Here's how a modern airport works. Far beyond the end of the runway, beyond all those fairy lights, off in the long grass stands a little man with a pair of binoculars and a notebook. He spends the day looking up into the sky, looking at all the planes that come and go and noting down their number plates. Sometimes there are too many planes, and in such cases he'll count them all a couple of times over just to be sure, then mount his bicycle and get back to the control tower as quick as he can.
'Too many planes,' he'll shout up at the window, and providing someone up there hears him, they'll talk to the men flying the planes by means of a special two-way radio, just to make sure they don't all try to land at the same time. Sometimes there are only a few planes, but on other days there might be a lot of planes, especially when one of those new countries has been discovered - like Valeria or Lexavia to name but two of the most recent; so that's a sudden increase in tourism and, by association, air traffic, and before you know it, there are just too many planes up there. Worse is that we have no way of telling just how many planes there might be. There is simply no way to be sure. It's something we shall never understand. It's a mystery.
I'd spent three weeks back in England. I'd had quite a time. I'd met up with family, friends, and old friends I hadn't expected to see. I'd packed a suitcase full of ancient cassette tapes - obscure and mostly noisy bands from the eighties and nineties whose work I intend to digitise and make available on the internet - and this time I took the trouble to check what luggage restrictions would apply.
Back in 2015, I turned up at Heathrow with as much crap as I could physically carry, materials which never made it into the shipping container when I first moved and which were subsequently marooned at my mother's house. I had an earlier suitcase full of ancient cassette tapes, an acoustic guitar, a large portable art portfolio, and three or four additional bags all bursting at the zippers. I knew there might be some kind of excess baggage fee, but I didn't mind paying another twenty quid or so. Unfortunately the anticipated twenty quid fee turned out to be closer to four-hundred, so I wasn't going to make that mistake again.
This time, I'd weighed the suitcase on my mother's bathroom scales, then taken out one cassette after another until the weight crept below the permitted limit. This left me with a surplus of twenty-six cassettes which I posted to myself. I spent about a hundred quid posting stuff to myself because it wouldn't fit in my luggage, and thankfully it all arrived at the other end in one piece.
My mother drops me off at the coach station in Coventry, and this time I manage not to cry. I give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which represents a gaudy demonstration of affection in our family because we're civilised and not inclined to ostentatious sentiment. The coach trip is boring, but it gets me there in plenty of time. I bum around Terminal Five looking for things to do, smoking my last ciggies for a while and eating bland sandwiches before getting into a fight with a machine. It's the check-in machine, one of those features installed for our increased comfort and convenience so as to dispense with human inefficiency.
I press an icon on the screen and it asks to see my passport, face down in the scanner.
It asks to see my green card.
This unit cannot process your request at this time, it tells me. Please seek assistance.
I get the same response from a second machine.
I find a human and she suggests that I simply go straight to the check-in desk, which I would have had to do anyway even if the machine had worked. I suppose it's okay for me to go straight to the check-in desk because at least I made the effort to use the machine. The human at the check-in desk tells me that my possession of both a passport and a green card probably confused his mechanical colleague. I hump my permitted twenty-three kilo suitcase of industrial noise onto the scales and begin to sweat, waiting to be told how many thousands of pounds I've just incurred in excess baggage charges.
'Is it okay? ' I ask after a silent minute. 'Not too heavy?'
'It's fine,' he tells me.
The flight is long, cramped, and boring, and I'm stuck right in the middle. I watch Rowan Atkinson in Maigret Sets a Trap, which I find soothing because I've spent the last three weeks watching relaxing crime dramas - Midsomer Murders, Lewis and the like, these constituting my mother's preferred viewing these days. Then I watch Doctor Strange - which is okay despite the presence of Cucumber, Arrival - which is excellent, and finally a sappy American made music documentary which compensates for minutes wasted on boring Fatboy Slim by showcasing the altogether more entertaining Virus Syndicate. Once I've watched all the in-flight telly I can stand to watch, I fill in a customs form, declaring that I'm not bringing anything naughty into the country. I value my precious suitcase of noisy tapes at five quid, because there's really no point in trying to work out what they're all worth. It's not like I'm going to sell my rare Opera for Infantry cassettes and use the money to fund the downfall of the dangerous orange shitgibbon.
Eight hours after take off, we land at Chicago. We land at Chicago later than anticipated because there were too many planes at Heathrow. Apparently they had all turned up at once, completely unexpected, not even a phone call or anything; and so we were unable to leave on schedule. As I shuffle from the plane, I consider asking a stewardess whether she thinks I'm really going to be able to make it across the airport in time to catch my connecting flight to San Antonio, but I already know the answer. I already know the answer because when travelling in the US, I always miss the connecting flight. Every single occasion of my coming back across the Atlantic, I've ended up stranded in Philadelphia or Charlotte or New York because they can't find the plane, or they've found the plane but some kids have drawn cocks on the side, or they've run out of fuel, or it might rain, or there's poo on the fucking runway. It has happened every single time, and tonight I get an unscheduled stay in the windy city. I've been in transit for thirteen hours and somehow I'm still thousands of miles away from home.
As I squirt from the connecting tunnel into the womb of O'Hare international, I raise a finger to catch the attention of a stewardess, but before I've even finished my question she directs my attention to the wall upon which an array of envelopes are affixed with tape. I see that my surname is written on one of the envelopes, but my thoughts are momentarily elsewhere, flustered by the blandly efficient tone of the stewardess telling me that I'm screwed, albeit not in those specific terms. I thought they had been trained to sound like they at least give a shit.
Amazingly, I don't lose it. I was expecting this eventuality. In fact, I would have been more surprised had I made my connecting flight without disruption. The envelope contains a letter telling me how deeply everyone regrets everything, along with tickets which will secure a room and breakfast at some local hotel.
I am swept through baggage claim by tidal crowds exiting the plane, then on through to customs and Homeland Security. Every few minutes I have another piece of paper shoved at me. They all go into different pockets as I try to concentrate on what the hell is going on and where I need to go. I ask directions of a woman who turns out to have a near impenetrable Swedish accent, and who helpfully barks at me whilst pointing at a line of machines, features installed for our increased comfort and convenience so as to dispense with human inefficiency. I can't even get to the machines because there are too many people and the crowd is chaotic, and I don't even know what the fuck I'm expected to do once I get there. After some wrestling, the robot asks for my passport and I answer a series of questions. It prints out my forty-seventh piece of paper to add to all the others I will eventually be expected to hand over to someone or other. Eventually I am through to passport control, or whatever it is. I am asked a couple of questions by a guy who doesn't care, and I'm subsequently waved through. My pockets are still very much stuffed with pointless forms, tickets, declarations, dockets and bits of paper. At no point has anyone asked to see any of them, and yet I've already entered the United States. Almost an hour has passed since I stepped from the plane.
I wait outside with other disgruntled passengers. It's dark and hot, a temperature differential which confirms that I'm back on American soil, accordingly bringing me the only twinge of pleasure I am able to experience under the circumstances. We wait forty minutes until a minibus bearing the name of our hotel appears. It fills to capacity before I can get a seat. The driver tells us that his colleague will be along in another half hour.
We continue to wait. I compare disgruntled notes with a fellow traveller, a German. He is unsure as to the departure time of our replacement San Antonio flight in the morning. I empty my pockets of all the slips of paper I've accrued, but somehow I've mislaid my boarding pass, the one piece of paper which actually does useful shit, the ticket which will eventually get me home.
A second minibus eventually shows. It's after nine. We landed a couple of hours ago. I talk to an old couple who take up the seat in front of me. They tell me that they very much enjoyed England. I tell them that I'm glad to be back in America, despite this evening.
I phone my wife once I'm at the hotel. She already knows what has happened, and knows not to wait for me at the airport. I think she's more distressed by it all than I am. I consider phoning Joe, my friend who lives in Chicago. About a month back I told him that my connection would occur in his city, and that it almost certainly wouldn't be happening given my previous experience of trying to catch a fucking plane in America. I may be giving you a call if I end up in some hotel, I told him, but now that I'm here I realise my mood is best kept in quarantine, and that I will make for terrible company this evening. I don't know Joe very well, but from what I do know, I already respect the guy too much to ask him to babysit some pissed off English dude.
Next morning, I have breakfast at the hotel. It's free, as it should be. I kill time, watch some television, then eventually make my way back to the airport. The missing boarding pass turns out to be no big deal after all.
Yesterday I wore my Lone Star shirt and stetson. I wear the stetson as a matter of course, but I figured that wearing it in combination with the shirt would give me a notionally patriotic appearance, reducing my potential significance to those factions within the Department of Homeland Security who now - so I am informed - make it their business to check your social media to see if you've referred to the current president as a dangerous orange shitgibbon, an identification you might imagine would be covered by that whole deal with freedom of speech, that thing which is supposed to make America great. I had already deleted all references to the dangerous orange shitgibbon from my facebook page, and also any links which might expose me as one of those bleeding heart liberal faggot types; but still, I'm reluctant to take chances, hence the shirt and the stetson. However, I'm now behind schedule and I'm not going to wear the Lone Star shirt a second day running because I have standards. Instead I opt for my Henry Rollins for President t-shirt because it at least suggests patriotism in some form.
I make it through customs and security just fine, aside from one officer having a rummage through my backpack, seemingly intrigued by all the funny looking shit which showed up on the x-ray machine. He scowls at my ancient tapes of industrial noise, but thankfully doesn't find my pornography - a 1993 issue of Knave which I own because I'm in it. Specifically the magazine features an article about A Reflection, an unpublished comic strip written by myself and drawn by Charlie Adlard way back at the beginning of his career. Ignoring the bongo periodical, the security officer finds a set square once owned by my grandfather. I guess maybe it looked like a weapon on the x-ray. Once it's obvious that I'm not about to blow anything up, I'm through. Weeks later I discover that my friend Jane, another English citizen living in the US on a green card, experienced just the sort of difficulties I had anticipated. She was detained at length, and interviewed twice before being allowed to re-enter the country. I'm inclined to wonder whether it was the stetson which helped, which eased the process for me.
I head for my departure gate and an old coot similarly kitted out with a stetson squints at my t-shirt. 'Who do you want for president?'
'Henry Rollins,' I tell him. 'It's a long story.'
My estimation of his voting habits thankfully turn out to be entirely wrong. 'Well, I ain't got no idea who that is,' he sighs, 'but he can't be no worse than that dang fool we got ourselves right now.'
My flight back to Texas runs without incident.
Finally I am back in San Antonio.
Heading for baggage claim I see Daisy Bee hamming it up on the concourse before a bunch of school kids. She is my first familiar face, our famous local clown. She is our equivalent of Krusty because, as I've noticed, there are certain peculiar parallels between life in San Antonio and what you see on a typical episode of The Simpsons. We have a clown. We almost certainly have a guy in a bee costume. We even have our own version of Kent Brockman. I've watched him on the news and I've shaken him by the hand.
Baggage claim echoes traditional song from a marginally less traditional trio of female Mariachi musicians - violin, guitar, and guitarrón. It feels like a personal welcome, as though they're playing just for me, and it makes me think of Michoacan, which makes me happy. The air is hot and the music is sweet.
I am home.