It was 1:30am on Tuesday morning. Forty-eight hours after Orlando, twenty-four hours after John and I left our home in New Zealand. I was standing at the baggage claim at Charles Lindbergh Terminal in Minneapolis, a time and a place where usually you see fatigue, irritation, and a desperate need to get to the hotel, or to your own bed. But there it was, hope in, belief in The American Dream — shining from the face of a gentleman I met only five hours earlier.
I’d been waiting for a connecting flight at Los Angeles airport. He had glanced at the seat next to me, empty except for my water bottle. He was smartly dressed, and he held himself properly. Me, I was slumped in the chair. It had been a long flight from New Zealand, followed by more than an hour and a half standing in a queue to have my passport stamped, a situation that tested the patience of every single traveller in that same queue. My travel clothes, chosen for comfort rather than style, were crumpled.
I thought he might have been in Los Angeles on a business trip, I thought perhaps he was weary from a day of meetings. I grabbed my drink bottle and indicated the seat was free.
Perhaps the sudden quiet of those around me as he sat was a coincidence. Perhaps the shifting about in their seats, and the the studious looking away of the other travellers who, like me, were no doubt sick of waiting for a boarding call that it seemed would never come, was all in my imagination.
Where are you from? he asked. His thick accent giving the lie to my earlier assumptions.
New Zealand, I said.
Ah, New Zealand, he repeated in a tone I’ve heard before from people in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar; as if speaking the the two words aloud brings them somehow closer to a far -away Shangri La.
Where are you from? I asked.
He showed me his boarding pass. It was grimy from frequent handling. He was catching my flight. Problem? He indicated the time on his pass, the closed gate, the airline offical behind the desk.
I explained that the flight was delayed. That the repeated announcements, they were made every five minutes, were telling us that the airline was attending to the delay, that the flight crew would be here soon, that soon we’d be on our way.
Ah, he said, and said no more.
Then he slumped, his head in his hands. He may have slept. A little while later, he started, looked around, anxiety burning in his eyes.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Later still, we were still waiting. The flight crew were still coming. He repeated to John his worries about the delay and John said to him “And this is America!” John was making a joke. (Sorry about that, my American friends.)
“Yes.” said this Ethiopian traveller. “America.” He wasn’t making a joke. His tone was similar to before, but more urgent, the tone of a man who believed he was at the very threshold of Shangri-la.
He showed John the boarding pass he’d shown me earlier. John showed him his.
Are you visiting Minnesota? John asked.
He explained he was applying for residency. Plane coming? he asked again.
Yes, we said again.
Later still, after the longed for flight, at the baggage carousel, at 1:30 in the morning, still clutching the now redundant boarding pass, his ticket freedom, equality, opportunity, our travel companion was surrounded by his friends and sponsors who had been waiting for him. The joy, the relief, the hope in the American Dream shone from his face. It was a beautiful thing. This, this is what hope in America looks like.
I hope America looks after that hope, for his sake, America’s sake, and all our sakes. The future of the my little grandson and all his generation, where-ever they live in the world, depends on it.
Post Script: As John and I drove down Interstate 90 towards South Dakota on a long planned for visit to Mout Rushmore, I heard on the car radio that on Thursday 235 people from fifty countries became naturalised citizens of the The United States of America at a ceremony at Mount Rushmore. Yay, to America!