What It's Like to Serve President Obama Dinner as an Unnaturalized Citizen

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration & Displacement by José Orduña (Beacon Press, 2016): 

Toward the tail end of the evening rush where Octavio and I work, three large men with sharp faces come through the back door. They move tactically, tracing a straight line through the dim dining room, their movements almost graceful as they glide past the museum-quality Morales and de Jesus paint­ings on the walls—fine art for the diners’ consumption, to accompany tweezer-plated morsels prepared with color composition, textural variety, and playful temperature vari­ances in mind. No one seems to notice these bulky men who never break stride. But I see that one man looks at people’s hands, the second focuses on faces, and the third scans tor­sos. Smoothly turning their heads to survey the room, they look like feeding herons.

Returning to the host stand, I catch the gleam of an ear­piece snaking down the third one’s thick neck. 

God, I think to myself, to hear the voice on the other end.

The gait of the man in the middle seems somewhat stunted, not so fluid as the others. Just before he turns a cor­ner I think I notice a large geometric bulge under his jacket. I imagine it’s some kind of submachine gun with switchable burst settings, designed for use in close quarters—like a din­ing room. I picture one of the customers being cut down by a short fusíllade, penetrated by three rounds diagonally across the chest, or perhaps two individual rounds from two sepa­rate trigger squeezes.

The Swiss-made SIG Sauer P229 pistol chambered with .357 SIG rounds is an agency preference, its platform and round combination merging the accuracy of a nine-millime­ter with the stopping power of the .357. Stopping power: the ability to transform a human into a corpse right where one stands, a hot metal projectile boring its way nine to fifteen inches into a human chest. This kind of power is given a rat­ing based not only on the depth of the hole but by the size of the temporary stretch cavity it creates. The SIG’s is forty-five cubic inches. Picture a hole in a chest the size of a Christmas ornament displacing connective tissue and organs, splinter­ing bone. Stopping.

Catching a glimpse of Octavio clearing a table across the dining room, I smile and he returns a quick nod. I turn back toward the men, but they’re gone. Octavio approaches the host stand and draws his face in just a few inches from mine.

“Qué pasa, cabrón?” he whispers.

“Obama.” I motion toward the back table with my head.

The president has a standing reservation here. He gets the quiet table in the back corner near both rear exits. When he decides to come for dinner, a Secret Service agent sends the general manager a text message from a Type One device—Blackberry, probably—that’s been certified by the NSA for transmitting classified government information. The text, perhaps just the word Renegade, will have run through sev­eral of the world’s most complex algorithms before land­ing in the general manager’s inbox. It might read RRRR, if Renaissance, Radiance, and Rosebud plan to join him for a family dinner.

Octavio walks to the wall that divides the two restaurants into discrete dining rooms, takes a look into the fine din­ing side, but doesn’t go in. Busboys on that side wear ties and silk vests for the politicians, celebrities, and hedge fund managers. Seating is done by reservation only, filling at least three months in advance. You can order à la carte, but people usually opt for one of the three five-course tasting menus paired with whatever the sommelier recommends. The aver­age diner drops around five hundred dollars for a meal.

Octavio dips back, clearing three tables before he’s at the end of the regular dining room. Busboys from this side wear black guayaberas and never enter the other side. This rule doesn’t even need to be stated because it is so concretely understood. For example, the dishwasher, El Conejo, is never seen outside his dish pit. He eats his shift meal stand­ing above the industrial sink if he has time, or chugs the black coffee—two Splendas—I sneak him. When he’s had too much caffeine he emerges, having frantically powered through a mountain of dishes only to hit a lull, which in turn makes him pop his head aggressively through the swing­ing doors of the pit, grab the first busboy who walks by, and growl, “Tráeme más platos, puto.”

I go wherever I want because I speak English as if it were my mother tongue. Instead of a uniform, I wear Hermès ties with H’s woven into their double-ply silk. When the maître d’ for the fine-dining side is swamped, I’m allowed to give him a hand. I ask people, most white, if I may take their coats, handing them off immediately to a young Mexican woman who manages to remain out of sight until the very moment she’s needed. I pull chairs out for women, wait until the men have taken their seats, then place open menus di­rectly into everyone’s hands.

When payroll makes an error on my check, I don’t hesi­tate to take the elevator up to the corporate offices, knock on the head accountant’s door, and kindly ask him for a mo­ment of his time. Once, two pay cycles went by without me getting a paycheck, and the floor manager kept forgetting to do anything, telling me the problem would be sorted out by next payday. In his office, the accountant carefully looked at his screen and let out a forceful hah, as if trying to dislodge something in his airway. Seemed I’d been deleted from the digital clock-in system so that none of my hours had been logged.

“Well, how many hours did you work last month?” he asked, not especially perturbed.

There was no way for me to remember, I told him. I tried to picture the beginning of the month when I’d first gotten the job, thinking I’d be able to save enough money to move to Iowa for graduate school, put a deposit down on an apart­ment, and buy a $680 money order to send to the Depart­ment of Homeland Security with an N-400 form in order to initiate naturalization.

“Come on, come on,” he said, flopping his big hands at me. “Just gimme a number.”

I did some quick math. “A hundred forty?”

It was only slightly above what the real number must have been. Perfectly fair, though, I reasoned, considering the two pay cycles I’d had to wait. Without hesitation, the ac­countant took a fat wad of folded bills out of his slacks and counted out fourteen crisp hundreds, placing each one di­rectly onto my open palm.

“You let me know if this happens again, kiddo.”

Slowly placing the bills in my hand, the bookkeeper was perfectly genial, but I wondered if he didn’t realize that this kind of error—missing hours, inaccuracies in pay rate, pay­roll system glitches—happens regularly, inevitably in the res­taurant’s favor. I wondered too if he failed to understand that the reason El Conejo in the dish pit and Octavio on the floor didn’t come up to his office was because they’d been obliged, since their first jobs in the States, to grin and bear whatever, without saying a word. Men like Octavio and El Conejo might get their money eventually, after bills had moved into collection and accrued late fees; after they’d received calls from debt collectors making threats of repossession; after their gas was shut off, teaching them what a bitterly cold shower feels like at five in the morning, the same lesson their children would learn at six thirty when it was time to get ready for school.

In 2008 we would have been happy to see Obama walk quietly to his table—all that hope so neatly wrapped up in a black package. Now, however, three years later, when the three men reappear, posting themselves at three separate points in the dining room—two near the entrances and one sitting at the next table—it’s different. We joke about him dropping dead after choking on his deconstructed taco.

There are two men at table fifty-six who I think might be on the job. They have the same thick bodies as the other three, and they have the same square hands, with fat the­nar eminences that bulge after years of gripping things. They don’t seem to be enjoying their luminous squares of perfectly cooked halibut, topped with cilantro foam, placed delicately on a disk of micro greens and edible flowers grown on the restaurant’s rooftop garden. They don’t seem to notice the hammered copper chargers underneath their plates. Neither one has touched the wine the sommelier poured.

My phone buzzes against my thigh, and as I take it out to check the blue voicemail symbol, I miss the presidential entrance.

He’s sitting now, surrounded by a bunch of old white men. No Renaissance, no Radiance, no Rosebud. One of the men fingers the slightly angled silverware placed in front of him, nudging it back from the brink of chaos. Most of that cutlery was polished this morning by Octavio, an “illegal alien.”

“Pinche Obama,” he says, back at the host stand, shaking his head before he goes back to work.

Pinche Obama because Octavio had let himself believe that, being not white, the new president would necessarily be sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants. Be­cause he had let himself believe he and the US-born fiancée he’s been engaged to for four years now would finally be able to get married.

At the very least we all thought something referred to as “the three ten bar”—introduced as a section of the Ille­gal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1996—would disappear. It didn’t.

Purely a punitive tool, this legal category of “unlawful presence” was entirely new to immigration law. Individuals who accumulated six to twelve months of “unlawful pres­ence” would be barred from the country for three years, while those here for more than a year would be barred for ten. So in order to adjust his immigration status when marrying his fiancée, Octavio would have to leave the country for up to ten years, which would mean losing the home he’s paid a mortgage on for longer than a decade. The modest home his mother was having built in Mexico wouldn’t be finished. In­stead, she would have to share a one-room structure, made of cinderblock and corrugated tin, with Octavio’s sister and his two nephews. As for his sweetheart in the United States, they might try to stay together while living in different coun­tries, visit each other as often as possible, but the distance would become too great. They would begin to fight about any little thing, and then they would avoid talking for days at a time. For both of them, a day would come when they would quietly realize they no longer felt that pleasant attachment to the other—the intimacy of being together—and, soon after, their fifteen-year relationship would dissolve like sugar in warm milk.

Excerpted from The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement by José Orduña (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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