I got my first college job at a hookah bar, here’s how it happened. I was a freshman, testing the waters in an unexplored environment. My roommate at the time proposed we visit a hookah bar down the street, and I obliged. We smoked the night away and decided to leave after a couple hours but not before I hit up the bathroom. Going to the restroom I was elated to find a five-dollar bill on the ground in the hallway. You can imagine my surprise when I found a hundred-dollar bill resting underneath the five.
Being a human being my moral dilemma lasted only two seconds. I knew the moment I started asking around everyone would lay claim to the bills, so I took the money for myself. My friends and I blew it on a weekend.
The following week we returned to the hookah bar, playfully joking about how the true owner of the money might be there and somehow recognize and identify me as a thief. This turned out to transpire exactly how we had thought when the manager himself approached us as asked me if I had found some money in the hallway last week. I sheepishly confirmed his suspicions and learned that it was his money. Our jokes had been made into a reality.
Rather than blow up, the manager politely requested I refund him in full. He even let me do it on my own time. Impressed by his rational request, I immediately went to the ATM outside and withdrew a hundred dollars to appease him. In turn he appeared impressed at my prompt action. One thing led to another and soon he was offering me a job. I took it without a second thought.
I recounted this tale to my friend as we sat on the curb outside out New Jersey hotel. I stared into the tiny hookah he had purchased in New York earlier that day and reached for the hose. IYLA was winding down. I had run ragged all over the city for the past three days, listening to speech after speech at the UN, running into trouble with security guards as I tried to explain that my video camera was in fact a camera and not a bomb, and traversing the streets as the delegates scattered in an effort to absorb as much culture as possible. Months after I did my time at the Tallahassee hookah bar, after finding the money, getting the job and quitting four months later to focus on school, I was faced with a hookah once more.
I remember that night well, my head full of words from the motivational speakers, lessons from the older delegates, commands from my higher ups, countless unachievable plans for our generation. I was finally at rest, sitting on the edge of the parking lot with a young delegate from Mongolia and the hookah between us. The ten days were coming to a close, and the night was calm enough to merit a stillness within me, something I haven’t felt for a long time.
My Mongolian friend and I discussed life, reminiscing about the past, never once contemplating the future. We had talked enough about that for the time being. I told him about my parents. He told me his parents were politicians. I told him about my Kawasaki disease and how I really shouldn’t be smoking. He asked me, why then had I worked at a hookah bar for half my freshman year?
I took a long pull from the hose and shrugged. Some things you just can’t help. Some things, you can’t afford to fear.
A heart to heart ensued. I was baffled. This young man was telling me things I dare not reiterate in this post. We connected in the wake of the world’s problems. We had only known each other for the latter half of the program, yet we conversed like we knew each other for the majority of our lives.
It’s funny. Looking back I couldn’t tell you what IYLA's core message was those days in New York. Relayed time and time again through dozens of speakers, entrepreneurs, activists, policy makers, businessmen, the speeches blended together into mindless encouragement. The general message still stood. The specifics were lost. Even the sightseeing and travel was a blur. Only that seemingly pointless hookah story remains in full detail. The humanity of the tiniest fraction of my IYLA experience.
In that moment I knew what IYLA really was: a way of finding yourself. The world is rife with problems, larger than life itself. But if we narrow the scope, if we stop and breathe and focus on what life really is, we’ll find ourselves at the bottom, just wandering souls desperate for meaning. Whether that meaning is fixing world hunger, establishing peace, or tackling SDGs, it starts here. With basic human connection. Where we go next, is up to us.
The following day, we went our separate ways. Some of my friends left in the early morning leaving hasty goodbyes via text. I returned to Baltimore City and didn’t look back. IYLA 2016 was over.