Lilian Friedberg is a writer and performing artist. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. This article was written October 11, 1993.
I am an illegal alien. My name is Peace. I have been in this country for nearly 30,000 years, the past 500 of which I have spent in exile. Upon my recent return to the land of my most ancient birth, I stood at the checkout counter in the whole foods coop around the corner from my new apartment in BlackCloud, Minnesota. The lady at the till posed what she thought was a perfectly innocent question. "Are you a member?" she asked routinely.
"Member?" I queried in response. "Why, no, I'm no member at all. In fact, I've been dis-membered. Severely. It is the pre-existing condition barring me from insurance plans -- the clubs and the coops, the societies of poets, dead and alive. I'm afraid I've been severed from the human race. Someone has cut out my heart, my tongue, and put it up for sale. It's back there, in the deep freeze. Look, that politically correct, morally upright, well-fed, well-bred, pretty little red head with five-hundred-sixty-seven-dollars worth of one-hundred-percent-organically-grown-preservative-free-pre-packaged-vegetarian-pot-pies stuffed in her shopping cart just bought a piece of my heart. She'll pop one in the space-saving-energy-efficient-environmentally-sound-microwave-oven tonight: tickticktick. Bing! She'll whisk it to the surface of the solid-oak-butcher-block-table she bought at Country Collections down the street for a mere three-hundred-and-some-odd-dollars, and you can bet your bottom dollar on it, she's PROUD to be a member."
"Oh, I see." The salesclerk, whom I assumed to be a dues-paying member and law-abiding pawn in the game, tried to pretend I'd answered the question according to plan: with a simple yes or no. X or 0. (No, you may not put a slash through the zero.) I could almost hear her mind shifting gears, scanning the horizon of memory for a clue as to what to do to turn the now nearly awkward scene on the track of polite conversation and politically correct social convention. She sifted through the layers of data stored in the mental manuals instructing her in the proper procedure for debugging such flaws in the system as were evident in the personage of the hotheaded little revolutionary upsetting the Have-A-Nice-Day-good-ol'-grand-ol'-grand-ol'-American Way where it's I for me and me for me and none for all. Even if you are standing in line at the member-OWNED and OPERATED model of cooperative shopping that was the Fall of America.
The lady at the checkout was clever. "Well, you know," she said, in an effort to keep the peace, "you can become a member for only twenty dollars a year."
"Is that all it takes?" I asked, savoring just briefly the sadistic sense of satisfaction I sometimes gleaned from the catechismic ping-pong that was my search for answers to unposed questions and questions to insufficient answers. In so doing, I knew: I was putting my life on the line. I was taking risks, big ones. But it was better than being on the leash. So, I took the risk of unleashing the questions, the answers, and finally, I found my self in jeopardy. Double jeopardy, no less. And there it was, then, the final question in the tournament of champions.
Of course, I had no problem scratching out the correct question which was, "Are you a member?" The answer had been, "No." Still, I had lost the match because, even though I got the question, my bet was off. More than anything, I suppose, it had been my logic that failed me: I figured if I -- any I, just as long as there was one -- one single solitary I, one stone, one shell of a human, a heart -- finally retracted the "yes" that had served as a given for so many light years, the rest of the race would follow suit and Peace would be trump. I was enough of a believer to have hoped. I thought if I dropped out of the race that was not human, if I seceded from a union that was none, if I broke the rules and popped the wrong questions, the race would have been won: no one would cross the finish line and we would go on forever. But, because most of the humans running the race thought the point was to get ahead of the rest of the pack in order to cross the finish line first, my logic proved faulty. I knew, though, that the point remained one of reaching the finish line together and, without crossing it, going back to the start to begin again and again.
I could not bring my heart to join the rest of the race in its ruthless pursuit of the finish line, so I dropped out instead. The only other option would have been to win the race, but not the prize, which was Peace. This, then, is how I came to be an illegal alien in my own home.
I was convinced that others would follow. I never hoped to be alone out here. Never, in my wildest dreams, could I have I-magined that, in voicing my final veto, I'd have risked becoming an illegal alien.
But that's what happened. Here I am, there you are. I visit your airports and taxi stands -- the places where arrivals and departures come. I stand in line, pay my dues and try not to appear conspicuous. But there is a blazing red "A" imprinted on my chest, burning a hole where my heart used to be. I am marked for life by the tragedy. "A" for Alien. "A" for American. "A" for the insignia on my worn t-shirt that says, "I am Ashamed to be an American," because I simply cannot stomach the thought of sitting down to dinner at a table in the smoke-free shelter of a vegetarian restaurant whose claim to fame is that it is the "bioenergetic center of the universe" and yet is situated at the epicenter of the ground-breaking, earth-shaking society in which one in three women will be raped in her lifetime, in which a murder-free day in Detroit is a socio-economic impossibility and where egregiously bad actors are given the reigns in the serial re-run of How the West was Won while the good guys and gals saunter through the revolving doors of their smoke-free environments, sedated, sipping the sweet sap of their sleepy time teas, oblivious to the fact that we've got far more serious problems on our hands than second-hand smoke.
You see, I've been to the center of the universe. It is my home planet. And it is NOT, I assure you, a smoke-free environment. It's only logical, you know: where there's smoke, there's fire; therefore, where there's fire, there has got to be smoke. And, because I have been there, I KNOW there is fire at the center of the universe. A smoke-free municipal airport is not going to get us there, folks, until the single black mother in South Saint Paul can afford the vegetarian pot pies served up at the bioenergetic center of the universe. Unless we start posing the questions that will breed solutions to the murder-free days that do not occur in Detroit, Chicago and East LA, the monolith we, as Americans, erect for posterity will be a neon sign that reads, "Carcinogenic Center of a Smoke-Free Environment."
"Eat your heart out, America!" But, remember that what you are eating are the second-hand hearts, the hand-me-down hearts, the busted, broken, bleating and barely beating hearts of a people who once harbored the bioenergetic center of the universe in the very cavity where what remains now is a glittering red "A": written in memorium of a race that re-membered, not one that grouped and re-grouped in a constant effort to divide and separate the race into those who are members and those who are not.
"Illegal alien, go home!" they tell me, "Leave, if you don't like it. This is a free country!" So, I do. I leave. And I walk down the street to the next establishment. There, where the hungry minds are fed and the tables of contents are written, the waiters and waitresses bear t-shirts that say "Every Legal Herb."
I re-mind them, "This is a contradiction in terms."
They are puzzled and ask, "How so?"
"I'm afraid in taking tobacco from the menu, you have taken what was once considered to be the source of truth. In the olden days, you know? When there was fire in the hearts and food in the bellies and the smoke curled up from Earth lodges in a smut-free, smog-free environment."
"Oh, I see." There is embarrassment and confusion in the waiter's gait as he turns from my table, hoping I don't stay very long.
And I won't. Because I am a heavy smoker who cannot thrive in a smoke-free environment. Because I am an illegal alien in a place where every legal herb is plucked and plunked down on a table void of content and Truth. I choke on my smoke, swallow my Truth with a huff and a puff and leave. There is blood on my hands, red as the red of my heart, my hearth, my home.
Imagine, America, if my answer were "yes," what would the question have to be?