The Sunday Times July 02, 2006
The united states of total paranoia
I know Britain is full of incompetent water board officials and stabbed Glaswegians but even so I fell on my knees this morning and kissed the ground, because I’ve just spent three weeks trying to work in America.
It’s known as the land of the free and I’m sure it is if you get up in the morning, go to work in a petrol station, eat nothing but double-egg burgers — with cheese — and take your children to little league. But if you step outside the loop, if you try to do something a bit zany, you will find that you’re in a police state.
We begin at Los Angeles airport in front of an immigration official who, like all his colleagues, was selected for having no grace, no manners, no humour, no humanity and the sort of IQ normally found in farmyard animals. He scanned my form and noted there was no street number for the hotel at which I was staying.
“I’m going to need a number,” he said. “Ooh, I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m afraid I don’t have one.”
This didn’t seem to have any effect. “I’m going to need a number,” he said again, and then again, and then again. Each time I shrugged and stammered, terrified that I might be sent to the back of the queue or worse, into the little room with the men in Marigolds. But I simply didn’t have an answer.
“I’m going to need a number,” he said again, giving the distinct impression that he was an autobank, and that this was a conversation he was prepared to endure until one of us died. So with a great deal of bravery I decided to give him one. And the number I chose was 2,649,347.
This, it turned out, was fine. He’d been told by his superiors to get a number. I’d given him a number. His job was done and so, just an hour or so later, I was on the streets of Los Angeles doing a piece to camera.
Except, of course, I wasn’t. Technically you need a permit to film on every street in pretty well every corner of the world. But the only countries where this rule is enforced are Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea and the United States of America.
So, seconds after breaking out the tripod, a policeman pulled up and demanded that we show him our permit. We had one that covered the city of Los Angeles . . . except the bit where we were. So we were moved on.
The next day I was moved on in Las Vegas too because the permit I had didn’t cover the part of the pavement I was standing on. Eight inches away was fine.
You need a permit to do everything in America. You even need a passport to buy a drink (and you need to be 21, unlike in Britain where you just have to be 18 ). But interestingly you DON'T need one if you wish to rent some guns and some bullets. I needed a 50 cal (very big) machinegun. “No problem,” said the man at the shop. “But could you just sign this assuring us that the movie you’re making is not anti-Bush or anti-war.”
Also, you do not need a permit if you want — as I did — to transport a dead cow on the roof of your car through the Florida panhandle. That’s because this is banned by a state law.
Think about that. Someone has gone to all the bother and expense of drawing up a law that means that at some point lots of people were moving dead cows about on their cars. It must have been popular. Fashionable even.
Anyway, back to the guns. I needed them because I wished to shoot a car in the Mojave desert. But you can’t do that without the say-so of the local fire chief who turned up, with his haircut, to say that for reasons he couldn’t explain, he had a red flag in his head.
You find this a lot in America. People way down the food chain are given the power to say yes or no to elaborately prepared plans, just so their bosses can’t be sued. One expression that simply doesn’t translate from English in these days of power without responsibility is “Ooh, I’m sure it’ll be fine”.
And, unfortunately, these people at the bottom of the food chain have no intellect at all. Reasoning with them is like reasoning with a tree. I think this is because people in the sticks have stopped marrying their cousins and are now mating with vegetables.
They certainly aren’t eating them. You see them growing in fields, but all you ever find on a menu is cheese, cheese, cheese, or cheese with cheese. Except for a steak and cheese sandwich I bought in Mississippi. This was made, according to the label, from “imitation cheese”.
Nope, I don’t know what that is either but I do know that out of the main population centres, the potato people are getting fatter and dimmer by the minute.
Today the average petrol pump attendant is capable, just, of turning on a pump when you prepay. But if you pay for two pumps to be turned on to fill two cars, you can, if you stare carefully, see wisps of smoke coming from her fat, useless, war losing, acne-scarred, gormless turnip face.
And the awful thing is that you don’t want the petrol anyway, because it’ll simply get you to somewhere else, which will be worse. A point I shall prove next week when we have a look at what happened in Alabama. And why the poor of New Orleans will sue if the donation you make isn’t as big as they’d hoped for