John Walker's Electronic House

Chicago Story #1: Customs

by on May.09, 2007, under The Rest

Going through US Immigration is something I do with frightening regularity. Normally this is for work, where I’ve developed intricate skills for surviving the confusing ordeal. Under US Immigration laws, one is allowed into the country for a maximum of 90 days, either on business or, as it’s now so eloquently known, not business. For business, you’re only allowed in if you’re not going to earn any money while you’re there. By the nature of my job, this is the case, and as such I have no need for a visa. This, however, doesn’t stop the customs officers from putting journalists in cells and deporting them, so it’s all a little bit scary. I’ve never had a single problem though, and find it all relatively smooth, so long as I stress “writer”, rather than “evil spying reporter”.

(Aside: My first time through customs for work, I stared at the form in confusion (not even the green one asking if I’m a Nazi) and had no idea whether the tick “business” or “pleasure” (as the form said back then). I tried to explain thie situation to the large, menacing looking man with the gun on his hip in a blustered, Hugh-Grant-a-like British muddle, how I had no idea which to choose. He sighed wearily at me, and ticked business, and then glanced to the right. I’d not noticed the field for “male/female”. Without lifting his head he raised his eyes toward me, curled his nose and drawled, “Are you not sure about this one either?”)

So you need to know that Chicago is a city of divisions. As a recent television episode of This American Life noted, Chicago is so segregated that demographers had to invent a new term to describe it: hyper-segregation. There really are areas which are white, those that are black, another Hispanic, and so on. One of the more trivial divisions is the North/South divide over baseball. The North, by tradition, supports the Cubs. The South the White Sox. However, for reasons even I don’t understand, my team is the Sox, despite my Chicago hosts having always lived nearer the top than the bottom. So, as ever, I was wearing my White Sox cap as I entered the country. I got to a customs desk in astonishing time, thanks to the sudden decision by O’Hare airport to employ more than two customs officers at once, and explained that I was here on holiday.

The officer asked me to remove my cap for the photo they now take every time you visit the US (as well as collecting fingerprints), and then added, “You don’t want to wear that around me.”

“Oh no!” I replied. “You’re not a Cubs fan, are you?” He grimly nodded a yes. “I’m doomed!” I said too enthusiastically.

Thinking I should engratiate myself with him now, I added, “I might be going to see the Cubs play while I’m here.”

“See them lose, you mean.”

Then he complained to me about how awful they were, and stamped my passport.

Since then, the Cubs are currently riding a five game winning streak, getting their winning average over 500, which is better than the Sox can muster. So there you go, Mr Grumpy Customs Guy, cheer up.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Piet van Zoen

    I’ve been to the US twice in the last couple years to visit my brother in Portland, Oregon. Both times I’ve been questioned, poked, prodded and sent to a big room with low seats and high intimidating desks. I was once told by a customs officer “I want you out of this country in two weeks” (the end of my holiday) “I don’t want you here!” Oh, and accused of coming to the country to marry someone. All I was doing was visiting my brother!! Maybe next time I’ll wear a “Join the petition to revoke the independence of the US!” t-shirt.

  • Cradok

    My worst experience was setting off the metal detector in JFK in 2002. Seeing all the nice, beefy, well-armed security guards tense up, step back and put their hands on their guns really does wonders for the old heart. Like stopping it.

  • Tedi Worrier

    …at least they speak English, after a fashion … in Greece they wear equally menacing guns, dark glasses and leerish expressions but deny all knowledge of Inglish-as-she-is-spoke. I carry a folding walkng stick in my hand luggage in order to lever my hip-of-steel on the Voer-trek from plane to taxi on return to Gatwick. Have you ever considered what a folding walking stick might resemble on a fuzzy X-Ray monitor? I hadn’t! ((gulp))