The year I had planned to move back to New York was the year it had happened. Although no one could have foreseen it, in retrospect it was amazing that something of this magnitude in a chaotic place like New York hadn’t happened sooner. There was always the opportunity and our city was always a target living under the delusion that we were somehow separated from the rest of the world by some invisible force that would buffer us from dangers of reality, providing us with a false sense of security.
I was born in Queens and raised in Manhattan but I left in 1994 for the United Kingdom. I had met my husband, who was from the UK at home but he didn’t like the city, he had trouble adjusting and making new friends and he wanted to go back to Manchester, England. Our marriage lasted only 5 years but he managed to draw out our divorce by refusing to sign the papers for another two and a half years, as a result I had to stay in the UK until the decree nisi was made final.
I finally went back to visit the US for the first time in six years in 2000. I was amazed how much New York had changed, Giuliani really had cleaned up the streets, literally. My fathers studio, in a neighborhood between Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen had once been a no go area for a woman to walk alone at night; full of prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and muggers, not only were these gone but the pavements were actually clean. Central Park seemed safer, the transit system seemed better, the place seemed more liveable to me and I wanted to go back home. I had already been paring down my possessions to move to the Netherlands where much of my extended family lives but decided that I might give my hometown a second chance.
One year later, after my divorce had been finalized I felt I was ready for the move back home. I was working as a musician and my band was completing an album with a small recording label, we had performed all over the UK and live on the BBC, it seemed a good progression to move our career on to the US. While we were in the recording studio an engineer called us into the next room and told us what had happened. We watched the images over the internet while I frantically tried to call my father, who also worked as a musician and frequently did gigs at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the Twin Towers. I couldn’t get through to him for hours and I was in tears imagining the worst; he would sometimes go there early to drop off his instruments and I was hoping this hadn’t been one of those days.
It took 36 hours for me to finally get through to my him, apparently every exchange line in New York had been engaged for nearly two days after the disaster. I was relieved to hear my father’s voice, he was 70 years old and living alone, I imagined he would be frightened but he seemed to take it in his stride like a typical New Yorker. He said to me, “It’s like a movie set here, everyone is walking up Times Square, I had trouble getting in my front door!” He told me about the dust everywhere and that the entire transit system had been stopped so the streets were full of people walking to commute home.
After hearing about the simultaneous attacks on the Pentagon and the other airliner that had been shot down before it had reached George Bush there were fears of dirty bombs, anthrax, contaminated water and every type of terrorist attack imaginable. I feared for my family and friends lives and thought that things could not possibly get worse until I got a phone call from my father.
“Naomi, I went to the Indonesian church today and it is almost empty.” My fathers voice was shaky as he spoke.
Apparently, the Bush administration had drawn up a list of Muslim countries and asked all people with green cards from these nations to report to their local immigration office. This was the first step to deportation. Unfortunately the administration did not take into account whether or not the people they were deporting were actually Muslims or terrorists and in the case of Indonesian Christians, many of whom are political and religious refugees this meant sending them back to an uncertain future in the country from which they fled, risking persecution, torture and possibly death.
My father arrived in New York in 1964, he had been representing Indonesia in the World’s Fair with his cousin Bianca when they had started doing gigs on the jazz scene. He had been a celebrity in his home country since he was a child, he was a radio performer with his brothers during WWII and a jazz artist in the 1950’s and early 60s, influencing generations of Indonesian jazz performers who would come after him.
He came to meet and hopefully work with the jazz artists who influenced him and played twilight gigs at a club called the Hawaii Kai, where many musicians went to relax after their own gigs were finished. This is where he was spotted by Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar, who would later go on to sponsor him to stay in the United States. Within a year of arriving in the US he had worked with George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann and scores of other respected artists whom he had only dreamed of meeting when he was in Indonesia. He lived in a place called the Bryant Hotel, above the Ed Sullivan Theatre where he could hear the throngs of screaming girls waiting for the Beatles first performance on American television.
Thirty seven years later my father called me up once again to tell me of the latest harassment. A man at the social security office told him that his passport and driver’s licence were not “good enough” to prove that he was an American citizen so they made him make a three hour journey to go back home and rifle through nearly forty years of papers to find his original American visa from the 1960s, knowing full well that he was a man of seventy. They did this because his passport and ID said “born in Indonesia.” The irony is that the man who treated him like this was Hispanic himself and should certainly have learned something about racial discrimination at some point in his life, ignorance breeds apathy in the minds of those who become complacent.
Still my father loves America and refuses to leave. I have tried to get him to join our family in the Netherlands or Indonesia and he will not go. He will be 80 years old in November, he looks and sounds amazingly young and he has been a New Yorker for 45 years now. It is his home and he does not feel comfortable anywhere else, don’t try to argue with him. The best I can do is try to arrange the occasional holiday.
by Naomi Pattirane
From Confessions of a Bush Exile: How I Lost My Stars and Stripes and Mind
More by this author:
United Nations Peacewomen.org: Rape As A Political Weapon
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