Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
I have an office of one.
In that office is Tomas. I had hired him as an intern to help with the deluge of e-mails and obligations that came after The Game so I could be free to write other books.
In silence, Tomas watched me voraciously pursue my search for a second citizenship at the expense of almost all other work—until one day, as we ate lunch in the kitchen, he told me he had a wife.
“A wife? How’s that?”
Not only was Tomas gay, but to make money, he placed ads on Craigslist offering, according to his headline, “Hairy Muscle Man Massages.” The posting was accompanied by this picture:
His fee was $100 per hour. Judging by the BMW convertible he drove, which far outclassed my Durango, business was clearly booming.
“I had to get married for my citizenship,” he said. “She’s crazy, but she’s really good in the immigration interviews.”
“So the whole time I’ve been working to get out of the country, you’ve been working to get in?”
“Yep.” He smiled, exposing his sharp canine teeth and, along with them, a slight satisfaction at having successfully kept his secret from me.
Though Tomas was born in the Czech Republic, he was so Americanized that I’d never realized he wasn’t actually a citizen. I guess assisting me a few hours a week was his way of having a legitimate job.
Five years ago, he said, he began the process. After talking to immigration lawyers, he decided that the quickest and easiest way to an American citizenship was through marriage. So he paid a female friend thirty-five thousand dollars to marry him. They even cosigned an apartment lease and opened a joint bank account to make it look official.
“Being American was always a fantasy of mine, ever since I was eleven,” he said as he downed the dregs of a protein shake. I couldn’t believe we’d never discussed it before. “I never felt like I belonged in the Czech Republic. I was always trying to escape this Eastern European subservient mentality.”
As he spoke about it, I was overcome with a feeling of shame. There were millions of people living in conditions of extreme poverty all over the world, most of whom would sacrifice almost anything for a chance at a better life in America. I remembered the day the janitor of one of the buildings I grew up in became an American citizen. He told me he’d tried to escape from Romania five times by swimming across the Danube. Once, after he was caught, prison guards beat him and urinated on him for wanting to leave. As soon as he became a citizen here, he changed his name from Liveu Anei to the most American name he could think of: Lee Grant, after the Confederate and Union Civil War generals. Soon, he and his wife were investing in real estate, wearing matching jogging suits, and taking Love Boat-style cruises in an effort to be as American as possible.
“I love America,” he’d always tell me when he was in a good mood, before his wife left him.
But what is America? In truth, it occupies less than one quarter of the geographical mass known as the Americas. Its proper name is the United States of America, though in truth it’s hardly a name. France and Brazil—those sound like countries. The United States of America is more of an umbrella term, describing a hodgepodge of separate states bound together by an agreement, like a bundle of twigs tied with twine.
Even the flag, with its fifty stars and thirteen stripes, displays no single national identity, unlike the sole maple leaf of our neighbors to the north or the eagle eating a snake on the Mexican flag. The stripes represent the original thirteen colonies; the stars celebrate the fact that the country has since grown to fifty states. If there’s a message here, it has to do with accumulation. In fact, no other national flag has that many stars, making us the best accumulators in the world.
Thus, perhaps my labors of the last year weren’t anti-American but the most American thing I could possibly do. For my plan was not to forsake my American identity, but instead to start accumulating passports, citizenships, bank accounts, escape routes, and safe havens. I just wanted more stars on my own flag.
A few weeks later, just before I was scheduled to fly to St. Kitts, I accompanied Tomas to the convention center in downtown Los Angeles to watch him get naturalized as a citizen. More than 4,000 people became Americans with him, followed by four thousand more in a ceremony immediately afterward. Most of the soon-to-be Americans were from Mexico, El Salvador, the Philippines, and, in a sea of black chadors, Iran.
Onstage, an Asian judge in a black robe and caftan sat at the center of a table, surrounded by uniformed immigration and police officers. An immense American flag waved behind them. The audience was asked to rise while several hundred soldiers, most of them Mexican-born U.S. residents, marched into the auditorium and filled the front rows. In exchange for their service to the country, they, too, would become citizens today.
Afterward, the judge told a story of how his father had moved from China to America for a better life. Then his captive audience, with photocopied handouts to help with the words, recited the pledge of allegiance and sang the national anthem. This was followed by one of the most touching scenes I’d ever seen.
“I hereby declare, on oath …,” the judge began.
“I hereby declare, on oath …,” repeated 4,000 people two minutes away from becoming U.S. citizens.
The judge continued, one voice leading 4,000: “…that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.” Thousands of people sobbed as they spoke these words.
“That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Hundreds more could hardly utter the words because of the immense, relieved smiles on their faces.
“That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” Others boomed the words passionately, as if their lives depended on them.
“That I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law.” Others seemed nervous, as if one wrong move would cause them to forfeit the rights they were about to receive.
“That I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. So help me God.”
“You are now citizens of the United States,” the judge announced. “Congrat—”
Before he completed the word, the room erupted with the sound of the largest exclamation point in downtown Los Angeles. Afterward, the new Americans looked around an auditorium full of strangers who had just become brothers. Tears involuntarily filled my eyes. For the Iranian woman in the burka standing next to Tomas, it had been fourteen years since she’d begun the process to become an American citizen.
It was as if 4,000 movies—full of hope, anxiety, ambition, tragedy—had just ended before my eyes. In that moment I realized that for every person who sees America as a villain, there’s someone else who sees it as a hero. If anyone who wanted to decimate our country was in the room, they’d realize that it wasn’t a president or a general or a businessman they were planning to destroy, but the dreams of hundreds of thousands of their own brothers, sisters, and countrymen.
Afterward, Tomas, in tears, filled out a passport application form, turned in his green card, and received his long-awaited naturalization certificate. Later that night, I joined Tomas and his friends for a celebratory dinner at a restaurant called Sur. The conversation soon turned from clubs and gossip to politics.
Tomas’s housemate, an attorney, began talking about new laws that, as he put it, “enraged” him—like the Military Commissions Act, which allows the government to declare U.S. citizens enemy combatants and imprison them without a trial, and the John Warner Defense Authorization Act, which gives the president the power to declare a public emergency and station troops in any city in America without permission from the local government.
“Get ready for martial law,” Freddy, the attorney’s much younger boyfriend, sighed.
“I read an article recently that said the voting machines in Ohio in 2004 were rigged,” the attorney continued.
“Yeah, and we go to other countries and preach about how they need to have free elections,” Freddy interjected, “but we don’t even have that privilege ourselves.”
Suddenly, we all went quiet and looked at Tomas. It was his first day as an American citizen, and we were ruining it.
In that silence came my opportunity. I was finally able to ask what I’d been wanting to since he’d first told me about his quest. “In this climate, when America is doing so poorly economically and politically, especially since you already have a European passport, what made you so motivated to become an American citizen?”
Tomas didn’t hesitate to respond. He’d probably known the answer long before he ever came to America. “It’s not about freedom,” he replied. “America is one of the least-free countries in the Western world. Things are so controlled here compared to Europe.”
I had no idea what was coming next. Why would he want to become an American citizen if it wasn’t for the freedom? Perhaps it was simply because his friends were here.
“I wanted to become a citizen for the opportunities,” he finally continued. “In the Czech Republic, I had no future. In America, anything is possible. Anyone can become whatever he wants. It’s all happening here. There are a million different paths and choices and careers open to everyone who lives in America. And no matter what happens politically, they can’t take that away.”
Everyone at the table fell silent. The truth has a way of doing that to people sometimes.
A few weeks later, as I sat in the airport, waiting for a flight to see my family on the way to St. Kitts, I thought about the words Tomas had spoken. One of the few pieces of advice my father ever gave me as a teenager was “Expect the best but prepare for the worst.” Tomas expected the best. I was preparing for the worst.