Abuelito wore a fine checked hat and sat in a plastic chair in Room 1004, waiting for the citizenship examiner to call his name.
He held his Mexican passport and a list of study questions, some of them underlined in orange. He pursed his lips. He moved his thumbs down the paper.
"The Supreme Court, the Circuit Court, the inferior courts," Abuelito said.
The waiting area was narrow, and crowded. Most of the faces were Asian and everyone seemed to have dressed that morning with perfection, smoothing down shirt collars, straightening skirts.
You might have noticed that, as you passed by Room 1004 on your way somewhere else; if you had looked in quickly you might also have seen a white-haired man in a black coat and wire-rimmed spectacles, waiting, the way immigrants do.
That was Abuelito.
He has a long official name stamped into his passport, mother's name last, in the Mexican fashion, but that is not a name I have ever known him by. He is called Abuelito, which in Spanish means Grandpa. He was born on the 16th of July, 1899, in the Polish town of Mlava. He was Jewish and left as a young man, sensing the evil before it roared up full, but he could not get into the United States, so he settled in Mexico and raised the boy who turned into my father.
He worked in business and wanted his children to play the piano and the violin, and would take to his bed (or so it was said) when my father got gored at the bullring, or impaled the new Buick on the spikes that stuck down from their balcony in Mexico City.
Always Abuelito wanted to be an American. Always. His son became an American and his daughter married an American and finally the Abuelitos, which is what they call my grandparents together, moved to an apartment in San Francisco, near their family and the sea.
Abuelito waited the necessary five years. He studied in citizenship class.
And this was the day.
His examiner, at this moment, was behind some closed door, asking questions of somebody else, giving passing marks or failing marks.
I asked Abuelito if he was nervous.
"You are about the 10th person that asked me if I'm nervous," Abuelito said. "Why should I be nervous? If I flunk I'll keep on being a Mexican citizen. I'll be a Mexican citizen. I will not go through it again."
He was using English with me. He speaks Spanish most of the time, and Polish when he is keeping secrets from his grandchildren, but his English is very good also, and he is proud of it.
"Let's see," Abuelito said. "It doesn't say here, but what do the colors of your star-spangled banner represent? You know. It's red, white and blue. oBut what are the meanings?"
There were three of us there, me and the two friends who had come to act as Abuelito's witnesses, and one of the friends said, "They have a meaning?"
"That is correct," Abuelito said firmly, nodding. "Red is courage. White is honor. And blue is justice."
Abuelito watched me make notes, and smiled.
"Very important amendment to remember," he said. "The First. Fifth is against incriminating self. They take the Fifth. Right? I know the 15th, 22nd. The 20th is the president takes possession, change the date, 20th of January. Twenty-second is, um, the president can only serve -- the president is elected four years but he can only serve two terms.So. The 14th is being a citizen of the United States, naturalized or born, you can live in any other place in the country, anyplace."
A small Asian girl, in blue Keds and quilted overalls, sat just across the waiting area eating Cheetos from a plastic bag. A man who looked, like Albert Schweitzer walked stiffly the length of the room, and back again. A potbellied, elderly Chinese woman in a brown hat moved past us, squinting, and I thought I recognized her from my morning bus ride, or the park benches at Washington Square where aged Italians and aged Chinese sit silently side by side in sunny afternoons.
"Abuelito," I said. "Why are you doing this?"
"Why?" Abuelito spoke slowly, feeling for the right English words. "First of all, I feel more American being a citizen. I am very much -- impressed -- with the way a citizen is protected. With his rights, in this country. And the freedom of speech. And the freedom of press. That impresses me very much.
"And when you become a citizen," Abueltio said, "you're American, There's no such thing as --" he stopped, listening to see if his name had been called -- "when you're born in Poland, you're Polish all you're life."
Abuelito licked his thumb and turned to the page of his study questions.
"Who's the chief justice?" he asked. "I know it's Burger. Warren Burger is the chief justice. Who are my senators? Hayakawa, the Republican, Cranston the Democrat. And who are my senators in the state of California? Well, there's Foran, the Democrat. There's Marks, the Republican. In the state senate or the state congress, they are not called representatives. They are called assemblymen. All these things I have memorized."
I asked Abuelito what else he knew. "All these things!" Abuelito cried.
"You ask me, and I'll tell you."
I asked him what the First Amendment was.
"Speech." Abuelito said. "Free speech. Free press. And there's also the first 10 amendments, if you know, that the 13 colonies made. About 10 things, they are. They're the Bill of Rights. The right to meet. The right to a fair trail. Protection against excesses --"
Abuelito stopped and looked up quickly. The clerk was calling some more names. Tom. Wo. Evans. No Abuelito. Not time yet.
"When was the Constitution written?" he asked "September 17, 1787. And the Constitution was written by the 13 colonies that have formed the United States. Who wrote the national anthem? Betsy Ross."
"Wrong," I said.
"Wrong?" Abuelito cried. "Why?" I told him why.
"Oh," said Abulito. "That is right. That is Key."
Abuelito folded his hands in his lap and looked at me again. "Who elects the Supreme Court judges?" he asked.
"They are appointed by the governor, but they have to be confirmed by the people in an election," I said.
"Sorry," said Abuelito. "Wrong."
"Oh, the federal Supreme Court justices," I said. "They are appointed by the president."
"By the prsident," Abuelito said, nodding. "And for how long are they elected?"
"Lifetime," I said.
Abuelito nodded again and patted me on the head. "Good coppela ," he said in Yiddish. Good little head.
From the other end of the waiting room, someone called Abuelito's name.
He got up quickly, holding his study questions. A mustachioed man in a pigeon-gray suit came out of a closed office and gestured to Abuelito. The man looked tired. I said I was the granddaughter and would like to hear the examination. "Not possible," the man said without looking at me, and waved my away.
Abuelito went into the examining room and the man closed the door.
I looked at the walls.
There was a Norman Rockwell painting of a mother and father tucking a white quilt around two sleeping boys. The children looked pale, the mother's lips were parted a little as though she had been caught mid-lullaby, and the father stood in his suspenders, gazing down at the boys, a World War II-headlined newspaper in his hand. "They came from every stock," said the accompanying text. "The men who had seen the faces of tyranny, the men who wanted room to breathe and a chance to be men."
Down at the far end of the waiting room, the young man behind the counter was talking to the immigrants as he completed their paperwork. "Congratulations," he would say, smiling, and he would hand them a pen to sign their names. The young man was Asian with a slight accent; he might have immigrated himself and remembered the moment of passage, the passionate hope. I was not angry at Mr. Tired Mustache, there behind the closed door with Abuelito, but I hoped he might see the look on the face of the 30-year-old man who had come to him this December morning wanting nothing more than to answer his questions correctly and live, officially and with full rights of citizenship in the nation Abuelito still thought the finest on Earth.
The examining room door opened 12 minutes after it had shut.
Abuelito walked out into the waiting room. He shook the examiner's hand. He looked at me, standing there all nervous with my pen and my note-pad and my eyes the same color as his.
He put his hat on his head.
He tucked his Mexican passport into his coat pocket.
"Cinch", Abuelito said.