Humera Afridi

Charan Jit Singh, Business Card Distributor

“Get Cash in a Flash.”

By Humera Afridi
June 19, 2012 | , , , , , ,

He stands on the corner of 74th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, as salient as a landmark, eyeing the intersection like a sentry on watch. He cuts an imposing figure with his flowing beard, turban, and tall stature. As passersby arrive and leave from the Roosevelt Avenue subway station, Charan Jit Singh acknowledges them in silent greeting. There is something stoic and otherworldly about his demeanor. Anchored in the midst of blaring traffic and the swirl of pedestrians, he summons the patience of gods, sporting a transcendental expression of serenity.

Yet despite his saintly aspect, he is rooted in the world of guerrilla marketing. He hands out business cards for Bedi Jewelers on 37-23 74th Street that state: “Get Cash in a Flash. We Buy Gold. Guaranteed to Pay Top Dollar.” On a visit to the South Asian section of Jackson Heights, I walked up to him, intrigued.

Your job is to distribute business cards. How long have you been doing this?
For two years, every single day from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Even in winter. Even in the rain.

What is your route?
I start across from the subway station; next, I post myself behind Kebab King, then over to Citibank and back again to the subway. I circle the chowk at least eight times a day.

Have you made a lot of friends on the job?
I don’t keep count. To whomever comes to me, I say, “Namaste.”

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Are people generally friendly on these streets?
Foreigners, white people especially, give me a lot of respect. Because they see that I’m a sardar[1]

How long do you see yourself doing this job?
This is not in my hands. If Paramatma wishes, it could be 10 years. Or, Paramatma could finish my journey right now.

How long ago did you leave Punjab?
Two years ago, my wife and I left to come here and live with our married daughter. I miss our Gurudwara temple in Punjab. I miss sugar cane, the rivers, the fresh open air, homemade sarson ka saag, and makai ki rothi.

What do you love most about Jackson Heights?
It’s neat and clean.

What’s your pet peeve about the neighborhood?
People smoke a lot, and I hate to see people littering the streets. This is a good clean country of educated people; one should be respectful of this.

Do you really think that people here smoke more than they do back in Punjab?
Yes, especially the Nepalese and Bengalis.

Have you tried the various cuisines of Jackson Heights?
No, I only eat home-cooked food. The only thing I consume from outside is tea, and coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Have you sampled the doughnuts?
No, no, no! Just the coffee.

 

[1] Sardar is a term used to denote nobility. Out of respect, the term is commonly used for traditionally observant Sikh males. This “title” originated from a history of many Sikh men serving in high positions in the Indian army.

Humera Afridi is an Open City Creative Nonfiction Fellow whose work has appeared in Granta, the New York Times, and several anthologies, including Leaving Home (Oxford University Press, 2001), 110 Stories: New York Writes after September 11 (NYU Press, 2003), and Shattering the Stereotypes (Olive Branch, 2005). She covers Jackson Heights.

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