Today is “Patriot Day.”
That first 9/11, I had rushed to my mom’s house after a distraught call from her about the 1st plane crashing. My little cottage was just a two minute drive from hers and as I walked in I saw that my stepfather had plugged in the portable TV in the kitchen and was blasting every communications device plus his five ham radios in that crazy way that was his alone. We watched dumbly quiet as the second plane came and then the towers crashed and people flew out windows like so many bits of paper and ash. We were a short way from the Pentagon and had heard the crash. I remember buckling down to the floor and crying the kind of tears that hurt your nerves and heart because all I held dear was under attack! Everyone did that. I thought we will make it through this– we were Americans and anything we put our minds to would be accomplished! America was strong we were American!
What comes next could never have been foretold – a story of hope deferred, of broken promises, of lies, of avarice, gluttony and greed, of just plain self-destruction and implosion. What more can come to haunt America for our lack of rightful action following that day?
Today of all days – coincidentally -- I find myself symbolically without a National Identity. Living a Kafka novel. I cannot enter the country of my birth because planes cannot land there and I cannot leave the country I chose as mine because I cannot prove I am a citizen!
I was supposed to take off today for La Paz, Bolivia, the city of my birth – where I am going to seek medical treatment because it is more financially viable – while putting myself in the path of impending civil unrest. No planes are being allowed to land in Bolivia today. The U.S. Ambassador, Phillip Goldberg – who had been assigned as Ambassador to Kosovo during the Serbo-Croatian war –has been kicked out as a persona non-grata and the five states in the southern regions of the country declared autonomy and are assuming administration of the public agencies while risking military reprisals. I knew some of this would come of course and that was part of the reason I was going, to see it first hand and see a moment in history that could prove to be definitive. What I had not counted on was that before I left I would find that a U.S. passport is no longer considered proof of citizenship when you have been naturalized as a citizen. Chilling thought -- the need to carry all the proof of who you are wherever you go in case of whatever may happen!
This is not a story of devious people trying to subvert my life; it is a story of bureaucracy post 9/11. It is the story of everywhere that you can’t get mad at a customer service person because ultimately all the hoops are not of their making after all they are just working at the match factory. I was asked to do some disability paperwork prior to leaving the country, which required proof of citizenship, so I’m not implying some foul play in requiring an “ORIGINAL” naturalization certificate. I am now just more acutely aware that more than ever in this world it becomes incumbent on every citizen of the world to not take your identity for granted and to understand your rights and privileges as a citizen. As a Human Resources professional, I have been complying with immigration (I-9 ) regulations for years and using passports as the one solid proof of citizenship. To my surprise this is no longer sufficient! Now I am faced with an endless nightmare of paperwork to prove who I am even though I have a valid U.S. passport!
I’m a child of divorce with a hyphenated name that belongs to both my father and stepfather and not my husband. Who I am is in those names. My mother remarried and took her citizenship with her new husband’s name. As an underage child I was according to the regulation of the day allowed to gain citizenship through her. In the 70’s you were required to submit your paperwork to the U.S. Passport office and the passport became your proof of citizenship and they retained the paperwork. I will have to do a lot of work to rethread my path – establish who am I?
Yesterday I went to the Federal Courthouse where I was sworn in as a citizen in search of the first threads. I carry one of those giant big hobo purses with about 20 lbs of stuff! I was asked to surrender my cell phone at the entrance and after a five-minute search I could not find it in the purse. I put the purse through the detector and next thing I knew a guard was almost arresting me for “lying” about my cell phone. “There are batteries here!” The phone had slipped into a tear in the satin lining! I walked back to my car 5 blocks to put away my cell phone and returned to a new guard who was so pleasant I forgot the five blocks and the other guard. People do make a difference, although I’m sure part of it was his comparing me to the woman behind me who teetered in 5” bright yellow stilettos and mini micro mini. In my all black matron outfit I was not a prostitute about to be convicted much less the unabomber!
I proceeded to the Clerk’s Office, an open area of cubicles with about 20 people literally doing nothing who looked at me and kept on talking without helping. I figure it was lunchtime with all the talk about deciding whether to go to Chick-Fil-A or Sushi Ko or their children’s games and homework discussions. Meanwhile. a behemoth “real criminal” was about to tear down the glass door with his 5-guard escort and was within two inches of my nose all in a rage at his lawyer. When he left five of the women came and sprayed the whole section down with Lysol hoping to get the “animal” smell out. 10 minutes later a flawlessly dressed woman in white finally came to the counter and told me I could I go into a room she pointed at and look for the record myself. I had forgotten my reading glasses and asked if I could have some help, she looked at me inquisitorially and walked away !
I have been working on a government contract since 2003 where paperwork is protected behind locked doors and no one without a pass gets through and believe records need protection. Here I was, alone, with the Naturalization records of every citizen in the last 100 years that took their oath here and not one person was watching me or seeing what I did. I found my mom and about four of her friends one of whom is a great Uruguayan poet. The cards were green file cards and their innocent little signature blocks swearing allegiance made me almost weep. Driving home on the GW Parkway, I passed the about to be dedicated Pentagon Memorial. It was beautifully lit, an American Flag was projected on the side of the Pentagon with an unusual brightness and coloration that must be some new technology and I thought like I have always thought this is a beautiful flag; our's is!
Once past it I had one of those very “American” moments – I desperately needed French Fries (you know I’m a potatoholic) and some consumer outlet! So I headed to Tysons Corner, where I spent five hours wandering the mall in a daze of fall fashion I want this I want that I can’t have that so I’ll have this! I have to return everything today!
That was day one….tomorrow I go to the State Department for Citizen thread number two….who knows where that thread will lead me!