August 18, 2010
Yanni stood near the middle of the corridor, surrounded by nearly one hundred people waiting in line. It was hot from all the bodies in such a small place. The hallway echoed with a myriad of languages. The heat and noise engulfed him, choking him. He took a tissue out of his suitcase and wiped his face determinedly. He would make it to the end of the line! He would go through line, get approved, and finally make it into the land of opportunity. He deserved it.

The line moved forward. He was eager, because each step he took was a step closer to freedom. Maybe he stepped too excitedly, because he stepped on the suitcase of the woman in front of him. She turned quickly, her red hair swirling around her. Her face was red and her blue eyes were flashing. “Excuse me,” he said, but she looked at him confusedly. He looked down at her baggage. The tag said “Ireland”. He figured that explained her stunning red hair. She looked to be around thirty, nearly his age. She had a look on her face that seemed to say, “I’ve been through a lot and I’ll go through a lot more. P*** off!” He decided he had stared at her for too long, and his eyes started to wander…

A little ahead in line was a young couple and their child. They were Chinese, their luggage tags said. The man’s dark eyes flashed nervously and suspiciously around the room. The woman’s hands clutched her bag so tightly her knuckles were turning white. They both seemed to have an air of hopelessness about them.
The young boy certainly didn’t. “Angel Angel Angel!” he said in a singsong voice. He pointed to the pamphlets in his hand and giggled happily at the pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. He was probably one of the only people in the room, besides Yanni, who was excited.
He smirked. He knew that many others would get turned away. The Chinese family certainly had no chance, what with the Chinese Exclusion Act in place. The Irish woman also had no chance- the immigration inspectors wouldn’t consider a person if their English wasn’t perfect. Yanni refused to be just another foreigner; he wanted to be a real American. He felt like he was the embodiment of the American Dream. Beige slacks, pressed white shirt, navy blazer- he modeled himself directly after the Sak’s Fifth Avenue ads his cousin sent him from America each month. His English was nearly flawless, a result of meticulously studying the American reporter on the BBC radio station. He clutched desperately to anything American like a drowning man clung to a safety line.

Yanni had once nearly drowned. He could still feel the helplessness as water rushed around his body. The Spercheios River, once a playground for Yanni, was quickly becoming his graveyard. The lights were becoming blurred and too bright, searing into his head. He remembered wondering if this is what it felt like to die. Then there was splashing in the water. Suddenly an American soldier was next to him, pulling him through the water. He was carried to their camp on the banks, and he slowly began to recover. Someone wrapped him in a scratchy green blanket, more similar to a burlap sack than the wool blankets his grandmother made. He remembered listening to a fancy radio, smelling their cigars and eating their scrambled eggs and ketchup. Yanni was filled with gratitude and respect for the American soldiers. He had begun to fall in love with their culture- their free spirit and independence. No one told them that they were too loud or their music was bad or that they need to eat more food. No one was pushing them, prodding them, never leaving them for even a moment of peace.

He was pulled back to Angel Island by a loud cry. The Chinese family must have been rejected, because they were walking out of the room at the end of the hallway. The woman screamed and cried, pulling at her hair as if that could somehow ease her pain. The man was obviously trying to remain calm, but he looked as though a part of him had died. Yanni shuddered as he watched the little boy, whose eyes were wide with confused despair.

The door at the end of the hallway once again opened, and a man inside gestured for the next ten people in line to enter. Yanni felt his stomach flip as he stepped through the threshold. The room was bright, sharply contrasting to the hallway outside. He was ushered to a seat towards the end of a long table, across from an inspector. The inspector was a rather short man with a large stomach and ruddy complexion. His nametag said Charles Smarthon.
“Name?” Smarthon asked.
“Yanni Georgatis,” he responded slowly.
“Yor-gah-tees?” said Smarthon, chuckling. Yanni just shrugged. He stared earnestly into Smarthon’s beady black eyes, pleading that the man would ignore the foreign ring of his name. Smarthon moved on with the examination.
“When were you born? Where?” the inspector asked.

“June 10, 1909 in Lamia, Greece,” Yanni quickly responded.

“What is your final destination?”

“San Francisco, California. I have a cousin who lives there,” he responded. Smarthon looked over the sheet in front of him intently, as if he was trying to find a lie in Yanni’s words so that he could send him away. He leaned in closer, so close that Yanni could feel his icy breath on his face. He stared back into his eyes challengingly.

“What is your cousin’s occupation?” He swore he saw Smarthon smile. This was an unusual question, one Yanni hadn’t prepared for. He thought long and hard, desperate to not let Smarthon win. His cousin Johnny… Johnny lived in a blue house on 31rst Ave. He had a wife and three kids. He owned a business… a flower shop!

“My cousin is a florist,” Yanni said excitedly. Smarthon shrugged, narrowing his eyes and drawing his shoulders into his chest while pushing his stomach out so much that he began to resemble a sort of demented turtle. Yanni smirked at the ridiculousness. Smarthon paled, realizing his defeat. He reached into his desk, pulling out the final forms and smiling at Yanni. There was no reason for him to maintain a grudge.

“You seem quite acceptable,” Smarthon said. Yanni grinned so widely that the smile seemed to cover his entire face and forced his dark green eyes into a squint. Smarthon pushed a paper towards him and a navy blue pen. He started twirling the pen happily. “Welcome to America, John George! I just need you to sign here.”

“John George?” he repeated slowly. He’d heard stories of men whose names had been changed by inspectors. In America, names are shorter, more straightforward. It was truly a country of convenience. John George, he said to himself silently. The name was somehow hollow, almost fake. He kept twirling the pen, now more distractedly, almost spastically.

Suddenly he was back in Lamia, sitting with his family for a meal. He was eating his Màna’s delicious mousaka and laughing loudly. Light-hearted gossip filled the air. The scene changed, he was wandering through the crowded aghora in Athens, trying to find the best bargain on oregano. Cars, people, and donkeys shared the same roads, and he had to swerve to avoid running into anything. Friends and relatives called out to him. Then he was at church, the light of the stained glass windows shining down on him. The singing swelled around him, embracing him and lifting him up. He was a small child playing by the ocean, chasing the waves as they rippled in and out. He floated in the warm water, watching how the sunlight flickered in the water. Now he was walking hand in hand with YiaYia through a graveyard. Relatives surrounded him, crying loudly and openly into each other’s arms. They threw flowers onto the newest grave in the cemetery. He looked his papau’s grave sadly. “Yanni Georgatis 1849-1920. Husband, father, grandfather, friend. Loved by all. May God watch over him.”

He pictured the war sirens ripping through the air and the smell of bombs exploding. He remembered running towards the hills to escape the Italian and Nazi invaders. He was running through the forests, combing the hills for his friend because he was too afraid to admit he had died. He watched the advance of a smothering cloud of ashes across the sky. The ashes swirled and danced across the burning sun as a final tribute to the decimated villages they represented. He saw his father sitting at the table, counting his drachmas while shaking his head. He heard Màna’s moans as she cried herself to sleep. He saw the newspaper headlines shouting debt and revolution in war in angry black letters. There was no future for him there.

John George slowly picked up the pen and signed his name in a single stroke.

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