Thursday, 3 April 2008

Excuse me Mr Immigration Officer Sir, but which one is my trigger finger?

In the land of the free, people talk freedom a lot. Freedom to vote and freedom to choose what to eat, where to live, what work to do.
Trouble is, choices are only fun or substantial if they offer you two different things to pick.
The Democratic nomination has captured our imaginations here in Europe, because there's a black guy up against a white woman. We know that if there was a white guy in the mix, he'd win, so we're happy our cousins have more than their usual choice of a white guy or a white guy at the upcoming General Election.
To help out, the Republicans have chosen an older white guy, so all the runners and riders can score some kind of social cachet.
As I pull off the Interstate 80, on my way to Sacramento, I wish there was more choice of things to eat. Sure, there's seven different restaurants here, but they are all generic chains, and rather than stare at different colour piccies above yet another fast food counter, I yearn for the American Diner, where you can have just about anything you want cooked any way you want it, unless you're Jack Nicholson.
But walking around this suburban plaza, I feel the calm of these people, and see the smiles on their faces. This is Northern California, and there are many places in this vast country a lot less well-off. The sky is blue and even though we're a half mile from the 10 lane highway, their world feels quiet, calm and affluent. Their souls are replenished by suburban life, and all power to them.
Wish mine was.
After all the current hype about Immigration at US airports, I felt almost let down to be allowed through without even a bag thrown over my head.
You have to put your fingers over a lasery light that takes pictures of your fingerprints.
I was so jetlagged I couldn't remember which was my index finger, so I asked yer man in the uniform behind the tinted glass.
"Your trigger finger, Sir!" he yelled back crisply.
Turning my head to him once more, I looked at him even more sheepishly.
"Sorry, er, but y'see, that doesn't help me much!"
As he stamped my passport, I read his mind with my Extra Sensory Powers, and found out how much he wanted to tell me which goddam finger it was and where he'd like to put it right up, Sir!
The ticket machine at the airport's BART train station will not take my $50 note, so I ask the woman in the booth if she can sell me a ticket. She is black, 50something and, apparently has a father from Gort ... small world innit gosh wow.
She writes me a free ticket and points to the train I need, yelling out
"Say hello to the old country for me! My dad says there's too many foreigners there now!"
Awash with her kindness and generosity to me, I am bewildered and perplexed by her relationship to Ireland. She could not look less Irish if she tried. Were she to show up back home, she would be perceived as foreign in every way. Even I, an interloping English Yiddish and Rubbish Blow-in, might better pass for a local.
But as pure American, she was friendly, willing to help a needy stranger, just as upon the day of my return, another BART employee left her booth and helped me use the ticket machine, while she danced and sang and make light and easy chitty chat with me.
I tried to envisage either a worker from CIE or London Underground being arsed to behave similarly. No offence, but American people actually enjoy helping others.
Like all the best nations, America is packed full of contradictions. In a land totally dominated by car and truck, nobody has more respect than the pedestrian (except in NYC!). Stand by a crossing and every motor in sight stops 20 yards back. When they drive through a town, around schools and malls, they crawl at 25, uniformly and respectfully.
In a land where hierarchy rules, where getting to the top is of the utmost importance, there persists an informality that might grind on certain customers.
The young blonde behind the counter of the Holiday Inn Express insists on calling me 'hun'.
"Have you got your credit card, hun? Drivers licence, hun? Okay hun, that's it all done! Room 224, hun!"
Okay blondie. I am not your hun. Plain old 'Mr. Adley' would suffice.
Earlier that day I had driven several hundred miles in a straight line up US 5, and eaten at another of those food plazas.
KFC McDonald's Burger King Taco Bell Jack In The Box blind I was, and yearning for something that a cook in a kitchen made from scratch, when through the air-conditioned hermetically sealed car air supply came a vile putrid stench; a syrupy excretal cocktail of death and stagnation. For a minute I was scared that there might be a corpse in the car, because I could not work out how such a stink could make it through the A/C, but there, on the side of the highway, was my answer.
Mile after mile after mile of crammed motionless sad dirty and dishevelled cattle, standing packed as sardines on mud, no blade of grass in sight, stretching over the landscape like tens of thousands of tree stumps in a felled forest.
Truly, it was one of the saddest, most tragic and foul things I have ever seen.
Burgers in the making. Have yours just how you want it, as long as you're not a cow.
That night I went out of my way to find a restaurant, and ordered salad.
That's the thing about choice: good ones don't cause suffering to others.
A few days later, sitting on the rainlashed bus from Dublin Airport to Heuston Station, I'm fumbling in my bag for the last and millionth look at my trip file, well-crinkled maps and now-redundant route plans.
I'm looking for the Galway train timetable I printed out before I left.
And there it is, my welcome back to Ireland, in huge letters at the top of's own printout. At the top of the page, in bold blue ink on a black background, CIE tell it like it is:
'The party's over.'

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