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Don't Get Too Comfortable
By David Rakoff
Random House David Rakoff
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George W. Bush made me want to be an American. It was a need I had not known before. A desire that came over me in a rush one day, not unlike that of the pencil-necked honors student suddenly overwhelmed with the inexplicable urge to make a daily gift of his lunch money to the schoolyard tough. I have lived in the United States, first as a student then as a resident alien, under numerous other administrations, including what I once thought of as the nadir of all time: the Cajun-scented, plague-ravaged Reagan eighties in New York; horrible, black years of 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's boat rose with the tide (except, of course, for those forgotten souls who had been provided not with boats but with stones, and no one told them. Oh well, tra la), and all through that time, aside from having to make sure not to get myself arrested at demonstrations, I was sufficiently satisfied 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 that enjoys cordial relations with the United States, I no longer felt safe being here as just a lawful permanent resident. Under the cudgel-like Patriot Act, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later bit of legislation, there are residents who have been here since childhood, other folks who sired American-born children, who have found themselves deported-often to countries of which they have almost no firsthand knowledge-for the most minor, not remotely terrorist-related infractions. Those people are never coming back, at least not during this administration. I don't want to be put out of my home, and like it or not this is my home. I have been here longer than I haven't. After twenty-two years, it seemed a little bit coy to still be playing the Canadian card. I felt like the butt of that old joke about the proper lady who, when asked if she would have sex with a strange man for a million dollars, allows that yes she would do it. But when asked if she would do the same thing for a can of Schlitz and a plastic sleeve of beer 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 no one, especially no one in Canada. You can only know this if you grew up in a country directly adjacent to a globally dominating, culturally obliterating economic behemoth, but becoming an American feels like some kind of defeat. Another one bites the dust.
The naturalization application can be downloaded directly from the government's website. It is ten pages long but can be filled out over the course of an industrious day or two. It takes me four months and one week. I got delayed twice, although not by the usual pitfalls of questions requiring a lot of documentation from over a long period. I have no problem, for example, with Part 7, Section C, in which I have to account for every trip I have taken out of the United States of more than twenty-four-hours' duration for the last ten years, including every weekend jaunt to Canada to see the family. I have kept every datebook I have ever owned. I pore over a decade's worth of pages and list all of my travels from most recent backward. I create a table with columns, listing exact dates of departure and return, plus my destination. It is a document of such surpassing beauty, it is virtually scented. Not since I threaded puffy orange yarn through the punched holes of my fourth-grade book reports have I so shamelessly tried to placate 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 nonimmigrant? I make my living with words and yet I cannot for the life of me begin to parse this question with its imbedded double negatives and hypotheticals. How are any nonnative speakers managing to become citizens, I wonder? Part of my clouded judgment is due to fear. I don't want to piss them off, and I am worried that a wrong answer will immediately feed my name into some database for a wiretap, a tax audit, or an automatic years-long "misplacement" of my application; some casual gratuitous harassment that a thuggish administration might decide to 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 by just 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 lock turns and I realize the answer is a simple "no." With inordinate self-satisfaction, I soldier on. 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 government of Germany between March 23, 1933, and May 8, 1945? Nein! Do I understand and support the Constitution? You betcha. If the law required it, would I be willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States?
Again I stop. The same headache as before marches its little foot soldiers across my cranium. I put the application back into the drawer and return to my bed, not picking it up again until seven 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 of last resort that my father apparently has squirreled away somewhere. I have never actually seen this recipe, but it was referred to fairly often when I was a child. Should everything else turn to shit, we could always derive sustenance from nutritious grass soup! At heart, it's an anxious, 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 a Dickens novel. Young Tiny Tim's palsied hand lifting a spoon to his rosebud mouth. "What delicious grass soup. I must be getting better after all," he will say, putting on a good show of 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 improbable premise 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, he would throw himself out the window. Mr. Jackson's statement doesn't really take into consideration that a planet devoid of tots would likely be just one link in a chain of geopolitical events so cataclysmic, that to assume the presence of an intact building with an intact window out of which to throw himself is plain idiotic. As for grass soup itself, from what I've seen on the news, by the time you're reduced to using the lawn for food, any grass that isn't already gone-either parched to death or napalmed into oblivion-is probably best eaten on the run.
All by way of saying, that if there ever came a time when the government of my new homeland was actually calling up the forty-something asking-and-telling homosexuals with hypo-active thyroids to take up arms, something very calamitous indeed will have to have happened. The streets would likely be running with blood, and such moral gray areas as might have existed at other times will seem either so beside the point that I will join the fight, or so terrifying and 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 conscientious objector 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 the genocide 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, has written that it took looking into mass graves in former Yugoslavia to convince him that force is 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 least charitable attributes, let us not forget to mention Barbara Bush (that would be former First Lady and presidential mother as opposed to W's liquor-swilling, Girl Gone Wild, human ashtray of a daughter. I'm sorry, that's not fair. I've no idea if she smokes). When the administration censored images of the flag-draped coffins of the young men and women being killed in Iraq-purportedly to respect "the privacy of the families" and not to minimize and cover up the true nature and consequences of the war-the family matriarch expressed her support for what 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 I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"
Mrs. Bush is not getting any younger. When she eventually ceases to walk among us we will undoubtedly see photographs of her flag-draped coffin. Whatever obituaries that run will admiringly mention those wizened, dynastic loins of hers and praise her staunch refusal to color her hair or glamorize her image. But will they remember this particular statement of hers, this "Let them eat cake" for the twenty-first century? Unlikely, since it received far too little play and definitely insufficient outrage when she said it. So let us promise herewith to never forget her callous disregard for other parents' children while her own son was sending them to make the ultimate sacrifice, while asking of the rest of us little more than to promise to go shopping. Commit the quote to memory and say it whenever her name comes up. Remind others how she lacked even the bare minimum of human integrity, the most basic requirement of decency that says if you support a war, you should be willing, if not to join those nineteen-year-olds yourself, then at least, at the very least, to acknowledge that said 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 should expect to wait far longer than the usual year. But ten months after filing, I am notified that I have been provisionally approved, pending an interview. I am to report to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services at Federal Plaza. It is a scorcher of a May day when I go downtown. Even now there are equivalents of first class and steerage. Those of us with scheduled appointments are immediately ushered inside and through the metal detectors, while the line of people who have just shown up snakes around the block. I check in at the window and am asked if, before starting the official process of my glorious, butterfly-like transformation into David Rakoff, American, I'd like to change my name. The hairy-knuckled, pinkie-ringed lawyer for a Vietnamese fellow behind me nudges his client and says, "Hear that? You wanna change 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 unwittingly hired 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 and sneakers, but so long as the Russian woman in her early forties is across from me, I have nothing to worry about. She wears painted-on acid-wash jeans, white stilettos, and a tight blouse of sheer leopard-print fabric. The sleeves are designed as a series of irregular tatters clinging to her arms, as if she's just come from tearing the hide off of the back of an actual leopard. A really slutty leopard.
My name is called, and Agent Morales brings me back into her office. From her window I can see the Brooklyn Bridge, hazy under a humid sky the color of a soiled shirt collar. Agent Morales's desk 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 almost completely bare. Perhaps it's bureau policy, but all of those typical examples of office humor-that in other work environments might get their own piece of paper, perhaps with Garfield or Dilbert saying them-have all been printed onto the same 81U2 5 11 sheet and listed like bullets in a PowerPoint presentation. There are old standbys like "You don't have to be crazy 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 a gun!"-the latter which frankly seems to push the envelope for acceptable discourse in a government 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 upheld arm down into my heart is enough to safeguard against perjury. She questions me about any potential 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 then administers my citizenship test. Along with my application, I downloaded the list of one hundred possible questions, any handful of which they might choose to ask. Some of them are incredibly basic, like when is Independence Day, while others delve more deeply into the three branches of government, or ask you to name some of the better-known amendments.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff Excerpted by permission.
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