eyes on the U.S.

How To Lose Your Wallet In New York City

Hope that William is at the wheel ...
Hope that William is at the wheel ...
Andrej Mrevlje

NEW YORK — Four different credit and bank cards, an International press card, a health insurance card and a gym membership card, a monthly MetroCard for the New York subway, a couple of prepaid international phone cards — probably expired — and $32 in cash. In the inside pocket, my Italian driver’s license and a tiny piece of paper from a Chinese fortune cookie with the prophecy, “your ideals are well within your reach.”

This is what my wallet contained last Wednesday night. Nothing irreplaceable, but it would have involved many time-consuming and unnerving phone calls to block the credit cards and get them re-issued. For sure, the most difficult item to replace would have been the Italian driver’s license. I still remember when, years ago, Umberto Eco, the Italian sociologist and writer, got robbed while abroad. It took him many long months of research and calling friends in high places to get the Italian bureaucracy to replace his patente di guida with a temporary certificate that allowed him to drive. In fact, it was only after he described the ordeal in his column for the Italian weekly L’Espresso, that he finally managed to get a replacement license.

But none of this was on my mind when, at 4 a.m. Thursday night, somebody started to press the buzzer of our apartment on the Upper West Side in New York. Once. Twice. Three times, before I realized that the buzz was not part of a dream. Annoyed, I trudged to the intercom in our front hall, convinced that somebody was pressing the wrong apartment number or randomly hitting numbers as a prank. We did not expect anyone at four o’clock in the morning.

My wife and I had a charming niece visiting us from Europe, and we had celebrated my wife’s birthday at a nice restaurant in Chinatown the night before. So we had gone to bed late. I was in a comatose state when I picked up the speaker and said hello.

I do not remember what the answer was. But I heard the words “cab” and “wallet” and “woman.”

NYC taxi — Photo: Tom Bullock

“I am not a woman,” I said to the unknown face I saw on the video screen speaking to me from our doorstep 6 floors below. I was about to hang up when the buzzer died. But as I woke up further, I began connecting the dots very slowly: We did take a cab on our way home. But the nice driver I remembered was not wearing the glasses I saw peering through the monitor of my buzzer at four in the morning, my mind insisted. Plus I remembered nothing about my wallet. I did forget one in a Hong Kong cab once. But that was in 1997 and it cost me more than $3,000. So from that time on, I have always looked on the back seat before I leave a taxi. And I did just that last night. But the man with the glasses insisted. He called again and at this point I buzzed him in, went to get the keys, and felt the pockets of the jacket I had been wearing to the Chinese dinner. There was no wallet. I went downstairs and through the glass door I saw a man waving, a wallet in his hand. It was my wallet. I expected a tough negotiation.

Good that they repaired CCTV cameras in the lobby, I said to myself, completely incredulous. How had the man in front of me found out where I lived and the number of my apartment?

"It was with your Italian driver’s license,” he told me a second later, when he handed me my wallet. William — that was the driver’s name — had found it on the floor of his car after he finished his night shift. He’d first gone back to the hotel where he’d dropped off his last clients, but the receptionist assured him that Mr. Mrevlje was not staying in the hotel. He then took a better look at the Italian driver’s license.

Last year, after I renewed it at the Italian General Consulate in New York — a three-day procedure for which the Italian state charged me almost $500 — the Consulate issued me a little slip of paper with the license’s new expiration date, a huge Italian government seal, and the signature of the official who approved the renewal. By now, this little typewritten piece of paper was already shredded and smudged from sitting in my wallet all the time. If left on my desk or anywhere in the open, that yellowish slip of paper could be lost or blown away by the smallest breeze. However, it does have my New York address on it, I realized, including the number of my apartment.

The supreme irony was that none of the documents in my wallet had been good enough to get us into the bar next to the restaurant where we were waiting for a table on Wednesday. And God knows that I do not look like a teenager. A fake American driver’s license — one of those used by American teenagers under the legal drinking age of 21 to buy alcohol — would probably have done the trick. But the security guard insisted on New York State issued documents only. Since two in our little group were foreign citizens, we were doomed and had to find a small, funky bar further down the street. But that little slip of a paper, that masterpiece of dysfunctional Italian bureaucracy, brought William to my house with the lost wallet at 4 a.m. Of course, it needed a detective-like mind and a generous, honest person like William to make this happen.

But there was also a bit of luck that led to my wallet’s return, which I discovered when I called him the next day to deliver a more alert thank you: William is an American citizen. He was born in Ghana, traveled around Africa, and landed in Libya, where he worked for a while. At a certain point he left Libya by plane for Palermo, Italy, he explained, meaning he understood Italian. My guess is that he actually took one of those terrible boats managed by a criminal organization to transport desperate African immigrants who seek a better life in Europe. Instead, thousands of them have ended up dead at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. But William made it. He found work and gradually moved north, from Palermo to Veneto, and then to Bolzano, north east of Italy. He got an Italian driver’s license and a regular job and became fluent in the language. He got married to a Ghanaian woman with whom he now has a son. Ten years ago, he made a jump and moved to New York. They now live in the Bronx. William is a taxi driver and is obviously grateful to his new homeland for accepting him. And I am happy that I dropped my wallet in his car.

This article was first published at Yonder.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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