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The Shake Down

EK ONG KAAR KAUR

 

 

 

Espanola  (New Mexico, USA) is not a typical destination place for travelers. People from around the world visit here during the summer, to participate in some of the yoga-based events sponsored by the 3HO Foundation.

But the rest of the year, Espanola is a small highway town, half-way between Santa Fe and Taos, landlocked by Native American Pueblos. It has the unique quality of being unable to expand in any direction because the land around it is owned by the tribes or the US Federal Government.

Because of this, Espanola meanders along, year after year, never really changing or growing. The same shopping plazas, the same shops, the same houses for sale, the same apartments for rent. It is rare and very big news when something new gets built here.

The Espanola Valley is incredibly beautiful. Gorgeous mountain ranges, vast blue skies. Espanola was the first capital city of the settlers in North America. The Spanish declared this area their New World capital in 1598.

The families in this community tend to date back many generations. But as beautiful as the landscape is, there is an equally ugly past. The Spanish raping and fighting the Native tribes is a battle that was fought hundreds of years ago on this ground.

But the war never ended in the minds of those who pass their stories of loss onto their children. The scars continue in the hearts of those who live today.

This may help explain why the Espanola Valley also has one of the highest heroin addiction rates in the United States, and why addiction is a generational phenomena. The psychological pain of conquest, the loss of a way of life – that pain has never faded.

In the heavenly mountains here, families get high together. There is a subculture that argues people can be addicted and functional at the same time – so why put them in jail?

When you live in Espanola, all of that becomes part of the landscape. The incredible natural beauty. The inability of the town to physically expand. The historical battles that live on in the memories and hearts of people. And the drugs. It is all part of life.

A couple weeks ago, I went to the local grocery store. And as will happen from time to time, a young woman came up to me with her story. She is living out of her car with her two kids. she tells me. They are hungry and haven’t eaten in a while. She needs to get to Albuquerque. Can I give her some gas money?

For some reason, it is hard for me to ignore people when they ask me for something. As dicey or potentially dangerous as the situation may be, I don’t like to be rude - to turn my back and walk away.

But I also have heard this particular con too many times to really believe it. I mean, she is good. She starts the tears right on cue. She sounds so sincere. I want to trust her, to believe her, and to help her. But I also know that she will probably take the money and give it to a drug dealer.

“Where is your car?” I ask her, taking her by surprise.

“Oh – that red car over there” – she points to a car parked close to the grocery store.

“Well,” I say. “I don’t have any cash on me, but I am about to go grocery shopping and I am happy to buy some food for you. What do you want to eat?”

She gives me a blank look, completely unprepared for that response.

“Um-m-m … chips,” she says.

“Chips?” I ask, thinking of her and her two children who have not eaten much lately. “Anything else?”

“Maybe some Gatorade?”

Her response to the question about the food has already poked one hole in her story. How can someone be hungry with children and ask for chips and Gatorade? But I play along.

“Do you think you can get some money when you are in there?” she asks me.

“I’ll try,” I say. “Wait here.”

I walk past the red car and surreptitiously glance inside. No kids there. Probably not even her car.

While in the store, I imagine that she is not entirely lying to me. That she is really hungry and needs something. So I pick up two bottles of Gatorade, a big bag of tortilla chips, and a couple bunches of bananas, just for good measure. This grocery store is locally owned, not a chain. One of the blessings of Espanola – there are actually locally owned businesses that stay functional and open.

But they do not allow customers to get extra cash for their purchases. Probably a good thing. It gives me an excuse to not feed her drug habit.

When I walk out of the store, she is standing there – waiting and hoping that I have five or ten dollars for her. Instead, I giver her two plastic bags with the food that I bought. She nods to me, and walks off, pouting and frustrated. She gets into a green car. There is a big fat white man driving the car. She throws the groceries in and looks upset that she did not get the money for him.

As I walk by their car, I look the man directly in the eyes and give him a wave. As in, “Please enjoy the food I just bought for you.” He waves back as in, “Well, it’s OK you saw through the game. I’ll enjoy the bananas.” And then they drive off.

The worst part for me is knowing how disappointed that woman feels because she did not make the sale for her boss. And how much he will let her feel bad, because he lives off her – off her addiction, off her energy.

I hate seeing people like this. It is such a waste of life, of this precious gift of the human body, and the breath. But I am too old and have seen too much to believe that I can save anybody. I understand all too well that change only happens if someone is willing to sacrifice in order to save herself.

I think that is one of the reasons I really appreciate the tradition of langar. Not the way we practice it here in the United States – as a free meal for the faithful after gurdwara. But as the tool of social change that it was back in the time of the Gurus.

The Guru’s free kitchen served meals every day for anyone who needed it. In order to help people. The poor. The lonely. The damaged. The disenfranchised. To give them a space where they could feel nurtured for a moment, instead of exploited.

Maybe they only ate, said thank you, and went on their way. But some of them took a bath. Some of them listened to the songs. And some of them began to truly heal on the deepest levels because of it.

But the food – feeding without discrimination and asking for nothing in return – that was the basis of it.

I wish there was a langar I could tell this woman about here in Espanola. I wish I could pull her aside and say, “Look, you don’t have to live this way. If you go to this other place, you can get fed everyday for nothing. You can get a bath and just relax for a while. Start to heal yourself. Start to nurture yourself.”

But that place only exists inside my own memory or imagination. It does not exist on the earth where I live. The best I can do, to honor the Guru, is to buy her a few groceries.

And so I watch her and the big fat white man who lives off of her drive off. Knowing she probably will never have anywhere else to go and it will be a miracle if she ever manages to break out of the cycle of dependency that has her trapped.

I send a prayer for the miracle to happen for her one day – because that is the best I can do.

It is what the Gurus would have done.

Feed people. Give them succour and shelter.

And pray.

And allow the hand of the Divine to decide the rest.

 

May 2, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Hari Singh (Kalala , Barnala , Punjab), May 02, 2013, 4:36 AM.

A poignant tale. The same thing is happening in our Punjab. One reason for the drug addiction could be the Holocaust of 1984. Thanks, Ek Ong Kaar Kaur ji, for sharing this with us.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpuur, Malaysia), May 02, 2013, 6:48 AM.

Just last Sunday I got conned. I was coming out of Titiwangsa Gurdwara when a young Muslim with his forearm in a bandage lifted a small flap to show me a wound. He asked for some money as he wanted to go back to Pakistan. I had just a fleeting thought over why he, a Pakistani, had come to the gurdwara and not a masjid seeking for help. But I still gave him RM 10/- (US $4.00) but a moment later I did realize that I had been conned. I should have closely examined his wound and his neat bandage and cured his affliction by relieving him of his feigned misery. Well, the lesson was not too costly. I have also come across some professional con-artists dressed up neatly as Sikh lads. One would approach with folded hands and ask if I could recommend a gurdwara where he could stay as he had been conned by the travel agent who had promised him a job and taken all his money. I suggested that he could go to such and such gurdwara. He said he had gone there and they had no spare room available. Then comes the pitch. "Could Ie have some money for my langar-pani as I have not eaten for a while?" Since I had met a couple of them before, I knew his game plan. I told him that I could make a suitable arrangement for him for a few months with secure accommodation and simple food. If he would wait while I made a call to a friendly Policeman Sardar who would be happy to help. The lad quickly remembered he had an appointment and was already getting late ... and disappeared. A few years ago a couple of souls sporting open-beards, half-closed, pious-looking eyes and folded hands, rang my doorbell. I ushered them in and offered them the usual cha-pani. No, they were collecting funds to build a memorial for the shaheeds who had laid down their lives at Punja Sahib. They even had a recommendation letter purportedly written by a Sikh Minister from Punjab. I told him I would be happy to help if they gave me the address where I could send my cheque, but they said they took donations only in cash. "Sorry, I don't have any cash right now. But if you give me RM10/= for the bank commission, I'll be happy to send the cheque to your registered con office!" They hurried off to meet the next sacrificial lamb. I phoned some of our friends to warn about hem. Too late! They had already been separated from their money.

3: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), May 02, 2013, 9:22 AM.

Commentator #2 has made a very powerful note! Because here in the UK and on my global travels I see so many newly arrived 'Punjabis' masquerading as 'Sikhs', violating the 5K's and Sikhi principles with no shame or guilt whatsoever! Some involved in conning and begging too!

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