I always try my best to blend in when I’m flying because I’ve always been an easy mark for customs and immigration officials with authority abuse as handy replacement for their self esteem, which many of them, by the very nature of their job descriptions, probably misplaced many years ago.
I’ve done away with outrageous punk looks and haircuts considered either ill-advised or illegal in many parts of the world.
I swallow pride—it doesn’t always work; they know how to yank your chain—to put up with the snide questions. I maintain a smile but not an all-too-knowing smile. One time an immigration official blurted: “Get that snide-ass smile off your face...sir!”
I would gladly explain that in the psycho-technology of smiling under circumstances that enhance phobias and duress—flying—the smile is usually a thin mask attempting to disguise one’s angst.
When I reached for my Green Card I knew immediately that things could go very wrong very quickly. I’d done something stupid, something human; in the nervous over-preparation for a flight in a post-9-11 world you sometimes do stupid things like empty your wallet only to reload it. I had put in a greenish card that was actually a membership card to the Amsterdam Archives, which I used for research.
The Green Card hadn’t been green for as long as I could remember. And I thought the fact that it was actually salmon-colored might lead to some valuable small talk.
The official curled his forefinger and barked “Dis way!” In a comedy you’d hear a few bars of Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk This Way.” But not here.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the dark man with red socks bent over and shackled to the leg of a cheap chair in a makeshift waiting room, “tha’s the way you’re gonna look.” Whenever he said anything serious, he’d yank his pants up with a portentousness usually reserved for noir films, revealing a belt buckle that had remained hidden under his belly for years.
We entered a dingy, windowless room that didn’t seem like part of JFK with flickering florescent and a high counter that came up to his chin—until he climbed up a step behind the counter so that he could loom over me. An obvious strategy related to the architecture of intimidation or the film techniques you learned Orson Welles used to create an atmosphere of humiliation and disorientation: enlarge his presence and diminish mine. But I wasn’t saying anything.
“You say you forgot your Green Card?”
“That’s right. I mistook this card for my Green Card.”
“Hmmm. If I wanna story I’ll ask for it. Yes or no’ll suffice.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever had a Green Card. I think you’re making it up on the fly. Am I right?”
“Why would I...”
“Yes or no!”
Then I remembered I kept a folded photocopy of the card in the side pocket of my wallet along with a quarter for that one phone call, which I would probably be making sooner than later. And what if I dial the wrong number?
I was trying not to act nervous but when you do that you sometimes get more nervous especially when you feel the physical signs of nervousness, like your pulse throbbing in weird places like the side of your neck.
“I’ve got a photocopy of my card.”
“Oh, you do? Well, isn’t that convenient? It won’t do, sir.” He took it, stared at it for an inordinately long, silent minute. He typed in the number into his computer. Stared at the screen with considerable consternation.
“You say you have a Green Card but your number doesn’t show up. So maybe you better just tell me what’s going on.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“It’s not. We live in a different world now, sir, and we in America have to be very cautious about who we let in.”
“Well, I guarantee you this is a valid number and I simply forgot to put the card in my wallet before I left.”
“Don’t you think we’ve heard all of you guys’ stories a hundred times?”
“Who’s ‘you guys’? I forgot my card and now you’re treating me like some potential terrorist. I lived in the U.S. for over 30 years...”
“Never thought it was good enough to become a US citizen?”
“No, that’s not it.”
He ticked in my number again, squinting, hovering close to the screen.
“Your number comes up. It may be valid. But that don’t mean you’re off the hook.” He took my passport and stapled a card into it and wrote on it.
“You’re on a watch list. Slip up and we’ll be calling on you.”
“Where you going?”
“All the places?”
“New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Colorado.”
“That’s a lotta places. If I’m not mistaken, all those states have significant military facilities....”
“If that’s your criteria, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere in the world cuz the U.S. has military bases pretty much everywhere.”
“You know, it’s people like you we don’t need in this country. Why you goin’ to all those places?”
“Doing a book tour.”
“A book about what?”
“Hmm. You better get outta here before your attitude gets you in more trouble.”
I walked out of the interrogation room, with him following a few paces behind.
I tried not to show the slightest sign of smugness but these guys are so fine tuned that even attempts to snuff signs of smugness will show up on their radars as insubordination.
As we passed the man still shackled to the chair leg with his chest resting on his thigh, I asked him: “What’d you do?”
“I born in wrong place.”
“No conversing with the detained or you wanna take your place next to’m?”
The decision was fairly simple: I didn’t say another word.
Bart Plantenga is the author of Beer Mystic, Wiggling Wishbone, Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World. Yodel in HiFi will appear in 2012. He’s been a radio DJ for 25 years in New York, Paris and now Amsterdam, where he currently lives.