Friday, October 18, 2013

Home

Home, Garrison Keillor reminds us, is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in. If this is true, then America is no longer my home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.



I love being in America (where else on this planet can you get aerosol cheese and a chocolate pizza?) but travelling to America leaves something to be desired. Forget for the minute that I am never at ease rocketing through the stratosphere in an oversized cigar tube with wings and concentrate, instead, on the indignity of being treated like a criminal every time you attempt to enter your own home. We live in perilous times, however, so absurdly intrusive security seems a small price to pay in exchange for our safety (though I have to admit, making people sign a waiver that essentially reads, “Say, you’re not planning on overthrowing the US government while you’re here, are you?” will foil the plans of no one save for the most unbelievably na├»ve anarchists).



With this thought in mind, and my yearly promise to myself to take it all in good stride, we left for America.

At Heathrow, we were pleasantly surprised. The guards were affable, non-threatening and even joked with us as they patted us down. They effectively conveyed the notion that we were all in it together, that they knew it was absurd but, hey, this is their job. I did not allow this unexpected pleasantry to raise my expectations of their America counterparts but I must report that, when we landed at Newark, none of the guards there made me feel the least bit threatened, either.

On the other hand, the American guards were a po-faced lot, processing the incoming with humorless efficiency. This general improvement was likely due to the many signs posted throughout the entrance hall reminding them they “are the face of America” and to be “courteous, cordial and helpful” and to remember that not ALL of the people coming into the US are criminals and terrorists and to at least occasionally assume that they aren’t. Though I might have made that last bit up.

I was, however, heartened by their attempt at a new attitude and walked with confidence to the immigration guard and proudly displayed my US passport.

“Where is you landing card?” he asked.

“My wife has it,” I told him, “She’s in the other line.”

“You can’t get in without a landing card.”

For the uninitiated, a landing card is a piece of bureaucratic fluff wherein you have to declare the value of anything you are bringing into the country so they can tax you on it. The US is the only country that forces its own citizens to fill one out and they supply a single one per family group, so you have to aggregate the value of your goodies. It’s a way of getting added revenue from really stupid people and this form is handled by the customs guards after you retrieve your bags. It has nothing to do with immigration and I have never been asked for it before.

“I have a card,” I reminded him, “but my wife has it. She had to go through the non-citizen’s line.”

“You can’t get in without a landing card,” he said.



Now, not only did he fail to explain how—if my wife and I were forced to go through two separate lines and had only one landing card between us—we were both supposed to get into the country, he also did NOT say, “You can’t get in without a landing card; here’s a blank one, fill it out now and I’ll let you go through,” or “You can’t get in without a landing card; go see the guard over there and he’ll help you out.” He simply said, “You can’t get in without a landing card,” and then turned away to attend to another person, leaving me standing there, holding my US passport, tantalizingly close to US territory but, apparently, unable to step into it.

And so I said, “Bloody hell!” and walked into the entrance hall where, in the no-man’s-land between the “stand behind this line until called” line and the guard booths, I faced the crowd of suppliants, held my passport up for them to see and said, “They won’t let me in!” Then I wandered away.

I had no real plan—my mind was too boggled for thought—so I simply wandered, cutting through lines, ducking under barriers to walk through restricted areas and passing by uniformed guards wearing grim expressions and side-arms, but no one shot me, no one even said, “Just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” They just let me wander.

Eventually, I ran into my wife who was, by lucky coincidence, standing in the slowest line in the Non-Citizen side of the hall. If she had been in a faster line, she—and our landing card—would have already been on the other side, and I would have been doomed to roam the airport, like Tom Hanks but without Catherine Zeta-Jones, until my return flight.

As it was, I was able to get into America, the country of my birth, where I am a passport-carrying, bona fide citizen, only because my not-a-US-citizen wife vouched for me.

I have no words.


Hours later, safely ensconced in the abode of a good friend and surrounded by the dazzling display of New England in October, I listened to the sounds of the approaching autumn evening and knew—despite what my landing-card-obsessed immigration guard might think—I was home.


15 comments:

  1. I hate it when they do that. It's almost like they aren't listening to you, they just keep on repeating the same thing. God forbid that they should come up with a suggestion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, "thinking" seems to have been left out of their job training. I really have no idea what he expected me to do.

      Delete
  2. It seems like the airport TSA workers are an especially brain-dead lot who take absolutely no pleasure in any part of their job. It makes you wonder if their mothers are making them work there because everything they do is done grudgingly, at best and aggressively, at worst.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The TSA agents are simply thugs; they are low-paid, unskilled workers handed nearly unlimited power. At the risk of invoking Goodwin's Rule, here's a quote from Han Frank, the leader of Poland during WWII:

      "The power and the certainty of being able to use force without any resistance is the sweetest and most noxious poison that can be introduced into any government."

      TSA = BAD IDEA in my book

      Delete
  3. Anonymous8:15 AM

    This was the INS not the TSA. You have to particularly dislike people to work in the INS. I uses to have an INSpass card to bypass the people - but they made me renew it every year in a process that took far longer than the manual entry process.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the distinction. I do have a particular beef with the TSA (see above comment) but, in this particular case, it was the INS Agent who stopped me from entering my own country. And even on a good day I rarely get a smile or any other acknowledgement from them that they are a) human, or b) give a toss about the people they are "serving".

      Delete
  4. Anonymous9:51 AM

    I feel you pain, when I go back home with my English husband we fill out two cards just to avoid arguments. Every time I go back home I get asked "Is your purpose of travel business or pleasure?" and the ever popular " How long do you plan on staying?" HELLO!!!! American passport..... I can stay as long as I please. Inane questions abound at US immigration.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The best one I got was from UK Immigration back when I had my Permanent Leave to Remain in the UK certificate in my passport. The guy looked at it and then glared at me and asked, "How did you get this!"

      Delete
  5. Anonymous11:48 AM

    Just FYI, when you're traveling as a couple, the two of you together can go through whichever line is convenient for you, regardless of nationality. My partner is British and I'm American, and for the last several years we go through the US citizen line in the US and the EU citizen line in the UK. The first time we came back into the UK after I'd gotten my UK residence visa the man at the desk at Heathrow shouted at me for not being with the person I was traveling with (even though I'd filled out a separate landing card), because the landing cards say '1 per family', and you're a family, and also they want to see people traveling together all at the same desk in case you're fishy. I checked the next time we came into the US and they feel the same, so that's apparently a universal rule. Which makes customs a lot faster for everyone, because you get to pick the fastest line even if it's not the one for native citizens!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The problem is, "Rule" is a rather flexible thing. What we did this time was no different than what we did last time and the time before that and the time before that. If we did go through the US line together, I could see the guard telling us it was not allowed. If they had actual rules posted and actually followed them consistently, it would help. Currently, it seems random and based on the mood of the INS Officer. And at the very least they could be cordial and helpful instead of suspicious and recalcitrant.

      Delete
  6. Mrs Baum6:16 PM

    The last twice that I've been to the US, the guard people weren't too bad. (We're all Brits.) The Orlando ones were sort of po-faced but not actually unpleasant, and were polite. I always give them a cheery "hello" and a charming smile though, in the hope that that'll help.

    Last year, we flew to Boston, and the guy there was actually friendly and pleasant. Maybe they employ intelligent people in Boston, or maybe they're a bit nicer if you have kids with you. Or maybe he fancied me...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Then I guess my guard didn't fancy me...;)

      Delete
  7. Leon W11:36 PM

    (Mike, this won't help): Perfection of means and confusion of ends seems to characterize our age. ~Albert Einstein

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Mike! Just came across your site via Ms Sparrow's. We flew to England in 96 and again in 98 (Dad was from London) and didn't have any probs back then. However, I think that traveling has gotten a bit more complicated lately. I too understand the need for heightened security, but there should be a way that doesn't make the travel experience so unpleasant.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, things have tightened up considerably since ' 98. I don't mind the security; it's the hostility I object to.

      Delete