When I moved back to New York City as an adult in the late 1990s, the job that got me here was as an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Services. I worked at J.F.K. airport stamping passports and processing immigrants, refugees, tourists, celebrities, and anyone else that came through my line.
In some cases the job could be very humbling and inspiring. For a short time I worked at the federal building in downtown Manhattan interviewing refugees and asylees who were applying for green cards. I met people who would rather be fry cooks in America than engineers in their native country. I met a woman who had seen her family murdered, a man who did time in jail for being gay, and young guy who faced prison time for simply protesting for his rights.
I also saw first-hand how our system is completely broken and is largely not at all in keeping with the traditions of what we consider our great American heritage of immigration. Our immigration laws and policies are a patchwork of corporate influence and ethnic lobbying. There is no comprehensive consideration of the national interest in how immigration is handled in the U.S. and it’s been that way for decades.
In New York City, you know something crazy is going on when people are voluntarily going to JFK Airport when they don’t have to. This past weekend thousands of people flocked there to protest the detention of a handful of travelers by order of a hastily drawn up Presidential executive order travel ban that affected a handful of Muslim-majority countries.
Travel bans like the one issued are done at times when there is a potential immediate terrorist threat. Others that have been cited have been President Carter’s restriction on Iranian travel during the hostage crisis at the time and President Obama’s temporary ban on processing Iraqi refugees in 2011. But those were limited and in response to events happening at the time. There aren’t corresponding crises that would equate to the recent Trump travel ban.
President Trump’s ham-handed executive order is like everything else he has done: a dramatic show without any planning or thought and with no understanding of the issues. He managed to make life difficult for those border and airport inspectors on the front lines of our national defense and energize the opposition. He’s helped open-border advocates position their agenda as more mainstream than it is.
Trump won the election based largely on the strength of his opposition to illegal immigration and within the first week of his administration he’s undermined his greatest political asset.
And the biggest tragedy is that now real patriotic immigration reform is going to be even more difficult to achieve, because any attempt to enact a common-sense agenda is going to be linked to Trump’s bone-headed travel ban.
This weekend’s move also hurt the fight against Islamic terrorism. Keep in mind that our best allies in the fight against Muslim extremists are Muslims from those afflicted countries. Trump’s attempt at a show-business presidency punishes some of the people who worked alongside our military in Iraq and Afghanistan, truly deserving refugees that risked their lives for our servicemen and women.
The decay of our immigration system began in 1965 and it’s had more than 50 years to morph into the mess it is today. It will take years to pass the laws needed to make sensible immigration policy stick. If Donald Trump is serious about really making a lasting change, he would stop his senseless showboating and start drafting legislation with Congressional leaders. That would require time away from TV cameras and social media. That requires real work. Start now!
The Borough of Queens is taking applications for its poet laureate, and I’m going to throw my sweaty hat into the ring. I think my chances of being accepted are low, but fuck it. I’m as good as anyone else and I like this borough very much.
Queens was where I lived when I moved back to New York. I had been away from the Northeast for several years and hadn’t lived in the five boroughs since I was an infant in the Bronx. I grew up mostly in Yonkers and while I came to the city frequently growing up, I am by and large a child of New York’s suburbs.
In college I decided I wanted to be a great American writer in the same way that thousands of other English majors do. I was determined to get myself back to New York City as if that would somehow magically bestow some great inspiration power and let me live a charmed literary life.
I got a job at JFK airport that helped me move back here and I went looking for apartments that were a reasonable commuting distance to JFK. I found a small studio in Ozone Park at $500 per month (it soon went up to $525). It was on 101st Avenue and John Gotti’s old Bergin Hunt & Fish Club was still there and only a few blocks away. That was a selling point that the realtor mentioned. “People know not to mess around in this neighborhood,” he said. Gotti had been locked up for several years by then but the neighborhood still had some old wise guys hanging around.
I enjoyed living in Ozone Park a lot. I would walk around the neighborhood as much as I could and enjoyed how quickly neighborhoods could transition from one to another. Not far from where John Gotti plotted his takeover of the Gambino Crime Family a store sold cricket supplies to the Indian and West Indian immigrants who were moving into Richmond Hill. I was not too far from Forest Park and I could also walk to the small apartment where Jack Kerouac wrote his first novel.
While immediate literary success proved elusive, I managed to publish my first poetry collection while I was living in Ozone Park. ‘Five Borough Blues’ was a small broadsheet of poems published by New Jersey-based Lucid Moon Poetry (RIP Ralph Haselmann Jr.).
Years later, after living in Inwood for a decade, I moved in with the woman who is now my wife and that brought me to Flushing. I got to learn Northern Queens whereas Ozone Park is in Southern Queens.
The greatest borough continues to impress me. I do miss Inwood a good bit, I can’t lie. But Queens has many more great neighborhoods that are still real neighborhoods and not overpriced tourist zones.
Queens has both the greatest number of interesting neighborhoods, real residential neighborhoods with character, as well as cultural institutions and a variety of environments that the other boroughs don’t have. Do you have the beachfront and harbor areas like Broad Channel and the Rockaways in Manhattan? No. Can you find 24-hour Korean barbeque in Staten Island? Good luck.
And without fail, Queens continues to inspire me to write poetry. The entire city does, to be sure, but Queens is my home and it’s where I believe you find the most New York part of New York. It has the widest array of cultural offerings and the largest sampling of interesting people anywhere in the world. It stands between the city and its suburbs. It has all manner of terrain. It even has its own zoo.
I will gladly accept the (unpaid) responsibilities of the Queens Poet Laureate. I will let no excellent verse about this borough go unwritten. Applications are due April 24th (April is national poetry month).
But whether or not I am poet laureate of Queens, I will continue to let the city inspire to create good written works. It deserves no less.
Years ago, when I worked as an immigration inspector at JFK Airport, I would sometimes encounter celebrities that would come through my line. The first one I remembered was Joan Collins. People I mentioned this too asked me if I remembered what her actual birth date was from looking at her passport, but I didn’t pay it much mind. She was very well dressed and seemed very polite and proper.
Among the other celebrities I has pass through my line were Sting, Geoffrey Rush, George Clinton, Sally Jesse Rafael and Brian Cox. I also met the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who were very nice. When I told Graham “Suggs” McPherson, singer of the band Madness, that I liked his music, he replied, “You have a good memory.”
But by far and away the best celebrity encounter I had at JFK Airport was the actor Geoffrey Holder.
Working at JFK Airport was actually a big drag. Things changed a lot after the September 11 attacks, so I can’t attest to what the job is like today. But the pre-September 11 era was a miserable place where inspectors often worked seven days straight and could be held for mandatory overtime with no notice given.
I was so unhappy working at JFK that I lived in a state of near permanent miserable anger. Any sign of other people’s happiness made me immediately angry and resentful.
I was coming to tend of my day at the old T.W.A. terminal, thinking that the most recent flight was done processing and I could prepare to go home. I was still in my booth when I noticed people from the airline wheeling a passenger in a wheelchair directly towards my booth. The passenger was singing.
‘What kind of horrible freak are they bringing me,’ I thought to myself—indeed, my resentment of all things happy even extended to the elderly and disabled.
The airline escort wheeled the passenger into my booth and he put his paperwork on my counter. He was a green card holder from Trinidad and once I saw his name I knew exactly who he was: Geoffrey Holder.
Geoffrey Holder spent most of his long entertainment career on stage as a dancer, actor and director. He was one of the lead actors in the first all-black production of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ a choreographer for the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, a Tony-Award winning costume designer and successful painter. He was the bodyguard Punjab in the 1982 version of ‘Annie’ and may be best known for 7-Up commercials he made in the 1980s. He was characterized by his height (he was six-foot-six) and his deep, Caribbean voice.
Geoffrey Holder was also one of the best James Bond villains in history, playing Baron Semedi in the 1973 Bond film ‘Live and Let Die.’ Being a Bond villain counts as movie royalty in my book.
“Are you the actor?” I asked him.
“Well it’s very nice to meet you. I’ve very much enjoyed your work.”
“Thank you. And thank you for paying my rent,” he said, and then let out a big and sincere booming laugh that I couldn’t help but share with him.
Our business together was finished quickly. I stamped his documents and handed them back to him or the airline employee who was escorting him. He thanked me, said, “God bless you.” And then was on his way. It was an encounter that changed my mood and brightened my whole day, and is one of the fondest memories I have of working at the airport.
Geoffrey Holder passed away recently from complications attributed to pneumonia. He was 84 years old. He was remembered for his many contributions to the stage and screen; Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in his memory.
New York is packed with celebrities, and the cool thing to do is pretend to not notice them and then tell all your friends about seeing them later. I had many New York celebrity sightings before and since, but Geoffrey Holder will always be my favorite and best.