by Kiko Matsing
The US Embassy in Ottawa was a formidable structure, the only building on its block along Sussex Street, its stone-grey façade emerging like a dead-end wall in a Kafkan parable from the road where we approached it. This was the nearest consulate I could book an interview with to renew my entry visa–nearest, that is, to Montreal, 2 hours away, where I was staying with my aunt. Despite the dreadful inconvienience and expense of having to leave the country for this purpose, this was, in a way, a holiday; other foreign students I know of from Houston would risk limb and liver to get theirs renewed in the seedy border towns of Mexico. All the same, this business always made me nervous, even in the paperwork–declarations of income and net worth, proofs of family ties, clean bill of health, spotless criminal record. What else should I have made manifest? I felt already found-out, like Josef K., guilty even before he had made his case.
I got there a little before my designated appointment. There was a beeline at the narrow gate right in the middle of the long impassive wall where applicants funneled through. The staff at Ottawa, even the guards–goateed, pierced, and tatooed, looking like they just got paroled–were sufficiently courteous, partly, I imagined, to ease our anxieties, until, that is, we were led to a room with paraphernalia for torture. The long wait did not help either. Was this some mind game to soften my will, to make me fidget in my seat for two hours, so that when it came to my turn I would just crack and spill my guts? I could not focus on my pocketbook, and kept looking at the clock, and at the other applicants also waiting their turn, smiling, but with the same quiet unease in their faces. A tall dark fellow, smartly dressed, spoke over everyone else, and chatted incessantly to any European in the waiting room about his travels to the Continent in an air as if it was beneath him to be with the riffraffs begging entrance to the banquet. He blathered until there was no one left to talk to, and finally had to sit among us, sticking out like a sore thumb, and fell silent.
My interview went well. I got asked only cursory questions by someone who reminded me of Rhea Perlman, with the same street-tough stance as Carla Tortelli in Cheers. Perhaps my papers spoke for themselves, and she just went on perfunctorily so as not to disappoint my long wait and my great efforts. She then pushed a stub through the slit: I was to return the following day to collect my passport. On our way back, we filled up at a gas station in Rigaud, a French farming town just outside Montreal. There was a small street market a block away. They sold the freshest vegetables; I had never tasted tomatoes so sweet. Hardly anyone spoke English, not because they would not, and my cousin had to help me transact in French. I got honey still in its comb, and also congealed delicately into blueberry gelèe.
I stayed a couple more days in Montreal. It had started to rain, and the weather became milder. I did a little shopping along Ste. Catherine, and walked towards the St. Laurent river to the Notre Dame and Old Montreal. It was breezy on the boardwalk along the riverbank; the cypress trees stood stiff and shivered. I slumped on a bench and watched the water at a confluence swirl, and dozed off not long after. I returned through Nelson’s Square, the shadow of his column, lengthening in the golden light. There was a clown amusing children with baloons, and a juggler with bowling pins on a unicycle. I took the Metro from Champs des Mars, and headed home to Côte-des-Neiges.
New York was hot and sweltering when I came back. I took the Subway to Queens from the bus depot at the Port Authority. The carriages were starting to fill up with the weary on their way home. I plunged into the crowd with my rucksack and luggage in tow, when some punk started shoving me, telling me to get my fucking bag out of his way. I was beginning to hate this city and its subway. “You have to ride it for a while to find out what it is and who takes it and who gets killed on it,” wrote Paul Theroux. Everyone took the Metro in Montreal; here, unless you’re on Line 6, shuffling between Upper and Lower Manhattan, if you took the Subway, you must be with the working class.
The next day, the entire subway system shut down. Apparently, we slept through a big storm early in the morning that caused severe flooding. My cousin came back, not being able to go to work. Just my luck. How will I get from Queens to Newark to catch my flight? I called a cab to take me to La Guardia in hopes of catching the shuttle service to Penn Station and then the train to Newark. I sat outside the terminal, simmering for an hour and half, before I decided to just take a yellow cab and brace myself for the fare. It was $100 with tip, more than half what I paid for my air ticket. The driver, though, was courteous and upfront. He mumbled to himself in French, I presumed, about how bad traffic was that day. He put on the radio. They were talking about a tornado on Staten Island. A house collapsed. A woman died in her car in a tunnel. The driver shook his head and mumbled. I asked him where he was from. Haiti. That much I guessed. I felt a mawkish sense of kinship with him–a fellow immigrant from the sun drenched tropics stuck in the Big City. When I asked him how he finds living in New York, he tersely replied: “I’m here!”