Jende Jonga enters Clark Edwards’s office at the renowned investment bank, Lehman Brothers, to interview for a job as a chauffeur. Jende gets the job, which pays thirty-five thousand dollars per year—far more than he earned when he was working as a dishwasher or driving livery cabs in the Bronx during his first couple of years in New York. Jende has been living in the United States since 2004, when he obtained a three-month visitor’s visa from the U.S. embassy in his native Cameroon, with the intention of getting a green card. In his first two years in the U.S., living as an undocumented immigrant, Jende saves up enough money to bring over his girlfriend, Neni, on a student visa, along with their son, Liomi, in 2006. That same year, he and Neni marry.
Jende and Neni are grateful to be in America, where they feel that they have something to look forward to each day. With the help of his attorney, Bubakar, Jende applies for asylum. Bubakar assures him that his prospects of getting it will be good, despite the cockamamie story that he instructs Jende to tell about Neni’s father trying to kill him.
Neni works as a home health aide to the elderly and studies chemistry at community college, with the hopes of becoming a pharmacist. Jende is certain that his assignment with Clark will lead to him one day being able to save for his own home, preferably in a New York suburb. After he gets the job, Clark asks him to sign a confidentiality agreement, meaning that Jende will not reveal a word of what he overhears Clark say while driving him around—not to anyone.
Jende’s work days usually involve driving Clark to work, shuttling his youngest son, Mighty, to school and to various extracurricular activities in the company of his nanny, Stacy, and taking Clark’s wife, Cindy, to beauty and lunch appointments. While chauffeuring the Edwardses around Manhattan, Jende learns the intimate details of their lives. He learns that Clark and Cindy’s eldest son, Vince, plans to leave Columbia School of Law and move to India, in an effort to distance himself from what he perceives as his parents’ shallow, materialistic values. He learns that Clark is overworked and desperate to avert a looming crisis at Lehman Brothers. He also learns how desperate Cindy is to keep her family happy and together, and how eager she is to maintain her place within her upscale Manhattan social circle.
Neni forms her own relationship with the Edwardses, particularly with Mighty, and also becomes a witness to the mess which lurks beneath the surface of the family’s sumptuous lifestyle. When she agrees to substitute for their regular maid, Anna, during their summer sojourn in Southampton, she finds out about Cindy’s abuse of alcohol and painkillers after one day finding Cindy passed out in the bed of her guest bedroom. The next day, during a late breakfast by the pool, Cindy provides some context to the insecurity that fuels her self-destructive behavior. She tells Neni that she came from a poor family and, therefore, feels compelled to fight very hard to keep everything that she has. Cindy asks Neni never to tell anyone about the condition in which she saw Cindy the night before. In exchange, she gives Neni bundles of her old clothes and some of Mighty’s discarded clothes and toys, which she offers for Liomi.
Later that night, Neni overhears an argument between Clark and Cindy regarding their frustration with Vince’s plans to quit law school. After Clark leaves the house and Cindy is left to cry alone in the kitchen, Neni emerges from her room and goes to comfort Cindy, who’s drunk off of wine and slurring words of frustration over how everyone in her life mistreats her. Neni learns, to her shock, that Cindy was a product of rape and grew up being resented by her mother.
Meanwhile, Clark becomes increasingly stressed about his work. Jende notices that, regardless of the time of day, Clark spends much of his time on the phone, angrily shouting orders to someone. These moments are punctuated only by the three hours of sleep that he gets per night, sometimes in his office, and the hour-long appointments that he starts having at the Chelsea Hotel on some evenings. Anna becomes concerned about Cindy’s drug and alcohol abuse, and particularly about how it may affect Anna’s job security. She relates this concern to Neni while they’re catering a Sunday brunch at the family’s Upper East Side Manhattan apartment. Neni admits that she noticed Cindy’s drug and alcohol abuse in the Hamptons. With this confirmation that she is, indeed, not “crazy,” Anna insists that they confront Clark about Cindy’s problem. Neni agrees to talk to him. She walks toward Clark, who’s standing alone, looking out of the window in his living room. Then, Neni bows out, afraid of what Jende will think of her meddling in the affairs of the family whom they rely on for everything—to have enough money to send home to struggling relatives, to plan for their future, and to survive in New York.
Shortly thereafter, Neni and Jende host a farewell dinner for Vince, on the eve of his departure to India. For Mighty, it’s an evening filled with the happiness and laughter that have been amiss in his life. He departs that evening against his will, dreading what awaits him at home.
Two weeks before Lehman Brothers’ collapse is announced, Jende has a dream in which his friend Bosco appears and curses the doublers for cheating his mother out of his school fees. While the news of Lehman’s failure unfolds, Jende worries, briefly, that he’ll be out of a job. During a phone call, Cindy assures him that the family will still need his services. In fact, Clark has Jende drive him to the Chelsea Hotel “at least a dozen times in the first five weeks after Lehman [falls].”
One evening, in early November, Cindy speaks to Jende privately. It’s been three days since Barack Obama was elected president, a day after Clark announced that Jende would get a two-thousand-dollar raise for being “an exceptional employee for one full year,” and shortly after Clark forgot his tie during one of his appointments at the Chelsea Hotel. Cindy asks Jende to write down everything that Clark does in a journal and to bring it back to her to read. Jende is reluctant to do this, afraid of dishonoring his confidentiality agreement. Cindy assures him that he won’t lose his job, as long he tells her what she wants to know.
When Jende tells Clark what Cindy has asked of him, Clark advises him to comply with Cindy’s wishes but to leave out everything about the Chelsea Hotel. This solution pleases Jende, who figures that he can’t lose if he satisfies both Mr. and Mrs. Edwards’s wishes. Then, Clark’s long-time secretary, Leah, tells Jende about an escort who published a story, saying that numerous executives at Lehman Brothers bought her services, supposedly using government bailout money, and that Clark is among her clients. Initially, Cindy expresses no displeasure toward Jende. Then, one day, while he’s comforting Mighty over the distressing prospect of his parents’ divorce, the boy tells Jende that he overheard Cindy demanding that Clark “get rid of him” or she’ll “do something.” Soon thereafter, Clark tells Jende that he must let him go.
Jende sadly returns to his former job as a restaurant dishwasher, but Neni isn’t ready to accept Mr. Edwards’s decision. She visits Cindy and, initially, begs Cindy for Jende’s job back, to no avail. Then, Neni pulls out a photo that she took of Cindy when she was passed out, drunk and drugged, in her guest bedroom at the Hamptons house. Cindy is outraged, but she finally agrees to Neni’s demand for money to keep the photo out of the hands of a tabloid journalist. She gives Neni ten thousand dollars in a paper bag and angrily demands that she leave her apartment. Neni goes back to Harlem, satisfied with how how capable of rectifying a situation without Jende’s help. Jende has been plunged in depression since losing his job. Though Neni thinks that the sight of the money will cheer him up, Jende becomes outraged that Neni would bribe the Edwardses after all they’ve done for the Jongas. Neni, however, refuses to feel guilty, believing that Cindy was wrong to have Jende fired so cavalierly, and that people like the Edwardses believe that people like the Jongas are dispensable because they’re African.
Frustrated with his inability to find another job due to his undocumented status, Jende decides that the Jongas will return to Cameroon. He learns that his request for asylum has been declined and it’s far too expensive for him to appeal. He opts for “voluntary departure,” meaning that he’ll buy a plane ticket home and announce to an immigration judge that he’s willing to leave the country of his own accord. He’s tired from his dishwashing job, which earns him only a small fraction of what he earned working for the Edwardses, despite working twice as hard.
Neni, on the other hand, isn’t willing to relinquish her American dream. She considers her friend Betty’s idea of divorcing Jende and then marrying her cousin, an American citizen, for a green card, which infuriates Jende. One night, they fight so badly that Jende slaps Neni. Neni accepts defeat, both at the hands of her husband and when she realizes that her membership in the Phi Theta Kappa society will not earn her a scholarship to pharmacology school, due to her dean of students, Dean Flipkins, refusing to nominate her.
Around this time, the Jongas learn that Cindy has died, as a result of choking on her vomit during another episode in which she was passed out from consuming drugs and alcohol. Jende sees Clark once again. Clark gives Jende two thousand dollars and tells him that he and Mighty plan to move to Cindy’s hometown in Virginia so that they can be closer to family. Clark’s parents will also be moving from California to be near their son and grandson. Vince returned home briefly for his mother’s funeral but is content in India, where he hopes to open a retreat center for executives. Clark has shifted his focus from working as an investment banker to working as a lobbyist for credit unions. During his visit to Clark’s new office, Jende mentions Leah and how he feels sorry for her, due to her inability to find work. Clark assures Jende that she’ll be fine, despite the difficulties that a sixty-year-old woman faces in the job market.
On a sweltering day in late-August, nearly five years after Jende’s first arrival, the Jongas bid New York goodbye. When they arrive at the Douala airport, Jende’s brother, Moto, picks them up from the airport and drives them toward Limbe, where “the red and white sign above the highway” welcomes them home.