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Wednesday 14 November 2007


I am sitting on an airplane, waiting for a transatlantic flight. It's my second in less than 24 hours. I don't have my passport. The captain of the plane is holding it until we get over the ocean. The passenger next to me has just told me what time the flight arrives. It's the first time that i've been told. I haven't paid for the ticket, but am concerned that i might have to.

Alas, i am not describing a confusing dream, but rather my current situation. After a red-eye flight and 6 hours of detention, i'm totally exhausted. I've been refused entry to the uk and am on my way back to new york, where i'll have to find my way back to san francisco. My tearful parting with my girlfriend last night is fated to be shorter than we either anticipated.

I was in new york to apply for a student visa. They no longer accept in-person applications. Their web site, though, allows you to file for one, but not to make the appointment. I was flattened with stomach flu before i could discover why their appointment-making system was constantly broken. My time scheduled in the us was drawing to a close and i had not submitted. I decided to mail in the documents from the uk and get the visa during winter break. I bought return tickets yesterday morning, so i could prove my plans if asked.

Then, i got on my plane. Concerned about visa issues, i left my bass guitar with nicole. I didn't want to seem as if i was trying to sneak in to play gigs and earn money. However, i didn't make it as far as baggage claim before falling into detention.

The immigration officer seemed friendly and chatty. It was six-something am and i hadn't had coffee, but tried to be friendly in return. She asked why i came. I said i was visiting the university. This answer has been satisfactory on several previous occasions. This time, I had noticed signs up advertising delays. They noted that extra security takes extra time. The extra time in this case included her asking for some clarification on that. She seemed so personable that i didn't become alarmed when she began taking notes. It wasn't until she asked what kind of dog i had that i started to become alarmed.

She told me not to be alarmed, but to follow her to a waiting area. At heathrow terminal 4, there are some lines leading to immigration agents. In the very middle of the lines, there is a little pen with some seats. It would seem like it was just a waiting area for old people or folks with kids, if it weren't for the chair-height barriers surrounding it and most especially the door of the same short height. The door had a latch on it, so when the friendly agent lead me there, she flipped up the flimsy piece of plastic to let me in and flipped it closed after me to keep me inside. That non-lock was useless for imprisoning someone, but the psychological impact was clear. "Oh fuck." I said, as she left.

A man came around some time later to lead me to baggage claim. We got my bike and put it and my backpack on a cart. He had me follow him to the customs area, where he searched my bags. I thought this might be the end of a process where i would soon be on my way, but all he searched for were documents and his questions were repetitions of ones the first agent had asked. Then, he lead me back to the immigration area, but to a security door on the right of the room.

The door opened to hallway full of parked luggage carts with glass-walled waiting rooms on one side. He told me to park my luggage and then took me to a foyer between the waiting rooms, where i was asked to empty my pockets and patted down. I was allowed to keep my wallet and change and lip balm, but not my keys or cell phone. I tried to retrieve on of the many bags of reeces pieces that i had purchased immediately before my flight, but was told that candy was against the rules.

Then, i was deposited in the waiting room where i spent the next several hours. There were signs up indicating that pictures were disallowed and (perhaps to protect themselves against possible artistic talent) my pen had been removed, so i have tried to commit the room to memory as much as possible.

It had one exit door which was unlocked and lead to the foyer. One long wall was glass. The other two walls had many doors leading to small rooms where detainees could be questioned, finger printed, photographed. The room had two long rows of ugly chairs, facing each other. Near the middle were two small tables. It looked much like other police waiting rooms that i've seen.

I wished aloud for a cup of coffee and a woman, also waiting, told me that i could just ask for one. So i went back to the foyer and asked for it and got nescafe from a vending machine. I announced my intention to retrieve and take my zoloft, but was told that i could not. A doctor must be first consulted. Also, the door from the foyer to the hall was locked. This seemed to make my situation seem more serious, but, when i was told then to have my photo taken, i was called sir. I felt happy to be passing and a certain thrill of excitement at being held. This was kind of exciting! At least, when it wasn't incredibly dull. I felt homesick and had a perverse desire to be sent back so i could see my family. But then i thought of my boarded dog and other tasks in birmingham and hoped otherwise. I wondered what it meant that my happiness at passing surpassed my dismay at being detained.

I had to sign forms. I was given documents. I waited. I wondered if my passing was going to screw up my paperwork. I waited. I tried not to eavesdrop on other people's interviews which were highly audible through thin walls.

I heard my name from the foyer. "Not a man, but a woman dressed as a man." Laughter. "Why would she do that?" Laughter. Then, "I just patted her arms." amid more laughter. They were teasing the man who patted me down. I wondered how this changed my situation.

An officer came to interview me. He asked all the same questions. I complained about the new york consulate and stressed that i had a return ticket and that the dutch consulate told me it wasn't illegal. The officer said that he wouldn't have had me detained and he would recommend that i be let on my way, but that i had knowingly tried to enter with a tourist visa when i was aware of student visa requirements would count against me. Apparently, ignorance of the law was an excuse.

The officer took me to the medical officer to discover if i would be allowed to take zoloft. Somebody there took the pills from me and googled them or something to make sure it was legal and a reasonable dose. There was no doctor present. It was decided that i would be allowed to take my meds. I wondered if needing them went into my file.

The pat down guy acted the same as before. Another guard, who apparently missed that conversation, was very insistent at correcting the officer when he said "she". I guess clouds have silver linings.

I used the room's pay phone and my credit card to call my berkeley home number, since i had it memorized. It was late so i left voicemail.

The officer came back and told me that i was being sent home, but it would not hurt my ability to get a student visa. He gave me a document which stated this. I left another message with ellen and then called jean, who has a very memorable phone number. It was 2:30am at her location, but her tone changed when i explained the situation. I wished i had my dad's number memorized.

Some Quebecois were also detained. Most everyone sat in silence but the two animatedly shared their stories and opinions. The man had been detained because he was staying with a friend and didn't know the address. As it happened, he knew the friend's mobile number and that the friend was waiting for him at the airport. H was finger printed, photographed, questioned and then hopefully somebody thought to talk to the friend to get his address.

The canadian woman had come back too soon after a long stay. So much for the commonwealth.

And then more waiting. Somebody came around to collect me an hour before my flight. She had me take the luggage cart through security. My bike was xrayed. Then, she walked me to the gate. I was allowed to use my cellphone and to sit, while she held my passport and watched my luggage. I called my kennel, my supervisor and my afternoon date. When it was time, i was told to pre-board. My bike was left at the top of the jetway, to be moved to the hold. I was the first person on the plane.

And now i'm on the plane. Too much airplane food. Not enough sleep. Too many carbon credits in debit. The novelty of the situation long since worn off. My morale is low.

As he was giving me bad news, the officer said two things that stick with me. One was to imagine how america treats those with paperwork problems. I got this more than once, from different people. America's stupid anti-foreigner policies are hurting citizens.

The other thing was that britian had to be extra vigilant because other european countries weren't. He painted a picture that seemed to put britian as the outer defenses of fortress europe. The enemies were at the gate, but britian stood strong. I congratulated him on having successfully defended britian in this case.


Graham said...

This sounds like an annoying and harrowing experience.

Working through the paperwork requirements for Spain has been confusing at times, I wonder if I can expect a similar experience.

Hope you are ok.

nwilkins said...

I'm sorry, honey. That sounds awful.

I love you and look forward to seeing you soon.

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