When my wife and I first arranged our three-month sabbatical in Los Angeles we planned to spend the last week in Mexico. However, last April a British journalist called Elena Lappin was detained by immigration officials at Los Angeles International Airport--and then deported--for trying to enter the United States without a visa.
I was under the impression that British citizens don't require visas if they plan to stay in the country for less than 90 days, but I was wrong. There's a little-known rule dating back to 1952 requiring all foreign journalists to obtain "I visas". This wasn't enforced until March of last year when the Immigration and Naturalization Service was folded into the Department of Homeland Security. The upshot is that at least 20 journalist have been detained in the past 16 months, the majority of them at LAX.
Since Caroline and I were committed to flying back from Los Angeles, we decided not to risk a trip to Mexico. British journalist aren't always put through the ringer-- I'd managed to slip through the net when I first entered the country back in April--but I didn't want to chance it. Elena Lappin was interrogated, body searched, fingerprinted, photographed, handcuffed and then forced to spend the night in a "detention facility". Her ordeal lasted 26 hours.
Then, just before we were due to leave, the Department of Homeland Security switched tack. In future, it announced, immigration officials would be given some "leeway" when it came to admitting journalists "who are clearly no threat to our security". Suddenly, Mexico was back on the agenda and Caroline and I, along with Sasha, our 11-month-old daughter, spent last weekend in Esperanza, a beautiful hotel in Los Cabos where, according to legend, Apple Blythe Alison Martin was conceived.
Just before leaving the hotel I checked the Homeland Security website to make sure I had all my ducks in a row. It was then that I discovered just what this "leeway" consisted of. Apparently, foreign journalists are allowed to enter the United States once without an "I Visa", but woe betide those unfortunate hacks who try it a second time.
Oh Christ, I thought. What if the immigration official at LAX realizes I'm a second offender? To make matters worse, my passport actually contains an old "I Visa"--long since expired--dating back to when I used to live in New York. One glance at this and my goose would be cooked.
Four hours later, as we inched towards Checkpoint Charlie in the "foreign visitors" line at LAX, I felt like Billy Hayes in Midnight Express. Would Caroline be detained as well for being married to a habitual offender like me? If so, what would become of our daughter?
Luckily, Sasha must have picked up on my anxiety because as we arrived at the immigration booth she started howling like a banshee--and when it comes to sheer volume she has the makings of a future Wimbledon champion. I immediately yanked her out of her pram and held her inches away from the official's face. The poor man was so desperate to be rid of us he stamped all our passports without a second glance. It was the first time I've actually been grateful to Sasha for crying in public.
I was considerably less thankful for my daughter's Maria Sharapova-like lungs on the British Airways flight back home. If looks could kill, all the passengers in our immediate vicinity would have been arrested when the plane touched down at Heathrow.
When Sasha eventually nodded off the chief steward appeared and asked Caroline if she'd like to put her head down in Club Class. He and his wife had just had a baby, he explained, so he knew how much she'd appreciate it.
I was tempted to ask him if he could stick Sasha in Club instead. She was momentarily exhausted from the effort of screaming her head off for four-and-a-half hours, but I knew from experience that her voicebox would be fully restored after less than five minutes of sleep. Unfortunately, Caroline leapt out of her seat and started powering down the aisle before I could get a word in.
Sure enough, Sasha sat bolt upright about 30 seconds later and resumed her impression of a pet shop being slowly burned to the ground. I could tell immediately that her nappy needed changing--everyone within a 100-yard radius could tell--but I didn't know what Caroline had done with the Huggies. With some reluctance, therefore--not much, I admit--I left Sasha in her basinet and went in search of my wife.
I made it as far as the galley when I was met by an astonishing sight. There, looking for all the world like he'd personally prepared meals for all 422 passengers, was Gordon Ramsay. I glanced behind me, expecting to see a camera crew, but the two of us were alone. Clearly, he'd just wandered up from his seat in Club Class in search of a glass of water.
It was too good an opportunity to miss.
"I hate to say this, Mr Ramsay," I muttered, "but both the chicken and the beef were an absolute disgrace."
He laughed and we fell into conversation. (Sod the baby, I thought. How often do you get a chance to corner a celebrity chef?) It turned out he'd been in LA to talk about the American version of Hell's Kitchen which is due to be broadcast on Fox this autumn.
I would have been happy to spend the remainder of the flight chatting to him, but after about five minutes the sound of the baby's screams brought my wife padding back from Club Class.
"Ah, there you are darling," I said. "I've been looking for you everywhere."
Thirty seconds later, I was back in my seat, desperately trying not to meet the hostile stares of all the surrounding passengers.
Conversation at Burger King
As I was waiting in line at Burger King in LAX I overheard the following conversation between two black men:
First Man: Remember when I was going to Australia last year?
Second Man: Yeah.
First Man: I was worried I wouldn't get into the country because I had a felony case pending. So I call up the attorney generals office and ask if I can get a hearing. They say, 'No problem. We'll see you in court next Monday.' So I'm all set to go, when I think, 'Maybe I better call my lawyer first.' He said, 'Nigger, are you crazy? That's a drug offence. You could get five-to-seven years for that.' So I decided to leave that one on file, you know what I'm saying?
No Car Pool Lanes for Britain, Please
As I was heading home from Heathrow in the back of an Addison Lee people carrier I read in the paper that Alistair Darling is thinking of introducing car pool lanes on Britain's motorways whereby one lane is reserved for "Heavy Occupancy Vehicles" (cars with more than one person in them). After all, they work so well in cities like Los Angeles.
Is this a joke? The only reason car pool lanes work in America is because their freeways have six lanes on either side. How would such a proposal be implemented on that stretch of the M4 connecting Heathrow to London, for instance? It only has two lanes and one of them is already reserved for buses and taxis. If the other lane was earmarked for HOVs, what would everyone else do? Avoid the motorway altogether?
Ah well. At least we won't have to worry about the speed cameras on the A4 any more. The traffic won't move any faster than 5mph.