"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Why are the immigration agents at Newark Airport such dicks? Okay, not all of them, of course, but boy oh boy, deﬁnitely some of them. For years I’ve wanted to write something about how immigration agents harass Mexicans who have to go through passport control and customs at Newark and other airports. I’ve collected anecdotes about the nasty treatment my Mexican friends have received, but I’ve always decided against writing such a piece, because, as my friends are the ﬁrst to point out, what they’ve endured at those airports is nothing compared to what undocumented immigrants endure in this country every day.
But then it’s your own life that an immigration agent fucks up, and then, well, it becomes pretty hard to keep quiet about it.
For the last ﬁfteen years or so, I’ve mostly lived in Mexico City, but I do spend at least one semester a year in New York, from where I commute to a teaching job in Connecticut. But in 2010 I spent several months in a writer-scholar residency in Berlin. A woman I’d been seeing in Mexico City, M., came to visit me there. I was headed back to Mexico as soon as the residency was over, and I asked her to bring some books back for me. M. had to change planes at Newark.
“Ahh, you’re Mexican,” the immigration agent said, looking at her passport, like he’d already caught her doing something wrong. “Why, if you were only in Berlin for ten days, do you have two bags?” he asked. She had a small suitcase packed with clothing and books, hers and mine, and a knapsack that also held some books. M. answered that she didn’t think that was so many bags for a ten-day trip.
The agent sent her over to a side counter, the equivalent of a penalty box for international airline travelers, to undergo a more thorough inspection. M. was nervous because she had only forty-ﬁve minutes to make her ﬂight, and had to get to another terminal, and she didn’t know her way around this airport.
She was met by another agent, a large man, she recalls, a jetón—a man with a big, unfriendly face—who was wearing latex gloves. The jetón poked through everything in her bags, even inside the sack holding her dirty laundry. But it was the books she was carrying, about ten in all, in English and Spanish, that made the agent especially suspicious. He pulled them all out and stacked them on the counter. I’d given her a few fat paperbacks, including the third and fourth volumes of “In Search of Lost Time,” and I forget what else, in delusionary hope of not having to ﬂy back to Mexico in a couple months’ time with the usual packed library drop boxes for luggage.
The immigration jetón asked her, in a sarcastic tone, why she was traveling with so many books. M. is a pretty young woman, raven haired, dark skinned, who studied at the Tec de Monterrey, which is like Mexico’s MIT, and who at that time was employed by a reforestation NGO. She answered that she liked to read, which was certainly true. Then he asked her if she’d really read all of these books, and if she could tell him what each book was about. He picked up each book and slowly leafed through it, nearly one page at a time. M. tried to explain that she was worried about missing her connection. “Le valio madre,” she told me, which literally means, “It mattered mother to him,” a Mexican way of saying that he could not have cared less.
He seemed to be taking a deliberately long time poring over every book, like an envious and greedy collector. The jetón said that he needed to examine each book carefully, “In case one of them held an illegal substance.” Finally he let her go, and she ran through the airport, and just caught her ﬂight, but the memory of that man’s jetón face, and of his rude sarcasm and hostility, of the way he tried to make her feel guilty of something just for being a Mexican with a lot of books in her bags, still burns her up.
Look, it could have been much worse. At least he didn’t ask to look inside her clothes or even inside her body, because that happens too, when they take you into the “naked room.” But why would a young woman ﬂying home to Mexico from Europe, and only switching planes in the U.S., arouse such suspicion?
Believe me, this kind of thing happens to Mexican travelers—and to travelers from other countries too, I have no doubt—all the time, not only when they are trying to come into the country with legitimate visas but even when they are merely passing through an airport on their way to someplace else. This is just one of many such stories I could tell.
Just last year I was refused entrance at passport control and sent to wait, without any explanation, in what seemed to be a kind of courtroom in the airport until, an hour or so later, it was over, and I was told by the ofﬁcial who handed my passport back that they’d had their suspicions that it wasn’t an authentic document. The ofﬁcial told me I should be grateful, that it is their vigilance at borders and airports that protects our country from terrorists. I am willing to concede that point.
* * *
I now live with J., a Mexican woman who has a U.S. tourist visa. So that she could experience New York City and the U.S., and improve her English, we decided to spend more than a semester up here this year. We arrived in New York in the fall and in January we went home to Mexico to spend a week at a beach and so that J. could spend time with her family. We returned to New York, via Newark Airport, a few weeks later, just before the start of my teaching semester. Our plan was to do some travel—to New Orleans to visit our Mexican friend Yuri during spring break, and, when the semester is over, around the U.S. a bit—and then go back to Mexico at the beginning of July.
At Newark, I, of course, went through the passport line for U.S. citizens and legal residents, arrived at the luggage carousel well before J. did, and collected our bags. About an hour passed, and J. didn’t appear. Nearly another hour passed. I’d been standing by that luggage carousel for almost two hours, feeling pretty helpless. J.’s smartphone was turned off. What else could I do but wait? By then all our ﬂight’s luggage had been claimed, but for a lonely three or four suitcases that an airport worker had stacked side by side next to the carousel; luggage, I understood, that belonged to passengers from our ﬂight who’d been detained by the immigration authorities, as J. clearly had, and who possibly might not be allowed into the country—as J. clearly might not. Holy shit!
I told myself not to worry, that nothing could really go wrong. J. wasn’t breaking any laws. She wasn’t doing anything illegal in the U.S. She was what she said she was, and what her visa allowed her to be: a tourist. She was taking English classes at an ESL school, the tuition she paid contributing to the salaries of the people working there. She was spending money in clothing stores and the like. She’d never been in a winter climate before, and so had needed to outﬁt herself as if for an arctic expedition. We were going to restaurants, to shows, movies, museums, and concerts, buying MetroCards and taking taxis. The U.S., like any other country, allows tourists into its borders in order to make money off them, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why give out tourist visas if you’re not going to let tourists be tourists?
Don’t worry, I thought; they’re just asking her some questions, maybe they’re suspicious of the books in her knapsack—she’s a reader, too—but everything is going to turn out ﬁne. Despite all that, I was a nervous wreck. What if they didn’t let J. in? Our apartment in Mexico had been sublet until July. She had nowhere to go. And I was stuck up here until May, the end of the semester.
At that moment J. was being detained and interrogated by immigration ofﬁcials in a separate room. They had decided that she must not be telling the truth. They had decided that she must be working illegally. How could she prove that she was not doing what they accused her of, illegally working? How could she prove that?
J. was not doing anything illegal, but they were determined to treat her as if she was—all this I found out later. Finally I left our luggage next to the cluster of pariah bags and went back upstairs to see if I could ﬁnd something out. A scattered group of individual travelers was standing around in the area facing the long passage down which people exit from passport control. All of the others waiting there, I noticed, seemed worried, and some were outright frantic. All were facing the possibility of being separated, then and there, from the person they had been traveling with; in many cases, I learned after talking to them a bit, from their romantic partners.
A uniformed immigration agent approached us, lifting his arms as if shooing off ﬂies. He was a burly, blue-eyed, cheerfully swaggering Cossack sort of guy. He looked like the kind of fellow who in movies would play a lifeguard who is secretly a serial killer, or else a sociopathic platoon sergeant. We were all trying, individually, to talk to him, but he only responded with shouts of, “Get back! How many times do I have to tell you, get back!” Everybody obediently stepped backward. It turned out that he had come from the very room that people were being detained in. I ﬁnally got his attention, and asked about J. He knew exactly whom I was inquiring about. He grinned, though not in a nice way, and barked, “What are you, ﬁfty years older than her?”
Ha. Older, yeah—but ﬁfty years? Not even close. Funny guy. But what business is it of his, anyway? Later I thought, I can’t believe my taxes help to pay that guy’s salary. He said he was going to go check on what was happening and that he’d get back to me. If he’d brought back some information, all would have been forgiven; let him crack all the jokes he wanted about my age. But I never saw him again.
About a half hour later J. ﬁnally came out. She was wan and quiet. It wasn’t until we were in the taxi that she told me that they had given her only ﬁve more weeks, until March 8. What were we going to do?
Here is what we ﬁnally did. I had to hire an immigration lawyer. For nearly two thousand dollars, we can petition for a tourist visa extension. If she gets it, wonderful. What a great and generous nation! If she doesn’t, she’ll have to leave immediately, and won’t be allowed into the country again. In the lawyer’s ofﬁce the lawyer told me that some of those immigration agents actually enjoy fucking up people’s lives for no good reason.
That sounds like just a line, but she spoke it with the authority of a lawyer who has been ﬁghting in these trenches for a long time. I don’t think of myself as especially naïve, but I was really struck by that. I sort of took it personally. Could there really be people who enjoy fucking up other people’s lives for no good reason? Could there really be somebody out there who would enjoy fucking up my and J.’s lives for no good reason? It’s certainly not true of all immigration agents, but I don’t doubt it’s true of my friend, the jokey Cossack.
If U.S. immigration authorities succeed in separating me from my love for a period of months, and impose a period of hardship on her that there will be little I can do to alleviate, and expel her from this country as if she has done something criminal when she has done nothing wrong at all, what will I do? I expect that my feelings of futility and helplessness will be overwhelming, to say nothing of my anger. To be a U.S. citizen, a taxpayer in good standing, forced to stand by and watch his love be separated from him for no good or legal reason, because of the mean-spirited capriciousness of a U.S. immigration agent—I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
Lately, I’ve been obsessing over the lives of immigration agents. They leap and climb through my dreams like antic squirrels. I’ve been trying to understand them and their culture. I’ve been imagining it all as if it was one of those cable TV shows, something like “The Wire.” Where do immigration agents live? How do they come and go from the airport? I’ve been imagining myself as a character who ﬁnds a way to get a job as a Newark Airport immigration agent in order to identify the agent responsible for separating him from his love, or else who ﬁnds a way to follow that immigration agent to his home. But please understand, I don’t want any violence in this show. That’s not what I’m after at all.
Let’s say my character ﬁnally does ﬁnd him—then what do you think he should say or do? How does this end?
Francisco Goldman's next book, "The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle," will be published this July. He lives in Mexico City and Brooklyn, and teaches one semester a year at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.More Francisco Goldman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)