Give me liberty, and give me lunch

On a cold wet day in October 1980 I stood in a drafty warehouse, on a Boston fishing pier. The stench of Boston Harbor came through missing windowpanes and a cold wind blew litter around the feet of those in line. There were children shouting; parents wearily seeking a place to sit; vendors yelling their wares and officials keeping order; and elderly people wandering off to find a place to sit. I was waiting to become an American citizen.

The words ''PLEASE REPORT AT THE BOSTON FISH PIER ON THE 28TH OCT, 1980 at 9 AM FOR PROCESSING'' headed an offical notice received a year previously. Despite the urge to protest the starkness of such a command, when one's future citizenship is on the line one will adjust one's sense of courtesy. Information demanded was supplied, and questions asked were answered. (One question asked whether I intended to overthrow the United States government by intrigue or force. That was difficult to answer, as I wasn't even aware I had a choice.) But at long last the day had arrived.

Of course, it's not as though cockneys are slipping ashore at midnight on some lonely beach on Cape Cod, or that MIT laboratories are churning out new inventions with illegal Oxford graduates. Nor is the Atlantic filled with Anglo-Saxon boat people. So why would I want to become a citizen?

A long time ago, a friend told me that what made America different from any other country was not its culture, or its politics, or even its diversity. ''America is an idea'' he said. ''It's an idea, an image of humanity that transcends its military or economic powers, its history, or its geographical position.'' And like all ideas defined and understood, there is a definition of perfection to aim for.

It means that I can define an America I can be proud of: an America that I will not want to emigrate from in the years to come. Being part of America is not to be part of a nation but to be part of an idea.

No one said it would be easy. The scene on this stark pier was how Ellis Island must have looked in the '20s and '30s. Unlike that historic place, however, here an international fair was being held, and vendors were selling plastic cowboy dolls from Taiwan, glass snow scenes of New England from the Philippines, Stars and Stripes from Japan, Thanksgiving baskets from Guatemala, and Statues of Liberty from India. All the sellers, however, were made in America.

During the processing we were told how blessed we were by the local DAR, and we clapped politely when a Bulgarian Folk Troupe finished its endless repertoire. Then it was time for lunch.

As I tried to leave, I was restrained by a guard in a very rumpled uniform. He inquired if I had been officially made a citizen. As I had not yet been actually sworn in by a federal judge, he said, I should remain where I was.

I explained that I was hungry, that I had been there since 8:30 a.m., and it was time to eat. I could not, the guard said, leave until I was officially accepted. After five minutes of trying to reason with the guard, I realized I was behaving like an Englishman. It was time, I decided, to act like an American!

I have discovered more litigious people in America than anywhere I have been. Everything, it seems, can be disputed or resolved in court. Unlike most Europeans I know, Americans do not turn first to arbitration or conference to solve civil disagreements. They perk up at the mention of legal action.

I informed the guard there was nothing under the Constitution, federal law, or state law, by which I could be restrained from lunch; that, if there were, I would be most happy to learn about it.

The guard's stance weakened, and he glanced to either side. As I began to walk toward the exit, he hurried along with me, agreeing that it was my ''right'' to have lunch, but could I see his position? I could, he pointed out, easily walk away into the American mainstream, unnumbered, unstamped, and unsworn.

So when he asked for collateral against my good faith, I gave him something that, according to Madison Avenue, is ''accepted everywhere.'' He took my MasterCard, and I went to lunch.

Two hours later I returned. The din had increased. The Folk Troupe had left, but the room was now occupied by noisy children, and the hubbub of people talking in many voices and languages.

At 4:30 p.m. the judge began to swear us in, and we raised our hands in solemn obedience to the Constitution.

Several days later came a call from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I was asked if I had been sworn in. Yes, I said, of course. Then why didn't I retrieve my credit card?

''It's out of date,'' the new American said. He waited and, hearing no protest, gently hung up.

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