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Charleston, SC proved to be quite an education for me. I was staying there with wonderfully hospitable friends in the summer of 1999 and they were more than happy to help me out in my quest to understand just how America ticks. Gradually I've finessed these lessons, along with many others, into unwritten laws that help define a nation.
Charleston taught me that any sunglasses that I may like make me look like a pimp, and that anyone who wears black jeans is a criminal.
Just how widespread these unwritten laws actually are is something I'm still picking up. I don't happen to think I look like a criminal pimp but maybe my viewpoint is too subjective. Certainly American customs officials don't seem to like me.
I remember the beginning of that summer of 1999. I'd arrived in Detroit to start three months of travelling around North America, meeting up with friends and learning how the real America worked behind all the insanity and bigotry of the news bulletins. My flight was only the second I'd ever been on, following the first by a couple of hours only, that one being a mere shuttle flight down to London.
So here was I, new to everything. I'd only just set foot on my first plane; Detroit proved to be my first visit to anywhere outside the country. This is debatable, of course: I've also been to Scotland but it was for a mere hour, and my week in Anglesey, an island off the northwest coast of Wales could technically be defined as abroad as it's part of a foreign country and I had to cross water to reach it. I bet I was wide-eyed getting off the plane in Detroit, but suspicious? Doubtful.
At first the customs people were very friendly. By outward signs all was right with the world: the airport security people were all smiling, though maybe that was partly because they were carrying guns and the rest of us weren't. One kindly directed me to the correct booth and another friendly gentleman smiled at me and took details.
He was full of smiles too, and persisted in calling me 'sir', which was yet another new one on me, though one I'd encounter many times in the States. He asked a few basic questions and the smile never faded, until the moment he realised that I was going to be here for the maximum ninety days allowed on the visa waiver scheme. The smile and the sir were dropped and it was 'What sort of job do I have that enables me to take three months off?'
He quickly ushered me off to a sparse side room where I could sit on an empty wooden bench, separated from my luggage and all other passengers, and listen to immigration officials harangue some poor foreigner in a curtained off booth at the other end of the room. Eventually someone saw me, asked a few questions in a bored voice and let me go on my merry way.
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire summer of 1999 and it will remain as a set of wonderful memories for the rest of my life. I honestly don't know how it couldn't have started any worse, however. If my best friend hadn't been there to meet me, my impressions of the USA could have been scarred for life.
No worse, I say? Maybe not. Fast forward on a couple of years to the summer of 2001. Yesterday found me flying back across the Atlantic to Las Vegas to meet up with my girlfriend. Because I had booked late and my flights coincided with national holidays on both sides of the pond, I had to take what I could get, meaning that it was going to be a three leg trip each way: Manchester to London to Chicago to Las Vegas, and returning from Phoenix to Washington to London to Manchester. Long hours in the air and long hours at airports.
The first stop Stateside was Chicago, which meant that I had to retrieve all my baggage and proceed on to the Customs desk before checking it all back in again afterwards. O'Hare is one of the largest and busiest airports in the world and thus it was slightly surprising to find the contents of a number of flights all being piped through two solitary Customs officials. The laws of supply and demand obviously don't apply at O'Hare.
With a friend waiting somewhere behind the wings to meet up, after taking time off to do so, I wanted to get through as quickly as possible and spend time catching up over a pizza. Customs had other ideas. The queue didn't move that quickly and precious time was eaten up progressing to the end of it; and then I was singled out, from hundreds of myriad passengers, for a random search.
Joy of joys.
If you haven't suffered this particular ignominy, count yourself lucky. The line is a totally separate one, and as short as the other is long. There stood I in a line of one, with baggage in tow and a puzzled look on my face as to why I was being moved here in the first place. Everyone else got to progress past the desks wondering just what I had done to deserve this. I felt a thousand and one eyes upon me. The sourfaced lady responsible must have heard about the black jeans law, I guess.
I had four bags, all packed to the brim. Some had required two of us to zip up; that's how tightly they were packed. And here was a random Customs official opening the lot and searching through to find the drugs that my appearance had obviously prompted them to expect.
Bag one wasn't a bag at all, rather a box sealed with strip after strip of brown parcel tape and soon to be replaced with the particularly ugly shade of green favoured by O'Hare Customs officials, obviously lacking in any sort of taste whatsoever. I'd spent quite some time packing in so many Pokemon toys and keychain wrestlers, so I wasn't too happy to see Mr Customs Guy empty it all out to sift through. Somehow he managed to miss the small soft toy that makes a noise when it impacts on anything. Drop it out of a box and it will usually say 'It wasn't me!', 'I wasn't even there!', or 'My secretary lost it!' That would have gone down well, I'm sure.
The second bag proved even more interesting. It was a pretty big bag that contained only two things: my washbag and a rather large cuddly Tasmanian Devil, complete with whiskers and leather jacket. Mr Customs Guy gave Taz a full body massage before sending him away specially to be x-rayed. I felt sorry for the little fellow, but I'm still glad he got the cavity search, not me.
The other bags went pretty quickly, as they were pretty much the same sort of thing. Mr Customs Guy was a little surprised at my lack of packed clothes but understood my explanation that I was going to buy new in Vegas or Phoenix as the prices would be a fraction of those in England. Maybe he just didn't want to massage any more soft toys in public.
I did get to meet up with my friend in the end; and my next flight was delayed, thus giving us a little more time and making his effort a little more justified. I won't forget the continued chaos that I seem to attract on my entrances to the country. Maybe I should always fly via Newark: I never have any problems there.
All of which leaves me with one task remaining. For some reason as I was leaving, Mr Customs Guy handed me a small piece of card: 'The US Customs Service is continually striving to improve its service to the public. We invite you to provide a brief comment on your experience with us. Please use this card to provide any comments or suggestions to US Customs Service.'
Does this guy have balls the size of bowling balls or what? He must need a specially fitted uniform. Should I write him a love letter from Taz?
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