A hot and humid August Sunday evening in Chicago, standing in line with a hundred people to get a cab out of Midway wasn’t part of my plans this summer. We moved pretty fast though, had to admit. Easier than finding a taxi off New York’s Penn Station on a week day, around 8 AM. But then again, everything in New York is always more complicated, dramatic and claustrophobic. And expensive. The two airport employees coordinating the taxi waiting line shouted, moved back and forth, pushed and pulled, and yet I’m convinced Midwest dwellers are the kindest people on earth. My husband swears by that, too. He was born in Minnesota…
But let us not be biased out of so very little evidence. Let me think of another example to confirm my theory. Philly Airport employees Vs their Chicago Midway counterparts. I was yelled, screamed at, reprimanded, and scolded like a five year old because I put my Kindle in the same plastic bin with my laptop and iPhone – God forbid – in Philadelphia. In Chicago, despite the much longer multiple lines through security, everyone smiles at you; they treat you with kindness and respect, and take their time explaining the rules to first time travelers. And somehow, the line flows faster. To catch more flies with honey than vinegar, despite being an old adage, works in these high-tech-post-Sep-11 days of our lives as well as it worked in centuries past.
The cab line coordinator directed me to walk straight ahead, until the fourth car at my right and no matter what (why I never knew) not to take the cab on the left. She then smiled and wished me good evening! Ha! Try getting a single human being to treat you like that at Penn Station on a Monday evening, around 6 pm; I dare you. This is my second turn in Chicago; on the ground for twenty minutes and already in love with the city again – and Midwesterners (it happened in Saint Louis as well).
The Chicagoan taxi driver was actually African. As he placed my small suitcase in the trunk I said good evening. He raised his eyes and I realized he was scared to death. Afraid I might try to engage him in passenger-driver non-sense conversation. I was once a foreigner in America myself so I know how it feels not to be able to fully understand what other people are saying and, worse, not to be completely understood by them. The hotel name and address he only seemed to grasp when I handed the computer printout over.
My first time in The Windy City was in 2009 and I saw nothing besides O’Hare, my hotel and the offices. This time, quietly sunk into the passenger seat, I at least had a glimpse of the Soldier Field, with white majestic and massive Roman columns framing the façade. We are the new Romans, cheering for our gladiators in the Coliseum!
That was pretty much all I saw until we pulled over in front of the hotel. It was almost eleven o’clock and my meeting was supposed to start the next morning at nine. I’m doomed never to see much of Chicago. More than anything, I wanted to see Lake Michigan but that eluded me again. Funny enough, when I lived in Brazil, touring American destinations for vacation in the 1990s was a much more satisfying experience. Now that I live here, cities just pass me by in a blur. Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Montvale, Dallas, Tyson’s Corner, Saint Louis… It’s sad.
I paid the fare, gave the driver a tip and asked for a receipt. Very slowly, pronouncing each word as best as my Portuguese-accented English permits. He responded with a mix of mumbling, head bowing, and shy smiles.
It’s hard to be an outsider, I pondered, as the front-desk lady looks and sounds of Asian–descent, with long dark hair and a thick accent. I remember well my multiple visits to the Immigration office in Philadelphia. Finger-printed at least three times, and then three additional visits for the employment authorization card and its extension, and, finally, the green card. Not to mention all the bureaucracy one has to endure to obtain a social security number and a driver’s license. I’m not really complaining; I understand the reasons behind all these procedures. I just don’t miss it. Life is so much more comfortable when your wallet contains all the documentation you need to be a legal citizen, compliant with all requirements. It’s only natural that I came to work in a Risk Management division after all.
My first employment authorization card had the DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY title printed in red, big, right on the top. For over a year that was all I had to prove it was okay for me to reside in this country and for my employer to keep me as a direct hire. That and my Free Library card. Not even a blood donor ID, as Red Cross required one year of residence in this country for me to be able to share some blood. I had my Brazilian blood donor card, but since no one reads Portuguese, it was basically useless and I removed it from my wallet.
The first time I signed up for a blood drive, sponsored by my employer, the entire conference floor of the firm, the celebrated Thirty-Sixth, had been converted into a giant ambulatory by Red Cross personnel. The old lady behind the front desk – the Red Cross volunteer who kept a list of our names and appointment times – as sweet and frail as my own grandmother, handed the questionnaire I now know with my eyes closed. In exchange, I gave her my temporary EAC – Employment Authorization Card – that one with HOMELAND SECURITY DEPARTMENT printed in red. I had no other U.S. valid ID back then.
I found a vacant chair and set out to work on the pro-forma health questionnaire. Any contagious diseases? A long list of options followed. Have you been in any of these counties in the past six months? Another long list followed. It takes ten minutes to complete it; no big deal. Done. I went back to the American version of my granny and returned the paperwork to her. She matched the name on the paperwork with my EAC on the table in front of her. Grandma stood up and put her hand out to me, all pomp and circumstance. That’s when I knew, oh so badly, that granny meant trouble. I cringed and waited for an apocalypse to hit me.
“Thank you for your service to this country, miss. I see that you are with the Homeland Security Department. We are honored to have you here.”
Happy Labor Day Weekend !