Columbo-style, I’m adding just one more tip to my list for travelers. This one applies specifically when travelling to the US. And it is... Don’t have the same name as me. I arrived at JFK at 4:20 yesterday afternoon. As has happened several times in the last couple of years — I believe it’s been three out of six trips — after having my fingerprints, retina and soul scanned in the immigration line, I got yanked out and sent to Mordor (also known as the Homeland Security Zone), which basically involves being led ignominiously away from the desk (and the doors that lead to baggage claim and taxis and an interesting evening in a new city), and being put in a dire room full of signs in Helvetica, with the other miscreants, bastards and potential undesirables — without the slightest indication of why this is happening to you. Usually it only takes thirty to forty five minutes to sort out the problem (the nature of which I’ll come back to). This time I eventually left Mordor at... half past eight.
Yep. That would be four of your Earth hours. Over half the time it had taken to fly from London to New York.
The reason for this is that... I am not the only Michael Smith in creation. Now, I have been known from time to time to put certain events down to a being I call ‘Bad Mike’, an naughty alter ego who comes out under the influence of alcohol and does the things which, the following morning, most make me wince and moan and want to bite my own head off. Well, it turns out Bad Mike is real, and is out there, really doing really Bad Things. I have the same name as this guy, and therefore I get pulled over.
I doubt he has the same middle names as me, and I know he doesn’t look the same, but that doesn’t appear to make a difference (at the beginning of the process, anyway). By now I even have a vague picture of what this man might look like. The first time this farrago happened, for example, my innocence was eventually proven through a lack of prison tattoos (evidently a distinguishing feature of Bad Mike). You might have thought establishing this would only take a few minutes, but no, it took forty five. Yet tattoos weren’t even mentioned yesterday, so maybe Bad Mike is chimerical, a shape-shifter. Perhaps sometimes he has yards of Aryan Nation tats, sometimes he doesn’t. Or maybe there are several Bad Mikes. Maybe we are legion — though actually I think I prefer the idea of one uber-Bad Mike, bestriding the realms of ill-doing like a colossus.
Yesterday, when, after two and a half hours of not being talked to at all, I was eventually assigned a handler, I actually asked him what Bad Mike had done — and was told that I didn’t want to know. I should probably have tartly replied that I was a mystery and sometime horror writer, responsible for a trilogy of serial killer novels amongst other dark fictions, and could probably handle it. But by that point I’d forgotten I’d ever been that person or done those things, and had become instead a small and irritable cog in someone else’s machine, capable of nothing more than furiously watching a lovely spring afternoon turn into evening, through the tiny sliver of window afforded to the bad and stupid amongst whom I now numbered myself. To be fair, my handler was extremely civil throughout, and even apologized a couple of times during the hour and a half it took for the call to come back from Washington DC to confirm I was self-evidently an effete Brit writer who couldn’t even stick to one genre for any length of time, never mind forge a successful career as a ravening psychopath. But to sit there while two of my handler’s colleagues worked for a while, then talked about going to get their dinner, then went for their dinner, and then came back and worked for quite some time...
It’s lucky I’m not the real Bad Mike. That’s all I'm saying. You can do a lot of damage with an iPhone, I would imagine. Though of course I wasn’t allowed to use my phone, and got barked when I tried. I had an armed escort to even go to the toilet.
The whole experience was... not good.
Eventually, just at the point where I thought I was genuinely in danger of losing it through frustration and nicotine withdrawal and a gut-wrenching certainty of my own innocence, they let me go. I hadn’t done anything, as I’d known all along. I hadn’t even not done anything, like failing to get a visa or work permit. I’d just had... my own name.
So, to recap, that’s my final tip. Don’t have my name. Oh, and Bad Mike, if you should happen to be reading this, please either change your name or STOP DOING BAD THINGS.
Still, on the upside, it turns out that just along the street from my hotel — where I have a room so small it doesn’t even have a fucking chair — is a place called Virgil’s, that not only does very decent barbecue, but knows how to use an apostrophe.
So, you know, it’s all good.