Passport control in US airports used to be a no man’s land politically. No longer so, says JOHN VON SOTHEN, who recently noticed small changes put into place, changes he wouldn’t have picked up on had Fox News not been staring him right in the face.
I never know quite how to feel when my flight finally lands. There’s a sense of relief I guess- at the fact I’m still alive, but that’s quickly replaced by a general sense of disgust – at the way I’ve been treated the past seven hours. I’ve never been drugged and had violent sex with afterwards, but I’m thinking the feeling is fairly similar.
On some landings there’s an intense dryness of mouth, other times general grogginess, but for the most part there’s just a heavy dose of shame that hangs on me like a tattered raincoat. And as I make my way towards the exit thanking my rapists clad in their Air France outfits, waving and smiling au revoir, my sleep mask still stuck on my forehead – my mind frantically dragging the file of the past few hours to trash, I realize I still have a ways to go. I’ve landed sure, but there’s passport control ahead and I shouldn’t start my victory lap just yet.
I’ve passed through US passport checkpoints in so many airports now on so many occasions I’ve grown blasé to the general horribleness of it all. The bad lighting, the paranoia, the jingoism for me now is just part of the HSBC billboard décor whether it be at JFK, Boston, Dulles, or Charlotte.
Recently though I’ve noticed small changes put into place, changes I wouldn’t have picked up on had they not been there staring me right in the face. Like hospital waiting rooms or your local DMV, most passport controls in US airports nowadays feature TV’s hanging overhead, TV’s you can watch while you sit and stew, waiting your turn to enter America.
When I first saw them, I assumed the newly installed screens were aids to speed up the arrivals process. They’d tell me how to fill out my declaration if I was American. And if I wasn’t American, they’d tell me how to prepare my cornea to be scraped on the ocular device at the booth.
To my surprise though, the TV for the US citizen line moving East-West wasn’t a tutorial at all, but a featured movie (well, infomercial that is) summing up my country in a three minute nutshell. Home of the Brave I think it was titled, but I can’t be certain because I never actually saw the beginning. Every time my line was facing in its direction and the screen within eyeshot, the film was already half way through, deep into a series of images you’d associate with America – that is if you had to give a list of quick rapid-fire clichés on a game show.
Native Americans, skyscrapers in New York, the great plains, Venice Beach roller blading, rodeos, New Orleans jazz players, and Maine sailboats were interwoven in rapid fire along with kids playing stick ball, Mexican migrant workers, and benevolent black school crossing guards. The intent of the producers I guess was to present a sort of bouillabaisse of American culture, scored to Gershwin with a high enough production quality, it would not only touch the tourist arriving from Toulouse, but the American passport holder who knows all to well none of that stuff really exists.
But just as I was growing a bit sentimental happy to be back, I rounded the corner and advanced in the other direction, West-East now, to face a second overhanging TV. However this screen didn’t feature the same film about America, but instead, the daily broadcast of Fox News.
Although there was a closed captioned scroll for the hearing impaired at the bottom, I didn’t need the text to know what was on the daily docket. Shootings in schools, drug cartel violence, the falling dollar, Donald Trump, China debt, nuclear Korea, and ISIS sword play rained down on me so graphically I was left wondering “what the fuck happened while we were up in the air!”
And I admit I was a bit surprised to see Fox News staring down at me. I always assumed a place like passport control (although a bit aggressive) would be a no man’s land politically. And call me naïve, but I’m not sure it’s a great idea to subject people who are arriving in your country for the first time to such dire news about that country. It’s like a restaurant hiring a clown outside to shout at the entering customers what’s horrible on the menu that night.
It seemed as if our two passport control TV’s were engaged in a sort of dueling banjos, a slowly developing synchronized dialogue between two faces of the America we were about to enter – one, the American dream, the other the American nightmare.
After three or four turns in line though, my mind wondered from the screens and onto the poor souls across from us in the other passport line, the non-US citizens. They resembled our group for the most part; their faces similar with ashen fatigue, their necks craned like bird watchers staring at their own TV’s. And like us, they too were probably expecting guidance on how to fill out their long dangling customs slips, and like us, their faces too registered confusion as the Fox News broadcaster argued why Hillary Clinton’s refusal to offer up her emails was a criminal offense.
I felt bad for the French arrivals. Since I live in France, I know they’ve been weaned on series like Friends and were inspired to come to New York in large part thanks to feel good movies like When Harry met Sally. Yet here they were about to arrive in the Big Apple, their dream almost complete, but Fox News standing in their way.
“Hillary won’t share here emails? I’m shocked!” chortled the person behind me. I turned to see if he was talking to me or to another person, only because his voice sounded irritated, and I’d wondered if I’d accidentally cut in front of him. He smirked back, the smirk that comes from someone who’s so sure you agree them; they’re almost expecting a high five.
He had one of those Patagonia sweater vests American hedge funders can’t get enough of. He was 50ish in age, and it was obvious the trip to France was his wife’s idea.
“Honestly I almost missed Crooked Hillary these past two weeks.”
I tried not to make eye contact, looking at my customs slip as if it were a sudoko puzzle.
“Trump baby!” then rocketed from behind me, which I took to be the cue that Donald Trump was on the screen. And he was – speaking from a podium, a news scroll running below him. “Damn it’s good to be home,” crept into my ear almost as if I said it myself.
I scrambled forward trying to create a distance from my neighbour only because there’s invariably that moment you realize there’s a chance you’ll be accused of being with someone when in fact you’re not. It happens on rare occasions with me. In bars when the drunkard next to you is arguing with the barman, on a bus when there’s a racist yelling at gypsies. Once at the social security office in France, I had the misfortune of standing behind a man complaining about the bureaucracy in France. “Vous etes tous les robots!” (You’re all robots!!) he screamed, because according to him, everyone working there that day was a robot. And since I was standing right behind him, and since he was constantly turning to me as if to second his accusations, I was branded his accomplice. I know this because when it was my time to submit my dossier, the attendant looked at me as if I’d said those things. My social security status was screwed for two years following that day. I received notices in the mail saying I’d moved to RSI (I have no idea what this was) or worse that I’d been radiated, which scared me more only because it sounds a lot like being exposed to some fracking leak.
As my line turned back West-East, I gazed up at my fellow French again. I say fellow French because at that moment, I felt more a kinship towards them than to the Reebok and sweat suit wearing Americans in line with me. My dress, my beard were more a French thing I realized, plus I was the only one in my line without a rolled up impressionist painting poster from the Louvre at my side.
And despite the apocalypse they were watching overhead, the French seemed rather upbeat all things considered; probably because they’d assured themselves by now that whatever was being broadcast on Fox News was not indicative of New York, more geared towards those headed off to Cincinnati or Dallas or wherever Fox News watchers they assumed lived. The Africans seemed less sure though. Although Home of the Brave played above them featuring images of black people smiling back at the camera while jack-hammering some New York city street, the customs officials were loudly asking those with dashikikis “Have you been to West Africa sir? West Africa? Have you been there? Do you have a fever?”
Before I could see them answer, I was forced to turn my back and round my turn for what would be my final lap in line. Fires were in Malibu. Hurricanes in South Carolina and the cost of gas was going up said Fox, or so that’s what the printed out word scroll said, while the video on screen was of Khloe Kardashian walking out of a Starbucks with a mochachino and car keys in her hand. As I pondered whether Kardashian had caused these very things, I was called to come forward.
“So you live in France – is it?” the passport official asked with a wink as if I’d bought a beer underage.
I told him I did and shrugged. I’m not sure why I shrugged, perhaps as a way to say it wasn’t my fault?
“Bet you’re glad to be back huh?” he said while scanning my passport
Yes indeed – was my eager response because of course you always reply you’re happy to be home, even if you’re not, just to make sure you’re not in another room undressing and being interrogated afterward.
Once I entered my taxi, my relief of having Fox News behind me was short lived when I discovered a new TV waiting for me. There it was, encased in a small screen in the back of the front seat of the taxi. No, it wasn’t an infomercial telling you that it’s important to buckle up, but again, the local New York edition of….. Fox News. This time the content wasn’t focused on global horror, but local. Horrible traffic, impending horrible weather, and of course the news of a drowning off Coney Island. And just like in passport control, I couldn’t help but watch the screen as our taxi slowly inched forward stuck in the late afternoon traffic of New York. I tried to turn down the volume, but the volume seemed locked at a certain level, and when I tried to get the driver’s attention, the bullet proof glass separated us from any conversation.
The day outside seemed nice, and as Manhattan approached in the distance, the mix of dire news, lurid affairs and strange goings on in the city squawked back at me almost to tell me what I was looking out the window was a lie.
“The infant named Zachary had wanted to follow his friends into the surf, only to meet dire consequences. Next up on the hour, the traffic coming up the Tappan Zee Bridge is bumper to bumper, a head was found today in lower Manhattan, and can elevators kill?”
By the time I arrived at my destination, I felt much the same as when my plane landed. My eyes hurt and I was nauseous from having watched a screen bounce around for an hour. I only knew that I’d arrived because the screen flashed “You’ve arrived!” proposing of course a scale of various tips I could give the driver based on a 10% 15% or 20% model.
I used to be so energized when I flew into NYC. I’d take the late afternoon flights which got me there around 17:00 and which gave me time to take a shower, do cocaine, get a beer and eat a great dinner, all of which does wonders for dealing with jet lag. This time though, the news had depressed me so much, all I wanted to do was go to bed. Why risk being a subject for the 11:00 PM Fox News?
My trip to New York that time was very short. And before I knew it, I was back in Paris where my flight had just landed. As usual, I felt awful, but this time, the dreariness and general 80’s gloom of Roissy-Charles De Gaulle appealed to me. There was an easygoing manner in the French detachment that made the passport wait seem almost charming. There were no TV’s, just that sing songy Aeroports de Paris ding dong in the distance with the lines advancing fairly quickly. No eye scanners, no demands to know if we were from West Africa. No fever questions. No customs slip to fill out, no dogs sniffing. Sure there was a long and incoherent line of taxis, and sure there was an ATM that was broken, which forced me to cross the airport to find euros to pay for my taxi, but my freedom from Fox News far outweighed the frustration of the dysfunctional France I’d grown to accept.
Once inside my cab I sat back in my seat giddy to hear normal news reports that were on the radio not on TV. There was no plastic divider between the driver and me so I could hear him complain on his phone to his friend about having to come out to the airport this early in the morning and that we’d be in traffic forever because it was rush hour coming back into the city and that the mayor, Anne Hildago, was even more incompetent than Francois Hollande. Negativity like that felt like a heated wet towel.
As we drove past the old Concord plane leaving the airport, joining the A-1 and the drab hideousness of Ikea and Cuir Centre on my left, I told my driver not to stress, that there were worse happenings in other parts of the world, especially in Fox News’s America. And with my mouth more moist and the feeling of shame quickly ebbing away, I tucked my phone and all the French messages waiting for me in my jacket and closed my eyes, trusting the driver knew his way.
I was thankful to be alive again and thankful I didn’t have to know there’d been a successful drone strike in Pakistan or that Michelle Obama should be ashamed of the dress she wore at the recent Grammies. And that’s the magic of living abroad. You can leave all that stuff at passport control.