This story was published today in The San Diego Reader. It's about loss, resilience, and the unexpected roles that strangers play in our lives.
If you would like to connect on a regular basis, I post almost too often on Facebook, and on Instagram to a more whimsical degree.
Elvis Has Left the Building
My father is a simple man. He likes fruit, one of his cats, the glorious game of cricket, and Persian mystical poetry. He can happily recite the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz by heart in his native tongue of Farsi, for hours. This brings him unspeakable joy. The only problem is finding an audience.
When the urge strikes, his strategy has mostly been to sit on the couch and call an emergency assembly of whoever he can find in the house. In past years, it ended up being a motley crew of family members and any unsuspecting visitors who happened to be in the vicinity like the plumber or the pool guy. He would regularly summon the Guatemalan gardener from the avocado grove, an infinitely kind man who spoke neither Farsi nor English and would sit quietly with his arms folded, gazing sweetly at my father, I assume mentally reviewing his grocery list.
Oh, and the cat. My father would call to his favorite cat, a wildly handsome Maine Coon with zero bad hair days and a problematic attitude of superiority, and order him to sit on the couch, next to the gardener. The cat did not like the gardener, but for some mystical reason, he would sit for poetry readings.
It has been said that pets take after their owners in appearance. When my father immigrated to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan in the early 1970’s, he had what can only be described as Elvis hair-- jet black, long lustrous waves, gratuitous sideburns. The situation was borderline unbelievable. People would stop him in the street and coo. He is normally a bit reserved around strangers, but after a while he got used to his flashy Middle Eastern mane being a topic of conversation. It brought him out of his shell. I would find him unburdening his soul to random passersby:
"As a child, I used to climb mango trees and eat as many as I could reach. Now I'm prediabetic so I grow avocados."
"Football is nice, but have you been saved by our lord and savior, cricket? "
"Get a load of my handsome cat! He's so handsome, I keep a photo in my wallet."
Then, little by little, his hair blew away in the wind. One day in his 70’s he looked at himself and realized that his trusty conversation starter had... stopped. Elvis had left the building. So my father marched himself down to Walmart and bought a baseball cap. And now that I have figured out how to customize baseball caps, we're about to up his game. I have enough slogans to span all the remaining birthdays and Father’s Days:
-#1 Rumi Fan
-The Karachi Kid
-Honk if You Like Avocados
-Let's Talk Cricket
-Ask Me About My Handsome Cat
I'm just getting started. Imelda Marcos had 3,000 pairs of shoes. How many hats can we fit in his closet?
On Father’s Day last year, I drove up to Fallbrook to gift him his first cap in this series which boldly announces to the world that he is very much #TeamRumi. I hope it starts a few
conversations so he can make new friends who can then be lured into his living room and seated next to the cat and the gardener for matinee performances.
For dessert, I attempted an ultra-Persian riff on strawberry shortcake. The base was a vanilla cake mix from Trader Joe's spiked with cardamom and interlaced with four layers of rose-infused cream, rose water macerated watermelon, fistfuls of strawberries, pistachios, pomegranates, and a sprinkling of edible rose petals because, well, I love him. He got so excited, he swiped a watermelon chunk out of the middle before we could cut the first slice. We almost had to yell, "Jenga!"
My father is a simple man who used to have Elvis hair. He likes fruit, one of his cats, his faithful gardener, the glorious game of cricket, Persian mystical poetry, and his soon-to-be epic collection of customized baseball caps. His favorite Rumi poem goes like this: “Laughter always follows tears / Blessed are those who understand / Life blossoms wherever water flows...”
Years from now, I can imagine how this all plays out. “What are you doing, Papa?" I ask, as he stares up into the branches of an old avocado tree. He looks at me with wistful eyes, removes a worn cap that says MY CAT IS THE FELINE FABIO, draws it to his heart, slowly, with feeling, and runs a trembling hand through a few remaining strands of hair. Then he breaks into a mischievous grin and delivers his best original poetry to date:
"Just thinkin' about the ghost of Elvis."
In the early days of the pandemic, I took a photo that haunted me. It was a view of urban San Diego as seen from the driver’s seat in my car, but it could have been the Pakistan of my father's childhood, or anywhere else in the world where life takes place out in the open. In strange lands far away, people get haircuts in the street, hold weddings in the street, buy groceries in the street.
Street food is king, of course. If you're lucky, a few flies are thrown in as bonus protein. The locals will tell you a secret: If the food is good enough, squeamishness has a way of evaporating hypnotically like steam out of an old brass tea kettle. Priorities tend to shift in flight. Some problems go away on the street. Others emerge, usually at night. Street life is complicated, like life itself.
Here in America’s Finest City, as we quarantined snug in our homes, a curious exhibitionist street culture was emerging in fits and starts, blooming in the fresher air of strip mall sidewalks and warehouse parking lots. It was typified by a nail salon in Hillcrest operating alfresco on a small portion of pavement next to its abandoned building.
Parking my car to run errands one day, I found myself unexpectedly in the mix, staring at a woman’s French manicure through my windshield. That's when I took the photo and wrote a caption that still gives me pause, more than a year later: "This salon has no waiting room, no formal space to contain the process from start to finish. The waiting room extends into my car, to the freeway, and out past the ocean where ragged magazines litter the horizon with blond ambitions and dreams of celebrity hairdos far out of reach. I wait, but no one calls my name."
We are all watching and waiting, adapting day by day to the amorphous empty spaces created by irreversible loss, scanning the sidewalk for new signs of life pushing its exotic fruit up through the cracks, wondering if our streets will ever be the same, or if we want them to be.
Meanwhile, the immigrants have been adapting forever. They're painting our toenails in the open air in front of a neon sign that says OPEN, chatting with us about lovers and movies as cars whiz by, making us feel beautiful again, holding our hands gently in theirs, as if to say, "We survived by dreaming of a better world. You can too."
We roll our eyes as steam billows from the foot bath like a snake emerging from a basket. Charmed, I'm sure. The sentiment seems too simple. But as the wind picks up, we can't help but follow the steam with our gaze as it gyrates in a mesmerizing dance around an alley cat swishing a languid rumba down the road and a gardener who removes his baseball cap to reveal a perfect jet black pompadour, far above our heads, past a police helicopter, into the clouds, where the atmosphere is thinner and priorities shift in flight, where skepticism dissolves into whatever dreams are made of.
In strange lands far away, the locals will tell you a secret: Life blossoms wherever water flows.
My name is Nasreen Yazdani. I used to write micro essays, one-liners, and other small, lighthearted things. Most of them were funny.