If I didn’t have lots of friends in the US, I’d be hard pressed to think of a reason to go every other year: I mean, most other places are happy to take your trade, but in the US, home of convenience and birthplace of friendly customer service, customs treat you like walking garbage. Yes, we realize there are bad people in the world, but that still doesn’t justify this kind of draconian performance, especially since so much of it is sheer kabuki. It starts in Oslo; every other airline, you smile and check in; a Continental person pulls you aside, checks your passport, marks it ominously, then stands by your side before pointing you to the open counter, our tiny foreign minds apparently incapable of seeing the clerk waving you over from five feet away and interpreting the meaning.
Then, the security check. Richard Reid be damned, in Oslo, you still don’t have to take your shoes off. I remove my belt, my coins, my keys and am left with nothing but the rivets on my jeans that I suspect or plastic anyway (I’m an environmental terrorist, man!). The metal detector goes off. Goddamnit, it’s the rivets.
A sandwich and a quick soda and it’s off to the departure lounge. This is where you enjoy watching passport-carrying adults forget how to count. “We are now boarding rows 25 thru 30” declares the flight attendant hopefully. No, you’re not, I think, as I watch rows 1 thru 30 storm toward the gate as if the proverbial hellhound was on their trail. Look, you’re there; the flight isn’t leaving without you at this point, unless you do something really stupid. I personally think boarding the plane when your row hasn’t been called qualifies in a major way, but nobody ever listens to me.
Having thus despaired, it should be mentioned that the crew on the actual airplane are nice and service-minded people, unlike many flight crews these days. I get copious refills and snacks all the way. Small comfort, as I struggle through not one, not two, but three(!) horrendous movies (damn your eyes, Robin Williams!), but a comfort nonetheless. I try to sleep, but I can’t, no more than I can look away from these recreational atrocities playing on their undersized screens. Halfway through, I fill out the immigration form, dutifully pointing out once again, that no, I am not now, no have I ever been, a Nazi war criminal.
But once you actually arrive, that’s when they really start to fuck with you. I doubt Americans are that familiar with this, because they don’t have to wait in line quite like we do, but we wait nearly a full hour before getting to present our passports to an unsmiling desk jockey, and the line isn’t that damn long. Taking a glance at my passport, looking over the stamps saying that I flew into NYC last year, 2004, 2003 and the remnants of my student visa (1999-2003), he growls: “have you been to the US before?”
What you want to say, you obviously can’t. A curt “Of course I have, you fucking moron” ain’t gonna fly with some bored clerk itching to use his new taser on someone’s nuts. So you can’t say that. Nor can you make a light joke of it. “Yes I have, but that was before I changed my name from Ali-Youssuf Islam”. Because US customs officials have no sense of humor, and even if they did, it would still be against the rules. I’m in NYC for a few days to see some friends and do some Christmas shopping. Since neither of the two are current options at Guantanamo, I simply nod curtly. And at long last, I am allowed to enter the country. Everyone says it’s because of 9/11 that travelers get treated like this. I call bullshit on that: the only change is that they don’t have to pretend to give a fuck any longer. It dawns on me that I’ve been selected “randomly” for security checks every time I’ve traveled stateside the past five years, inside as well as out. I’m still on meds, but fuck this, I’m so having a beer right now.
New York, New York, the city so nice they named it twice. Manhattan alone has a population of something like 9 million, which is twice the population of my entire country. Furthermore, they’re all – each and every damn one of them – in my way. Fifth Ave at Christmastime is a nightmare, besieged by slavering hordes of Christmas shoppers, eyes burning with the fierce flames of ambition and determination; they come at you in waves that Moses himself would be hard pressed to part. Because of this, I end up buying an ill-fitting suit. Damn you all.
I don’t care – I love being a tourist at times, and why not? Most New Yorkers can’t be bothered to visit the Empire State Building, for example, and I suppose I can’t blame them – after all, why would you want to wait in line with a gaggle of foreign fuckers with Nikons just to get a birds-eye view of the city? And forget romance. The only time in recent history (and outside of Hollywood) Tom Hanks could meet Meg Ryan on the observation deck with no other people, would have been on 9/11. Still, I’ve never been up here after dark, and I must say it’s quite grand. Megacities like these are still few and far between; it’s our common future, I reckon, but not in our lifetimes. It’s unreal to be so high, and half the city looks culled from Blade Runner. Mysterious and otherworldly, tomorrow beckons to you from a few blocks over, and I’m almost prepared to forgive the Port Authority. Almost.
I know jack about Harlem. Well, that’s not true. I know stuff because I’ve read about it or seen it in movies, but being in the place itself, hanging out and walking around, that’s very nearly terra incognita for me. Been up here once before, to see the cathedral. Until I first took the bus from Providence to NYC, I had no idea there was even a cathedral here, much less the biggest in the world. But I still remember how it rose at me from the fog that time, and my surprise. I had no idea it was badly damaged in a fire only a few months after I first visited, but at least I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my fault. Still, it’s odd how alien you feel, simply getting off at 110th and Lexington; Central Park is only a few blocks over, but you still feel like you stand out like a sore thumb. Park Avenue looks pretty worn down up here, and since we’re low on time as is, we quickly head over to the West Side to check out the cathedral. It’s a strange change for such a few streets, but that’s New York for you.