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Once upon a time in America —Mahmud Sipra

mehmoodsipraThe phenomenon of an elected president being hounded out of office was incomprehensible to a young bewildered person from Pakistan in those days. I recall asking Abe Schwartz, a senior Washington attorney, what was it that President Richard Nixon had done to warrant his resignation? His answer: “He lied”

My first view of the New York skyline was in the winter of 1973. A TWA flight delivered me on America’s snow-covered soil on a chilly March afternoon. It took all of three minutes for the cheery Immigration Officer — a burly Irishman — to examine my Pakistani Passport. After giving me a quick onceover, he stamped the green booklet and said: Welcome to America. Have a great stay, sir.”

A few minutes later, I was standing outside the iconic TWA terminal at JFK with my luggage, being greeted by swirling gusts of bone-chilling winds and a friendly NYC cabbie who said : “Let’s getcha outta this cold”.

My first lesson of New York’s geography was by the cigar-chomping cabbie. The ID plate issued by the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission stated that his name was Al Mancuso. Mr Mancuso’s first question to me was: “Where to?” I told him New York city.

“Uh huh! Let me tell ya something ‘bout New York city, son. It has five boroughs. Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Manhattan. Now, which one of these do you wanna go to?”

“Madison Avenue,” I ventured.

“Okay… That’ll be Manhattan…now we’re gettin’ somewhere. Uptown, downtown or midtown?”

“Midtown will be fine,” I said, playing it safe.

“Yea. I shuda guessed. You look the Madison Avenue type.”

In the next few minutes, I was to learn that the cab I was sitting in was a “Checker”. And the blustery wind that had greeted me on my arrival is referred to by New Yorkers as the wind-chill factor.

“Ya know, the first thing I would do when you get off is to walk into one of them fancy stores on Fifth to get yourself a coat. The wind-chill factor can go to 10 degrees below zero.”

“Any particular store you could recommend?” I asked.

“Well, lessee now…I could always drop you in front of Tripler on 46th and Madison or you could always go to Bloomingdale’s on 50th and Fifth. They’ll have a Men’s Department. You’ll get to see all the Gucci and the Pucci ladies there too. Very nice! Me, I’ll get my ‘Rum Baba’ when I get home tonight. Been married 25 years to the same woman…and you know what, she still doesn’t believe me when I say I’m running late because the traffic is bad… Whoa! Jesus! Now what does this sch…. think he is doin’?” Mancuso shouted as he swerved to avoid a car driven by a man with a fancy hat and a fur coat with a foxy thing cuddled up next to him.

I settled back into my seat and was naïve enough to ask: “What kind of car is that?”

Mancuso waited to answer me until we came to a traffic light and pulled up next to the car that had just almost sideswiped us.

I couldn’t help noticing the owner’s predilection for fur. He himself was wearing a fur coat as was the thing sitting next to him. To complete the sequence, I noticed that the steering wheel was swathed in what could have been chinchilla.

“That…” said Mancuso, chewing on his cigar, “car was a Lincoln when it left Detroit. Now it’s a ‘Pimp Mobile’! And that is probably Super Fly himself. This is as close as you wanna get to the seamy side of New York!”

My consciousness of “black power” was developed enough to know what the reference to “Super Fly” meant. I hadn’t seen the “blaxploitation” Curtis Mayfield film of the same name but knew that it had been touted as a comment on the civil rights movement at the time. My own familiarity had been more with the soundtrack of the film, which, I was to learn later, stood out as the soundtrack whose sales out-grossed the box office sales of the film itself.

The light turned green and as if almost on cue, the FM station in the cab started playing the soundtrack from the Black “Bond” movie, Shaft, with Isaac Hayes’ marvelous baritone coming through like a sonic boom.

“I’m gonna take the Triboro into Manhattan; it will put you back another 25 cents for the toll. That way, I can take the FDR and go cross town and you can take your pick of midtown hotels,” Mancuso announced as he threw a coin into the toll basket.

I checked into the Roosevelt on 46th and Madison and instantly realised that it had seen better days and could do with a more caring parent. What I didn’t know then was that moves were already afoot to broker just such a relationship, between Pakistan’s national carrier and this landmark property.

There were only three people in New York who I could say I knew. Bobby Ali, whose father Mr Khalid Ali was the Press Counsellor of the Pakistan Mission at the UN and an affectionate and kindly host; the gracious Arnaz Minwalla — now Mrs. Arnaz Marker — who tolerated me more because of her relationship with my in-laws — the late great Afzal Imam and Zakia Imam. And, of course, Munir Akram, who was enjoying his first stint as a young diplomat in New York.

Munir and I go back more years than he or I would care to remember. I met him only once and learnt that he had recently committed matrimony. I decided to leave him be to ponder his newly found conjugal bliss. He did make ambassador, but for some odd reason didn’t make Foreign Minister. Pity. He would have made a good one.

This was the year US troops started their pullout from Vietnam. The Watergate break-in had now become the subject of relentless Select Senate Committee hearings and names of “All the Presidents Men” — Haldeman, Dean, Liddy et al — were to become household names. It also gave a new meaning to the term ‘Deep Throat’, perhaps less gratifying than its previous point of reference but deep-rooted in mystery nonetheless.

The scandal had all the makings of a burning at the stake of the one of the most powerful US presidents, Richard Nixon. Nixon left the White House the following year. I watched his successor Gerald Ford take over the reins of the presidency with an enduring confession: “I am a Ford — not a Lincoln.”

It took thirty years for the world to find out that the person who helped bring down the Nixon presidency was not a woman after all — as many believed at the time, but Mark Felt, the former FBI second-in-command. Felt revealed himself as ‘Deep Throat’ in a Vanity Fair interview in 2005, the source that helped the Washington Post break the Watergate scandal, which eventually brought about Mr Nixon’s ignominious departure from the White House.

Mark ‘Deep Throat’ Felt died last week at the age of 95.

The phenomenon of an elected president being hounded out of office was incomprehensible to a young bewildered person from Pakistan in those days. I recall asking Abe Schwartz, a senior Washington attorney, what President Richard Nixon had done to warrant his resignation.

His answer: “He lied.”

“That’s it?” I asked, incredulous.

“No. He got caught doing it!”

It seemed an awfully harsh penalty to pay to a person coming from the part of the world I was from, where people in high places routinely don’t just tell lies but most of the time live it. Go figure.

Mahmud Sipra is a best selling author and an independent columnist. He can be reached at\12\25\story_25-12-2008_pg3_4


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