Me, a bad ass?

October 6, 2011 — Delaney Hall Detention Facility, Newark, New Jersey

As I hear Eni start to snore lightly from the bunk above, I am glad. Let him rest even if I can’t. My heart is still beating too quickly to relax. All I can focus on now is what the last several hours meant to me as a man and, by extension, my family. It’s a way of dealing, I suppose. Worry for my wife and business were put in a box. Compartmentalizing was one way I’d coped with life’s circumstances since childhood. A mechanism I used so I could put one foot in front of the other, despite what has happened. As a child I’d learned it, as an adult I’d perfected it. But I’d soon realize in the days ahead that this well-honed trait would be upended.

I supposed I should be grateful that at least we were in a safer place now. The bed was warm, there didn’t seem to be an impending attack by my fellow cellmates. I thought about the indignity of the holding cell, earlier that day. Why couldn’t the guards see that I wasn’t like the eight other guys in that holding cell? I was clean, a contributing member of U.S. society – that’s got to be in the folder if they’d been collecting information on me. I answered questions respectfully, did what I was told with no argument. The others spoke Spanish only as far as I could tell, sported tattoos on their necks and arms, and had weird facial hair that I had no idea how to interpret other than intimidating.

What had they done to get here? I could imagine all kinds of horrible gang- or drug- related offenses, and I worried for Eni and my safety as we stood in that holding cell. After all, isn’t that the best defensive posture? I tried my best not to turn my back on them, but realized I must do so to use the steel toilet in the corner. Eni would later whisper that he thought I was trying to be a bad ass, turning my back on this group. I laughed, the one time that day I did, because I really just needed to pee and me a bad ass? But if these guys interpreted it that way, it couldn’t hurt.

Not a boy anymore

Finally I nod, unable to speak, so he just reaches down and pats me. Eni, a boy just twelve hours ago, is now very adult the way he stares at me. I hate that he is here, but at the same time find comfort in it, a piece of my real life. That I couldn’t spare him weighs on me though. Protected with little responsibility in his normal life, he will now have to grow up suddenly. There have been times when I’ve wanted him to handle more, be the adult I was at his age. But this is not the way I wanted it to happen.

18 hours in, I was still in disbelief. Not that it was happening to us, as if we should be immune to these things, but that it was happening at all. Nothing made sense. Why was the U.S. doing this to me and by extension, my family? So many mental constructs I’d been building for 35 years dissolved with one knock. The system that I had been idolizing for the better part of my life was under question. That my son and I were lying in a cell was unfair and stupid. Could it be that the U.S. was using us as an example? Were they seeking to quiet the public’s frustrated rumblings of inaction against illegal immigrants by saying, “See, we are doing our job protecting America!” How else to explain what had just happened? It didn’t make any sense.

I’ve tried for years to seek US residency and citizenship for me and my family, ever since I was invited here to study under the Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) fellowship. We’ve hired lawyers, spent tens of thousands of dollars for the permission to stay here, working, contributing to society, and, yes, trying to live that American dream I’d had in my head since my early years in Bulgaria. Why would they lock me up? I am an academician, business owner, taxpayer. And why would they lock up my son? He came to the U.S. at the age of two, knows no other home, and all the decisions that had been made on his behalf had been made by me. Why lock him up? This is beyond unfair. This is heartless.

The tears did not stop that first night but I would soon learn there were others in Delaney who were worse off than me. And yet, many found it in themselves to listen to my story, to help me adjust to life in detention and even gave me some of the basic necessities for the first few weeks. Their kindness and wisdom showed me humanity in an inhumane situation. This was a good realization for me.

Me, my son, and six guys in a cell

October 5-6, 2011 — Delaney Hall Detention Facility, Newark, New Jersey

Hungry, cold, and dead-tired, the trauma of the past 14 hours of processing succeeded in bringing me to my psychological edge. Most of our time was spent in different offices – waiting to answer a new set of questions. The names and faces of the interrogators became too many to remember and numbness soon spread through me. Handcuffs were on then off, on then off. Finally, I knew we weren’t going anywhere. The stiff orange jumper was placed in my lap and I realized this would be no quick visit. Somehow I knew I would be there long enough to see the material become softer over time, not so rough against my skin. This was not a consolation, just a reminder we were in big trouble.

The cell Eni and I were in holds eight. On my back in a bottom bunk, I stared at the underside of the bed above me. The sound of my roommates makes it difficult for me to shut out the day, to falter into a peaceful state of denial. I miss my wife then, the familiar sounds of her drifting off to sleep. I’m praying she is safe and not about to be ripped from our comfortable, very American life.

To my left is Pakistan. Above left – Peru. To my right is Bangladesh. Above right – Mali. In the corner – Guatemala and Brazil.

Above me – Bulgaria. My son.

I feel an overwhelming sadness then, and when I hear the muffled crying from one of the other bunks, I can’t help but cry myself.

“You okay, Dad?” Eni asks, his face upside down, peering at me from the edge of his bunk from above. The dark circles under his eyes evidence of the day we’ve had, and I don’t know when he’ll have the luxury of sleeping-in again.

I wanna be a cowboy

The details of my existence were my perfect storm. It’s why the love and fascination with America started. I began to escape to the West in different ways. My friends and I played cowboys and Indians all the time. We would emulate American culture every way we could imagine, sometimes with comedic, cartoonish effects. We walked with “cowboy swagger”, which we were sure was attractive for the girls (it wasn’t). We invented ridiculous hairstyles in our efforts to bypass the school’s strictly-enforced requirement for military-style haircuts.

My parents bought me “Bulgarian Levi’s”, which were a crude imitation of the real thing. I refused to wear them. Instead, I managed to score a pair of authentic Wrangler’s, which I wore while searching for the coveted Levi’s. My friends and I yearned for the West’s fashions, and we most wanted the blue jeans we idolized. They were extremely hard to find, even on the black market, and months of saving went into paying for just one pair. Often we paid for fakes, but we didn’t care as long as they looked real. It took me years to get an authentic pair of Levi’s jeans and a jacket, two sizes too large. In my head I was cool nonetheless. I also smoked Marlboros–hard to come by, and expensive. I quit smoking in 1993, on U.S. soil, realizing that modern American society looks down on smokers. Yeah, I did it for health, too.

We worshipped American movies, especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and emulated Clint Eastwood every chance we got. It wasn’t until later that I found out the film was Italian, not American. Like everything else American, movies were difficult to get. The films that did make it to the Bulgarian theatres were often censored, with whole episodes and scenes cut out. The only way for us to know this was that the movies often didn’t make sense, so we figured there had to be more to it.

Movies gave me the ability to escape, but also so much more. Every western film was evidence, proof, that there was a better world “out there”, a better society built on meritocracy. This society was where people loved their jobs and put their hearts into what they did. By comparison, everybody hated their job in Bulgaria, and put in the bare minimum. A popular saying: “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.” I digress, but this is important. One of the many disappointments upon graduating from college was the work environment I found myself in. I wanted to do my job, and do it quickly and efficiently. My coworkers didn’t like that. It made them look bad so I gave in and learned to scale back and just coast, like everyone else. It didn’t make me happy but at least I wasn’t a pariah.

Likewise, American music was scarce. My friends and I had a distribution network, consisting of making cassette tape copies of vinyl LPs. The third and fourth iterations of these recordings were so bad one could hardly recognize the tune. But we were crazy about them anyway. We loved The Beatles. I learned to play all their songs on my guitar, and knew all their lyrics. I remember most of them to this day.

I have said before that my friends and I fell in love with the West sight unseen. We loved The Beatles because they represented the West, not because we had evaluated them against, say The Rolling Stones and decided The Beatles were better. These evaluations did come, but many years later. We loved their music and sang the songs because it made us feel more “western”.

My family gave me my west-oriented foundation. My high school friends helped me build this into a life-time philosophy.

Dreaming of America

Bulgaria, 1970s.

Usually very private, it would take a few drinks for my Uncle Stefan to tell us stories about America. Around the dinner table one night, I remember him recounting his trip to visit an old college friend who’d defected. “In America,” he said as he leaned back in his chair and seemed to savor the words, “police can’t stop you on the street and ask for an ID.” This was mind-blowing to us, considering that such practice was commonplace in Bulgaria. America meant wide open spaces, abundance in every way you can imagine, and friendly people who weren’t burdened by oppression. I learned from him about degrees of freedom unheard of in our home country. My uncle worshipped America and now I did too. I dreamed of America daily after that.

It was the circumstances of my early years that laid the foundation for this yearning. Learning that America promised freedom of speech, financial opportunity, and space to breathe−exactly what we were lacking − fueled the intensity of my longing. Have-nots were the rule for most in Bulgaria, though my father made our situation worse. I both blamed and understood him for some of what we didn’t have. A university professor, he staunchly refused to join the Communist party, ensuring that he’d never get the financial and social benefits that other professors at the university received for their allegiance. His colleagues of similar rank were getting higher salaries, plus additional income-generating opportunities, such as lectures, publications, etc. Dad was shut out of everything. As a young boy who’d listened to my Uncle Stefan’s stories, the unfairness of it was even clearer to me. In America he wouldn’t be punished for his beliefs and opinions.