I spent Friday night in the city centre and was returning to my suburban Delhi hostel on the morning of Saturday #126 when I decided to get off the metro and walk the final 5km. There HAD to be at least one working ATM on a 5km stretch of busy commercial road, I figured.
(Full disclosure: There was a working ATM near the hotel I had just left in Connaught Place but the consensus of many people in line was that it would take 4-6 hours and no ATM has that much cash.)
Two hours later I was still broke but within a few blocks of my hostel. I was resigned to the fact that lunch and dinner would be whatever I could beg, borrow or steal at the hostel. I had 200 Rupees in my pocket, a flight to Kathmandu in the morning, and I would require about 80 Rupees for the metro to the airport.
“Where you going, my friend?” A tuk tuk had pulled to the side of the road and the driver was calling to me.
“Not far,” I replied. “I can’t afford a ride though. No cash!”
“Get in, I know an ATM,” said the driver.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “You find me an ATM with cash and I’ll pay you double, but no ATM in 30 minutes and you’re bringing me back here and it’s free, okay?” I thought that would quickly put an end to this little ploy but to my surprise he agreed! “Get in, I know an ATM,” he repeated.
The usual questions ensued as the driver tried to make small talk that would distract me from (a) his atrocious driving, and (b) the fact that he didn’t seem to know where he was going.
“Which country you are from?”
“What is your good name?”
“First time in India?”
“How you like Delhi?”
I’ve been peppered with these same questions by just about every tuk tuk driver I’ve encountered in Delhi. You can either be rude and ignore the questions or answer truthfully and hope that it leads to a meaningful conversation. (Meaningful conversations are highly prized when you’re a long term solo traveler.)
I answered his questions before turning the tables. “And what is your good name?” I asked.
“Howie,” he replied.
I had never met an Indian who went by Howie so I asked how he spelled it.
“Howie,” he repeated. “Howie… like Howie Mandel… Howie Meeker… Howie Morenz.”
I almost fell out of the tuk tuk!
I could see how he’d know comedian Howie Mandel but how could he possibly know long retired Canadian hockey broadcaster Howie Meeker much less 1920s-era Canadian hockey player Howie Morenz?
“How do you know Howie Meeker?” I asked. He pretended that he didn’t hear me and quickly switched topics.
I wasn’t going to let this one die but every time I rephrased my question, Howie would point out another landmark or get out his phone to call another friend and ask about another distant ATM. This little Q & (non) A session went on for 30 minutes but I never did learn how he knew of either Meeker or Morenz.
As we tore through the streets and back alleys of Hauz Khas, Greater Kailash and Dakshinpuri, I thought about several hospitality workers that I had met in Delhi. There were waiters in the busy tourist joints who spoke perfect English as well as a bit of French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch and even Russian. Most international tourists would be able to order in English but they’d surely leave a much larger tip if the waiter spoke a bit of their first language. I’ve also met scammers on the streets of Delhi who engage you by asking what country you’re from. If you answer “Canada” they’ll rhyme off a list of cities: “Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg, Regina, Surrey, Brampton, Kamloops, Estevan, Thunder Bay, Charlottetown, Rimouski, Val d’Or, Come By Chance?”
Howie was clearly a bit smarter than even the linguistically-gifted waiters and the street level touts who excelled at geography and memorization. I suspect that he went by a different name depending on the nationality of each customer. He may also have been savvy enough to know that a 50-year old Canadian man would probably know the name Howie Meeker and might even know of Howie Morenz. If so, the Canuck would be shocked into leaving a 100 Rupee tip, just as I did.
We never did find a working ATM but Howie dropped me back at the hostel where the staff took pity on me and allowed me to raid the breakfast pantry. In the morning I spent 80 of my last 100 Rupees for a metro ride to the airport where I was able to exchange $20 in US cash before boarding my flight to Nepal.
I won’t think less of you if you admit that you’ve never heard of Howie Morenz. There was a time when I didn’t know the name either – or at least I didn’t think that I did.
It was around 1991 or 1992 and I was seated on a small stage at a Church Street bar in Toronto. It was All-Canadian Trivia Night at Woody’s and I was one of four people on a team captained by the wickedly funny drag queen Bitch Diva. Our opponents, led by the buxom Bertha Venation had just tied the score at 9-9 and the first team to get 10 correct answers would be declared the winners.
The host, Sofonda Cox, silenced the crowd and reached into a purple Crown Royal sack for the final question. The deejay played some canned drumroll. Sofonda read over the question to herself, grimaced noticeably – no small feat through that thick makeup – then repeated it out loud: “Who or what was known as The Stratford Streak?”
Not only did I not know the answer, I had no idea if Sofonda was referring to a racehorse, a bullet train, an Olympic runner or perhaps an actual streaker. I looked to my teammates for help but they were stumped as well.
Bitch Diva said that it sounded like a sports question and she was better with the Three S’s: sarcasm, shoes and sex. Carmen, a pizza delivery driver who hadn’t contributed anything through the first 18 questions was clearly reluctant to risk his perfect record. And Greg, a guy of about 70 who had done a lot of drugs in the 60s just stared off into the stage lights.
“Well, it’s for the win, so at least take a guess,” said Ms Cox.
Bitch Diva nodded in my direction. With the pressure on, I blurted out the first two names that came to mind: “Howie, ah, Morenz.”
“Right you are,” said Sofonda. “You had me there, I didn’t think you knew it. Good job!”
I was flabbergasted. I had simply said two random names. I swear that I simply took a guess and somehow got it right. What would the odds be? A million to one? Ten million? I later admitted to my teammates that had I been able to wager 10 cents on that answer with the reward being $1 million in cash, I would have saved the dime. Against astronomical odds I had somehow pulled the answer out of thin air!
Or did I? Was Howie Morenz an extraordinarily lucky guess or did I somehow retrieve that name from my subconscious. I’ve thought about this many times over the years and can only conclude that I must have known the answer but just not realized it.
What else is lurking in the dusty corners of my cranium? I don’t know but I hope the next time I pull off something like this it’s worth a little more than $50 and a round of beers with Sofonda Cox, Bitch Diva and Bertha Venation.