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Gary Younge
Nervous flyer

It is one of those flights where the passengers clap when the plane lands without incident, as though they believed there was a serious chance the journey might end in some other way.

But right from the start Junior Iliopou looked more nervous than most. He was too distracted to put his luggage away properly in the overhead bins ("Whose is this?" barked a steward. "Are you kidding?"). Yet he was still so desperate for distraction that he spent at least an hour scrutinising the inflight magazine.

Only when the customs and immigration forms came around 10 minutes after take-off did I understand how much he had to be nervous about.

"What do I put for this?" he asked, leaning over the aisle and pointing at the line that asked for his country of residence.

"Where do you live?" I asked him.

"Port-au-Prince," he said.

"Well, put down Haiti," I said.

"But I'm going to the United States," he said.

"Yes, but you don't live there."

"But I have papers that show I have the right of residency in the US. If I put Haiti they might think I am going back."

This was not only Junior's first trip abroad. It was his first time in an aeroplane. Aged 19, he was coming to New York to start a new life. He clutched his documents close in a neat blue folder, checking every 20 minutes that they were all still there. His brand-new Haitian passport was crisp and uncreased; the erratic use of capitals and lower cases on his immigration form suggested a precarious level of literacy.

There was no dawn breaking over the Statue of Liberty as he sailed into Ellis Island. There would be no checks under his eyelids for trachoma and his name was unlikely to be altered by careless immigration officials.

But, none the less, Junior was on a path well-travelled. He was one more protagonist in the oldest and most engaging New York story there is. Indeed, the story of New York itself - the arrival of the immigrant in the big city.

"I want to do serious things in my life," he said. "I want to study and work and help my family. This is a big chance for me."

By the time the clapping had subsided on touchdown we were close friends. I lent him my mobile phone to call his mother in Brooklyn to tell her he had arrived safely and explained all I knew about the immigration process.

I was meeting a friend on a flight from London an hour later and so said I would wait for him outside customs. I had the time, but also the vanity to hope that I might become part of Junior's own story, just as a few Brits had been in my mother's when she first arrived in England. A friendly face in a strange place.

Feigning confidence right up to the immigration official, I saw his halting English crumble under interrogation. As he was directed to a small room for further questioning he looked over and asked that I stay until he came out. Forty minutes later, in the baggage hall, his confidence was back.

"How did it go in there?" I asked him.

"They asked me lots of questions and I answered them all correctly," he said, as though he did it all the time and showed me his stamp. "It was perfectly normal."

As we breezed through customs he started panicking again.

"What happens next?" he asked. "Are they going to take my picture? Who do I have to see now?"

I pointed at the sliding door to the arrivals hall, opening and closing for those ahead of us.

"Once you walk through there you can disappear. You're in New York," I said. He smiled in angst and anticipation. The doors flung open for us, and his mother's arms flung open for him.

· Overheard at the flea market on Seventh Avenue, between a trader and customer haggling over a huge wooden crate: "Honey, I could give you it for less. But I won't because I know someone's going to buy it for more. Get it now. When you get married you can use it to move your things in. If you get divorced you can use them to take them out. Either way, you know you're gonna use it."

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