They began to line up long before dawn. First in line was a man from Africa.
His name on the small yellowed sheet he had folded in half, then folded again and placed in the right front pocket of his pressed blue shirt was Mohammad Abbasi. The driver’s license in the brown fake leather wallet he’d bought from a man on the street had his name as Martin Fisk. So did the green card he’d paid fifty dollars for, too many years ago to remember.
Yet here he was, Mohammad Abbasi, first in line to make his name legal. He leaned against his cane and tried not to think about how cold and tired he felt. As usual, the fog had blown in off the ocean late the previous afternoon and still hung down low, cooling the air as it waited for the sun to lift up. Some of Mohammad’s friends, old men like him who met in the park downtown on their days off to play dominoes, told Mohammad he was a fool to fall for this.
“They just wanna get you,” his friend Gilbert said. “They wanna bring all the people in and then they gonna send everybody back to where they came from. They gonna have the last laugh.”
It was fine for Gilbert to think that, Mohammad decided. But he, Mohammad, was willing to take the chance. Sure, Gilbert was right when he said, “What difference it make, anyhow? You an old man now.” Maybe that was the difference, Mohammad suddenly thought. An old man deserved a little bit of ease in his life. If they sent him back, so be it.
Bright blue-white street-lights cast an eerie glow on the sidewalk. Mohammad could see his breath. He hadn’t wanted to tell Gilbert how when he was a boy, he dreamed of coming to America. His father had left the family soon after Mohammad was born. “Gone to England,” Mohammad’s mother always said, when the boy asked. Not another word about the man was ever spoken.
Still, Mohammad grew up thinking there was no future for him, except far away. On his sixteenth birthday, his mother gave him a small collection of postcards she’d bought, after bargaining hard with a vendor at the open-air market.
“This is America,” his mother had said, after he ripped open the newspaper and looked at the first color photograph of the Statue of Liberty. “One day you will go there and study.”
Mohammad’s reminiscing had made the time pass without him noticing. He’d even forgotten how cold and tired he felt. Behind him on the sidewalk, others had arrived, to stand in line under the blue-white street lights, waiting for daytime and the chance to walk into that tall building with too many windows to count and start a new life.
They were silent as they stood there, mostly because it was the middle of the night and they were tired, but also the occasion seemed such a solemn one. Mohammad didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. He liked the way that the darkness and the soft fog made him feel calm and gave him an opportunity to let his mind wander back through different times in his life.
Another guy at the park named Omar, who’d come from Turkey twenty years before, had warned Mohammad to be careful.
“Soon’s they find out your real name, they are going to lock you up. You know, they might put one of those black sacks over your head and fly you some place where nobody can find you. Mohammad, they are going to say. This guy is named Mohammad. You know what that means.”
Mohammad patted the folded paper containing his real name and date and place of birth, the St. Francis Hospital, and said to himself, “So be it.” If it was time for him to be punished, even for something he hadn’t done, well then he would go along with that. The arthritis had kicked up in his knee from standing too long in one place and the damp air. He wanted to sit down, but not yet, he told himself. Not until the sun came up over the buildings and the fog burned off and the workers arrived and unlocked the door and he stepped inside.
If Mohammad could have left his place at the front of the line, which he never in a million years would have given up, he could have walked back and seen what was happening behind him. The handful of people who had congregated only an hour or so after midnight had begun to grow and stretch past the first block into the second one. In the dark, under the blue-white light that was softened even further by the fog, it was difficult to see their faces but many of them, like Mohammad, were dark. The languages they spoke ran the gamut, from Chinese to Arabic, Spanish to Greek, and even Russian, Urdu and Tagalog.
Mohammad, however, stayed put, the arthritis beginning to send out shooting pains from his knee and the big toe of his right foot. All those years, Mohammad, thought, trying to keep from cursing out loud. On his feet. Cleaning tables, at first, challenging himself on how many plates he could carry back to the kitchen without using a tray. In those days, he could work eight hours straight, go home and shower, then head out to a club and dance until closing at two o’clock in the morning. He pictured that young Mohammad now, in a red silk shirt and black pants and shiny black shoes, who told all the women that his name was Martin and he’d come to America from West Africa to complete his studies. Under the blue-white street lights here, with the fog swirling through the air, this old man, whose hair – at least what was left of it – had turned the color of the street lights, laughed at that boy. He had a way about him.
“You like to dance with me?” he would say, seeming a little bit shy.
American girls went crazy over his accent.
“You sound like you’re singing when you talk,” he remembered one girl saying to him when they danced a slow number and he held her close and rubbed himself against her below the waist.
That’s when he would whisper something in French, anything really would do, because most of the girls didn’t understand the language. They just thought it sounded romantic and sexy.
Mohammad holds the knob of his black-painted wooden cane with both hands and tries to remember the steps, as he hears the jujube music again in his mind. Oh, how he loved to dance. It was in the clubs that he forgot everything. He forgot all of his ambition that was dribbling away like water down a pipe. He forgot the long afternoons and nights, standing on his feet. He forgot the dirty plates, the gravy spilling onto his fingers, and cold coffee staining his shirt. He forgot everything as he let himself be taken away by the horns and drums, the rhythm that he could feel deep in his gut and that made his hips gyrate slowly and sensually, and the women, oh, the beautiful women, that smiled at him, their white teeth gleaming in the candlelight.
He’d only gone back to Africa once. That was when his mother died. He looked around, at the narrow muddy lanes where trash collected and scrawny dogs wandered and munched whatever garbage they could find and thought to himself, “I am an American now.” But when he returned to his one-room apartment upstairs from a small convenience store that was open from seven o’clock in the morning until midnight, Mohammad realized that he didn’t feel at home there either. He wasn’t a young man who thought deeply about his life, but standing in his little apartment looking at his meager furnishings – a bed, a small scratched wooden table by the window with two chairs and a chest of drawers — he thought perhaps that what mattered most was not a home some place in the world but to have his freedom.
Mohammad ran his tongue over his teeth. He was thirsty and hadn’t thought to bring along anything to drink. Just that afternoon, he had told Gilbert his plan. They were sitting in the park and the sun was shining.
“You think you gonna be first?” Gilbert said. “You outta your mind.”
Mohammad looked at Gilbert for a while and then he said, “No. I am not.”
“Okay,” Gilbert said, shaking his head and chuckling a little under his breath. “What time you think a person has to get there to be first in line?”
Mohammad said he wasn’t sure.
“You gonna have to stay out there all night,” Gilbert said and chuckled some more.
Light began to appear behind Mohammad to the West, where waves rolled onto the beach that sat alongside the four-lane highway. There had been a girl or two that Mohammad would stay with overnight, waking in the morning to make love one more time and shower together before eating eggs and toast in the kitchen and then going to the beach, to walk and look at the waves. But as the day drew to a close, Mohammad would feel a numbness in his forehead and he would tell the girl he needed to get home.
That night, he’d hit the club again, in a clean shiny shirt, and find a new girl to rub up against as the music throbbed and lights twirled red and blue around the dance floor. The club had an energy that ripped the bored feeling from Mohammad’s brow and made him happy again.
The bottom of his feet ached now, as the sky grew light and buildings came into view. He turned around, stiffly, because his bones ached from standing so long, and he saw what looked to be an army of ants behind him, for so many blocks that Mohammad couldn’t see where the line of them ended. He smiled to himself, thinking how much he was going to enjoy telling Gilbert and the other men at the park that in this sea of humanity, he, Mohammad Abbasi, had managed to be first in line.
The dancing eventually stopped. Of course, Mohammad, like many men who crave freedom too long, continued on, beyond an age when it seemed proper. He dyed what was left of his hair a dark brown, but after a while, the tight curls gave off an orange shine.
Now when he invited young women out to the dance floor, they sometimes shook their heads from side to side. There were always a few, the less attractive ones, who acted as if they didn’t mind. It was rare, though, that he followed a woman home from the club anymore.
But then he reached an age where he couldn’t stay up late enough to hit the clubs. So he sat in his little apartment and listened to music. A tired melancholy would settle over him as he heard the horns and felt an envy for the young guy he’d been creep into his gut.
The sun, by now, had edged up and the bright rays peeked out between the buildings. Across the street, windows on an upper floor gleamed and threw back the light.
Mohammad was so tired he felt numb. He hoped he’d still be able to walk by the time they opened the door.
Mohammad wondered now why he’d never finished his studies. A man like him could have become an engineer, had a comfortable life, married an American woman and raised a couple of kids. His friends had thought he wouldn’t have trouble getting an American wife. He’d get himself a green card then and everything would be all right.
But something kept stopping him and maybe it was the love of the music and the low light and the throbbing pulse of the drums that lifted him out of himself to a place that seemed so alive. That life, the one he inhabited in the night, couldn’t be matched by dull textbooks and lying in bed next to the same woman every night.
The rumor began in the kitchen of a downtown hotel. A busboy named José, as he laid a table-full of dirty plates, bowls and silverware on the stainless steel counter next to the sink said, “I heard the government is giving amnesty to all the workers without papers who have been here at least ten years.” Word spread from there, through the kitchen to the fifteen floors upstairs, where the maids couldn’t talk about anything else. News of the amnesty leapfrogged from one hotel to the next, and from restaurant to restaurant, construction site to construction site, until it hit the office buildings, where women and men, including Mohammad Abbasi, cleaned toilets and emptied garbage cans after the accountants, attorneys, engineers and secretaries headed home for the night.
Mohammad circled the date in red ink, on a free calendar he’d gotten in the mail. He was almost seventy years old. He had been in this country more than fifty years and had nothing, except a bad back and arthritis, to show for all that time.
The sun had risen high enough to make out the people standing in line. Most of the fog had burned off. Mohammad could see that it was going to be a beautiful day and he thought when he was done here, he might celebrate by hopping on the streetcar and heading out past the park, to look at the ocean.
Traffic picked up. People heading to work – men in suits and women in short skirts and high heels that made a clacking sound as they punched the pavement – began making their way past the rope of humanity that wound around three dozen blocks downtown. Most people took a second look as they passed and sometimes a third, but no one stopped to ask Mohammad what all these mostly brown, black and tan-skinned people were doing standing in line here.
There’d been that one girl, Mohammad recalled, about fifteen minutes before a security guard finally came and opened the door. She was something, Mohammad remembered now, and at twenty-eight, Mohammad started to fear that he’d fallen in love. She had hair that flowed down her back, golden and shiny as a reflection of sunlight in the lake, wide green eyes and breasts he couldn’t keep his hands off of. Laura was her name and Mohammad, for a time, became addicted to that woman and her short skirts and heels, the way she giggled when he ran his fingers along her thigh, and cried, nearly every time they made love.
It was easy to leave one red silk shirt at her apartment and then a toothbrush and a pair of blue cotton briefs and some black nylon socks. Soon, he was spending more time at her place than his own.
Of course, a young man like Mohammad, a man from Africa who, though more American than the guys that stayed back in his village, was still a foreigner, didn’t think to ask. The woman, Laura, should have been responsible for such matters. Not surprisingly, Mohammad was ill-prepared when Laura told him she was pregnant.
She broke the news over breakfast and, right away, Mohammad lost his appetite. The scrambled eggs on his plate got cold. He didn’t even bother to finish his coffee.
That night after work, an old hunger gripped him, right in the belly above his groin. Instead of heading over to Laura’s apartment, he went out to the club.
By their third dance, he and the fleshy brunette named Naomi were moving together as one, in time to the drums and the insistent horns. He held her close, his palms flat against her back where it curved in.
In Naomi’s bed, Mohammad experienced an explosion of feeling, the moment he sensed Naomi had come. He let himself pour into her, until he had nothing left inside, and pulled out limp and spent beside her.
The fluorescent lights were bright above the shiny linoleum floor, as Mohammad followed the guard to a cubicle next to the far wall. He handed the woman all of his papers that showed his true name and birthplace and the number of years he’d spent in the United States. She barely looked at him while she typed, entering all the information into a computer and occasionally sighing.
After fifty years and waiting in line all night, it took only a few minutes. The woman turned to him and smiled.
“That’s everything we need,” she said. “Here’s your temporary green card. You’ll get your permanent one in three to six months.”
Mohammad stared at the card, at his very own name, Mohammad Abbasi, the name he’d been born with in Africa. Then he let out a deep, soft, chuckle.
He thanked the woman and scooted his chair forward. With his left hand pressed hard against the metal desk, he gripped the small knob of his cane with the right.
Several minutes later, he was standing. But he waited to get his balance back while the room swayed. He laughed again and started to walk toward the door.
Tears squeezed out the corners of his eyes the moment he stepped outside. He would later tell Gilbert and the other men at the park that he’d been temporarily blinded, by the sunlight pouring directly into his eyes.