Friday, 7 July 2017

NYC Stories (1)

“I fly into JFK – my heart goes boom, boom, boom
I know that Customs man
He’s gonna take me to that little room – oh, no, no…
I got the Paranoid Blues
From knockin around in New York City.”
Paul Simon, Paranoid Blues

Flying is amazing, isn’t it?
I am always amazed, and always look out the window at the take-off and landing.  This time I see Wembley in the distance as we take off, and see the Severn bridges below, about 15 minutes later.  It took two and a half hours to get to Heathrow and quarter of an hour to get back to Wales…

Flying is one of those things I never get blasé about (not that I do a lot, to be fair).  Because it is amazing.  I have no real understanding of how it works.  To me, we might as well be powered by farts and buoyed in the sky by our collective expectation of maintaining the usual altitude.  (I’m not an idiot, and if someone explained it, I’d get it.  But I prefer to think of it as some kind of magic.  As Karl Popper wrote, magic is simply unexplained science.  And since no one has explained aviation to me in any detail, that seems like the appropriate term.  Although my only knowledge of Karl Popper is from an Irvine Welsh short story.  So that’s unreliable.)
Anyway, flying is amazing.  

I particularly enjoy the sudden – and regular – shunts and whirrs and burrs that make it seem like any other form of mechanical mass transit…..which it probably is (we take off nearly 2 hours late, so it definitely is.)
I always look out the window and I always think of the Enclosures Act.  And so, here we are in a bus 30000 feet above southern England, watching TV and films and drinking for free.

It’s still public transport, so I’m still with the general public, naturally.  Sat in front of me is a Hasidic couple.  When the meals go round, the stewardess apologetically explains that, as they have not ordered a Kosher meal, they haven’t got any.  The woman had already been wearing such a pained, pinch-faced expression, that I can only imagine (she’s sat in front of us, so I can’t see) what consternation this causes.  Neither her, nor her companion (I’d say husband, if I was the type to make assumptions) smile at any point; he is merely stony-faced.  She regards everything around her as if it were smeared with excrement.

I get talking to a man sat near me, who is from Cardiff.  His name is Dai.  He likes a drink.  (Friends I tell this story to later will describe him as an “enabler”, which I will find apposite.  And amusing.  In equal measure.)
Dai seems nice, and keeps getting us drinks – enabling the drinking, if you will.  He will.  Even though there are staff to bring us drinks, and the drinks are free, Dai gets rounds in when he heads to the toilet.  (We’re right near the back, by the toilet and catering supply dump, so it’s easy enough and saves us calling staff to get us drunk.)
I try to take it easy on the drink, because I’m a bit nervous about going through customs/immigration…

Dai seems on my level, and his opinions are progressive (and/or interesting).  Then, in the middle of some schtick I’ve started, he makes a weird joke about gas chambers, apropos of nothing – at which point, I put my hand over my mouth and point to the Hasidic woman right in front of us….it takes Dai a minute to catch up, at which point he says “Sorry!” quite loudly and shrugs.  Oh well, his shrug seems to say.  It wasn’t a racist joke, just stupid.  I like Dai, so I’m inclined to let it go, although obviously I didn’t like it – and wouldn’t have liked it anymore whoever was hearing it.  (It wasn’t really about gas chambers per se, he just mentioned it, for reasons best known to himself.  More odd than offensive, in my book.)

I have a coffee to sober up. 

At one point, the Hasidic woman suddenly jerks her chair back, nearly spilling my drink.  Not a crime, but a bit rude without a heads-up.  Dai is in the same boat, but the woman in front of him moves it at his request.  He seems like the sort who would not stand for any shite.  The (excellent-throughout-the-flight-and-presumably-only-straight-male-ever-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-joke-which-I’m-not) steward politely requests the Hasidic woman do the same.  Everyone is happy – except the woman, who still wears the expression of a bulldog chewing a wasp.  Or maybe it’s just the expression of a person who was hungry, having a shit time and then heard a very offensive joke.

I disembark, tired but sober/ing.  It is around 1 am on my body clock as I go to the visa check place – 7pm NY time.  Dai and I say our goodbyes without exchanging numbers or planning to meet.  This is the way I would usually want it, but in this case, I regret it just slightly because he does seem an intriguing character.

So, in the event, I’m in a queue waiting to see an immigration official (here they’re part of the Police dept. as well, so he’s technically a copper – and therefore, presumably, armed(!))

I know from experience that immigration officials/border guards are professionally humourless, gruff and do not respond positively to humour/humanity shown by entrants.  I have found this in the UK, but my (admittedly limited) experience of entering the US means I know that I will likely not be regarded as a person, and should not regard as a person the person not regarding me as a person.
Because I am not a first-timer, I do the first part pf this process on a machine, and print a receipt to show the border guard, which includes a black&white picture of me.

At this point, I see Dai being spoken to by one of the seemingly-endless succession of queue management staff.  He had been running around, confused and a bit drunk, ducking under barriers and generally behaving conspicuously.  I avoid him, giving him the widest berth possible. I don’t need this shit right now/ever.

I join the “line” (that’s what they call a queue here) to see the Border Guard, and assume the body language of an innocent person who is not at all nervous.  I wonder for a while what facial expression a person would show in this situation, if they had no paranoid fear of being discovered a liar and criminal and taken to a small room with no windows and confronted aggressively with proof of their lying criminality and frog-marched on to a plane and sent home, at their own expense, without even an opportunity to reclaim baggage, and subsequently barred from entering the USA for ten years.
And then I wonder if all of this calculation plays out on my face, in place of the weary nonchalance I am trying to affect/convey.
I notice the BG walk off with the person at the front of the queue, and this does nothing for my nerves.

Then I notice that the person being led away with the BG is Dai.  And my heart falls out of my arse.

I watch the BG noticing me noticing him after he returns.  And this also does nothing to help.
Having looked around at the queue, I am relieved to see a lot of white faces in line….for reasons with which I am not comfortable.
America is a very mixed, and very racially stratified society.  NY has a complex place in all this: most of the border staff are not white.  I wonder, briefly, how they feel about all the anti-immigrant feeling and crazy rhetoric and executive orders…and whether their race makes any difference to their feelings on this.
And then I go back to thinking about myself.

I briefly think, again, about the Hasidic couple from the plane.  And I see them go through, having completed their security checks.  I really hope they didn’t hear Dai’s joke.  I hope we weren’t assholes to them, and that they looked pissed off because that’s what they look like, or because they were pissed off about something else (going hungry, for example).
And then I go back to thinking about myself.

By the time I get to the queue for passport/visa checks, I have convinced myself to calm down a bit.  I have put on a zip-up hoody to cover my heart, so that it’s less obvious that it’s thumping out of my chest.
A Border Guard calls me forward, out of the queue...

I am in a state of nervous exhaustion.  There’s NO WAY they’ll send me back. There is NO CHANCE they’ll search my criminal records history and see…well, what’s there.
And even if they do, I know what I’ll say:  I didn’t lie, I completed that form to the best of my knowledge and belief, and that, because I am under no obligation to reveal my "criminal" past under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, I had forgotten all about it – it was all years ago, decades ago, for Chrissakes!  I will say that, even though it will not help (the ESTA application explicitly discounts the RoOA, but I will only mention it to corroborate my story of forgetfulness).  It will not help, but this is my only back-up plan.

The BG glances at my passport, and bids me also follow him.  At this point, my entire life flashes before my eyes.  The BG does not tell me why I should follow him and I am not inclined to ask.
I am led to a small waiting area, and invited to sit.  Next to Dai, it turns out.  He is smiling serenely to himself, barely acknowledging my presence – until the BG leaves the area.

Dai looks at me askance, as if recognising me for the first time.  “What you in for, then?”
I look around, furtively, and whisper “I lied on my ESTA…!  I think they know!
“Your fuckin what?”
“ESTA – the visa waiver thing!”
“Jesus, I’m surprised they haven’t got you in manacles, you despicable monster.” He chuckles.  “How would they know?  Say fuck all, you’ll be fiiiiiine.”
I am scared to ask him what he’s doing here, but my curiosity doesn’t have to wait long before he offers, blithely:
“Yeah, well, I got caught a few years back trying to get a backpack full of stuff in.  So now, I get hassle every time I come through.  Occupational hazard innit.”  His grin is oddly disconcerting, but I don’t know if this is because of my febrile state, or his strange calm.
I feel like a kid in school, relieved that there’s a worse kid than me waiting outside the Headmaster’s office – and then trying to play up my own transgression, trying to look hard to the hard man.
“Well, I got done in London a long time ago, I guess they wanna give me some shit for that, maybe…thought I was done with all this shit.”  I’m trying to seem cool.  I’m not proud of this, but it's what's happening.

After what seems like aeons, another BG, who I have not seen before, approaches us both, looks at a clipboard and looks at Dai.  Then he lowers his clipboard, looks at me as one would a rabbit in headlights – a combination of surprise, sympathy and pathos – and asks gently:
“Why are you here, Sir?” – and then, looking at the clipboard, “Mrrrrrrr….Davies?”
“Umm, I don’t know, they just asked me to come over by here.”  Ohfuckohfuckohfuckhowdoesheknowmynameohfuck

He shrugs.  He looks around.  The other BG, the one who bade me follow him to this purgatorial bench, is nowhere to be seen.  He, the new BG, asks my nationality, and I tell him.  He asks if I have an ESTA or visa, and I tell him I have an ESTA, brandishing the receipt in trembling fingers.
He thinks for a second, before turning to Dai to tell him:
“Could you please wait here a moment, Sir.”
And then, to me:
“Follow me.”

Dai nods, almost imperceptibly, being savvy enough not to let on that we know each other.  I’m very grateful for this, and acknowledge his help, displaying my gratitude with a slight nod of my own, when the BG’s back is turned.

I wonder how differently this whole scene would play out if he and I were not both white and entering a majority white country. 
And then I go back to thinking about myself.
The BG leads me away, and as my heartbeat threatens to deafen me, we arrive back at the queue I had been plucked out of, for reasons I now cannot fathom.  A few moments ago, of course, I thought I knew why.  Which was marginally better, and simultaneously much much worse.  This BG looks friendly, in spite of my expectations, and makes smiling small talk with the entrants.
So, anyway, I’m suddenly back in the main hall, and everyone behind me looks annoyed that I have joined at the head of the queue, and the new BG calls me forward.  His name is not Paul, but that’s what I’m calling him (all the staff have their names embroidered on their shirts, it’s an American thing).  He is a Person of Color (that’s how they spell it here), and I feel that this is a positive aspect.  I cannot explain why I think this.  Paul takes my passport, receipt with b&w photo, and Customs Declaration (which I have completed honestly, as I have no meat or vegetables on me – I even made sure to scoff all my yoghurt-covered banana chips and chocolate-covered brazils, just in case), and he directs me to press fingertips to a small screen for a scan, and while doing this, asks me if I am here on holiday.  I answer:

“Yes.  Yeah.”

He asks me where I am staying.  I say
“At my brother’s place, in Brooklyn.”
He says:
(The first time we came here, Brother C told us not to volunteer this information, as “I’m staying with family who already live here” is a red flag to a US BG.  My companion on that trip ignored this advice, cheerfully offering up the information without being asked specifically about it, and the humourless BG looked at him for a while that seemed very long, presumably to make absolutely sure we weren’t just a little bit Mexican-looking, before waving us through.)

Paul is friendly and goes about his work with laid-back professionalism.  He asks me about my job, and follows up with employment-based small talk.  This is not what I had come to expect from previous visits.
Paul asks me to remove my hat for a pic (I have already done the fingerprinting and picturing on the machines, before queuing), and asks me about the holidays I get from work.  I treat this like a conversation with someone who is not holding my fate in his hands, and respond.  I do not ask about his job/holidays.
He hands me back my passport and receipt with the b&w pic and says:
“Enjoy your holiday.  Cheers.”
And I say:

“Thank you.  Thanks.”

I note, but do not commend him on his use of British idioms, as I walk away, trying not to look relieved.
I haven’t felt so nervous/paranoid/subsequently relieved dealing with law officials since I stopped smoking weed.
I am sober now, that’s for sure.

After I collect my bags, however, I realise there is another layer of passport control, and my heart sinks and then starts to beat faster again.
Luckily, it’s just a cursory check that we’ve been through the proper visa process – what the staff at this particular checkpoint here laughingly call the “Welcome Commiddee” (that’s how they pronounce it here).  Thankfully, I kept my receipt with the b&w pic (even though no one told me to), and the copper/BG/whatever is happy with that.  I overhear one of the other officials telling a passenger who has asked why his brother was taken out of the queue and questioned:
“It’s a trial, they’re testing a new system, so they need people to go and do a body scan thing.  Maybe it’ll be quicker for everyone if they wind up using that – and anyone who does it won’t have to wait in line.”

And I’m out into the night, on an adrenaline high, grateful, tired and wired.  I jump in a yellow taxi, and I’m on my way into New York City.

I made it. 

If I can maaaaaaaaaaaake it there, I’ll make it aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnywheeere,
It’s up to YOU!  NEW Yoooooooorrrrrk

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