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 naïve 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.