Dead of summer in the hôtel de police, all of us foreigners resembling a bunch of rejects from a Benetton casting call, not a single Pepsi pretty among us; the heat causing some of my fellow sufferers to emit a pungent odor-- some the cumin thickness of sweat, some the dark suggestion of badly irrigated bowels. When I was in elementary school and we learned about Ellis Island, I never thought one day I'd experience the (admittedly tamer) French equivalent.
I meant to occupy myself with some photocopies I'd brought along, but was more interested in looking around the room: A funky Asian couple held hands, a couple of Arabs chattered behind me in what even I could tell was a slang version of their language, a group of Africans sat and laughed good-naturedly together in the back row. In front of me, an Asian girl (the writing on her passport looked Thai) and her French boyfriend. I wondered for the millionth time why you always see white guys with Asian girls but very rarely see the opposite (one notable exception being one of my best girlfriends and her half-Asian boyfriend). They spoke in English and she clutched his arm and her Gucci handbag.
There are at least four babies in the room. They start to play a game of call and answer: one says, insistently,"Maman!" Another one behind me says "Maman!" To the right of me another chimes in: "Ba!" A woman in the front row begins to change her baby's diaper, right then and there, on her lap. I am mesmerized. Do they bring them here for sympathy? Is is a calculated political move, to keep the Sarkozys from kicking them out of the country? Or could they simply not spare a sou for a baby sitter?
What a place. I spot an older Asian woman who also sports a Gucci purse. The discrepancy in accessories is telling: Everyone from a country south of France has brought a child to demonstrate their social right to stay in the country; those from countries to the East and West bring their Guccis and Longchamps encoding a different social right, a right of affiliation.
Me, I have my Moleskine and my photocopies. And yes, a tan Longchamp. Selected especially to affiliate and blend.
"Vingt-sept!" A woman calls my number after having rapidly called out 25 and 26, whose owners are either not present or too slow. I gather up my papers and head toward the window.
"Move, move!" the Africans in the back joke. "I'm movin', I'm movin'!" I joke back.
The woman behind the desk begins to admonish me for being too slow when she spies my number card and interrupts herself. "You're not mauve! You're green!" Caught out like a Nader supporter at a Red State convention: I am sent back to my seat. Apparently there's a color-coded system that I have broken. I mutter and curse in English under my breath.
So much for affiliating and blending.
Fairly soon, I hear something that makes sense (for the first time since arriving at the precinct). "I've been waiting for two hours," a man's voice rose up angrily. "How long are you going to make me wait? I have a child with me!"
Aha, I thought. The kids are here to try to speed up the process!
I am "next" for the next hour. When I finally emerge from the police station, two hours have elapsed. Fair is fair. It doesn't matter if you have a child or a boyfriend with you, whether you smell like shit or Annick Goutal, whether you're white, black, green or mauve: you still have to sweat for two hours in the police station along with all the other immigrants.