Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part III. ESCAPE
That night, weakness struck. In a few days, I’d be committed to an expense of over half a million dollars, which was more money than I had.
And what was it all for? Symbolic paper. A passport, which is just a teeny little booklet that means nothing to the universe. Realistically, the world wasn’t likely to end in my lifetime. And if it did, everyone on St. Kitts would be just as dead as everyone in America.
If there were a smaller-scale world disaster, things would probably be even worse on an island in the Caribbean, where I was more likely to be a victim of food shortages, droughts, hurricanes, blackouts, and tsunamis. There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide on an island—especially one in the smallest country in the Americas. I’d become so focused on my search for a passport—so consumed with escaping the blowback of American politics—that I’d forgotten the survivalist lessons I’d learned on Y2K and 9/11.
Soon, the whole endeavor began to seem like the biggest travesty ever. If something horrible happened in America, would a St. Kitts passport even get me out during a state of emergency? What if it was confiscated by customs agents? Or what if Victor, Maxwell, and Wendell were in collusion and just ripping me off? I didn’t have anyone to protect me here.
Once I’d ridden out that wave of anxiety, a new one formed. I began worrying that I’d blabbed my name and occupation to too many people. If they Googled me and saw the filth I’d written, they might not sell me the apartment or give me a citizenship. And then I’d be stuck in America if anything bad happened.
And so it went, all night, one wave of anxiety after another—half of them spent worrying that I wouldn’t get a passport, the other half spent worrying that I would.
I fell asleep around dawn for a few fitful hours, until I was woken by my cell phone. AIG Private Bank was finally returning my call.
Every day, my small savings were dwindling as the dollar dropped relative not just to the euro, but even to the Caribbean currency here. I never thought I’d see the day when Eastern Europeans came to the United States for the cheap shopping.
“I’d like to inquire about opening a private banking account,” I told the woman.
“Great,” she said, with barely a trace of a Swiss accent. “Let me ask you a few questions.”
“Are you an American citizen?”
“Yes, I am.”
“We don’t deal with American citizens for a few years now.”
“But my friend Spencer Booth is American, and I think he has an account with you.”
“It’s likely an older account. We don’t do business with American citizens anymore. Sorry, good-bye.”
Before I could respond, she had hung up. I felt like an outcast. I couldn’t believe a bank wouldn’t take my money solely because I was American.
I’d noticed that many of the banks I’d researched had special policies for dealing with United States citizens. Even some of the online companies selling vintage travel documents said they no longer shipped to America because U.S. customs agents were opening and confiscating the packages. The government seemed to be sticking its nose everywhere.
In the meantime, I’d discovered a few other interesting facts: According to a report issued by Reporters Without Borders, the United States was ranked as having the fifty-third freest press in the world, tied with Botswana and Croatia. According to the World Health Organization, the United States had the fifty-fourth fairest health care system in the world, with lack of medical coverage leading to an estimated 18,000 unnecessary deaths a year. And according to the Justice Department, one in every thirty-two Americans was in jail, on probation, or on parole.
Rather than having actual freedom, it seemed that, like animals in a habitat in the zoo, we had only the illusion of freedom. As long as we didn’t try to leave the cage, we’d never know we weren’t actually free.
That phone call was all it took to let me know I was doing the right thing.
Before going home, I had dinner with Wendell at a restaurant called Fisherman’s Wharf and thanked him for his help.
After the meal, he patted my shoulder and smiled. “Next time I see you, you’ll be a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis just like me,” he said. “When you get married, your wife will be a citizen. And when you have kids, so will they.”
He stepped into his SUV, started the engine, then unrolled the window and concluded his thought: “One day,” he said, beaming, “when you come back to America, no one will recognize you. You’ll be a Kittitian.”
At the St. Kitts airport the next morning, I felt like I was returning not to a country but a fortress. “Your country is so tough to get into,” the ticket agent complained as she checked my documents for the flight home. “They make it so hard for us.”
She looked up at me and said it louder, almost with venom, as if it were my fault. “They make it so hard for us.”
She wasn’t alone in her opinion. A survey released the previous month by the Discover America Partnership had found that international travelers considered America the least-friendly country to visit.
“That’s why,” I told her, with the newfound pride that Wendell had instilled in me, “I’m moving here.”