I pass the rusted green sign for Garden State Fuel and the casino billboards for Atlantic City, New Jersey. The bridge for America’s Favorite Playground raises asphalt and slices traffic as boats pass underneath. Car magnets with the DO AC ad campaign cling onto bumpers as onlookers pass the barren buildings of closed casinos.
I walk down Ventnor Avenue to Mino’s Bakery. For every tattoo shop, nail salon, and barber shop on each block, there’s a convenience store owned by a Pakistani or Bangladeshi. They line the streets of Atlantic City, selling halal meats, imported South Asian canned goods and dry snacks, and foil-wrapped crackers marked up with price stickers.
I lived in Atlantic City for most of my childhood, until I was nine. Thirteen years ago, I moved twenty minutes away to Northfield, New Jersey. We were the only South Asians living in the white suburban town at the time. In urban Atlantic City, Bangladeshis are now a prominent community. Each summer, there’s a Bangladeshi Pride Festival at the Sandcastle Stadium, beside the city bridge. When the Atlantic City Surf was still a professional baseball team, fireworks would go off at the Sandcastle after every home game victory. It would feel like the Fourth of July.
A lot of Bangladeshis living in AC now are first-generation immigrants, like my family and me. They came to America to create small businesses and improve their kids’ opportunities for higher education. We left Bangladesh to escape Hindu persecution.
The first American pastry shop that I ever went to was Mino’s Bakery. I ate my first gingerbread man there when I was six. Baba took me there after I won the first grade spelling bee.
As I walk in now, the neon red lights of Mino’s flicker in the store window. The lights for M and I are burnt out. Perhaps that’s a subliminal signal for me to say NO to the precursors of heart disease, high cholesterol, and the perpetual presence of a kangaroo pouch since 1992. At least the gingerbread man never ages.
I lean towards the shelf that’s opposite to the window, stacked with saran-wrapped pastry baskets tied with curled ribbons. I veer toward the chocolate chip, blueberry, and banana nut muffins shrouded by plastic-wrapped trays of assorted black & white, powdered, and heart-shaped cookies in the neglected sugar-free section.
Baba never bought sweets for himself whenever we went to Mino’s. Each morning, I’d pour half a packet of Sweet and Low into his cracked cup of Tetley tea and skim milk. I’d save the other half, folded on top of the bulky pink cardboard box.
My eyes dart between the artificially healthy corner and the rows of chocolate covered pretzels dipped in M&M’s and Reese’s bits. As a kid, I never knew why we stopped drinking whole milk and ditched the red cap for the fat-free blue. I hardly thought about Baba’s tamper-evident heart medication bottles that crowned the top of our fridge.
We didn’t buy custom-made birthday cakes from Mino’s. We got the store brand buttercream kind from Sam’s Club that came with free candles.
Ma and Baba used to buy me surprise birthday presents. The last one I got was an Easy Bake Oven when I was seven. I cried when a cockroach cooked itself into the ham and cheese while I prepared an after-work meal for Baba. I pulled the plug and left the bug to melt and dry into the meat.
I stare at cake slices sitting neatly on striped cupcake papers in the glass case. I tap lightly for chocolate cake and lock eyes with the mousse layered between cake sponges, a firm layer of fudge cemented inside and iced on top.
Ma and Baba never saw snow until we came to America. During the April Fools’ Day Blizzard in 1997, we drove back to our Atlantic City apartment from the New York Asylum Office. We had gotten approved for green cards.
Baba always tells me that I’m his good luck charm. In Bangladesh, the United States issued us visitor visas a few months after I was born. In Bangla, “Anu” means bright star, and “Radha” is the Hindu goddess of love and good luck. Ma and Baba had thought that a picket fence was the only protection we’d ever need in America. I was too young to believe.
Pale cream fills the spaces between vanilla cake layers and spreads thick across the top of the hazelnut cake. Caramel drizzles over sliced and crushed hazelnuts and almonds. Two slices of cake slip beside each other in a cardboard box, cradled on wax paper.
They remind me of the two double beds placed perpendicular to one another in our old Atlantic City bedroom that the four of us shared thirteen years ago. Dada, my older brother, and I always fought over who got to sleep next to Baba each night. We never slept in the Other Bedroom that kept our clothes and Pokémon cards in drawers, with class valentines and clipped comic strips from The Press of Atlantic City taped to the white walls. We preferred the Bedroom with the cassette stereo that played Baba’s Bangla songs and the Barbie Beyond Pink mixtape that I listened to religiously until I was eight, when second grade girls called each other out for being girly-girls if we still liked Barbie then. I kept a collection of past-worn teeps on the wall, peeled off my forehead at bedtime. I left those constellations behind when we moved to Northfield after 9/11.
I walk down Ventnor Avenue from Mino’s and turn onto Laclede Place. I stand outside the rusty metal fence of our former baby blue, vinyl-sided triplex, with the wooden staircase winding alongside the three-floor building. BHOWMIK is no longer spelled on the black mailbox in wobbly, metallic sticker letters. But the front door of our second-floor apartment looks the same, with chipped white paint falling off in splintered flakes.
I was seven when Dada and I tried to retouch the peeled-off paint. We picked up wet paintbrushes that Baba had left out in the foyer, beside a half-open bucket of paint. Dada’s brush dripped onto my hair. We tried to trim out the white with kid scissors, but Ma saw a sliver of the moon-shaped birthmark on my forehead after my straight-across bangs became slanted. Dada and I pressed our backs to the lockless Other Bedroom door while Ma knocked hard and spoke harder with a wooden spoon in her hand, porcelain Bengali bangles dangling on her arm. We listened to the Backstreet Boys on the Walkman until she walked away.
What strikes me as I stand outside the Laclede Place house now isn’t the chipped door, the dented mailbox, or the blue house itself. It’s the barren plot beside the staircase. The stakes dug into dry dirt clusters are still there, with a steel canopy net draped above them. But there are no traces of long squash stems, red leaf data shak, or warty-fleshed korola vines on the broken wooden grate. There are no black trays with cubed pods of okra and eggplant, or cherry tomatoes inside wire cone cages. There are no marigolds and mums that Dada and I had bought Ma for Mother’s Day. All that’s left are dead branches, cigarette buds, rusty pennies, and candy wrappers scattered on musty gray ground.
That was the only space that we could’ve had a garden at the Laclede Place apartment. The remaining outside area was all concrete, like it is now.
When Ma wasn’t home, I’d mix rain potion and pour it out the Other Bedroom window. I put Barbie bubble bath, shaving cream, and crayon shavings in a Mulan mug before I spilled it on the sidewalk. But I always wondered why the rain didn’t stop after Ma came home. My child self wants to see if any rain potion is still stuck between cracks in the concrete. But from the fence, it’s too far away for me to see.
I turn around and see Richmond Avenue School directly across the street from the Laclede Place house. We moved to Northfield after third grade ended. Dada was finishing fifth grade that year, the highest grade level offered at Richmond at the time. If we’d stayed in our Laclede Place apartment, Dada would’ve had to take the bus to attend Chelsea Heights, a school located in a high-crime area that had a history of violence among students. None of the other middle schools in Atlantic City were any better.
After searching the real estate ads for months, Ma and Baba found an affordable house in Northfield, a safe town in the South Jersey suburbs with a good school system.
During my last year at Richmond, I heard about the September 11th attacks inside my trailer classroom with a single bathroom. The third grade blue-eyed, brunette teacher told us that the Twin Towers collapsed. Then she sprayed Bath and Body Works mist around the room. I wish she would’ve taught me what a dot head was. I like to take orders from an authority figure. It hurts less than hearing them from your fourth grade peers in an all-white school.
Three and a half years after I started school in Northfield, I was in eighth grade. Richmond was torn down completely, along with blocks of houses that were bought out by eminent domain to build the new K-8 school.
Instead of trailers and limestone stains on a modest beige brick building, Richmond now has a three-story structure and floor length windows. Instead of the rusty fence with a walk-through hole, Richmond is bordered by thin, black gates on top of a low, yellow brick wall.
The multimillion-dollar school is built over my kindergarten classroom, with a red curtain wall separating two classes. There was one white girl in my class back then. Most of us ate on lunch tickets back then. I wasn’t the only brown girl in most of my classes back then. My bobbed blonde kindergarten teacher taught me that the American pronunciation of my name was An-uh-rod-uh. I told her my name was O-nu-rah-dha, or O-nu for short. I wrote “Anu” across the solid and dashed lines of the handwriting practice paper. She wrote INC for incomplete and told me not to talk back to her. I’m 22 now, and I still haven’t talked back to her. I continue to take incompletes to satisfy the American palate.
Millions of dollars don’t remember the auditorium where I won the first grade spelling bee. Nor do they remember the oily-dust gymnasium where I kicked boys who lifted up my navy blue school uniform skirt. They never caught the white girl stealing my first kiss during duck-duck-goose on the woodchip jungle gym. They put a shinier playground on top of it instead.
Nine months after Ground Zero, they buried a stillborn time capsule at Richmond. I moved to Northfield a month after. The time capsule wasn’t supposed to be dug up for fifty years. I can’t remember what I put in it. I had always trusted that my memory would be the last one standing.
The Atlantic City Library was once tucked in a corner outside of Richmond. I used to play Arthur games on the chunky blue-green Macintosh computer there. One day, I read about sex by accident from a dictionary page that someone left open. I can’t say I was thankful for that lesson at nine years old. Especially after Ma told me that Bangali girls couldn’t like boys.
I never understood why Ma prohibited me from having a crush. She tore down posters of Jesse McCartney in my sixth grade bedroom and told me that he was too proud of his white skin to ever be with a Bangali girl.
Ma and Baba are the rare Bangladeshi Hindus who held onto their homeland’s conservative Islamic ideals in America. Ma had me convinced that Bangalis didn’t have non-reproductive sex. I knew she was a gynecologist in Bangladesh and that there were dusty obstetrics books tucked away in latch-lock suitcases stored in the hallway closet.
But Ma and Baba never told Dada and me about what it was like when we first came to America. “You don’t need to know,” they’d say.
Ma finally told me why her career as a Bangali gynecologist came to an end, over a three-minute phone call. It was during my last week of college.
I was four months old when we left Bangladesh in 1993. While I was growing up, Ma and Baba were called Malauns, a derogatory ethnic slur for Hindus. They were consistently denied admission to medical schools and turned down for jobs.
Ma was the only gynecologist in a rural town in Bangladesh. She practiced in a tin roof clinic with cement floors. She offered abortions to Bangladeshi women who were victims of rape, including women who were forced into sex as maidservants.
“Muslim men came and destroyed the building. They told me they’d murder me and your Baba, and kidnap you and your Dada,” she said. “The U.S. Immigration Office still has our story.”
Our asylum was officially approved on January 23, 2001. We lucked out by 8 months.
I walk back to Ventnor Avenue and search for La Sorpresa’s convenience store sign in curly green letters. In Spanish, la sorpresa means “the surprise.” La Sorpresa was a three-minute walk from the Laclede Place apartment. Ma and I took a trip there each week. But now, I see a sign that reads “The International Supermarket” in rainbow block letters. The whitewashed tip of the tongue.
In thirteen years, many of my favorite places in Atlantic City have closed. South End Pizza II replaced the faced-sized slices of Chelsea Pizza with rubber cheese sunken into sauce craters. Game City is a space-for-sale with the loss of the ’90s GameBoy Color users. Now I’m left with Pokémon Yellow Version and dusty holographic cards that I still don’t know how to sell. The Bangali-run dollar store that sold Lisa Frank office supplies is now a corner stop for gonzo porn and X-rated films.
As I walk away from The International Supermarket, I see Sharpie-drawn capital letters on yellow Specials signs taped to the glass door. La Sorpresa was here after all in disguise. I smile as I enter, hearing the manual machine crunch out receipts as the curly-haired Peruvian cashier punches in numbers with acrylic nails.
I turn to the aisle of Goya brand items. There are a variety of beans with yellow $1.99 stickers and shelves of tembleque coconut pudding and flan con caramelo. I see yellow bottles of Malta Goya that the Dominican and Puerto Rican boys and girls in the Laclede Place neighborhood would drink.
La Banderita flour tortillas are stacked in bulk on a wooden shelf, with the Mexican flag on the packaging. They remind me of the varieties of South Asian breads stacked high on Desi grocery shelves: parathas, fluffy tandoori, double-layer pitas, and flour rotis in white and whole wheat. The four of us at home ate handmade rotis each morning with tandoori chicken torkaris and mixed vegetable neyameesh that Ma would cook the night before.
Limón amarillo and limón verde are sold for a dollar a bag. In Bangla, we call limes and lemons green and yellow lebu too. I see the same bottles of mango nectar that Ma and Baba still buy from Bangali stores, beside dried packages of chili peppers: crispy burgundy strips, petite red bodies, black curls, crinkled tips. Our Latino neighbors at Laclede Place would bring us bags of dried chili peppers, and Ma would give them fistfuls of green and yellow moris that she grew in our garden. She kept moris seeds brought over from Bangladesh in envelopes.
I walk toward the cash register and pass a stand of plantain chips, fried pork skins, and leche crackers beside the counter. Behind it, I see the glass deli aisle with signs for pollo.
The signs remind me of one trip that Ma and I made to La Sorpresa. Ma had let me buy a rippled vanilla sundae cup that came with a paper-wrapped popsicle stick. An elderly East Asian woman stood behind us, trying to pay for chicken cuts. The weighed price of poultry was shown in green digits on the counter scale. Her veined fingers shook while she unraveled bills. As she handed singles one by one to the cashier, she paused for a few seconds in between each dollar, to read the cashier’s reaction: an open palm, for not enough.
My second grade mind inferred that she didn’t understand English or the different denominations of U.S. currency. I watched dollars slip slowly from her trembling fingers into the cashier’s hand. I worried that she didn’t have enough. And that she didn’t know either.
Ma tugged on my hand, as she picked up a gallon of skim milk and gave me the groceries in a plastic thank you bag. “Ma wait . . .” I whispered, as I pointed back toward the old woman. “Does she have enough money?”
“Mamoni, she’s fine,” she said, as she grabbed my arm and trailed me out the door. I stared back at the old East Asian woman through the glass door, her face covered by Specials signs.
“Ma, we need to help her!” I said, pulling her arm and tearing up.
“Mamoni, I wouldn’t lie to you,” she said angrily. “I looked and saw that she had enough money.” She let out a deep breath and held my hand tighter. “I still remember what it was like when we came to America.”
Ma and Baba always made sure to grow enough lal shak in our garden. “Your Dada loved eating spinach,” Baba once told me, teary-eyed. “Back then, it cost 99 cents a bag. It was too much for us.”
It still pains me to think of the old East Asian woman in La Sorpresa, to picture her walking out without having chicken to eat.
I make my last two stops at the opposite end of Ventnor Avenue. I stare at Mrs. Clark’s grey chipped brick apartment complex. It was the first building we lived in at Atlantic City. Broken Happy Meal toys and pee-filled water bottles soaked under the wooden staircase.
Ma and Baba always made sure that Dada and I didn’t call that apartment our house, since it belonged to Mrs. Clark, our landlord. She was white and overweight with wiry hair.
I used to tear off chunks of split top white bread and slip them under a crack in the metal grated window near the living room. We lived on one of the top floor apartments in the multistory building. Seagulls and pigeons would come eat the bread ends, keeping me company while Dada went to school. He took ESL classes at Richmond, but I never had to. I think I learned English by watching Little Bear, Rupert, and the Big Comfy Couch by myself.
It hurts me to stare at the Atlantic City casino skyline. I used to do it all the time, while I waited for Baba to come home from work. The McDonald’s light in the distance shined all night.
I look up at the billboards: Heineken bottles big and green. Play Anytime at the Golden Nugget. Burlesque casino shows, among a crowd of scantily-clad and inebriated gambling women.
People come to AC, read the billboards, and forget them. I would read constellations in the sky and wish for more time with Baba. I left Baba sugar cookies in the kitchen so he could feel like Santa when he came home. Sometimes he brought circle pizzas wrapped in napkins from the cafeteria at work and slices of my favorite cheese with holes in it. I’d save his gas station receipts from Garden State Fuel. I’d dress my body pillow in his worn T-shirts, so it smelled like him. But I still couldn’t feel his chest hairs tickling my cheek through the pillowcase.
People come to Atlantic City to play at the casinos. But I can’t. I don’t want to see Baba’s face when I see other old Bangladeshi casino workers. I don’t want to see how people treat him, or think about the drunk college kids that he sees there.
The Bangali surgeon hands out tokens and directions at the age of 63. He kneels to reset machines in cheap Velcro shoes and a used work suit, doused in stale cigarette smoke after a shift at the casino.
Baba has always been too busy serving Atlantic City. He doesn’t have patients. Or strength. I don’t want to see his waned white hair, crinkled lids, or the gaps and deep cracks in his healer hands.
The duct taped X’s in the windows of Mrs. Clark’s house tell me I won’t find what I’m looking for here. I heard people forget most of their early memories eventually.
After work, Baba would bring home day old sheets of The Press of Atlantic City while riding home on the jitney. It provided transportation downtown and in between casinos. My last memory of a jitney was a retro version from five years ago. JITNEY was written in red on top of a sea green box bus with a slanted trapezoidal face. They were in the combined shape of the trucks driven by the mailman and the ice cream man. On each side of the jitney, there was a painted orange sun outlined in white, a blue-rimmed ocean floor, a black and red lighthouse, and a sandy beach. On the back, there was a blue spare tire cover with “Atlantic City” in white cursive.
“Serving Atlantic City since 1915” was written on top of the jitneys. I wonder how long Bangalis have been serving AC.
I see the red slats on the Dairy Queen rooftop on Ventnor Avenue. The bolted and chained red picnic benches are still there beside the parking lot of our old apartment complex. The glass panes still have taped, faded flyers with pictures of curlicue soft serve waffle cones, banana splits, hot fudge parfaits, Blizzards, and Brownie Earthquakes.
As a child, I’d keep a snap-closure coin purse in my Barbie backpack that held my stash of tooth fairy cash. I kept half-dollars, Sacajaweas, and single bills folded inside a Scholastic book order slip. When I got to my favorite red-roofed afterschool pit stop, I’d straighten creases in a crumpled dollar bill and slip it in the slide-glass window to get a chocolate-dipped Mickey Mouse bar on a popsicle stick.
I never saw the Mickey bars after the early 2000’s, but I still look for them. I hope Dairy Queen has a surprise limited time offer where they bring back the throwback Mickey Mouse bars. But as I walk to the storefront, a CLOSED sign greets me. The tape around the edges of the flyers has browned and yellowed. I wouldn’t be surprised if these are the exact same ice cream signs from thirteen years ago. The creased corners of the once-glossy photos curve down like my mouth.
The new jitneys look like U-Haul trucks, with reflective green Ford mouths. On top of each jitney is the slogan “We keep you moving 24/7.” It feels like I’m always moved, never rooted. Northfield never felt like home. Atlantic City didn’t stick around either—it took parts of my home for itself. I came back to see childhood. But most of it was gone before I left.