Don't Get Too Comfortable
By David Rakoff
COINCIDENTALLY, CANADIAN - BORN newscaster Peter Jennings also became a citizen around the same time, after almost forty years in the United States. According to the papers, his swearing in took place in a swanky Manhattan courthouse. I, on the other hand, am forced to catch the 6:55 a.m. train to Hempstead, Long Island. My friend Sarah, a self-described civics nerd, very sweetly agrees to come with me. She is a good deal more excited than I am. This all feels like monumentally bad timing, or possibly the entirely wrong move altogether. Just two days prior, the front page of the paper had two news stories. The first was about how Canada was on the brink of legalizing gay marriage, and the second told of an appeals court in the District of Columbia Circuit that ruled that the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are legally outside the reach of the protections of the Constitution.
The INS center, a one-story sprawl devoid of character, fits into its very unprepossessing surroundings of a highway of strip malls with empty storefronts. Still, the air is electric with a sense of occasion as we line up at the door. No one has come alone and people are dressed to the nines. We are separated from our friends and family and pass through the final sheep dip before becoming Americans. I have to answer once again whether, in the intervening four weeks between my interview and now, I have become a dipsomaniac, a whore, or traveled backward in time to willingly participate in Kristallnacht. They take back my green card, which after ten years is barely holding up. It was always government property. There is a strange lightness I feel having turned in the small laminated object that has been on my person for an entire decade. Something has been lanced. For the brief walk from this anteroom to the main auditorium, I am a completely undocumented human. The only picture ID I have is my gym membership and it has my name spelled wrong.
There is absolutely nothing on the walls of the huge fluorescent-lit, dropped-ceiling room into which we are corralled. It's the new federalist architecture. Even travel agencies give out free posters of the Grand Canyon or the Chicago loop at night. Alternately, how hard could it be to get a bunch of schoolchildren in to paint a lousy mural of some politically neutral rainbows and trees? Our guests are already seated way in the back; I cannot find Sarah in the sea of faces. I am grateful for the newspaper I have brought with me as it takes well over an hour for everyone to register and find their seats. Across the aisle from me, one of my fellow soon-to-be new citizens has a paperback. He is reading American Psycho. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to read about a murderous yuppie dispatching live rodents into women's vaginas. Welcome, friend.
I catnap a little and one of the guards turns on a boom box perched on a chair for the musical prelude. A typical pompy instrumental of "The Star-Spangled Banner," followed by a very atypical "America the Beautiful" rendered in a minor-key full-strings orchestration straight out of a forties noir. Three women and one man then get up on the dais. The man checks that everyone has turned in all their documents. It's a minor federal offense to keep them. "Your old passports from the countries you came from are souvenirs and can never be used again." The people in the back are instructed to applaud loudly, people with cameras are told to take lots of pictures. There is pretty well only joy in this room, save for some extreme Canadian ambivalence.
They lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance. I leave off "under God" as I say it. Oh, maverick! I feel about as renegade as the mohawked young "anarchist" I once watched walking up Third Avenue on a Saturday evening. For some reason the streets were choked with limousines that night. My young friend spat contemptuously at each one that sat unoccupied and parked, while letting the peopled vehicles go saliva free.
To lead us in singing the national anthem for our first time as Americans, we have a choir. Not a real choir, but a group of employees who come up to the front. We sing and I cry, although I'm not sure why. I'm clearly overcome by something. It's a combination of guilt over having shown insufficient appreciation for my origins, of feeling very much alone in the world, and-I am not proud to say-of constructing life-and-death grass-soup scenarios for the immigrants standing around me. Strangely, no one else that I can see sheds a tear. Perhaps it is because they are not big drama queens.
One of the women on the dais addresses us. "There are many reasons each of you has come to be here today. Some of you have relatives, or spouses. Either way, you all know that this is the land where you can succeed and prosper. You've come to live the American dream and to enjoy the country's great freedom and rights. But with rights come great responsibilities."
Shouldering that great responsibility is primarily what I came here for today. Question 87 of the citizenship test is "What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?" The answer, formulated by the government itself, is "the right to vote." As we file out of the room, I ask someone who works there where the voter registration forms are. I am met with a shrug. "A church group used to hand them out but they ran out of money, I think."
I don't go to the post office to then have to buy my stamps from a bunch of Girl Scouts outside, and if the Girl Scouts are sick that day, then I'm shit out of luck. A church group? Why isn't there a form clipped to my naturalization certificate? It is difficult not to see something insidious in this oversight while standing in this sea of humanity, the majority of whom are visible minorities.
Sarah presents me with a hardbound copy of the United States Constitution and we head back to the station. We have half an hour to kill before our train. If I thought the lack of America-related decor in the main room of the citizenship facility was lousy public relations, it is as nothing compared with this port of entry: the town of Hempstead itself. Sarah and I attempt a walk around. My first glimpse as a citizen of this golden land is not the Lady of the Harbor shining her beacon through the Atlantic mist but cracked pavement, cheap liquor stores with thick Plexiglas partitions in front of the cashiers, shuttered businesses, and used car lots. The only spot of brightness on the blighted landscape is the window of the adult book and video store, with its two mannequins, one wearing a shiny stars-and-stripes bra-and-G-string set, and the other in a rainbow thong. Just like dreamy former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, I could comfortably dance in either of these native costumes of my twin identities.