A Concrete Home, or How I Learned to Love the Flag


Pablo Airaldi spent seven months in detention waiting to find out if he would be allowed to stay in America. This is from his daily journals written during that time.

I locked my bike on Worth Street in Manhattan, a.k.a. “Avenue of the Strongest,” and stared at her for a moment. Something didn’t feel right.

It was Oct. 13 and I was headed to Federal Plaza for a pretrial hearing, one of what seemed an endless string of court dates in which I had to argue my right to stay in this country. The judge admired my progress as she read through a print article on the bike shop I just helped start. She lectured me about hiring a lawyer—to which I replied that I was still too poor, too disillusioned from this place—and then adjourned court to next April, wishing me luck. Relief washed over me. Earlier, I had been so worried of being deported that I called my best friend Becky, a messenger working for Elite Couriers, my old workplace, and had her grab my bike key.

As I made my way toward the elevator, I noticed two rather menacing figures following me. The arrow down button had barely lit up when they asked my name, then told me they had some questions they’d like to ask. The two led me into the elevator. As soon as the doors had shut, out of sight of any courtroom, I felt the handcuffs go around my wrists.

It’s been two months since Immigrations and Customs Enforcement wanted to ask me some questions. After a mind-numbing, soul shattering, eight-hour ordeal through processing, they shipped me in shackles to New Jersey into the loving arms of Hudson County Correctional Facility. I was stripped of all clothing and handed one pair of 3XL boxers, one pair of 3XL pants, and a green 4XL shirt in return. Seeing that I’m 5’7” and 140 pounds, this was not the best fitting outfit. Upon complaint, I was laughed at and told to keep moving. Pants in hand, I was led to a temporary dorm filled with petty criminals. A week later, they transferred me to the block I currently call home.

There are seven immigration-specific dorms here. E-500-South is a roughly 100’ x 40’ concrete box half-filled with 32 double bunks made of steel; the other half is a cafeteria-style common area. Two TVs man the border between the two areas. There is no outside rec. for us, no library, other than a law library, and maybe four board games to share between 64 detainees. Ninety percent of the men here spend their time alternating between TV and dominoes, the other ten percent rarely even get out of bed, too forlorn or confused to even make the effort every morning.

Our day officially begins at 6:30 a.m., a piercing electronic bell screams out through the PA system. This bell is the bane of my existence that I swear was put here solely to destroy my sanity. It floods our ears at 1 p.m., signifying midday lockdown, again at 3 p.m. to let us loose to the common area, again at night for 3 successive periods from 8:45 p.m. to 9:15 p.m. to tuck us into our final lockdown. You would think that would be enough of this unholy thing but just in case you went to sleep early, it goes off around 10:30 p.m. and once more at 3 a.m., I’m guessing just for kicks. Each mind-melting ring varies in length depending on the amount of malice in the heart of the officer in the control room, which is usually well above the normal amount of spite any one human should contain.

All of the men subjected to this nonsense have either paid their debts to society already or have not committed any crime at all. I’m not saying we are saints but this system is here for much more than the upholding of Federal law—someone needs us to be the bad guys. There are fathers of citizens here taken from their children, husbands torn from wives, kids barely 18 being deported to countries they know nothing about. Unlike criminals charged by the state, an attorney is not appointed for us if we cannot afford one. We’re just shit out of luck, left to fend for ourselves inside the maze of newly amended immigration laws. Month after month we are strung along while still detained, many get so frustrated from the continual postponement of judgment that they sign papers of voluntary deportation so they can feel the sun once again.

Every so often, I awake in the middle of the night, in between the infernal bell, to the sound of C.O.’s and shuffling feet. There, in the wee hours of the day, they ship the unknowns off to a state where their family will have trouble contacting them and where the judges are stricter to the plight of the immigrant. I was lucky enough to have a community behind me to prevent this from happening to me, but I was forced to watch this happen at least once a week.

We, detainees, are suspended in a purgatory of concrete and steel where days are spent shiftlessly wandering 4,000 square feet and nights sleepless, listening to grown men weeping because they don’t understand what is happening to them. There are no definite release dates for us, simply an ominously hanging question mark. No guarantee of anything, just a realization of a dream turned nightmare.

Everything these men have worked tirelessly for is erased by the whim of a government fanatically trying to duct tape that failing dam that is our economy. They will deport some of this nation’s hardest workers by claiming we are the reason honest Americans can’t find a job.

Some mornings when I wake, I have trouble believing this to be my reality. Every night, my dreams take me back to my beautiful Brooklyn life. Every night I walk through the Chicken Hut, the old factory loft I share with amazing friends, and take great care inspecting each piece of work hanging on the walls and the ceiling. Some nights send me back to those Manhattan streets I’ve ridden through thousands of times during my four years of being a bike messenger. Every scum-filled pothole still fresh in my memory, the timing of the avenues, the distinct smell of each neighborhood, the nods from fellow messengers, it all reels through the screen of my subconscious cinemas. My old, beaten-up laptop, my books that litter the room I lived in, my friends’ paintings hanging on the walls of my room, the random traveler that is usually on our couch, the endless, brilliant drunken nights at the kitchen table surrounded by empty bottles and filled by laughing, beautiful characters, it all comes to me in the darkened hours of this delirium. It takes every ounce of strength I have to not break down, so I wait until the lights are low, the room is still, and I curl up and drown in the force of these memories.

These were the dreams my mother had in mind for me when she met and fell in love with a charmer from a small town in Indiana. In 1988 she first sent for me while I was living in our apartment we shared with my grandparents in Montevideo. After a solo 20-hour flight she met me at the gate entrance. I came back in 1989, and we eventually settled down in that small town then moved to Indianapolis where I spent what should have been my formative years. The fairy tale unraveled quickly: by 9 my stepfather barred us from speaking Spanish in the house, by 12 I had lost my native tongue; at 16 I witnessed our last big fight, 17, homeless, 18, arrested. Realizing how wrong the life I led was for me, I decided to make a clean break from it all. At around 20, after one last go at their “normal life,” I gave up everything but my skateboard, a bike, and whatever I could carry on it and took off.

From Bloomington, Indiana, I rode to Minneapolis; from Minneapolis to Chicago to Nashville. I hitched rides to New Orleans, Austin, hopped freights through Georgia and the Carolinas. I became obsessed with finding the America that Whitman turned into prose, that Kerouac ingested, that nation so loved by Steinbeck that he devoted his entire life to exemplifying its complex yet simple beauty. It was during these two years of constant travel that I began to believe that this America still existed. I found it in every stranger willing to help me along my way. A warm meal, a friendly roadside conversation, a place to sleep for the night, I felt as if this country had finally adopted me as her own through her generosity.

At the end of those truly formative years, I received a phone call from my friend Jimmy inviting yet another move, so after having fought to gain true pride for this country, I made the move to her crowning achievement, New York City. During my first week it hit me that this was where I was supposed to live, where I would grow into the man my new parent nation could be proud of. As I sit at my tiny metal desk now, I can still picture her skyline that would steal my breath daily as I climbed the bridges from Brooklyn into Manhattan for work. My eyes would caress those elegant, jagged curves as they blended perfectly into the sky and fill up with wonder at the heights man could achieve.

My stay here is all up in the air now. There is a good chance the only time I’ll see my city again is in shackles as I’m escorted to JFK for my flight into exile. Although I miss the country of my birth dearly, I’m crushed when I think that my time here could be through just when I was finally blossoming.

The word freedom comes to my mind a lot in here, the word that attracts millions to this nation every year, the word that birthed this nation… and then I look around me, into the eyes of caged men, and see what has become of this word. Is this word doomed to simply be a soap box selling point, or will it be taken back by the beautiful population it has come to represent?

Pablo Airaldi is currently back at home in Bed-Stuy. He can be found spinning wrenches at 718 Cyclery in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn or cycling around the streets of Manhattan for Clementine Couriers. Although his native home is a country a few thousand miles away, he considers himself American in the traditional sense. He is currently finishing up a book based on daily journals written during his seven month stay in detention called “Dearly Deported”. Entries can be found online at a http://dearlydeported.blogspot.com/, please feel free to bug him about updating and sharing more. More from this author →