Becoming American involves a lot of waiting
And then, on the day, guess what? More waiting.
The letter had said to be at Lowell Memorial Auditorium at 9:30 am sharp. My previous dealings with the INS had trained me to believe that this was not open to interpretation; generally, when dealing with this particular branch of US bureaucracy, if you snooze, you lose. So I was determined to be there in plenty of time.
The problem was that the other 934 soon-to-be citizens (exact number, not a guess), who all apparently got the same letter, were also reacting to this conditioned punctuality. So there we all were, along with our assorted friends and relatives, crowded around the entrance, trying to get inside the building as the clock struck half-nine, feeling more than a little sure that at some point the doors would close and we'd lose our place.
Standing on the granite steps of this neo-classical building, listening to the variety of languages and accents around me--and wondering whether the government officials would allow me a place inside--I had a brief but potent glimpse of what it must have been like to arrive at Ellis Island. And it had been a while since breakfast, so I was tired and hungry ...
After about 20 minutes, the officials finally figured out an efficient method for getting everyone into the building. It was still slow, but at least the crowd around the door started to move.
Inside, the officials checked my papers and handed me an envelope, a cheap tin US flag lapel pin (the same kind you get when you visit a museum) and a small wavable flag (though it looked as though excessively enthusiastic patriotism would break it in half). I followed the line of people into the auditorium and took the nearest available seat.
And then I waited. And waited. A medley of Christmas tunes played over the PA (everything from The Waitresses' "Christmas Wrapping" to Barry Manilow's "It's Just Another New Year's Eve"). A man walked onto the stage every half-hour or so to remind us we would soon be eligible to petition for other relatives to come over, and to give the 800 number for passport appointments.
Meanwhile, what of The Boy? Well, after dropping me off outside the auditorium (which, of course, didn't have parking), he drove round and round looking for somewhere to leave the car. He was competing with every other driver heading to the same event, so it took a while. An hour, in fact. I just happened to glance up at the gallery (where guests of the relatives were sitting) and saw him arrive at 10:30.
A side note: while the INS made sure to let people know they shouldn't be practicing polygamy or prostitution before the ceremony, they gave out precious little details about the event itself. The flyer with driving directions said "Parking information appears below," but it didn't. There was no indication of how long the ceremony would take, or what was involved, or whether we might want to bring along a snack.
(I was envious of the German guy sitting two rows ahead, who obviously had inside information: he not only brought a drink and a muffin, but also his laptop, so he was quite happy for the three hours we waited.)
Yep, three hours. Finally, just before noon, the Lowell High School a capella group climbed onto the stage in red sparkly dresses and treated us to an unenthusiastic rendition of "Make Me an Instrument of Peace." At the end, they stood on stage, fidgeting, for another ten minutes before departing. (The Boy texted me, "Is this a Corky St. Clair production?")
Next, a bevy of officials wandered up the theater's center aisle and took the stage, followed by the Lowell HS ROTC kids presenting the colors, as well as the flags of the 104 nations represented.
More music: a quasi-gospel butchering of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (star-strangled, more like) that had the Turkish guy next to me stifling his laughter.
"That was the worst version I've ever heard," he whispered as we applauded.
"Obviously you don't get to many baseball games," I said.
And then, finally, the important stuff. The presiding judge (for this was a court proceeding) started reading aloud alphabetically the countries from which the present immigrants had come, and asked people to stand as their country was called. We were everything from Afghanistan to Zambia, including Cambodia, Haiti, Iraq, Nepal, Peru, Sudan. The United Kingdom was, of course, one of the last to be listed, so I got to sit and watch as the people around me, one by one, rose and took their place alongside their fellow almost-citizens.
Then we were told to raise our right hands and repeat:
"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."
And with that, we became citizens.
Then followed a half-hour of speechifying by the presiding judge, the mayor of Lowell and Congressman Maahty Meehan (doing his most hopeful Kennedy accent). It was largely cookie-cutter "immigrants built this country and are still a vital part of the economy" stuff, and most of my new fellow Americans were shifting in their seats by the end (in fairness, we probably all needed to pee real bad. I know I did.)
Then the a capella group shared "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" with us, bless them, and the flags and VIPs trooped out again.
And then we waited a little longer ... longer ... just a bit longer ... and finally we were directed to line up outside and get the certificates that proved our new status.
Worth the wait? Absolutely.