Well I finally made it back to Houston. It’s my fifth stay in the United States and the fourth year in a row I have roomed with my friends for the summer. My return to Texas is also something of a farewell tour; come next year it is likely that my pals will be living in a state with a less punishing climate, and begin their life together as husband and wife. Their wedding will ensure a sixth visit to the US of A, but the years of the mythical summers will come to an end. So it is that this year then becomes my last chance, at least for a while, to see more of what Houston has to offer. The plane came in to land around suppertime and everything was much as I had left it and it was bright in the evening. Out of the window I had an unobstructed view of the low, gray buildings and the low, dark hardwoods. The grass was pale and everything had the sticky quality of a swamp. As we got closer to the runway, more buildings came into view; car dealerships with seas of glimmering hoods, power plants belching fumes, and modest, gray motels copy-and-pasted across acres of concrete. Every building site and industrial complex was low and spread out among the swamplands.
I figured at this point that I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve been here five times now and twice to the Big Country- so what did I have to fear? No doubt I would be akin to an old guest at a nice hotel, the kind that makes jokes with the doorman and has his lucky room reserved for him by the winking desk clerk. But no, that wasn’t the case. As a general rule the folks at border protection are largely a humorless bunch- and this is no more true than in the case of those who guard the shores of the USA, the nation that, although built by immigrants now considers it something of a curse word. There is something very detached about the way the officers at customs interact with us travelers. The lady who dealt with me asked me to scan my fingers and have my photo taken, before suddenly informing me that I was to be escorted to “Immigration” (a detention room) for some unspecified reason. I said “Okay” and reached for my passport before she snatched it away and put it in a folder.
“Oh, you’re keeping that are you?” I asked.
“Yes, of course I am,” she snarled, in this real patronizing way as though I knew what the hell was going on. She stared me down for a few seconds like I had insulted her, as I looked around for where “Immigration” was. She pointed me in one direction, before yelling at me to come back and wait for an agent who would escort me. I get taken to this little waiting room and left among a bunch of other miserable looking travelers who similarly have no idea why they have been disallowed entry. Across from me is a mother from India balancing a baby on one arm whilst trying to rein in a screaming naked toddler with the other.
One of the officers came over and demanded the mom get the kid some pants. The mom tried in vain with her one free arm to get the child into some pants whilst he made a screaming wheel of himself on the floor. The officer then came over again and yelled at the woman to control her kid, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this lady had the odds stacked against her. This pattern repeated itself for about 45 minutes and the naked kid started attacking his mom. Everyone watched without saying anything as the little kid- who had been screeching without pause for the better part of an hour now- started clawing at his mother’s face, gauging her eyes, and pulling her hair out. There was murder in his little eyes. Finally the officers, who found there was no luck to be had in screaming at this woman themselves, brought her husband in, and it wasn’t long before he lost his temper and tried to smack the kid like he was a housefly. At this point the officer strode over and wagged her finger an inch from the guy’s face and said several times “NO. NO. YOU CAN’T HIT KIDS IN OUR CULTURE,” in the kind of voice one would use for a disobedient dog. I half expected her to follow it up with “BAD BOY”.
No one seemed to be checking on us and no one told us why we were here or how long we would be delayed. I swear that room was a Kafkaesque nightmare. We were infinitesimal drops of spray against the high stone walls of bureaucracy. I could observe the officers joking with each other, but as soon as they interacted with us they fixed us with these mechanical eyes, and all sense of human empathy was lost. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Ray Bradbury recently.
Anyway, we were a right motley crew in that waiting room. There were a dozen of us from a dozen different corners of the Earth with a dozen different problems. We were told that we couldn’t leave the room or use our phones. One British girl who was there for having her green card stolen was only allowed to go for a piss with an armed escort. Most of the people’s issues that I witnessed seemed to be mere bureaucratic errors. I overheard things like “Look, lady- just because you have been approved to adopt this baby, that doesn’t mean you have completed the adoption process. You need to go back to Pakistan and call this number…” or “Ah, so it looks like glitches in the fingerprint scanners are logging people as having criminal records, so we have to wade through your criminal history”. It turned out that the reason for my being there was something like this- somewhere down the line there had been a misunderstanding or misstep in their system. I got interviewed by a guy with a thin, downward-curling mouth and steel-colored eyes, who responded to even the most straightforward answers I gave him with a confused “huh”. I guess my student visa from five years ago had confused their system, which is strange, because I have visited the USA in 2014, 2015, and 2016 all without incident. The guy grumbled at me to call a number and sent me on my way, two hours after I had landed.
I got a call from my friend, who informed me that there was an active tornado warning and that he, his fiancee, and their puppy Adelaide had locked themselves in the bathroom and turned out the light. I had to watch out that I wouldn’t get blown halfway to Cuba as soon as I stood outside. But first I had to worry about where the hell my luggage was. I was late, so none of the conveyor belts had bags on them, and I was the only passenger left in the area. I asked the only folks around- a couple cleaners- if they had seen my bag. The answer was that, since it had been so long since my plane landed- or indeed any planes had landed- that I would have to find the nearest British Airways agent and hope that my bag wasn’t destroyed as a potential bomb threat. I passed through a set of doors that informed me I wouldn’t be able to return through, and in the distance in a long, empty room, I spotted my bag casually abandoned beside a wall. I picked it up, and left with the feeling that the day’s drama was behind me.
I went over to the first cab I saw and asked if I could use it. The taxi driver asked where I was going and I told him “NASA Space Center”. He said okay and for me to get inside whilst he loaded my bags. Then, inexplicably, he ran over to his supervisor and had a short, animated conversation. The driver came running back and asked me to leave my bags in the car and convince his supervisor I needed a cab. I did this, and the driver then ran over to us and exclaimed to his supervisor “He asked me to take him to the hospital, I swear!”
“No I didn’t,” I said.
“Get this man’s bags. You can’t take him,” the supervisor said.
“But HE came to ME,” the taxi driver protested.
“Get his bags, now,” the supervisor demanded. Turning to me, he said, “I’m sorry sir. Go to that cab over there. He will get your bags.”
The cab driver, visibly irritated, grabs my luggage and complains that I should get my own bags.
“Really,” I say, “I can go over and get it, it’s fine.”
“No, you don’t have to do it. He’s gonna do it for you, sir,” the supervisor interjects through gritted teeth.
The cab driver protests some more and I go over and take my bags off him. The supervisor apologizes to me and I get in the cab he indicates to me. I see them start to argue behind me. I tell the new cab driver “NASA, please” and we finally get going. A couple minutes pass before the driver tells me, “Yeah, that driver back there is gonna get suspended for a week now. Not your fault though”.
We drive into the night and the traffic on the freeway is almost non-existent. The trees give way to lots, and the lots become billboards; blazing violets and reds and blues of neon. We pass by every kind of cuisine imaginable. Everything is lit up, and you can hardly see the clouds for the great roadside advertisements. Soon we pass by the heart of the city and Minute Maid Park, and the whole thing never loses its grandeur. All the verticality of the city is condensed into this one, bright nucleus of skyscrapers that stand above the rest of the city, which spreads suddenly flat in all directions around it.
When I get to the apartment complex it’s raining but the storm has passed. I enter into the old place and Addie starts going mad, springing off her back legs five feet in the air. My friends had a homemade pizza, a slice of ice cream cake, and a cold glass of Jarritos waiting for me. We all heaved a sigh of relief, and thus, the summer of 2017 began.