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.
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.