From the Night Factory
47. Ms Keogh Swears
Ms Keogh, my more significant other, came to the United States fifty years ago as a child, accompanying her parents. Her father, Professor Frank Richard Keogh, had his Ph.D. in theoretical mathematics from the University of Cambridge. In 1965, he was teaching at the University of Kentucky. In the eighties, the Professor retired and Ms Keogh’s parents returned to Great Britain. She stayed behind with me. Fifty years, Ms Keogh has lived in this country. She has a son retired from an Army career and a grandson in the Marines. Here we are, not three months from departing the United States to live in the United Kingdom and she was determined to acquire U.S. citizenship.
The 29th of May 2015 in Philadelphia was hot, the temperature clawing into the eighties, in some areas reaching ninety. The sky was empty of clouds allowing the sun to bake the city. Driving down Interstate 95, we saw the skyline in a haze. I was taking Ms Keogh to her Swearing in Ceremony. Ms Keogh was becoming a citizen of the United States. On the car’s radio, NPR news was reporting that Cuba had been removed from the U.S. List of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
During the drive into Philadelphia, we discussed what beverage we should bring that night to the bookstore. Something American, I insisted. I originally suggested bourbon, straight for the aficionados, otherwise with Coca-Cola; what’s more American than that? We reconsidered gin and tonics made with Philadelphia’s own Bluecoat gin, because Bluecoat is the best gin in the world, presented in a gorgeous blue bottle, and distilled in Philadelphia. “Bluecoat” refers to the uniform of the Continental Army that fought the Redcoats. However, Fever-Tree tonic, which is British, is the best tonic. I suggested it could symbolize Ms Keogh’s dual citizenship. We decided on a California Champagne-style wine. Champagne goes with everything.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Philadelphia (USCIS) Field Office is built of red bricks and dark green glass, a modern box with a slice missing from one corner, which was the entrance. Inside we joined a short line to pass through security. I had the good sense, this time, to leave in the car the Swiss Army penknife that dangled from my keychain. It was engraved with my name. I had lost the previous one, having had to surrender it on a visit to the courthouse in Doylestown. We emptied our pockets, I removed my belt, and we passed through the detection gate. The guards at USCIS were in good humor, enjoying the day’s event. They displayed pride in having their office launching new citizens.
We had been to the USCIS before. This was where Ms Keogh was interviewed and tested on her knowledge of U.S. history. It was too easy, she told me. She had to memorize the answers to 100 possible questions, of which they would ask only ten. She doesn’t remember which 10 they asked her, but she knew them all: 435 Representatives sit in Congress; Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote the Federalist Papers; the 4th of July 1776 is when the Declaration of Independence was adopted; and, she had to name three of the thirteen original states. She knew all thirteen. She was approved for citizenship. She had asked the interviewer if anyone actually failed the test. The officer related the story of one woman who got too many questions wrong and wanted to know why she wasn’t asked the 10 questions she had studied. A friend had told this woman she only had to learn 10 questions out of the 100 in the study guide for the Naturalization Test.
This last visit to the USCIS was the final step, to be sworn in, and Ms Keogh received a card upon entering indicating that she was candidate 45. She took a seat in a large room filled with chairs, seating herself next to a sociable woman from Jamaica who was there for the same purpose. I stood so I could remain close to Ms Keogh. Other empty seats were too far. I looked over the room and studied the diverse faces of foreigners and was stunned. They didn’t look like foreigners to me. Everybody looked American. They looked like the people I have met every day on the streets of Philadelphia or New York City, a mishmash of humanity, the wonderful weave of strong fibers. I felt proud. My nation succeeds because diversity increases the number of potential solutions. A nation of innovators, we thrive where more homogeneous cultures are moribund and wilting, or attempting to cleanse themselves of diversity. (There are some who are trying to do that here.)
The candidates for citizenry were called into the Naturalization Ceremony Room to be prepped for the swearing in. Friends and family had to wait before they would be invited to join. I found a plaque to read. From it, I learned that the USCIS Philadelphia Field Office was dedicated to Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Füger, a Civil War veteran, fighting for the Union. He had been an emigrant from Germany. He won the Medal of Honor for his actions turning back Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Taking command of the battery when his superior officer was killed, Füger fired the remaining rounds and then fought the Confederates in hand-to-hand combat.
We were called in to witness the swearing in ceremony. It was another ordinary room with a suspended ceiling of acoustical tiles and embedded fluorescent fixtures, and beneath our feet tough, thin, office carpeting. The plastic seats mounted on steel tubing were very comfortable, perforated for ventilation. There were armchairs for the guests on either side, but for the yet unsworn citizens seated in the middle, the arms had been removed and the seats joined together to save space. A talk was given from a lectern mounted with the blue and white seal of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. There was no expression of dignity or taste in the room’s ambiance. It was utilitarian. Evenly spaced along the walls were stock photographs of Philadelphia in thin gold frames.
The affair was not a classy ritual, but administered in a conveyor-belt routine. We watched a few short videos; “canned stuff” was how Ms Keogh described it. The would-be citizens were asked to stand as their nation of origin was called out. They were named in alphabetical order, perhaps forty different nations representing different cultures and far corners of the world. It was astonishing and heartwarming. I felt proud of my nation’s ideals and this representation of the whole world collected together in a strength that comes from blending. With everyone standing, they were together sworn in. Then came the Pledge of Allegiance, focused on one of three Star Spangled banners with yellow tassel trim that occupied the room.
74 newly minted citizens watched another short video in which President Barack Obama congratulated them and invited them to become active and engaged citizens. Then, individually, they left their seats in an orderly fashion to receive documentation, some booklets and pamphlets, and a hearty handshake from whoever it was who swore them in – I failed to note his name. A moment to pose for photographs, this being the only room in which Homeland Security allowed photography, and then the next citizen came up. It felt anticlimactic. At the assigned moment, I tried snapping some shots using Ms Keogh’s tablet, but they didn’t come out. Alas, only this essay will remain as a memento of the occasion.
To celebrate, and because she was hungry, I took Ms Keogh to the Famous Fourth Street Deli. This is an honest-to-goodness New York style delicatessen (they were originally from Brooklyn). We shared the pastrami lox sandwich on a toasted poppy-seeded bagel. Yes, pastrami lox, which is smoked salmon prepared in the same fashion as pastrami beef. Also, we had genuine New York style cheesecake.
That night in downtown Trenton, New Jersey, we gathered with friends to play Scrabble in the back of the bookstore, Classics Used Books. Ms Keogh was feted and congratulated. We brought two bottles of Chandon Brut and Tim brought a bottle of Aberlour Scotch. There were vegetables with dip and a variety of fruits. Arthur and Megan came with donuts. Eric, the store’s proprietor, chipped in to have pizza delivered. After Scrabble, Ms Keogh, Najah, Kira, Kallah, and Jim played a round of Cards Against Humanity. Evan arrived late. Evan always arrives late. Barry stopped by to include his congratulations, as did Howard, who provides the bookstore with a unique set of handmade ties.
Something about becoming a citizen in Philadelphia in the morning, Ms Keogh suggested, where Independence was declared and the Constitution was written, feels special. Then to conclude the same day celebrating in Trenton, where George Washington and the Continental Army fought and won the pivotal campaign that turned the tide of the American Revolution 238 years ago, the Hessian’s barracks not one block away from the bookstore, that should be noteworthy. Ms Keogh asked if I was including this in my essay.
Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions, he would be pleased to hear from you.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.