Adventures of a Couch-Hopping Scribbler Part 1: Chicago or Bust
And it very nearly all went tits-up on the first day, you know? Cause, yeah, there I was at one in the morning, my flight from Glasgow to Chicago via Heathrow not leaving till midday that day, watching the pilot of Lost to pass the time before going to bed. I'm not that tired yet, being a night owl, so I reckon this is a good way to wind down, ye see -- not to mention bone up on what happened in the opening for a horrendously delayed BSC Review column on the Lost finale which I'm hoping to get in... eventually. Anyways, I'm only fifteen minutes in when things go on the frizz and I switch off, muttering under my breath about the unwonders of modern technology. On a whim then, at a loose end, I fire up the interwebs for a gander at the Glasgow Airport site. I know my flight won't even be up as a departure yet, but hey... I'm figuring it's worth a look.
And holy shit, is it worth a look! Cause it just so happens that Unite, the union of British Airways cabin crew, is on strike, meaning all flights between Glasgow and London are canceled. My response to this is pretty simple: FUUUUUUCK!!!!!!!! After a bit of hyperventilation and heart palpitations though, I realise, OK, so I'm screwed on the Glasgow-London leg, but the London-Chicago flight is still on, so all I have to do is make it down to Heathrow for four in the afternoon. So: an express train from Glasgow Central to Euston early in the morning, the underground to Paddington, the Heathrow Express -- as long as I'm out the door for quarter to seven, I should make it with time to spare. Hell, if I want to be really panicky, I could go for the half four train, but I figure I'd rather at least try to get some sleep. It doesn't work, but at least I'm not completely bleary-eyed when I set out, laptop bag slung over one shoulder, suitcase trundling behind me.
Operation Orpheus has begun. My mission: to "go South," as they say, braving the depths of London, to journey to the underworld of my own imagining -- to the Hellhole of Nowhere Town, made real on a stage in Chicago -- and return with no more than my fond memories. Much like Jack in the musical. Actually, as it happened, I did bring some tangible cool shit back with me, but I was working on the principle that, yanno, like with Jack in the musical, it's the experience that matters. That sense of closure, of completion. The nomenclature seemed apt.
So, I grab the train and it whizzes its way down to London... except for when it's moving at a fucking crawl, held back by two separate flocks of sheep on the tracks. Two! Still, even these fluffy motherfuckers can't hold back THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!. I arrive in London fine. I cross the Stygian lake of the London underground without any huge hassle. Destination damnation, the Hades/Hell/Heathrow Express hurtles the short distance to Terminal 3 in a mere fifteen minutes, and then I'm there, at the airport -- and earlier than I would have been, in fact, if I'd flown down.
This, it transpires, is fortunate.
As I go to check in, you see, I find out I need an authorisation code for the ESTA Visa Waiver malarky. A what for the which for why and wherefore?! says I. Yeah, so now I find out that the Department of Homeland Security has brought in yet another level of hoop-jumping for those pesky auslanders who have the audacity to want to visit the Home of the Free. Yeah, apparently you have to fill in some form online, to get a code that says you've filled it in, bully for you, before you can even check in. Awesome!
So the woman at check-in gives me a note of the address of the site I'm looking for -- "esta.cbp.dhs.gov" -- and points me upstairs toward the pay-per-minute interwebs booth. I look at the tatty machines and their glaring advert-riddled interfaces with furrowed brow for a second, then head to the bar, hoping it'll be wifi enabled for customers. Hell, no. All we've got here, it seems, is some Boingo bollocks where you've got to subscribe for a stupid amount to a service I'm not likely to use again this year. Also, you gotta pay by credit card, which I don't have. So, back to the pay-per-minute interwebs booth. Which you can pay for by credit card -- which I don't have -- or by voucher -- available from the non-existent "staff" -- or by coins. I stick a pound coin into the slot. The slot eats it. No interwebs.
After a bit of muttering and stalking, I manage to find someone who can point me at another interwebs booth down the concourse, where -- hurrah! -- the machines actually take coins and give access to the interwebs, rather than just, yanno, take coins and blink at you with bafflement at your angry remonstrations. I feed in a couple of quid and get the in-built browser, a godawful monstrosity of an interface if ever I saw one, plastered with ads. I type in the address -- with the missing "http://" of course. Nada. Being blurry from lack of sleep and flustered from the hassle of it all, I don't think to try the "https://" that would take me there no problem. No. Instead I find myself alternating between address bar and search field, trying in vain to find the damn site I'm meant to be filling in.
This is where it gets seriously dodgy, cause when you type in "esta visa waiver" or suchlike -- I can't remember the various strings I tried -- the in-built search field of this advert-riddled browser doesn't give you the Department of Homeland Security site you're looking for. No, it gives you this shady-as-fuck scam site as the top hit... and without the warning I know I get if I look at it now via Firefox or Safari. Yep, this is the site panicking travellers are directed to by the browsers on Heathrow's coin-operated interwebs -- a site trying to rook them of fifty bucks for no more than an email with "application instructions." I'm sure there's some who'd clock these fuckers as phishing / grifting bastards straight off, but with the "www.esta.us" address, when yer kinda stressing that yer interwebs time is ticking away by the second... to be honest, the only reason I didn't fill it out was the fact that I don't have a frickin credit card.
Anyways, long story short, after more muttering and stalking, buying tobacco to get some change to buy more interwebs time, verifying with some airport security guy that the process was not meant to cost $49.25, eventually, by using the browser's search function to take me to fucking Google (cause I seem to recall the piece-of-shit browser didn't even like me typing "www.google.co.uk" in the address bar,) I managed to find the right fucking site, fill in my passport details and get the authorisation code. And so finally, Cerberus defeated, I got checked in and after a quick fag, I was through security. Then the gates of Hades were opening -- or at least, gate 30 was opening -- and Eurydyke was in sight. It was plain sailing from here on in. Nothing could go wrong now!
Of course, this feeling changed when I got to filling in the green visa waiver form on the plane, as we were descending towards O'Hare, and I found myself overwhelmed by a horrible certainty that, in all that online ESTA hassle, I'd filled in 05 for MAY instead of 03 for MAR. I could see myself looking at the recently renewed passport, typing the unfamiliar passport number in, taking great care to ensure it was right. I could see myself looking at the issue date, seeing "MAR." And typing in "05" as my brain short-circuited "MAR" and "MAY".
So it was with no small trepidation that I approached US Passport Control, half-convinced that the guard was going to call me on this fuck-up, that I was going to end up being carted off for the next plane home. Whether I didn't cock it up at all or whether the guard just didn't notice, I have no idea. I suspect I was just being paranoid and panicked. But thank fuck, either way, I got through, to be met by two of the kids from the theatre group -- David & Crayola -- there to meet me and huckle me of to a mountain of onion rings and a meeting with the crew. I'd made it. I was in Chicago, finally meeting Beth and Ben face-to-face, being introduced to the multitudinous crew of promptly forgotten names.