I went to the United States on Tuesday. I like the United States, or at least, I like most of the bits of it I’ve seen. I like New York and I think San Francisco is one of the most brilliant cities I’ve ever visited. Of course, like anywhere, it’s not all perfect (Camden, New Jersey was a particularly unfond memory) but although my experience of the country represents a tiny proportion of its entirety, I can say that my experience of what I have seen is overall very positive.
On Tuesday I went to Boston, which is also lovely. While Manhattan is like having America distilled into an ultra-concentrated espresso and then injected into your eyeballs, Boston is more like sipping a leisurely cappuccino on the seafront. It’s bustling but laid back and for a major city it is almost calming.
(Actually I don’t like cappuccinos (cappuccini?) so this is a stupid comparison but anyway I like Boston.)
Wherever I may visit in the USA, there is one thing of which I can be sure, will always be constant. It’s not the big portions of food. It’s not even the inefficient motor vehicles. It’s the welcome. But I’ll come back to that.
Tuesday was a hugely hectic day for me. I had spent most of the previous evening making this website (so visit it and buy some tickets please) and then had an early start to get across town to the City to attend a conference at which I had to present. My presentation was last on so I needed to pay attention to all of the other presentations throughout the day so that I didn’t contradict them without explaining why. I therefore had to make frantic notes all morning, and continually adapt my presentation to fit.
The other thing that was stressing me a bit was that the whole thing was starting to run a bit late. The event was due to finish two and a half hours before my flight was due to leave at Heathrow and while I couldn’t avoid presenting I definitely couldn’t miss my flight.
It all worked out ok in the end – it only overran by 15 mins and I got to my gate at Heathrow before they’d even started boarding. Still, it had been a manic dash across town and I was fucking knackered with a 7.5 hours on a plane to look forward to, during which I would have to write a second presentation that I would need to give in Boston the next day.
Then, when we were about to leave, they announced that someone hadn’t turned up for the flight and they had to take their luggage off the plane. We then remained at the gate for another hour and a half. By the time I reached Boston I had written my second presentation but if I’m honest was not in the best of moods. Bring on US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
For those who haven’t visited the United States, the CBP are the people you have to talk to in order to get through the airport and into the United States. There are posters up everywhere in the arrivals hall showing their ‘pledge’. The first two points from their pledge are these:
- We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States
- We pledge to treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect
A poster of Harold Shipman pledging to help the aged would reconcile more easily with reality.
Before you get to meet these people though, you have the queue. It is often big and on this occasion it was massive. When you get to the front of the main queue you are directed to stand in an individual line so you can queue to see a specific border protection guard. At the front of that queue is a yellow line that is policed by other angry border protection guards. If you step over or even on the yellow line before your turn then god help you – they aren’t exactly polite about it.
Anyway, after queuing for an hour I was finally face to face with a border protection guard. Let me make something clear at this point. I am well acquainted with the process of getting into the United States. I had double-checked my online ESTA, double-checked my customs declaration and knew 100% I had done everything required of me before I stepped across the yellow line.
I handed over my passport and customs declaration form to the border protection guard (BPG).
BPG: How long are you planning on staying in the US?
Me: I’m flying back tomorrow.
BPG: That’s it?!?
He said it like I’d just claimed to have a gargantuan willy and then popped a tiny one onto his counter.
He composed himself once more.
BPG: What’s the purpose of your visit?
BPG: What kind of business are you in?
I politely said what I do. (What I do is fairly obscure. Most of my best friends don’t really know what I do. I prefer not to bother them with the details in any case.)
BPG: What kind?
Me: What kind?
BPG: Yes. What kind?
Was he really so knowledgeable about my field of work that he knew details of specific areas? No, he wasn’t. And so we indulged in a bizarre conversation for all of 5 minutes in which he interrogated me with questions about my line of work that made no sense whatsoever.
I did my best to answer them and knowing how this all works, I did my best to be polite and helpful throughout. The conversation though, was nonsense. While it was in full-swing I wondered what would have happened had I been a brain surgeon.
BPG: What’s your line of work?
Me: I’m a brain surgeon.
BPG: What kind of brain surgery do you do?
Me: Well, I err, sort out embolisms and aneurisms and such like.
BPG: Explain to me what an aneurism is.
Me: It is when one of those insect things off Wrath of Kahn has burrowed into someone’s brain and done mind control and shit and you have to kill it with Domestos.
BPG: Ok, Sir. Welcome to the United States.
When Stephen Hawking drives through does this guy decide to test his knowledge of Cosmology? I’ll bet he actually does but it is all a façade – a ridiculous pretence of creating a safe border by trying to quiz people who could, if they were lying, skip past the questions easily if they’d bothered with 60 seconds of preparation on Wikipedia.
So back to our conversation. He had conceded that I knew more than nothing about a subject about which he knew nothing.
BPG: You lose your passport?
Me: Excuse me?
BPG: You lose your passport?
What they fuck was he talking about now? I lose my passport? My passport was in his hand. Then it clicked that he was talking about my last passport – I’d lost it in March and had had to get it replaced.
Me: Oh yes, sorry. I lost my old one in March.
BPG: Where’d you lose it?
Me: Sorry, I don’t know.
BPG: Was it stolen?
I didn’t know that either. He sighed like a punctured football in a vacuum.
BPG: You see, for all I know there are two passports out there for you and I can’t tell whether this one is the valid one.
Me: Right, but I have the one that isn’t cancelled and it does have a photo of my face on it.
BPG: I’m gonna need to see your driver’s licence.
Me: I don’t have it with me.
BPG: Sir? Why don’t you have your driver’s licence with you?
Me: I am not planning on driving while in the United States.
I am calm on the outside. I know how this all works.. The reality of the situation is this:
- He is going to let me into the US and knew he was from the moment I presented the correct documentation.
- I know he is going to let me into the US and have been through this ridiculous charade before.
- He once wanted to be a real policeman but was unsuccessful for one reason or another.
- He will always be bitter about this fact.
BPG: I’m going to need to see some more ID.
I thought for a moment. I was pretty sure I didn’t have any other ID on me that was more appropriate for such a situation than the passport I had already given him.
Me: I really don’t have anything more.
BPG: Do you have a business card?
I handed him a business card and he held it in both hands, at arms length and directly towards my face. He looked back and forth between the business card and my face for a few moments. My business card doesn’t include a picture. What the hell was he doing? Then he stamped my form and my passport and told me to have a nice day.
What did he see in my business card that finally convinced him? Nothing. He knew from the moment he saw my passport that he was going to have to let me in but because he was a power-hungry twat with a massive “I want to be a real cop” complex, he had backed himself into a corner by requesting further validation for my entry into the US. My business card was just his way of getting out of his corner without having to say, “Ok, come in anyway.”
My business card could actually be recreated by anyone for almost no money at all. If this was really the key to getting into the US then they have their priorities on passports all wrong.
As I mentioned at the start of this post , the USA is, once you’re in, a lovely country to visit. There are many beautiful places with many amazing sights and in my experience the people are friendlier and more sociable than anywhere else I have ever been. The CBP, though is every visitor’s first experience of the US, so why be so unnecessarily rude to people who just want to come into your country?
While I’m sure many border protection guards do a good job there are just as many who don’t and, for want of a better phrase, are utterly useless, power-hungry knob-ends.