Scenes from American suburbia

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - January 9, 2021 - 12:00am

They were paging my name at the JFK Airport.

When I heard my name and the word “passport,” my skin crawled. I remembered in a flash what had happened: I took my passport from my passport holder slung on a string around my neck, put it in my transparent plastic envelope and joined the queue. It was a long queue of passengers who had just arrived at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. It was the 1st of August 2000 and I had just arrived after a direct flight from Manila to NYC aboard United Airlines.

I went to the Reception Area and said my name. The woman holding my passport looked like Angela Lansbury, down to the eyeglasses attached to a string. She looked at the photograph in the passport, then touched the sides of her eyeglasses and brought them down by a few inches, and looked at me.

“Oh, this is you, all right, next time, sonny, be careful with your passport.” She smiled kindly and I smiled back, got my passport and returned to my queue.

People from the developing world who were coming to the United States for the first time have steeled themselves for this. I presented my passport to a man around 30 years old, along with an unopened white envelope that contained my papers as the holder of a J-1 scholar’s visa. I received a scholarship from the Fulbright Foundation to take a graduate course in English at Rutgers University. The American embassy in Manila processed my visa and the consul told me to present the unopened envelope to the receiving officer at the airport in the USA.

The man had hazel eyes and he tore the side of the envelope quickly. His eyes zipped down my paper, then he stamped my passport and returned it to me. “Good luck with your studies,” he said, “and welcome to the United States.”

It was only August, but a chill ran down my spine the moment the doors of the airport opened. It was cold. I quickly put on the gray winter coat that my sister had bought for me, and I pulled my big blue luggage filled with 40 kilograms of things from home.

As was her wont, my mother was the one who prepared my luggage. She has not traveled overseas but she knew that shirts and trousers had to be rolled, socks turned into balls and all documents had to be sorted and stored in a transparent plastic envelope for easy retrieval.

I just let her prepare my luggage. She had done it before, when I took my first scholarship at a university in Scotland. If that makes her happy, I would just tamp down my tongue that wanted to tell her it’s my luggage, Mama, let me prepare it.

But by instinct she knew what to put there: my favorite pajamas, shorts and shirts, as well as the new wardrobe that I had bought in the last month before I left Manila. I had scoured the surplus shops and bought several long-sleeved turtleneck shirts, windbreakers and jackets.

My father drove our blue Volkswagen, my mother sat beside him, while I sat at the back. We did not bring our grandmother, since there was no more space at the back of the Volkswagen. She was also weeping when she saw me with the luggage and my clothes – a blue turtleneck shirt that sheathed my thin body.

“You will be gone for a long time and when you come back, I would already be dead,” she wailed. She also said that before I left for Scotland years ago, but when I came back she was still alive, although she had lost some weight.

I just went to her and kissed her on the cheeks, my grandmother who took care of me when my father worked as a soldier in the military base and my mother taught Music in the elementary school. Since my father also took his BA and his Law studies, and my mother taught Music even on weekends, it was my grandmother who brought me up. My father had stories about my grandmother smoking her black Bataan cigarette, with the lighted end inside her mouth, while doing the laundry that consisted of my napkins filled with my baby’s shit.

I saw the blue van that would take us to Rogets Hotel, after which I would take the Princeton van that would drop me off at Rutgers University. The blue van was filled with several undergraduate students just wearing shirts and shorts in the cold. I deposited my luggage at the back of the van and sat near the window. I fished for my mobile phone and sent a text message to my friend, Leo.

“Here in the van bound for the uni. 2 PM NYC time.” I pressed send and in a few seconds I got a reply. It was already 2 AM in Manila but Leo was still awake.

“Any cuties in the van?”

“Undergraduate students going to Rutgers and Princeton. I am the oldest of them at 25.”

Leo sent three big smile emojis, I sent one smile, and then I turned off my phone.

We reached the New Jersey Turnpike, a long freeway that looked like a gray razor blade. Some big factories sat beside the highway but they looked old and abandoned. The undergraduates were soon asleep and I also took a nap. We were awakened by the voice of our driver, who said we had reached Roget’s Hotel and should wait for the Princeton Van.

I got off the shuttle van, heaved my luggage down and walked to the lobby of the small hotel. I went to the toilet and asked the young doorman to please keep an eye on my luggage. “It came from so far away,” I said, and he smiled.

More ruins of factories awaited us as we navigated our way from the hotel to New Brunswick, where Rutgers University was located. The Princeton shuttle van deposited me on George Street, in front of a big, red-brick building. It looked like what I saw in the photograph: Murray Hall, where the great Department of English was housed.

My American adventure had begun.

Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com Danton Remoto’s Riverrun, A Novel, was just published by Penguin Random House.

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