Justin Nixon

The faceless bureaucrat sitting behind the gray, nondescript desk endemic to a thousand interrogation rooms made no effort to conceal his indifference. “Simply state your name and start talking.”

The recording device is the size of a pack of cigarettes, a technological marvel. But he feels disrespected by its anonymity, as if the importance of his words does not merit the more imposing reel-to-reel tape recorders of the detective novels and noir spy thrillers. There is no microphone mounted on a stand pointed in his direction; only a tiny hole in the recorder, barely perceptible, would swallow the statement he must deliver. He struggles to organize his thoughts, to dispel the Slavic despair that grips him. The doppelganger reflected in the plate glass window of the cubicle is of an ashen faced, dispirited man shorn of affect.

I am less than a ghost, he thinks to himself, beyond invisible, lacking even the aura that stirs the restless sleeper to look up, to sense the presence of something phantasmal. I possess not even that limited chimera of the imagination. I am nothing. I am unseen.

He cringes at the cruelty of his portrayal. He was not always thus. A trace of indignation makes its way into the genetic fatalism of his silent monologue. I must wait until the vomit and shit and phlegm of the endocrinologists, hawkers of software, fluids engineers, specialists in maternal-fetal medicine, wholesale grocers and car enthusiasts spray the porcelain tiles. Then I am sought after. Then I have a name. It is written in block letters on a cellophane nametag pinned to the breast pocket of my coveralls. It is not my actual given name. Bronislaw Szymkiewicz is impossible for the tongues of populations not indigenous to the steppes of Eastern Europe. In the exhibit halls of McCormick Place, where I work as a janitor when the big conventions are in town, I am simply “TRASH.”

He senses that the low-level bureaucrat testing the volume of the recorder will be merely watching the needle flirt with the red zone, not actually listening.   Still, his words are to be transcribed. That is something to consider; there will be a record of what transpired, evidence of his existence. A blinking green light on the recorder begins to flash.

The hospital in Warsaw where Szymkiewicz worked as a respected radiologist specializing in positron emission tomography was not the front line of Solidarność, the Solidarity movement that withstood persecution and imposition of martial law to challenge the dominance of the Communist Party. Szymkiewicz, although restrained by position and prudence, silently applauded the fiery speeches of Lech Walesa that were rallying the country’s unions into a formidable political force. A child in 1956 when the liberal régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka gave the country its first sip of political independence, he had savored a second serving of autonomy during his teens when self-government asserted itself in the 1970s under Edward Gierek. By the time Walesa eventually won the presidency in 1990, his appetite for personal freedom had become full blown.

Five years later, both Bronislaw Szymkiewicz and the disillusioned populace at large were still waiting for the transition from communism to capitalism to produce the higher standard of living that had been promised. In the 1995 elections Solidarity received only 4.9% of the votes and in the decade that followed, Szymkiewicz’s life followed the country’s trajectory from high hopes to minimum expectations. His job became mired in routine, the analog technology in the hospital’s cash-starved lab lagging well behind the discrete signals of the digitally driven west. His marriage, childless and increasingly bloodless, wended its way to mutual indifference and divorce. In 2003 when the country’s bureaucratic constraints were loosened by Poland’s long-awaited membership in the European Union, the fifty-year-old Szymkiewicz turned his back to the past, applied for a six-month tourist visa and boarded a LOT flight to the land of the free and home of the brave.

Initially, he stayed with a cousin in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, his taste for political freedom amplified by boisterous conversations around the dinner table and astonishment at the seemingly uncensored ten o’clock newscasts and Sunday morning talk shows that he watched diligently. He was fascinated in particular by the panelists appearing each week on The McLaughlin Group, their unruly, opposing arguments standing out in stark contrast to the government run, party line newscasts on the Telewizja Polska channel. Often the exchanges spilled over to the local bars and public baths where generations of Poles sought air after grueling ten-hour shifts in the anthracite coal mines that Swiss-cheesed the surrounding Allegheny Mountains. After six weeks of too much vodka and too little sleep, he met a middle-aged woman who worked as a nurse at the local VA medical center. They had a lot in common, his background as a radiologist standing out from the soot-smudged work histories of her former beaus. When the VA offered her a promotion if she would transfer to the hospital in Chicago, the smitten Bronislaw helped load the Ryder and offered to share the drive and the rent on a small but tidy apartment on West Milwaukee Avenue, where an active Polonia thrived.

Concerned about the impending expiration of his tourist visa he visited the city’s Polish consulate where he hoped a sympathetic bureaucracy would look kindly at his impressive professional resume and assist him in landing a job and becoming eligible for the coveted Green Card he would need to extend his stay. A chauffer driven, late model black Mercedes sedan rolled to a stop as he approached the consulate, the coifed blond passenger stepping by him without a glance. Suddenly, perhaps for the first time since arriving in America, Bronislaw Szymkiewicz felt oddly unsettled, beyond the routine awkwardness of a newly arrived traveler, his Slavic forehead and solid jaw suddenly blown out of proportion; his rough fabric, square shouldered suit jacket more than a style gaffe; but the costume of the immigrant butt of a Polish joke. His confidence evaporated as he approached the upscale Lake Shore Drive location, the elegant Beaux-Arts style building more in keeping with the blue-blood Gold Coast neighborhood than the unadorned white and red of the new Polish flag that hung limply over the threshold.

The blinking green light on the recorder turned to a stoplight red, matching the crimson spreading across the mottled face of the officer in charge of the interview. Stifling his irritation, he looked up at the ashen faced man sitting motionless across from him. “Do you need a glass of water?” he asked. “No? Okay then, let’s start again.” He pressed the record button on the recorder. “What is your name?” the officer asked.

Szymkiewicz remained silent, as if considering a question of immense philosophical importance. “What is your name?” he repeats the question silently, vacillating between two orders of truth, unable to distinguish between his real and fictional self. In Gdansk, where I am from, my name was seen frequently. And respected. Doctors in the top ranking of the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education knew me as Senior Technician Szymkiewicz. I was a radiologist who took the pictures used in diagnosing the most serious of illnesses. I was much in demand, for I possessed considerable expertise, having stared over the shoulders of many doctors hiding behind pomposity and obfuscation as they read the film, pointing to the cancers, pondering how to deliver the news to their frightened patients. I knew the script by heart. Often, I remained in the room when the specialists left, explaining in simple words the truth of the matter. I was not a doctor, but I was looked up to, valued for what I knew, the job I performed, the truth of the words I delivered with sympathy.

Szymkiewicz senses rather than sees the clock on the wall. He knows it will not move until his words flutter across the invisible microphone staring at him with an immutable, blinking eye. He searches for the story waiting to be told.

When Bronislaw exited the stately mansion that was his country’s home away from home he left behind the naivety of his smiling passport photograph and confronted the limited options outlined by the junior level diplomat who poured coffee and reality during their abbreviated but straightforward interview. There would be no Green Card, no transfer of credentials to make him eligible for a page on CareerBuilder.com. On the bus ride home he nursed his worsening migraine and weighed his alternatives. He could leave before his visa expired and return to the life he had left behind in Poland, his future and his passion for life atrophying in tandem. Or he could stay and become part of Chicago’s Polish community, an economic and cultural entity that existed as a country unto itself. He didn’t want to return home. He had discovered that the streets in America were not paved in Zlotys but unlike the cobblestone roads of his country, the absence of dog shit could not be overlooked. He was an accomplished man. Bronislaw Szymkiewicz would find a way!

When his visa ran out, Bronislaw was indifferent to the consequences, joining the tens of thousands of his countrymen who made up a Polish Diaspora numbering only slightly less than the entire population of Warsaw. Lacking papers, a job in a hospital was unattainable, but he was a capable handyman and quickly found work off the books with a busy contractor who sent him home every two weeks with a brown envelope stuffed with cash.

As the weeks turned to months, Bronislaw sank into the pacifying comfort of the Barcalounger he had purchased at Costco and scarcely noticed the slowly reemerging tedium of his life in Poland. His earlier outrage over the policies of the Bush presidency receded into indifference, the absence of passion creeping into the shared bedroom where talk of a future with the woman he had fallen for so ardently, was an occurrence of the past. Ironically, the longer his stay within sight of the skyscrapers of America’s third largest city, the deeper his immersion within the boundaries of the Polish neighborhood where he lived. The eagerness that once drove him to search out the bootleg CDs of Tarantino and Scorsese and frequent the jazz clubs where scratchy records of John Coltrane shared the juke box with old Melomani covers of Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy, waned. He lost interest in attending the celebrated museums and theaters that drew visitors by the millions; he scoffed at the idea of paying good money for tapas and sushi and prix fixe menus. Occasionally he took the bus to Toyota Park in Bridgeview to watch a soccer game. When a friend suggested they hit the clubs on Archer Street, he took one look at the crowd of twenty-something’s and fled without taking off his coat. He spoke Polish more frequently than English, lacked a driver’s license, carried no health insurance and increasingly found solace in boarding house portions of pierogi, kielbasy, kotlet schabowy, szarlotka, and sugared paczki devoured without concern for cutlery or gastronomic order.

In October 2008, the stock market began its historic collapse. Dziennik Zwiazkowy, the Polish daily news, reported the occurrence, but Szykiewicz, who read the story on lunch break from his job laying hardwood flooring at a Lincoln Park townhouse, made little of the article. Two months later, a few days before Christmas, he was laid off. Briefly he considered returning to Poland, but inertia abetted his decision to remain in Chicago. It came as no surprise when Bronislaw and his live-in companion had a quiet conversation with a conclusion that both had come to before either started talking. (“You have transitioned from charming expatriate to a late sleeper needing a shave and repeating tired anecdotes about shady coalitions of communist spies and radical Catholic priests,” she had chided).

In need of employment but decades older than the swarms of laborers gathered daily in front of the Home Depot clamoring for day work, he managed a living doing odd carpentry and handyman chores, undercutting the prevailing wage rate in order to get hired. When a chance conversation provided a lead to a janitor’s job opening at McCormick Place Convention Center, he overlooked his pang of conscience and contacted the low-level mobster who served the immigrant community with an impressive inventory of counterfeit documents that fooled no one but provided employers the cover necessary to plead innocent should a rare visit by the local Homeland Security agent ever occur. Since candidates for custodial work cleaning up the jetsam of conventioneers were in short supply it was not surprising when the supervisor doing the interviewing gave only a superficial glance at the Social Security card presented as proof of identity by the applicant with the unpronounceable name. Happy to have the weekly salary, initially Szykiewicz was indifferent to the demeaning nature of his work cleaning the cavernous convention center. For years he had made speeches about the stalemate of the laboring class; now in his mind’s eye he was validating his rhetoric, a true believer in the egalitarian society. He wavered for a moment only, despairing at the hopelessness of his plight when the one-piece jump suit that served as his uniform reminded him of the starched lab coat he wore during his shifts at the Szpital Dziecitka Jezus, the Infant Jesus Hospital in Warsaw.

“It’s a mindless job, but there is nobility in menial labor, is there not?” Bronislaw explained to the few remaining friends who occasionally met him for dinner at the Red Apple buffet on Milwaukee Avenue. But as the weeks turned to months, it became more difficult for Szykiewicz to numb himself from his bleak situation. His mood turned sullen. He bristled as “Hey you,” became the familiar address as he walked the center’s busy corridors pushing his broom and bucket. Bronislaw Szykiewicz the esteemed Radiologist was no more. He was Szykiewicz the Janitor.

The tone of his harangues grew rancorous, his political views shriller and more radicalized than previously. Absent the optimism that spoke to possibilities and better days, his discourses denounced the elites who held the poor in thrall, spiraling into militant rants that drove his listeners to slowly drift away. But for all his rancor, there was no alternative. His once monthly calls to relatives back in Poland confirmed the decline of the mother country; matka Polska was emersed in economic woes, the once proud Polish eagle declawed and earthbound by debt and political incompetence.

The stuffed cabbage and mielony Polish burger he regularly ordered gave way to shots and beer chasers and adamant vocal denials of his dead-end plight. Eventually, he stopped going out, his indignant feelings too intense to mask. “America discriminates against the working man,” he complained bitterly, employing the slogans and rallying cries of his youthful days shouting the watchwords that had echoed through the streets of Gdansk.

Over time his resentment subsided into a numbed acceptance of his situation. He came home from work and sat around in boxer shorts, watching movies late into the night, tossing in his bed in an unending, exhausting stage-one REM. Several times, his supervisor derided him for neglecting to shave. Self-respect dissolved into self-loathing. Isolated, anesthetized by his plight, the once proud Bronislaw Szykiewicz sunk into anonymity, residing in limbo. Barely cognizant of the changing seasons, he scarcely noticed the posting on the company bulletin board advising the janitorial crew to prepare for the opening of the convention hosted by the Radiological Society of North America.

The crowd in front of the iCRco booth was intrigued by the digital imaging manufacturer’s presentation of their new, computed radiography model, the Dual Bay CR7200. In the jostling for position – the buxom model hired by the company to spiel the crowd was particularly attractive – one of the conventioneers inadvertently lost his badge. Szymkiewicz, sweeping the area after the session, found it under a table of brochures and workshop invitations.

An official looking stamp beneath the colorful logo announced boldly, ALL ACCESS PASS, followed by an impressive list of speakers and seminars with schedule times. Szymkiewicz smoothed the wrinkled ribbon and held the badge over the chest pocket of his soiled jumpsuit. He looked around at the high-tech exhibits lining the aisle, the state-of-the-art machines promising miracles of modern science. He remembered his early years at the university when his future had a similar vision, the memories as jolting to his brain as the electric currents emanating from the MRI machines on display.

The next day he didn’t punch in for work. Instead, wearing his one and only suit, the badge he found pinned prominently on the lapel, he walked by his supervisor as a clean-shaven conventioneer, Edward Slutsky of Cleveland General Hospital.

The day passed in a whirl of activity. Szymkiewicz noted the advances in the technology yet found with pleasure how much knowledge he retained from earlier days. Company representatives working the booths talked with him without suspicion, each sales pitch adding to his confidence. At lunch, he joined a table of technicians and participated without problem in the anecdotal sidebars and business chatter. A busboy he vaguely recognized from the employee locker room came over to clear the table and Bronislaw helped him by stacking the plates. Speechless, the restaurant worker gave him a grateful smile.

At a seminar presenting new advances in computed radiography, the enlivened Szymkiewicz was further emboldened. During the Q&A session, he raised his hand to ask the presenter a question. A floor monitor ran over with a microphone, eyed the conventioneer’s badge pinned to Szymkiewicz’s lapel and announced, “Question from Edward Slutsky, attending from Cleveland General Hospital.”

Instantly an outraged voice rang out, “Hey, I’m Edward Slutsky. Who the hell is that guy?”

The paddy wagon ride from the west building of McCormick Center to the detention center at the United States Citizen and Immigration Service at 101 West Congress Parkway was a blur. The spark that had momentarily restored Bronislaw Szymkiewicz to wholeness was extinguished.

Szykiewicz raised his head, startling the bored interviewer who had yet to elicit his charge’s name, never mind the statement it was his job to record. What is it that you want me to admit to, his eyes asked the inquisitor? You have all the information, the police report, the testimony of witnesses. To you, I’m nothing more than a fraud. A thief. But what did I steal? You found no watch, no wallet, nothing of value. What was I so desperate to have?

Szykiewicz knows that ultimately the question must be answered. Unmistakably irritated, the officer pulled his chair closer to the desk and confronted Szymkiewicz. “For the last time, what is your name!” he demanded, his voice more menacing than questioning.

            Resigned to the inevitability of the interview, and to his fate, Bronislaw Szymkiewicz swallowed a final gasp of defiance and turned to his interrogator. You keep bullying me to learn who I am, but you care nothing about me. Is the essence of the man who wears the badge on his jacket any different if it reads Doctor or Custodian? Who do you see when you look at me? Can you look inside, past my worn jacket and stained shirt? What is my name, you ask? In Polish, muttering under his breath, he answered, “Jestem nikim, I am no one.”

“What was that… what did you say?”

Bronislaw raised his voice, Jestem nikim, “I am no one.” Then, louder still, Jestem nikim, “I am no one,” he shouted, Jestem nikim, “I am no one!”

Satisfied, the officer labeled a padded envelope “Justin Nixon,” attached a Polaroid picture and pointed to the tiny hole in the recorder.

Szymkiewicz would not know the consequences of his mangled answer for several months.

The envelope made its way to office of assistant to the Deputy Commissioner for Midwestern Immigration landing on top of a thick file labeled “Status Pending.” A Stick-em note affixed to the file read, “Transcript recorded by one Justin Nixon, an illegal immigrant being considered for deportation after posing as a citizen and overstaying his temporary visa.” When the deputy was in the middle of page three, the telephone rang. Without reading the remaining pages, he tossed the statement into the out box after annotating it with a large, pre-inked rubber stamp marked “Immigration Violation.”

For the next three months the mangled phonetic name, Jestem Nikim, i.e., Justin Nixon, submerged Szymkiewicz within the bureaucratic organism. Only a crippling cough that brought him to the infirmary and caused widespread confusion among the medical personnel, rescued him from oblivion. Restored to the roll call, the guards found it easier to refer to him by serial number. To the Mexicans, Nigerians, and assorted Latinos waiting disposition of their cases, he was known as the Old Pollock, taking his place alongside the A-Rab, the Greek, and Rusky One and Rusky Two, a pair of fair-skinned brothers from Ukraine who staved off confrontation with an unlimited supply of cigarettes noteworthy for their lack of a tax stamp.

A deluge of paperwork preceded Szymkiewicz through a dozen court rooms. A year passed from the time he recorded his statement to the day the immigration judge issued the adjudication of removability that ordered Szymkiewicz to be deported back to Poland, the aisle seat on the flight from Chicago to Warsaw paid for courtesy of the federal government. For the ride to the International Terminal at O’Hare he was given the suit he wore on the day he was apprehended, the attendee’s badge from the Radiological Society convention still attached. Impassive initially, he protested only when a Transportation Security Administration officer escorted him to a waiting room.

“This way, Mr. Slutsky.”

His voice swelled with indignation. “Nie, nie ja,” No, not me,” he demurred, ripping off the badge and throwing it to the floor.

Moments later, the public address system blared its loud vibrato: “Bronislaw Szymkiewicz to Gate B-14, Bro-nis-law Zim-key-vitz to Gate B14, please.”

Szymkiewicz was stunned by the announcement echoing throughout the terminal, vibrating in the air for all to hear, hundreds of people, important people, cocking their ears to register the unmistakable oral and nasal vowels, the hard and soft consonants of his name, HIS name, Bronislaw Szymkiewicz. He waited for several beats, as if to affirm what he heard. There it was again, unmistakable: “Bronislaw Szymkiewizc to Gate B14.”

He jumped to his feet. “That’s me!” he shouted, To ja! “That’s me!”