What’s up?

It was already 10pm by the time I made it to the police station. I was tired, and hungry, but I had no choice. If I waited until tomorrow, it would just increase the chances that I’d end up getting deported.

There were three men in the lonely street light outside the door, one of them straddling a motorcycle, each of them taking turns yelling in voices on the border between loud and angry. As they were still able to take turns, I figured the coast was clear enough for me go ahead and push through the clear plastic strips hanging in the doorway to the reception hall.

The first thing you notice in the reception hall of the police station in my neighborhood is the cage. Halfway between the front and the back, the room is bisected by a wall of metal bars that separate the blue-clad officers and the rest of us. On the left side of the room is a desk, at which the blue-clad people sit and interface with society by talking and passing documents back and forth through the bars; on the other side is a door in the bars, used most often by that weird half-breed of civil servant, the black-shirted “police helpers,” who dress in all black and laze around police stations, sometimes seeming to bustle to and fro, but never with any apparent effect.

But tonight, there were neither black nor blue shirted officials in the reception room. Just me, taking a moment to adjust to the vaguely yellow light splashing on walls that looked like they had been whitewashed sometime in the early eighties, and a tired man in late middle age, slouching on the bench along the left-hand wall. His clothes did not appear to have been changed in several days, and his old, dingy bag was laid on the bench next to him. His face was worn and red, and his eyes even more so, yet he did not appear to be injured or crying. He was looking down and didn’t acknowledge my entrance. I walked up to the bars and waited.

As the seconds ticked by, the yelling outside failed to coalesce into a real argument, and eventually faded altogether. The near-silence continued for a few moments before being broken by the echo of angry shouts breaking out somewhere deep inside the station. The shadows of unhurried figures were occasionally visible beyond the interior window on the other side of the bars. I had no choice but to stand there, wondering whether it would be worth it to sit and wait, or if whatever crisis was brewing in the bowels of the bureaucracy was going to occupy all available officers for the time being.

“Why don’t you have a seat?”

The calm, reassuring voice seemed to come from nowhere, and it took me a moment to realize that the speaker was the unfortunate middle-aged man. When I looked over at him, his red eyes met mine for a moment before looking back down. I had a seat on the right side of the room. The man didn’t speak again.

After a minute or so the encroaching noir was broken by the sudden entrance of a blue shirt from the door behind the bars. She looked not more than thirty, and was surprisingly upbeat without trespassing into perkiness. She ignored the middle aged man as she walked straight up to the desk behind the bars and addressed me directly:

“What’s up?”

She had no way of knowing, but a blood vessel almost burst in my brain as I opened my mouth to explain myself; not because of her, but because of the story she’d asked me to tell. The last three days had been in turns puzzling, terrifying, demoralizing, hilarious, and enraging. I could communicate everything I needed to in three sentences or less, but that short little story carried such a heavy consequence for my present life that, for a moment, I almost forgot where to start. So I stalled for a beat, just long enough to glance over at the middle aged man, still looking down, and took from him this time another kind of reassurance, the kind he probably never wanted to give. Then I looked back at the patient police officer and started to tell her my story.

And that’s a story that I’ll start telling you next time.

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