Don't Get Too Comfortable

By Veronica Cook,2014-11-04 18:49
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Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on 2005/09/19





    “I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. In the daytime Iplayed with my companions in the garden, and in the evening I led the dance in the Great Hall.Round the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everythingabout me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, ifpleasure be happiness.”

    The Happy Prince”—OSCAR WILDE,

    LONDON, May 9—Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters, the theorygoes, and they will produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Give six monkeys one computerfor a month, and they will make a mess. Researchers at Plymouth University in England reportedthis week that monkeys left alone with a computer failed to produce a single word. “Theypressed a lot of S's,” said Mike Phillips, a researcher in the project which was paid for bythe Arts Council. The researchers left a computer in the monkey enclosure at Paignton Zoo insouthwest England, home to six Sulawesi crested macaques. Then they waited. Eventually, themonkeys produced only five pages of text, primarily filled with the letter S. At the end, a fewA's, J's, L's and M's were struck. “Another thing they were interested in was defecating andurinating all over the keyboard,” Mr. Phillips added.



    George W. Bush made me want to be an American. It was a need I had not known before. A desirethat came over me in a rush one day, not unlike that of the pencil-necked honors studentsuddenly overwhelmed with the inexplicable urge to make a daily gift of his lunch money to theschoolyard tough. I have lived in the United States, first as a student then as a residentalien, under numerous other administrations, including what I once thought of as the nadir ofall time: the Cajun-scented, plague-ravaged Reagan eighties in New York; horrible, black yearsof red fish and blue drinks. A time when greed was magically transformed from vice to virtue.And after that the even greedier nineties, when the money flowed like water and everybody'sboat rose with the tide (except, of course, for those forgotten souls who had been provided not

    ) and all through that time,with boats but with stones, and no one told them. Oh well, tra la,

    aside from having to make sure not to get myself arrested at demonstrations, I was sufficientlysatisfied with a civic life of paying taxes and the occasional protest.

    But George changed all that. Even though I am not a Muslim and I come from a country thatenjoys cordial relations with the United States, I no longer felt safe being here as just alawful permanent resident. Under the cudgel-like Patriot Act, a shoot-first-ask-questions-laterbit of legislation, there are residents who have been here since childhood, other folks whosired American-born children, who have found themselves deported—often to countries of whichthey have almost no firsthand knowledge—for the most minor, not remotely terrorist-relatedinfractions. Those people are never coming back, at least not during this administration. Idon't want to be put out of my home, and like it or not this is my home. I have been herelonger than I haven't. After twenty-two years, it seemed a little bit coy to still be playingthe Canadian card. I felt like the butt of that old joke about the proper lady who, when askedif she would have sex with a strange man for a million dollars, allows that yes she would doit. But when asked if she would do the same thing for a can of Schlitz and a plastic sleeve ofbeer nuts, reels back with an affronted, “What do you think I am?” to which the response is,“Madam, we have already established what you are. Now we're just quibbling about the price.”Becoming a citizen merely names a state of affairs already in place for a long time.

    Even so, once I reach my decision, I don't make my intentions widely known. I tell almost noone, especially no one in Canada. You can only know this if you grew up in a country directlyadjacent to a globally dominating, culturally obliterating economic behemoth, but becoming anAmerican feels like some kind of defeat. Another one bites the dust.

    THE NATURALIZATION APPLICATION can be downloaded directly from the government's website. It isten pages long but can be filled out over the course of an industrious day or two. It takes mefour months and one week. I got delayed twice, although not by the usual pitfalls of questionsrequiring a lot of documentation from over a long period. I have no problem, for example, withPart 7, Section C, in which I have to account for every trip I have taken out of the UnitedStates of more than twenty-four-hours' duration for the last ten years, including every weekendjaunt to Canada to see the family. I have kept every datebook I have ever owned. I pore over adecade's worth of pages and list all of my travels from most recent backward. I create a tablewith columns, listing exact dates of departure and return, plus my destination. It is adocument of such surpassing beauty, it is virtually scented. Not since I threaded puffy orangeyarn through the punched holes of my fourth-grade book reports have I so shamelessly tried toplacate authority with meaningless externals.

    No, my first hang-up occurs at Part 10, Section G, question 33: Are you a male who lived in the

    United States at any time between your 18th and 26th birthdays in any status except as a lawful

     I make my living with words and yet I cannot for the life of me begin to parsenonimmigrant?

    this question with its imbedded double negatives and hypotheticals. How are any nonnativespeakers managing to become citizens, I wonder? Part of my clouded judgment is due to fear. Idon't want to piss them off, and I am worried that a wrong answer will immediately feed my nameinto some database for a wiretap, a tax audit, or an automatic years-long “misplacement” ofmy application; some casual gratuitous harassment that a thuggish administration might decideto visit upon someone they identified as a troublemaker. I spend an entire afternoon trying to

    map the grammar and come away with nothing but a headache and no idea. This is in early March.I put the form away in my drawer and forget about it, my dreams of inalienable rights felled byjust one question. I put all thoughts of citizenship out of my head, until one evening in July,four months later, when, as I'm dropping off to sleep, the clauses fall into place and the lockturns and I realize the answer is a simple “no.” With inordinate self-satisfaction, I soldieron. Have I ever been a habitual drunkard? I have not. A prostitute, a procurer, or a bigamist?Nuh-uh. Did I in any way aid, abet, support, work for, or claim membership in the Nazi

    Nein! Do I understand andgovernment of Germany between March 23, 1933, and May 8, 1945?

    support the Constitution? You betcha. If the law required it, would I be willing to bear armson behalf of the United States?

    Again I stop. The same headache as before marches its little foot soldiers across my cranium. Iput the application back into the drawer and return to my bed, not picking it up again untilseven days later when I surprise myself by checking “yes.”

    I figure it's grass soup. Grass soup is exactly what it sounds like. It's a recipe for food oflast resort that my father apparently has squirreled away somewhere. I have never actually seenthis recipe, but it was referred to fairly often when I was a child. Should everything elseturn to shit, we could always derive sustenance from nutritious grass soup! At heart, it's ananxious, romantic fantasy that disaster and total financial ruin lurk just around the corner,but when they do come, they will have all the stark beauty and domestic fine feeling of aDickens novel. Young Tiny Tim's palsied hand lifting a spoon to his rosebud mouth. “Whatdelicious grass soup. I must be getting better after all,” he will say, putting on a good showof it just as he expires, the tin utensil clattering to the rough wood table.

    A grass-soup situation is a self-dramatizing one based on such a poorly imagined and improbablepremise as to render it beneath consideration. Michael Jackson saying with no apparent irony,for example, that were he to wake up one day to find all the children in the world gone, hewould throw himself out the window. Mr. Jackson's statement doesn't really take intoconsideration that a planet devoid of tots would likely be just one link in a chain ofgeopolitical events so cataclysmic, that to assume the presence of an intact building with anintact window out of which to throw himself is plain idiotic. As for grass soup itself, fromwhat I've seen on the news, by the time you're reduced to using the lawn for food, any grassthat isn't already gone—either parched to death or napalmed into oblivion—is probably besteaten on the run.

    All by way of saying, that if there ever came a time when the government of my new homeland wasactually calling up the forty-something asking-and-telling homosexuals with hypo-activethyroids to take up arms, something very calamitous indeed will have to have happened. Thestreets would likely be running with blood, and such moral gray areas as might have existed atother times will seem either so beside the point that I will join the fight, or so terrifyingand appallingly beyond the pale that I'd either already be dead or underground.

    For most of my life, I would have automatically said that I would opt for conscientiousobjector status, and in general, I still would. But the spirit of the question is would I ever,

    and there are instances where I might. If immediate intervention would have circumvented thegenocide in Rwanda or stopped the Janjaweed in Darfur, would I choose pacifism? Of course not.Scott Simon, the reporter for National Public Radio and a committed lifelong Quaker, haswritten that it took looking into mass graves in former Yugoslavia to convince him that forceis sometimes the only option to deter our species' murderous impulses.

    While we're on the subject of the horrors of war, and humanity's most poisonous and leastcharitable attributes, let us not forget to mention Barbara Bush (that would be former FirstLady and presidential mother as opposed to W's liquor-swilling, Girl Gone Wild, human ashtrayof a daughter. I'm sorry, that's not fair. I've no idea if she smokes). When the administrationcensored images of the flag-draped coffins of the young men and women being killed inIraq—purportedly to respect “the privacy of the families” and not to minimize and cover upthe true nature and consequences of the war—the family matriarch expressed her support forwhat was ultimately her son's decision by saying on Good Morning America on March 18, 2003,

    “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean, it's not relevant. So why should Iwaste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

    Mrs. Bush is not getting any younger. When she eventually ceases to walk among us we will

     flag-draped coffin. Whatever obituaries that run willundoubtedly see photographs of her

    admiringly mention those wizened, dynastic loins of hers and praise her staunch refusal tocolor her hair or glamorize her image. But will they remember this particular statement ofhers, this “Let them eat cake” for the twenty-first century? Unlikely, since it received fartoo little play and definitely insufficient outrage when she said it. So let us promiseherewith to never forget her callous disregard for other parents' children while her own sonwas sending them to make the ultimate sacrifice, while asking of the rest of us little morethan to promise to go shopping. Commit the quote to memory and say it whenever her name comesup. Remind others how she lacked even the bare minimum of human integrity, the most basicrequirement of decency that says if you support a war, you should be willing, if not to jointhose nineteen-year-olds yourself, then at least, to acknowledge that saidat the very least,

    war was actually going on. Stupid fucking cow.

    So that's why I answered “yes.” But, like I said, it is grass soup. (I hope.)

    THERE HAS BEEN much talk about a post–September 11 backlog of applications and how I shouldexpect to wait far longer than the usual year. But ten months after filing, I am notified thatI have been provisionally approved, pending an interview. I am to report to the Bureau ofCitizenship and Immigration Services at Federal Plaza. It is a scorcher of a May day when I godowntown. Even now there are equivalents of first class and steerage. Those of us withscheduled appointments are immediately ushered inside and through the metal detectors, whilethe line of people who have just shown up snakes around the block. I check in at the window andam asked if, before starting the official process of my glorious, butterfly-like transformationinto David Rakoff, American, I'd like to change my name. The hairy-knuckled, pinkie-ringedlawyer for a Vietnamese fellow behind me nudges his client and says, “Hear that? You wannachange your name? To George Bush? Saddam Hussein? Anything you want. Haw haw,” he laughs,clapping his client on the back. The young man shoots me an apologetic look to suggest that,yes, even with the obvious cultural and language barriers, he knows that he has unwittinglyhired a shithead.

    There are about fifty of us waiting for our interviews. Many people are in their best clothes.I wonder if I've adversely affected my chances by having opted for comfort in Levi's andsneakers, but so long as the Russian woman in her early forties is across from me, I havenothing to worry about. She wears painted-on acid-wash jeans, white stilettos, and a tightblouse of sheer leopard-print fabric. The sleeves are designed as a series of irregular tattersclinging to her arms, as if she's just come from tearing the hide off of the back of an actualleopard. A really slutty leopard.

    My name is called, and Agent Morales brings me back into her office. From her window I can seethe Brooklyn Bridge, hazy under a humid sky the color of a soiled shirt collar. Agent Morales'sdesk is crowded with small plaster figures of cherubic children holding fishing poles, polka-dot-hankie hobo bundles, small wicker picnic baskets, etc. The walls, however, are almostcompletely bare. Perhaps it's bureau policy, but all of those typical examples of officehumor—that in other work environments might get their own piece of paper, perhaps withGarfield or Dilbert saying them—have all been printed onto the same 812 5 11 sheet and listedlike bullets in a PowerPoint presentation. There are old standbys like “You don't have to becrazy to work here, but it sure helps,” along with some gags that are new to me: “Chocolate,coffee, men: some things are just better rich” and “I'm out of estrogen and I have agun!”—the latter which frankly seems to push the envelope for acceptable discourse in agovernment office.

    She has me raise my right hand while swearing to tell the truth. That's it, no Bible, no Koran,no sacred text of any sort to solidify my oath. Perhaps the increased blood flow from my upheldarm down into my heart is enough to safeguard against perjury. She questions me about anypotential criminal past. (A boy could get ideas, or at least a distorted view of his own

    allure, seeing as how regularly I am asked if I have ever turned tricks.) Agent Morales thenadministers my citizenship test. Along with my application, I downloaded the list of onehundred possible questions, any handful of which they might choose to ask. Some of them areincredibly basic, like when is Independence Day, while others delve more deeply into the threebranches of government, or ask you to name some of the better-known amendments.

    Here are the four questions I am asked: What do the stripes on the flag represent? What werethe original states called? What is the judiciary? And, who takes over if the president dies?

    “Dick Cheney, God help us,” I answer with a shudder. Agent Morales gives me a small halfsmile. She then has me write down on a piece of paper, “I watch the news every day.” It's theliteracy test, the final hurdle of the interview. She looks at it and, picking up myapplication, she compares them, her eyes going back and forth between the two documents.

    “Wait a second. Who wrote your application?” she asks, confused.

    “I did, but I was really, really careful.”

    “Oh my God,” she says, almost with relief. “'Cause the writing is so different. We couldn'tbelieve it, your application was so tidy. It looked so good, and this was so good . . .” she

    says, unfolding my painstaking table of trips outside the country. She reads through it oncemore, as if reminiscing over a pleasant memory. Pathetically, in that moment, being approvedfor citizenship is secondary to the thrill that her kind words about my penmanship give me. Iam out of there within five minutes, a provisional American. I have now only to wait for myswearing in. Exiting the same door onto lower Broadway that I did almost exactly ten yearspreviously when I got my green card, the same bleakness overtakes me. It is a feeling moreunrooted than mere statelessness. It's as though all my moorings have been cut. Any connectionthat I might have had to anything or anyone has been, for the moment, severed. It's a coldrealization that I am now, as indeed I always have been, an official unit of one.

    COINCIDENTALLY, CANADIAN-BORN newscaster Peter Jennings also became a citizen around the sametime, after almost forty years in the United States. According to the papers, his swearing intook place in a swanky Manhattan courthouse. I, on the other hand, am forced to catch the 6:55a.m. train to Hempstead, Long Island. My friend Sarah, a self-described civics nerd, verysweetly agrees to come with me. She is a good deal more excited than I am. This all feels likemonumentally 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 thebrink of legalizing gay marriage, and the second told of an appeals court in the District ofColumbia Circuit that ruled that the detainees at Guantánamo Bay are legally outside the reachof the protections of the Constitution.

    The INS center, a one-story sprawl devoid of character, fits into its very unprepossessingsurroundings of a highway of strip malls with empty storefronts. Still, the air is electricwith a sense of occasion as we line up at the door. No one has come alone and people aredressed to the nines. We are separated from our friends and family and pass through the finalsheep dip before becoming Americans. I have to answer once again whether, in the interveningfour weeks between my interview and now, I have become a dipsomaniac, a whore, or traveledbackward in time to willingly participate in Kristallnacht. They take back my green card, whichafter ten years is barely holding up. It was always government property. There is a strangelightness I feel having turned in the small laminated object that has been on my person for anentire decade. Something has been lanced. For the brief walk from this anteroom to the mainauditorium, I am a completely undocumented human. The only picture ID I have is my gymmembership and it has my name spelled wrong.

    There is absolutely nothing on the walls of the huge fluorescent-lit, dropped-ceiling room intowhich we are corralled. It's the new federalist architecture. Even travel agencies give outfree posters of the Grand Canyon or the Chicago loop at night. Alternately, how hard could itbe to get a bunch of schoolchildren in to paint a lousy mural of some politically neutralrainbows and trees? Our guests are already seated way in the back; I cannot find Sarah in thesea 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

    American Psycho. Give me your tired,soon-to-be new citizens has a paperback. He is reading

    your poor, your huddled masses yearning to read about a murderous yuppie dispatching liverodents 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 musicalprelude. A typical pompy instrumental of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by a veryatypical “America the Beautiful” rendered in a minor-key full-strings orchestration straightout of a forties noir. Three women and one man then get up on the dais. The man checks thateveryone has turned in all their documents. It's a minor federal offense to keep them. “Yourold passports from the countries you came from are souvenirs and can never be used again.” Thepeople in the back are instructed to applaud loudly, people with cameras are told to take lotsof pictures. There is pretty well only joy in this room, save for some extreme Canadianambivalence.

    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 ThirdAvenue on a Saturday evening. For some reason the streets were choked with limousines thatnight. My young friend spat contemptuously at each one that sat unoccupied and parked, whileletting the peopled vehicles go saliva free.

    To lead us in singing the national anthem for our first time as Americans, we have a choir. Nota real choir, but a group of employees who come up to the front. We sing and I cry, althoughI'm not sure why. I'm clearly overcome by something. It's a combination of guilt over havingshown insufficient appreciation for my origins, of feeling very much alone in the world, and—Iam not proud to say—of constructing life-and-death grass-soup scenarios for the immigrantsstanding around me. Strangely, no one else that I can see sheds a tear. Perhaps it is becausethey are not big drama queens.

    One of the women on the dais addresses us. “There are many reasons each of you has come to behere today. Some of you have relatives, or spouses. Either way, you all know that this is theland where you can succeed and prosper. You've come to live the American dream and to enjoy thecountry'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 ofthe citizenship test is “What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?” Theanswer, 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 ashrug. “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 Scoutsoutside, 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 seesomething insidious in this oversight while standing in this sea of humanity, the majority ofwhom are visible minorities.

    Sarah presents me with a hardbound copy of the United States Constitution and we head back tothe 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 asnothing compared with this port of entry: the town of Hempstead itself. Sarah and I attempt awalk around. My first glimpse as a citizen of this golden land is not the Lady of the Harborshining her beacon through the Atlantic mist but cracked pavement, cheap liquor stores withthick 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 videostore, with its two mannequins, one wearing a shiny stars-and-stripes bra-and-G-string set, andthe other in a rainbow thong. Just like dreamy former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, Icould comfortably dance in either of these native costumes of my twin identities.

    MY FIRST INDEPENDENCE Day as an American comes scarcely two weeks later. I mark it by headingdown to the nation's capital to celebrate with my old friend Madhulika, also newly American

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