Gambling on the American Dream

Newark train station, New Jersey.

Homeless men rush to open the door for you. Then, looking you right in the eye, say: “Do you think you could help me out, Ma’m? Spare a few cent?”

Inside, unfortunate people sleep with their belongings on the grand benches in the waiting hall. Some stay  seated – their chins slumped against their chests, while others curl up in a fetal position.

But one woman, more than any other, captured my attention. She was old; seventy at least, with thin lips and narrow-set eyes.

She was very slight and unlike most people at the station, white. Her hands were gnarled; her fingers protruded at all the wrong angles.

She slept for an hour, her disjoined hand resting on the brown carrier bag beside her.

When she woke up, she hooked her hand under the bag and shuffled away, agonizingly slowly.

I watched her empty spot until she returned.  She had bought a packet of Doritos at the station shop. She formed a cup with her hand and dug deep inside the bag.

That’s how I left her as I eventually got up to catch a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia.

"20060627 Trump Taj Mahal from Pacific Avenue" by Original uploader was TonyTheTiger at en.wikipedia(Original text : en:User:TonyTheTiger) - Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : own picture). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Source: Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg#mediaviewer/File:20060627_Trump_Taj_Mahal_from_Pacific_Avenue.jpg User: TonyTheTiger

Trump’s Taj Mahal Creative Commons (c)User TheCatalyst31 originally uploaded by TonyTheTiger source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_City,_New_Jersey

A few days later, after my sister’s wedding, we decide to take a day trip to Atlantic City. Known as the “Las Vegas” of the retired, it is exactly as horrifying as it sounds.

Casinos, gaudy and gigantic, dominate the shoreline. Along the seaside promenade, you can see obese electronic wheelchair users stopping to charge up at designated points. It is a Monday afternoon in July and the casinos are full of elderly people, their eyes glazed over recurring pictures of fruit on the slot machines.

If you turn your back to the promenade though, you can take in the beautiful horizon over the Atlantic Ocean.

A handful of children are in the choppy water, jumping to catch the waves of a faraway ferry.

Every now and then a speedboat glides past. It’s got a large digital display board advertising a restaurant in a nearby casino.

On the way back to the station, I see from a distance a small hunched figure on a bench nursing an enormous soft drink. She has on a headscarf. Beside her is a brown carrier bag.

As I get closer, I recognize the gnarled hands and sunken face.

Maybe she has a pensioners’ travel pass. Or perhaps the ticket inspectors turn a blind eye because of her age. Maybe she does the commute between Newark and Atlantic City every day, just for something to do, or somewhere to go.

The American dream, I think to myself, has been one giant gamble.

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Ever the Bridesmaid…

Frau Bienkowski hasn’t managed to marry me off yet, which is a pity since she likes a good wedding. She’s always talking about William and Kate’s and is the first to know about the appearance of a new photograph of Prince George.

She’s interested in failed marriages too. Like those of former president, Christian Wulff who, scandalously, separated twice. And she thinks it’s high time his successor, Joachim Gauck marries his long-term partner. After all, Frau B says, she accompanies him to most official events.

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale www.anonlinegreeworld.com

source: Creative Commons Robbie Dale http://www.anonlinegreeworld.com

Luckily for us both, our appetite for wedding-related stories has recently been whetted by living vicariously through my sister, who got married in Philadelphia in July.

Frau B was there every step of the way.

She was thoroughly briefed on the suitor. And on how he met my sister.

(“Everything is possible online these days!” she had said approvingly)

She knew all about  the navy bridesmaid dresses, which we ordered online for $25. She knew my sister was making her own wedding cake. And she had a good knowledge of the guest list too.

Ever the stylist, she worried about how I would wear my hair on the day. She suggested I get the same cut I had last December.

I have documented my fear of hairdressers here before. Believe me, they get worse when you cross the Atlantic. My cutter had scraggly blue hair and dreadful manners. She refused point-blank to cut the shape I wanted, instead insisting, “It’s 2014  dude. You sister is getting married! Try something new.” She also accused me of frequenting “old lady salons.” (She’s right obviously; hip salons don’t have libraries attached.) I ended up with a stupid cut. Relieved I wasn’t the bride.

Frau B was also privy to my pre-wedding music-related woe.(PWMRW; primarily affects  amateur musicians, according to DSM X)

I had brought my violin back from Dublin at Christmas after my sister hinted she might want my (other) sister and me to play during the ceremony.

Things were going okay at first, though I hadn’t played in years. My fingertips were getting tougher and I was playing halfway in tune. Then one night, when I was doing my floor exercises (as you do) LSB tried to step over me to get to the couch.

Except he tumbled over my open violin case instead. I watched as if in slow motion as he landed, knees first on top of the instrument.

Snap. Crack. An expletive.

I twisted out of my yoga pose faster than you can say “downward dog” in time to see my E string spring loose. Then the A string. Then the bridge collapsed. It was all very traumatic.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I had to bring it to the Geigenbaumeister. He fixed it for €10 and told me he’d had a Stradivarius in earlier that week. Frau B told me I’d got lucky. She was right. Could have been much worse. Could have been a collapsed Stradivarius bridge.

When I visited her last week, Frau B said: “Tell me everything about the wedding. Then show me the pictures.”

I told her that my sister was objectively the most beautiful bride there’s ever been.

That the wedding took place in a medical museum which boasted among its displays a gigantic colon. (Available for guests to view before dinner).

That everyone survived the violin duet.

That the cake was spectacular.

That my tough big sister had to try really hard not to cry during the (self-written) vows.

That I had to try even harder.

When I showed her the pictures,  Frau B said. “My! What long hair your sister has got!”