John Walsh: Tales of the City

It takes creative flair to persuade murderers to parade through the streets in pink knickers
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The Independent Online

I've spent the past few days with an angel perched on one shoulder and a devil squatting on the other. It's been a brutal time. Would you, they asked, like to go to San Francisco? God yes, I've never been and I'd love to. I got to work, booked a hotel, bought the Time Out Guide to the city, re-read Armistead Maupin, downloaded the Scott Mackenzie song off iTunes, acquired some sand-blasted chinos, rang a gay friend in Sausalito, watched The OC because it's set vaguely near by, chanted chakras and experimented with filtered ocean water. I did everything you should do when approaching a California trip. Except organise a visa.

I've spent the past few days with an angel perched on one shoulder and a devil squatting on the other. It's been a brutal time. Would you, they asked, like to go to San Francisco? God yes, I've never been and I'd love to. I got to work, booked a hotel, bought the Time Out Guide to the city, re-read Armistead Maupin, downloaded the Scott Mackenzie song off iTunes, acquired some sand-blasted chinos, rang a gay friend in Sausalito, watched The OC because it's set vaguely near by, chanted chakras and experimented with filtered ocean water. I did everything you should do when approaching a California trip. Except organise a visa.

I'd heard murmurs about journalists, since last autumn, needing a special licence to enter the United States. But they mean foreign hacks, I thought, propagandising infidels from Syria or North Korea - not nice, friendly, mostly well-disposed, British journalists? I rang the US embassy in Grosvenor Square and was given a visa application hotline. I rang it. No answer. Blast them, I thought, how inefficient. And how dare they victimise journalists?

I asked a friend what she'd do. "It's no bother," she said, "these new regulations came in last October. I've been through American customs twice since then - just sailed through, saying, 'I'm a tourist, I'm just doing touristy things,' and they let me through. It's OK if you're just a tourist."

It's all right for you, I thought. You have blonde hair and A Bosom. I have ash-blond hair and JOURNALIST stamped across my brow like a cattle brand. But could I do it? Could I bluff my way past the Frisco border guards? I tried saying, "tourism, officer, I am just a tourist, without a thought in my pretty head," but it sounded like David Walliams pretending to be a lay-dee.

I asked Simon Calder, our omniscient travel editor, what to do. "Of course you must get one," he snorted. "It's stupid not to." Time was running short. The flight was four days away. I asked another, well-travelled, female colleague. "I've got away with it a few times," she said, airily. "The thing to remember is, if you're back-roomed, just stick to your story, no matter what, and you'll be all right."

Back-roomed? I didn't like the sound of this. I looked up the US website and read about the I-visa which "allows a working journalist to enter the US for as long as needed to work on an assignment and avoid a port of entry turnaround." A port of entry turnaround? It sounded like a phrase they use all the time at San Francisco airport. They probably use an acronym, which is POET. "Okay, we got us a POET here in the Backroom. Male Caucasian, ash-blond hair, seems kinda upset ..." I looked up "airport detention" on Google and found a dozen stories about incarceration, body searches and 26 hours of tears.

I sweated all night. In the morning I rang the embassy and asked how fast I could get a visa. "Five working days," they said. "But my plane's going in four days," I snarled, "and I have to write a huge story about your countrymen, and I cannot afford to miss this trip." "In that case," said the voice, calmly, "We'll have to move like greased lightning, won't we?"

Exactly 36 hours later, I held the visa in trembling hands. It was like a Get Out of Jail Free card. I won't have to be backroomed, turnarounded or body-searched by slavering dogs, after all. Gosh, Americans - they're marvellous aren't they?

Padlocked in pink

The most surreal sight of the week was that of a lot of hardened criminals in Phoenix, Arizona being transferred from an ancient overcrowded prison to a spanking new correctional facility, two miles away. Why was it strange? Because the men were walking through the streets in their undergarments, in a bright shade of Schiaparelli pink.

It's the latest bright idea from Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has made a name for himself, Stateside, for being the toughest lawman in the west. Not for being a cruel and ruthless bastard, but for being a whiz at humiliation and prisoner psychology. It takes real creative flair to persuade seven hundred thieves and murderers to parade through the streets clad only in pink knickers, flip-flops, handcuffs and ankle chains.

Watching the procession were amused Phoenix locals, armed guards, helicopter police and marksmen on roofs. But surely nobody was expecting the crims to make a break for it? As fans of Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run will know, it's hard enough for a chain-gang of convicts on the run to pass themselves off as ordinary folk, without being fetchingly arrayed in cerise lingerie.

Feel my depression

Second weirdest sight of the week was the winner of the £26,666 Becks Futures prize at the ICA in The Mall. A lot of philistines in the arty press laughed at the winning installation by Christina Mackie. They howled at the work which is, on the face of it, a flimsily constructed shed with, beside it, a sort of crumpled sack in several colours with a black flowery covering on the top and a crystal ball surmounting the whole. It's called Version 2: Part 1, although, as the sculptor herself explained, it used to be called My Depression. She says it's an attempt "to describe a sensation".

I know the sensation she has in mind. Those of us with garden know that moment when you've just got to get rid of all the empty wine bottles cluttered around the wastepaper bin. You find a black bin-liner and up-end all the empties in there, knot the neck and deposit it on the porch; and there it sits accusingly - a collapsed, defeated-looking sack. You cannot leave out for the bin-men (because they don't take glass any more); you cannot face taking it to the recycling depot. So you and the bloody refuse sack sit there locked in mutual loathing and contempt. My Depression? I know just how Christina feels.

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