And he’s off! I will skip the Homeric arming scene; barring a large rucksack, there was little that I needed to purchase for the trip – why would there be, when I am heading to urban centres of a country so similar to my own? [Though it is probably more accurate nowadays to say that my own resembles this] After bidding my parents farewell I proceed to the necessarily unwelcome start of most modern trips. At Gatwick Airport the security is stringent as ever, but for the most part those working there perform a tough job admirably – my view here may be biased given that the stated ‘tough job’ is my mother’s own profession. There does remain the ever-present handful of those working in airport security who seem to take a little too much pleasure in the power they have in this room, and are almost giddy with the force with which they can dish out orders.
Because of metal in my legs I set off the scanners when going through. This is expected but does not always happen – I guess it is comforting that they do, that the detectors detect. After a short delay and a more intimate scanning experience with Micheal the security officer, I am ushered through to the brightly lit world of duty free, where time is discussed backwards, only in relation to the amount of it left until one’s flight. I treat myself to some decent enough earphones but manage to lose them before taking my seat on the plane, not even a single use. I find myself wishing I had burned £13.97, it would undoubtedly have been more satisfying. I didn’t even get the honeymoon period: new headphones that aren’t truly shite always sound brilliant at first, before I slowly discover their inevitable flaws – the same as anything I suppose.
Running out of things to do and sterling to waste, I head to the gate as soon as my flight is announced. Here, I encounter my first real obstacle – unless you count the blasted headphones – as I was not initially let through the final security check at the gate because I did not have a flight out of the U.S. booked, not knowing exactly when/where I would be flying from. Now I am sure that it said online that proving that you had the funds to book a return flight would suffice, but then I am sure of lots of incorrect things. Twenty frantic minutes on the nearby coffee shop’s wifi and £260 later, I had a return flight, and my trip, an end date – May 21st, LAX-LGW. I was welcomed through the security now triumphant, called from the back of the queue to come straight through by the woman who had given me the unfortunate news.
Now I intended to plough through some reading on the 7 hour flight, but 50 pages in I developed a stunning headache. This should not be blamed on the otherwise pleasant nearly middle aged woman that is visiting a friend for her 40th and is seated beside me, who blows her nose with a meticulous and ingrained routine: 8 individual exhales – one nostril at a time, right then left, I think – each followed by a thorough inspection of the tissue. It should not be blamed on her. I doze and the headache – migraine? – eases.
When I wake I am fascinated by a post-adolescent girl across the aisle from me and one row in front who is double-screening like a pro; she browses the TV/Film menus without seeming to look at them, giggles at all the right moments of Austin Powers despite never seeming to take her eyes off the Candy Crush equivalent on her phone, and even flinches at the car crash in Whiplash, jumping back against her seat before returning to the endless crushing, powered throughout by the USB slot in the back of each seat. It’s always nice to see a master at work.
After landing and crushing to get bags down and then waiting very still and then disembarking, the first thing I see upon entering the terminal building is a 14 foot U.S. flag stretched out on the wall with pins and I rejoice in expectations that have been, in this moment, met. I proceed onto passport control, where US citizens are separated from ESTA and visa holders; I am fairly early off the plane and manage to beat most of the rush and am on the queue’s second wind back on itself out of six. The queue itself is mostly white, with a fair Asian cohort, and is British silent. There is an over-enthusiastic security woman who delivers orders to us in the queue with unmistakable relish; I can’t help but wonder the impression that some security officers at Heathrow give to first time visitors to the UK. It is achingly slow progress, with the length of time each persons takes to get through varying drastically and seemingly randomly, but when I do get to the front I have a queue frustratingly lengthy discussion of my own with the amiable man at passport control – it’s amazing how little I care, no longer comrades with those in the queue. He is surprised that I intend to make it down as far South as the Carolinas and perhaps Georgia, and I feel there might be something advisory in his innocent comment on this. But he lets me through without any trouble and I distantly hear the amiable man call “Oh Pat Megroin” to his colleague – named Pat – after I have gained access. The stringency of the security is about what I expected, I am questioned but, being a regulation adhering white male, am allowed in with no real trouble. Interestingly, I speak to a Muslim man of about my age at the hostel who said he arrived expecting to have lamp shone in his eyes but had the exact same experience as me: inquisitive but generally friendly questions.
Thinking that this is the last security check I will endure, I head through cheerfully and collect my checked rucksack from the carousel without even really breaking stride and head toward the exit, where I find there is a final ‘exit check.’ When I get to the front of this short queue I am pulled aside, I think randomly, to have my bag searched. The glasses-wearing uniformed officer who does this is wonderfully and unexpectedly talkative. When he sees Hastings as the place of birth on my passport we discuss, unsurprisingly, the battle of Hastings, which he is well informed on. When I move the discussion onto Trump and U.S. politics, he embodies the begrudging temporary acceptance that I imagined finding in the educated Democrat heartlands of New England:
“We’re going to give him two hundred days.”
“How many has he had?”
“One hundred. You have to give everyone a chance.”
“Can’t wait for mine.”
The security officer laughs and I feel good about having made a security officer laugh, but then he seems to remember himself and re-straightens his face and asks me, still in a friendly voice, to hand my bags over for searching. I test the water and he is still receptive to my attempts to initiate discussion, stating that Hilary should have got her hard-hat on and visited the factories and mines, “as Maggie Thatcher would have done.”
The role of the steel-workers and coal-miners in the election is clearly something that this man has thought much about. He states – without mocking or derision in his voice – that workers such as these are naturally against re-training and finding new professions, because “they want to do what their daddies did,” and that Trump’s promises to those voters, regardless of whether he will deliver or not, took him a long way toward the presidency. Now this is an interesting point: in a free-market economy it is assumed that the people will adapt to the market’s demands to pursue their self-interest. The attachment of the steel workers and coal miners to a profession that they feel to be part of theirs and their family’s identity does not go against this assumption, but does goes against the idea that pursuit of self-interest is synonymous with wealth, an idea which ignores myriad alternate factors, all of which are romantic and human and at odds with the cold hard word of economic theory. The security officer checks both of my rucksacks fairly thoroughly – though he missed at least 3 pockets on the large one – then reseals them and hands them back over. I bid him goodbye and he reciprocates, then I tell him it was nice to meet him and he doesn’t reply, looking away as if this information tells him he has not been carrying out his job quite properly.
I leave the airport and am able to step straight onto a (free!) bus to South Station, a twenty minute walk from my hostel. This very brief stint outside only hints at the temperature, but I am already thinking that I may not have packed as well as I thought. When I leave the bus and the bus station, this becomes clear; it is (below) fucking freezing. I try to have a cigarette but have to alternate hands every two or three puffs until both hands are frozen solid and useless so I abandon it. The walk from South Station to my hostel in the theatre district takes me through Chinatown, but it is dark and I am ashamed to say that trying to fend off the cold and it’s heavy wind overtook all other interests. There is a potentially hairy moment when I am inspecting a public map to the side of the pavement and turn away into the path of a man who has veered drastically to walk within reach of me. He was probably after the gleaming silver thermos that hangs off the side of my rucksack. Probably. To be fair, with two rucksacks and the clear lack of assuredness of one who is just a little bit lost, I am undeniably an obvious target, but I make it to the IH hostel without further trouble and check in and, almost immediately, sleep, a popular action as the two Texan women I am sharing the room with are already trying to do so, having to be up at 3.30am to catch their flight. Urban sounds, not quite familiar, filtered through the window: tomorrow, I vowed.