I’m really good at ping pong. Or at least, I used to be. Lately, a lot of people have been beating me, again and again. I take it as a sign of my progress.
Let me explain.
When you are a homeless, undocumented immigrant, you need to be resourceful. Never knowing where your next meal will come from heightens your sense of survival.
I came to America from Iran in December, 1989. A year and a half later, I migrated out to the Jersey Shore in the hopes of studying at Atlantic Community College, the only college that accepted me without papers. My English was still poor, the little money I’d saved waiting tables in New York was nearly gone, and I only knew one person in the state of New Jersey: my uncle’s friend Azam, who had offered to house me. And I was hungry, hungrier than I’d ever been before.
My first introduction to Atlantic City was a New Jersey Transit bus. I noticed that everyone on the bus had something in common. They looked possessed, like cobras moving to the sound of a charmer’s flute.
Our first stop was the parking lot of Bally’s Casino. The Asian man next to me leaned over with a big smile and said in broken English, “If you go in casino with bus ticket they give half bus fare in coins.” I’d never heard anything like that before. “You should play!” the man said, looking as happy as the father of a bride. “Free money! Try your luck!”
Sure enough, the casino gave me twelve dollars in quarters at the register window located just inside the front door. This was a first time I’d ever seen the inside of a casino. In Iran, before the Revolution, there were casinos all along the Caspian Sea, but after Khomeini came to power, the Islamic Republic banned gambling and closed down all the “evil hotels.” I had no interested in playing any of the games, but the colors, shiny objects, and lights mesmerized me. It was like walking into someone else’s dream. It was a world clearly not designed for me, and yet, I was fascinated at the thought of being able to enter someone else’s fantasy. In the distance, I saw a sign that said, “FREE BUFFET.” I felt myself drawn further into the club.
Then a voice said, “Can I see your ID?”
I looked up at a man wearing a black cap and trench coat over his hotel uniform. I reached into my bag and showed him my Iranian passport, the only identification I had. He looked at the picture of me in a black headscarf, then at the miniskirt I was wearing, then back at the picture again. He started to laugh. “You’re too young to be here,” he said. “Come back when you’re twenty-one.” I looked at the glittering room behind him one last time, then I left.
I walked inland away from the casino until I came to a sign that said, “Main Street.” I asked a few people how to get to my college. A man showed me where to catch a bus, which took over an hour to come, but the ride was easy and I was dropped off right inside the school campus.
I was exhausted, yet I was happy to see so many young people walking around with backpacks, looking like my dream of what college was supposed to be. I asked a security guard about my uncle’s friend Azam. He scratched his head, told me he’d never heard of her, and sent me to the admissions office in the main building. I saw the lounge outside the office which had many beautiful couches and vending machines. I wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep on one of those couches.
I asked at the office about Azam, but no one knew her. I later learned that she had taken an American name: that was why no one understood me. I spent the rest of the afternoon asking around campus. I asked people in the cafeteria, people in the library, and anyone who looked friendly. The sun was going down, and I realized I’d soon have to find a place to sleep. Those couches back at the admissions office seemed promising, so I headed back there and promptly fell asleep on one.
“Excuse me.” I sat up quickly and saw the same security guard. “Excuse me, miss,” he said. “School closed half an hour ago. Didn’t you find your friend? The last bus leaves school at midnight. You’d better hurry.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll catch the bus.”
I didn’t want him to know I had nowhere to go.
I got on the bus back to the casinos. I was scared for losing my chance to find Azam. The only plan I had was crushed on the first day. I noticed it was a beautiful, warm night with a full moon, and it occurred to me that I could sleep under the boardwalk. Why not? I thought. Just because I stay there one night doesn’t make me homeless like those other people. I got out of the bus and walked down to the boardwalk. I got myself a slice of pizza and devoured it in a few seconds. The smell of ocean made me feel safe, as it did when I lived near Caspian Sea. When I looked under the boardwalk I saw a few drunken men. That scared me. I hurried back to the top of the boardwalk where there were lights and found myself a nice bench across from the Taj Mahal Casino. I took a book out of my bag, placed it under my head, and rested my legs over my bag. This will be just like the time I slept in the Vienna Airport, I told myself.
This wasn’t Vienna, though, nor was it as well-behaved as an airport. Within a few minutes, three drunken, relatively-young, well-dressed men came out of the casino yelling at each other. They were blaming each other for losing all their money. One of them saw me lying on the bench and came to take closer look. He stank of alcohol.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Do you know what time it is? Did you lose all your money too?”
“Please go away,” I said. “You don’t want to cause trouble with me.”
The man looked as though he was going to say something nasty, but thought better of it and turned to yell at his friend instead.
“We should have left when we were up. You’re so fucking stupid.”
“If you’re so smart,” his friend hissed, “then why didn’t you leave when you could?”
I realized I wasn’t going to get any sleep. I stared at the ocean and ignored them.
“Hey you,” Man Two said, noticing me for the first time. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for my husband,” I lied. “He’ll be back in a few.”
“He left you here alone to play?” Man Two was astonished. “You’re not from here, are you?”
“He’ll be right back,” I said again.
“I hope he has better luck than my stupid friends,” Man One said, and the three of them walked off, all staring in different directions out into the night.
A few other random people approached me. I realized that I couldn’t sleep out in the open. The only way to avoid being harassed was to hide. I understood why homeless people slept under the boardwalk even though the weather was nice. They didn’t want to cross paths with all the drunks who had just lost their money. No one, I noticed, came out of those casino doors happy. At about 2am, I picked up my bag and looked around for a spot under the boardwalk. I found a vacant area, lay down, and fell asleep.
For some time, my life consisted of that exact routine: taking the bus to school each morning, showering at the gym, and returning late to the boardwalk where I could rest for a few hours undisturbed. At some point, I also discovered my campus’ Student Life Center, which had a counseling center, a nurse’s office, comfortable couches where beautiful hair-sprayed girls lounged in short shorts — and most importantly, ping-pong tables.
Ping-pong was a good way to make friends. I’d played back in high school in Iran, but I never thought I was any good. Apparently, I was. As I hung around the ping-pong tables, a lot of boys also hung around me, wanting to watch me play. They’d get so excited when I’d beat one of their friends. They made fun of each other and created a competitive atmosphere. One day, I decided to ask a boy to play me at ping pong for a bet: if I beat him, he had to buy me lunch. I won, and that started a pattern of challenging boys for meals. That way, I was guaranteed at least one meal a day, but I ended up beating so many of them that I built up credit two weeks in advance. My ping pong ability became both a source of fun and food.
Lately, I’ve been losing my ping pong game. Perhaps I don’t have the same urgency to win now that I’m not struggling to survive. I think I sometimes forget where I’ve come from and what I’ve been through. These days, my challenge is to remember and be grateful for my victories, even if they show up as defeats. Today, ping pong is just a game, not a wager for my next meal.