It is dark and it is raining heavily.
Above me every now and then the tin roof of the shelter trembles as flights take off and land at the Hartsfield Jackson International airport.
Five poles supporting a tin sheet make the shelter. There are no benches to sit on.
The only other person is a middle-aged man dressed in ill-fitting brown pants and a brown jacket. He stands leaning against the only pole which is not wet with the rain. He keeps glancing in my direction. I know I should at least smile.
Instead I ignore him completely.
I usually love company. But not today.
Today I just want to sulk; sulk at everything that has happened to me this morning.
It had started as any other normal day until I got to the social security office. I had arrived early and if the token vending machine had been respected then I should have been the fourth person to be served. Yet every time my number blinked on the board I was asked to wait. I watched #24 waltz in and waltz out in ten minutes. Finally just before lunch the lady at the counter simply said, ” Next” and I knew my number was being called; there was no body else in the waiting room.
My friend had gone through the procedure of applying for a social security number and it had taken him only 5 minutes. I should be back for the afternoon lecture.
The lady at the counter examined my passport from cover to cover. She then went over my immigration document. After what seemed like hours she sighed, removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes and asked, “Do you know how much money is spent by the United States of America in tracking illegal immigrants?”
“No”, I answered truthfully. How would I know that?
Then it struck me.
“But I have a valid F1 student’s visa.”
The lady raised her voice and for all to hear retorted
” Don’t patronize me. Where is the signature of the immigration officer?”
” I wasn’t aware there had to be one”.
I was intimidated. My hands were shaking.It was an effort to fight back my tears. I really needed to get my Social security number to be able to work at the University.
” Is there something I can do?” I ask as humbly as possible.
“Go to counter #3″.
The lady at counter 3 was much older and more gentle.
She explained that the immigration officer had forgotten to sign my arrival card .He had only stamped it. She also added that although it was not mandatory it would be nice if I could get it signed by a customs official as soon as possible.
” Human errors, it always happen. There is no need to worry.” With that she accepted my paper work for the social security number.
While I walked out of the Federal building all I could think of was the grouchy immigration officer who had greeted me two weeks back when I stepped into the country for the very first time.
” Don’t you have schools in your country” was his way of welcoming me.
I sigh inwardly. A strong wind blows water into the shelter and involuntarily I move closer to the man in brown pants.
“Hi there”, He says.
I smile. I am still in the mood to sulk so I do not encourage conversation.
” You are not from around here are you?”
I shake my head.
” You waiting for #501?”
“Oh good ,so am I. It should be here in another 15 minutes.”
He extends his hand, “I am Eric”.
I shake it not offering my name.
“And you are…?”
Not knowing how to answer that without having to speak, I answer ,”Marie”, using my first name, one that I never use.
” Nice to meet you Marie. And what brings you to crime ridden Atlanta?”
” I am going to school here”.
” School, my that’s nice.”
I attempt a smile.
” I am from a halfway house”.
“Nice” I say. I don’t care where he is from.
This is followed by an awkward pause. Eric stands for a while staring at me before breaking into a smile.
“You don’t know what a halfway house is, do you?”
“I am sorry, but I am new to this place”.
” That’s alright. A halfway house is like a prison. I get out to work every day and by evening I have to get back”; he explains it as though it was a matter of fact way of life.
“Dear Lord”, I scream inwardly.” Do you have any other surprises in store for me today?”
After what seemed like the longest 15 minutes of my life, the #501 bus pulls up.
I run into the bus and ask the driver to let me off at the stop nearest to the Customs building at Forest park.
“Sure thing sweetheart”, she says.
I pay for my ticket and find a place to sit. Eric has already found a seat but when the bus begins to move he moves over to the empty seat next to mine.
“So do you like it here?”
“I am still settling down”, I answer truthfully. After all that has happened today I am not sure if the answer is yes or no.
The bus makes a stop opposite the Delta airlines head quarters.
I look at my watch. It is 4.15 pm. I hope I get to Customs before they close for the day.
“Do you want to know why I went to prison?”
Before I can find a diplomatic answer, the driver brakes.
” Hon, this is where you get off for customs”.
I run out, nearly tripping at the door.
After the bus leaves I take in my surrounding. I am at the start of a bridge. An empty road stretches in front and an empty road stretches behind. There are no buildings in sight. There is no living thing around as far as I can see through the pouring rain.
There are no turns on the road. I either walk forward or backward for I don’t know how many miles.
I start walking in the rain. I am cold and wet. I have no idea where I am. I am far away from home. I am alone in a strange land and I am tired and hungry. This is not what I had in mind when I enrolled for the Masters program at Georgia Tech.
I walk for what seems like a hundred miles and there is still not a building in sight. This is not working. I sit down by the side of the road.
I take out my phone,the one that was shipped to me the day before and dial three number that I never dreamed that I would have to.
” 911 , please state your emergency…”
I let the tears flow unrestrained.
Through my sobs I was able to explain to the operator my emergency.
“Stay where you are , an officer will be there to assist you”.
In no time there is a blinking blue and red light down the road.
” Do you want some coffee, blankets?” asks a kind elderly police officer once I am escorted to the Hapeville police station.
” No” I say between sobs. “I just want to go home?”
“Don’t worry dear, we will get you home. Where is home?”
“Oh! Do you have a US address, preferably somewhere in Atlanta?”
“I go to school at Georgia Tech”.
I nod again. One of the first things I learnt at Tech was the name of the football team.
“Why aren’t you at school?”
I explain my day to him starting with the lady at the social security office and not leaving out the part about the grouchy immigration officer.
“I am sorry you have had a bad time. Not all Americans are bad, you know.”
I decide to keep quiet.
“Listen I will make it up to you. Officer Reed here will drive you to Customs himself.”
I know I should say ‘Thank you’ but I find my eyes filling up. Maybe there are some really nice ones too.
Officer Reed is the young handsome officer who picked me up. He does not care much for conversation.But there is something I am dying to ask.
“How did you find me?”
“I followed #501’s route”, he answers not taking his eyes off the road.
We do not exchange any more words save for the ‘take care’ and ‘thank you’ when he drops me off at the Customs building.
Unlike the social security office I walk right up to the window at the customs building and hand over my passport with the arrival card explaining to the gentleman that I needed a signature.
” Oh! We don’t do that here.You need to go to New York for that.”