Here’s how not to start your first US visit. It’s 1986 and I’m discovering that the American passport and immigration service is staffed by the living dead with KKK brain implants. I’m here to tour with two punk bands, The Instigators from Huddersfield and The Detonators from Los Angeles. In one of my suitcases are fifty copies of my EP, More To Hate, which includes songs with distinctly anti-American lyrics. I’ve landed in New Jersey airport and am greeted at the customs desk by a bouncer who barks: “Open ya bags!”
Poker-faced, my charm-school reject pulls out one of my EPs, studies the photos of my two backing bands – one two-tone, the other skinhead – before slowly reading the lyric sheet, word by word. While he does this, I lie to him. Worried that I’ve no work permit, I tell him I’m just here on holiday, adding that the discs are just sample merchandise for radio stations and indie shops. He give me a long slow d’ya-think-I’m-stoopid look, then resumes reading one particularly un-American lyric. “So…” he says at last “you don’t like my country.” “Oh, your people are okay,” I say. “It’s your government I don’t like.”
The zombie looks me up and down before shaking his head. “Ya know there’s ten dollars tax and other dooties doo on eacha these, doncha?” This is not a good start. That would be $500, and I’ve arrived with just half that much in cash and don’t have access to any more. Back home the bank’s stopped all withdrawals till I do something about my overdraft. That’s partly why I’m here.
The man fills out a form, shoves it in an envelope, hands it to me, and tells me to take it to the payment desk across the hall. There, an equally unwelcoming face opens the envelope and reads its contents before saying: “That’ll be jes’ forty-five bucks... an’ there’s a note here, says to tell ya yr lucky to’ve bin checked out by the only man here who shares ya politics… that make any sense to ya?.”
Briefly, I feel good. However, there’s no one here to meet me. I wait. Later I’ll discover that the car coming to collect me has had a breakdown. Hours pass. I know the two bands are staying somewhere in New York, but I’ve no idea where. No way to contact them. No one but the mega-rich had mobile phones in those days. Exhausted, I decide to find a hotel.
It was dusk when I boarded a bus into New Jersey. I was the only white person on the bus – but I was English and had no idea that in urban America that was not a situation to be in. Anyhow, everything was too new and interesting for me to be worrying. After an hour, I asked the driver about getting dropped off somewhere where I could find a cheap hotel. He didn’t give a damn. Why was I asking him? I got pushy about it. “Okay, try here.” he said without looking at me. A concerned middle-aged female passenger told me not to hang about out there as I got off. The bus left and I was alone in America.
The long street was punctuated with cheap hotels. I picked one and entered the busy lobby, stood at the check-in desk and waited. The guy behind the desk ignored me. The people sitting there stared at me. They were all black men dressed in sharp-but-cheap suits. Twenty minutes passed. Finally I asked the receptionist for a room. He sighed and said. “Take a look around.” I did. The black guys gazed back. “I can give you a room, but those bags’ll be gone by morning. Maybe you too. The room locks aren’t strong, y’know. My advice is get out now and keep walking. You don’t belong here. Good luck.”
The only white guy in the area walked through New Jersey. I’d later find out that it was dubbed the murder capital of America. I kept walking for the next two hours, dragging heavy bags with the heat beating the hell out of me. There were people everywhere but no one spoke a word to me. Most just stared. Whole street gangs hanging out on street corners glared but did nothing. Cruising cars slowed to check me out. Some even turned around to do a second pass – all eyes and loud music. One time a car deliberately mounted the pavement, actually brushing against one of my suitcases.
Finally, past midnight, I was checking into a welcoming hotel: “Ya car out back?” “I’ve got no car.” “Someone drop you?” “Nope.” “Taxi?” “Nope.” “How’d ya get here then?” “I walked here.” (pause) “Ya walked…? (pause) Thru Noo Joysie…?” (longer pause) “Wait there one minute.” The receptionist reappeared with two colleagues. “Tell ‘em!”
Next morning, the New York bus dropped me off at Port Authority Bus Depot. In those days the place was the hangout for everyone with nowhere to go – a reservoir of drugs, prostitution and destitution. No mobile phones in those days. I found a functioning phone beside a newsstand and rang home. Having asked my wife to phone the girlfriend of one of The Instigators and get her to phone them and tell them where I was, I sat down to wait.
To my left, a machine dispensing orange juice advertised itself with an air-blown plastic orange bouncing up and down inside a transparent dome. A mad drunk nodded away in front of the machine conversing with this orange. Meanwhile, an old woman paced back and forth in front of me, arguing furiously with a man. In my opinion, the guy wasn’t her real problem. For a start, she was alone.
Later, a gang of youths stood chatting round a ghetto-blaster. Everything they said rhymed and was in rhythm with the music. I was amazed. Poetry! Within a couple of years, rap would hit the world. In 1986, though, it was just being born on New York streets.
A shouting match broke out between the youths. One drew a knife, waving it in the other’s face. Friends tried to calm things. These were black guys. Cops’d have no hesitation in gunning down the knife-guy if they spotted him. Slowly tensions eased. The knife disappeared. Throughout, everyone had stayed in rhyme, kept in rhythm. Astonishing! What if the stabbing had happened? I imagined the victim going: “Ah – ugh – ugh – urgh…” still in rhythm to the music, while his mates struggled to come up with a response that rhymed with urgh.
Mid-afternoon, I phoned home again. The girlfriend hadn’t got through. What on earth was I going to do? Stepping out of the phone box, I bumped right into one of The Instigators who was buying a paper from the newsstand. The band was staying in a house three miles away. He’d caught a bus in to sight-see and buy a few things here in downtown New York. What were the chances of that encounter?