Locked Down At London Heathrow
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to do anything crazy.” His eyes told me that he was speaking the truth but it was the white rubber gloves that were scaring me. I’ve never seen a TV show where the guy in the white gloves just gives you a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the ass.
Plus, I’d just been fingerprinted and was standing outside of Heathrow’s lockdown. I was much less concerned with where his fingers were headed and more worried about how I had ended up in the pokey.
I had come from Italy, where I’d taken a train all day, followed by a cheapo flight to the UK. About ten hours of travel. I had, as is custom, walked thirty-nine miles through Heathrow before arriving at the custom’s podium. I was exhausted, melancholy and quite ready to fall into the arms of my boyfriend, who was waiting for me in London.
“How long will you be here?” Oh, this crap. Couldn’t they read the neatly printed “7 days” in the box of the same question? I noticed that his fingernails were manicured, which struck me as bit metro for such a toughguy gig. He thumbed through my passport, which was nearly full of stamps and visas.
“What are you doing here?” I’m a tourist. “What will you do when you’re here?” I will go see Bruce Springsteen in Hyde Park, see a couple more concerts and visit with friends. “Who are your friends?”
I thought for a second about taking a philosophical approach and asking in return, “Yes, good point. Who are our friends?”
Instead I rattled off a few names, including Lewis’. I hoped that this gentleman wouldn’t ask me about how I’d met Lewis, a story that involves caipirinhas and a make out session on a picnic table in Chile.
“I see here that you’re a writer. What do you write?” I explained that I was a freelance travel writer. Officer Manicure asked if I did anything else, insinuating as everyone does that working in travel couldn’t possibly be a real job. I explained that I didn’t, that I was making my way around the world for a year.
He sucked air through his teeth and made his eyebrows go cross-eyed. “How much money do you have?” I told him about ten grand. That didn’t seem like enough, based on his reaction. He abandoned his podium, directed me to heel and led me to collect my bags.
Along the way he told me that there was probably no issue but the answers I’d given fit a profile, similar to one from people who might disappear into the country. I explained that I was not fond enough of kebabs and greasy chips to stay in the UK. He laughed and assured me that we’d have this settled in no time. “I’m really jealous of what you’re doing, this trip. I wish I could do it.” He had the miserable look of somebody who took holidays on the English seaside.
My bags were searched, specifically for anything that would indicate I’d come to England forever. The good officer told me that often they find cards from going-away parties. He found my Western Europe Lonely Planet. “This is good. I’ll be able to show them this and corroborate that you’re on the trip you claim to be on.” He confiscated all of my notebooks and my collection of receipts. “This is all good. It proves that you are who you say you are.” It was a strange place to have an identity crisis.
I also produced my onward ticket, a flight to Spain. He did the air-sucking thing again and explained that thirty quid flights didn’t stand as any kind of evidence for departure, since cheap flights could be abandoned. He lamented that there might be some issue with my not having a return flight to America, even though I had a ticket out of the country.
I spent the better part of the next three hours in an intimidating questioning room. Everything in the 10×10 room was nailed to the floor, making me imagine just what maniac had started swinging chairs and initiated that protocol. I could see the other rooms through glass, both with stressed-looking travelers being questioned for God Knows What. Manicure asked me about ten more questions, then asked if he could contact Lewis to corroborate my story. I agreed, hoping this would settle the entire thing.
My big problem came in the form of a change of the guard. At 7pm I was assigned a new officer because mine was going home. A strange, shaky man, Officer Anxious regretted to tell me that he’d have to start at the beginning and ask me every question. Good cop, nervous cop. He took notes on cheap, ruled paper. His hyper eyes darted between the page and my face. Much less forthcoming than Manicure, he dropped me back in the main customs area and hustled off.
He returned with pursed lips. He regretted to inform me that I had been denied entry to the United Kingdom. He explained that they had spoken to Lewis and found a discrepancy between our stories. Lewis, not really knowing how to explain my history with a band we were gong to see, simply told them that I used to work with them as their manager, which was the truth. Anxious seized upon this and deduced that I was here to work with this band, to “market and promote.”
I denied this over and over, yet I was branded a “doubtful entry” and a liar by the C.I.O (Chief Immigration Officer), which sealed my case. I was told that I should have immediately said I was in The UK to see a band that I formerly managed, straight when I walked into the custom’s area. Because I hadn’t, I had lied. The logic sounded dicey to me too.
I’ve since recreated the behind-the-scenes events that took place, mostly from pieces of information that airport staff would later slip me in hushed voices. It should be said that this is purely conjecture. First, it seems that the C.I.O. went off duty with Manicure. She didn’t feel like dealing with my issues and ordered me to be denied. When I complained to Nervous and asked to see a C.I.O., she was called at home because it was her case and then she really became pissed. “Not happy” is the British way of saying that.
I think, at that point, everyone was told to hang me up on absolutely anything they could. I’ve since learned that the folks at LHR can hang just about anyone up on something. There are just too many rules to pull from.
Eventually, I would hold paperwork that denied me entry because of my failure to indicate that I was working (completely untrue and never documented by anything I’d said), that my funds were insufficient (ten grand for one week) and that I didn’t have a ticket back to America (although I had one out of the country).
Something happened to Nervous after he delivered the news. He began stuttering when speaking and I noticed that his hands were shaking. I remember thinking that somebody who has a good case wouldn’t act like this.
It was here that I was searched and relieved of my possessions, including everything in my pockets but my phone. I was ushered into a room that contained thirty folding chairs, a TV and a ten foot stretch of bullet-proof glass, behind which I was observed by three officers packing heat. I was in jail.
Over the next eight hours, from 11pm to 7am, I would flip between utter despair and total anger. One security guard, a surprisingly nice man in his mid-fifties who had “seen it all, mate” told me to accept my fate, that he’d only seen three people get themselves out of this situation and they all knew somebody in government. He’d heard about my case and shook his head. He’d explain, after a few hours of conversation about how the whole process worked, that I was probably marked an “easy pull.” He wouldn’t admit that there were quotas to meet but he did tell me that I looked like the kind of guy they “like” to refuse. In other words, I wasn’t going to get physical or spit in anyone’s face.
I phoned an immigration attorney who was absolutely shocked that this happened, and suggested that I petition to see a C.I.O. I did and was denied. They sent Officer Anxious instead, who met me with a determined look. He’d clearly been put in a terrible situation and tried to get stern with me, which just made him shake more. “Lllllllllisten. Just accept it. You’re ggggggggggoing home.”
I wouldn’t accept it and asked to see all my paperwork. I asked them to strike several things that simply weren’t true (they did) but was unable to have stricken that I was in the UK to work with this band. Their interpretation was the hook they’d hung me on and it wasn’t going anywhere, no matter how untrue. Policy was in motion and they had the upper hand.
I was to fly at 8am and made one last appeal, this time with a morning shift officer who looked like Dusty Springfield. Officer Dusty came clean with one piece of new information. While speaking to Lewis, he’d also told him that we were going out. Although not something they were willing to put on my paperwork, it was something that they were holding against me.
Nobody had ever asked me about our relationship and it’s never been my policy to offer that I’m gay to complete strangers; there are just too many closet homophobes in the world. Plus, in my post-Italy dazed state, it never even occurred to me that it would matter. I’d been through Heathrow at least forty times before with not even a second glance.
Dusty claimed that I should have offered this news at the first podium when asked who I was visiting. I said that I had, that I was seeing friends and listed Lewis’ name. “But he’s not just your ‘friend’.” I got angry. “So let me get this straight. I was supposed to walk up to the podium and say that one of the reasons I’m here is to explore a relationship with another man?” She didn’t answer. There was a reason that this was left off the paperwork. She repeated the company line. “Just accept it.”
At 8am I was ‘whisked’ through airport security by two guards. They had heard about my story, which was apparently making the rounds. One of the guards told me that my case wasn’t uncommon and his partner coughed up a more surprising comment. “If I were you, I’d be kicking and screaming right now.”
In perhaps the most embarrassing moment of my life, I was brought onto the plane in advance of all other passengers by security. My passport was handed to the head flight attendant, who was not allowed to give it to me until we landed. All of the other passengers pointed and whispered at me as they filed onto the plane, imagining what I’d done that could have landed me in this situation. Up until this point, I’d never so much as had a detention, let alone any kind of police escort.
I landed at JFK and sailed through customs. Two days later I’d booked a flight to Spain to rejoin my trip, at the cost of $1,400. I attempted to see somebody at the British Embassy in New York to discuss my case, only to be told that the embassy does not see anyone about visa matters.
It was suggested that I get a lawyer who could figure out how to cut through the red tape of an appeal. I had a letter from the band’s manager saying that I wasn’t there to work and a lot of questions to ask someone but I couldn’t afford to ask them – a lawyer was beyond my reach, especially after eating over a grand for new flights.
It turns out that I didn’t need a lawyer. Two months later I went back to the United Kingdom, this time through Edinburgh. I was prepared with every kind of evidence that I needed to prove that I was there to visit and attend the Fringe Festival and see Lewis, who I immediately offered was indeed my boyfriend, which made the older Customs Official blush a bit.
Although he did pull me out of line, he was polite, efficient and reasonable. I was an emotional wreck and he helped make me feel like a human again, just by his demeanor and the way he asked the questions. He asked to see my exit flight and bank statement, which contained less money than it had last time.
His eyebrows raised when he came upon my crossed out passport stamp from London. “Oh, Terminal Five.”, as if to say that it all made sense now. He then stamped my passport and welcomed me to the United Kingdom.
I think he knew about the dinks too.