officer as on that occasion. She stamped my passport, gave me a broad smile and said, “Have a nice day.” Customs just waved me on.
I always make a checklist before I pack my suitcase. And yet, there hasn’t been a single occasion when I haven’t arrived at my destination, and when unpacking my valise discovered I had forgotten to pack something that I needed. Now what I am going to narrate is a true story. Unfortunately, the only witnesses to corroborate my tale have probably been fertilising the daffodils for some time. So you’ll have to take my word for it.
The next morning, striding down Fifth Avenue, humming an old Victor Herbert song, I stopped somewhat abruptly at the traffic lights. Turning to a short, stocky man who stood on my left and addressing him formally, I asked him in the Queen’s English if he could possibly be kind enough to direct me to a shop that sold gentlemen’s slippers.
The lights had changed and we started to walk with a measured tread across the zebra crossing. “Is this your first visit to the Big Apple, sonny?” I said it was my first visit to the United States. Looking up at a very tall building he said, “I bet you don’t have skyscrapers like we do … in Cape Town.” I let that pass because in my travels I have been bestowed the citizenship of a number of countries.
The man took me to a large department store which had elevators and escalators and all the salespeople wore uniforms. A useful list informed customers what was available and on which floor. A rather effeminate salesman attended to me and gave me the same attention he would to somebody wanting to buy a Raoul Dufy. Being a male, I picked the first pair I was shown. I was about to reach for my wallet when the man who had brought me to the shop stopped me. He took out his wallet, extracted a bank note and handed it over to the cashier. Outside the department store, the package and receipt were handed over to me. “As this is your first trip to my city,” he said, “let this be a small gift from a New Yorker to an Afrikaaner.”
I protested and insisted on reimbursing him. But the man just refused to take my money. “We Americans are not such bad people, you know. It’s the government, the politicians, big business, the corporations and the unions who are the bad people. We’re the little guys, trying to make a living.” Before we parted I said, “Sir, you are one of the nicest persons I have ever met. But I don’t know your name.” He gave me his card. It read David Cohen… Cantor. I suddenly remembered that second cliche I used to hear, which almost every Pakistani student who studied in the United States and Britain used to say: “Some of my best friends… are Jews.”
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2016.