In which our correspondent experiences his own Groundhog Day when asked for his ID in America – again, and again, and again…
You’d think all this international travel would age me, but judging by a recent business trip to Boston it must be having an elixir-like effect.
I first became aware that Boston may be something of a risk-averse city when at a lunch meeting I noticed a disclaimer on the menu saying certain under-cooked items may make me “more prone to food-borne illnesses”. Finding the legal-speak amusing, I pointed it out to my US colleague, who told me it had to be included in Boston’s menus by law. Since the Declaration of Independence had been drawn up around the corner from the restaurant, we were clearly meant to take this sort of thing seriously. Bostonians certainly do, as I was to discover, repeatedly.
My punishing day of meetings concluded – the Americans like to work long, work hard, work some more, then take some work home and check their Blackberries every couple of minutes in case there’s some work that needs doing – I decided to reward myself with a beer. Pushing my way in from the cold into a traditional-looking bar, I was greeted by a spotty youth who asked me for my “picture ID”.
Amused, and frankly a bit flattered, that someone at least half my age thought me too young to drink, I skipped back to my hotel over the road to pick up my passport. (Okay, I didn’t skip – it was minus three outside, so I forged into the searing wind like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, if slightly less heroic.) I came back a few minutes later, brandished it triumphantly and drank my beer with relish, trying to recall the last time I’d been IDed. And failing, because I’m getting old and my memory’s not what it used to be.
The following day, when I had an afternoon free before flying home, I came prepared. Calling into a bar-diner to grab a bite – or, more accurately, judging by US portions, a banquet even Henry VIII would have balked at – I was asked at the door if I would be partaking in alcohol. Well hell, yes, why not? “Could I see your picture ID, then, sir?” Perusing my passport, the doorman handed it back to me, thanking me by name. Startled at first and looking around for some disembodied Big Brother, I realised he’d read it off my document. Nice touch. So that’s why Boston has a famous pub “where everyone knows your name”.
Then he came at me with the type of ink stamp I used to get marked with many moons ago at student union bars, and made a dirty-looking blob on my hand to indicate that I was a drinker. Feeling a bit like a branded cow – half of which was duly served up to me, along with enough fries to end the potato famine Irish Bostonians like to talk about – I settled down to self-induce a heart attack.
The stamping episode had brought back all sorts of nostalgia about my university days, and on my way back to the hotel I decided to do something I’ve not done in a long time, and buy a packet of cigarettes.
Nipping into the liquor store, I asked the guy behind the counter for a box. “Could I see your picture ID, sir?” came the astonishing reply. Now, I may look good for my years, but to say I’m too young to buy a pack of smokes is pushing it a tad, and I have to admit the novelty was starting to wear off. In fact, I was beginning to get pretty stressed out. I showed the necessary, got outside, lit up and dragged deep – yes, I did inhale – and mused on whether this was a sensible policy to discourage young people from the dark arts, or US security gone mad.
I got an answer of sorts later on back at Heathrow when I went to collect my case at the baggage hall. Pleased to see it making its way around the carousel so soon, I was less so when I realised it was trussed up with gaffer tape, the zip having been broken by the enthusiasm with which it had been ripped open in a random security check. And inside, another of those wonderful disclaimers, that no liability could be accepted for damaging my property in the course of the inspection.
Too tired to kick up a fuss, I wheeled my mummified case towards the taxi rank and, looking down, realised the stamp was still on my hand despite all attempts to wash it off. God bless America.