Coming to America? If it's a Sunday, get ready to queue

A chaotic wait to have my passport franked threw up a surprising titbit

I am a patient man. Oh, OK then, I'm not a patient man. I suppose it's built into the journalist gene: we want things to happen, and we want them to happen NOW. But at least I understand the practice and etiquette of queuing.

Which is more than can be said for an old friend of mine, an editor of some eminence, whom I was with in a very popular Chinese restaurant in Leeds some years ago. You couldn't book a table, and it was simply a case of waiting in an orderly line until one came free. The restaurant was all noise and bustle, but most of us could work out what was happening: as people left, you'd move up the queue and eventually you would be seated.

This was not good enough for my friend, who, every time a particular waiter rushed past with a tray laden with with food, would ask, in increasingly plaintive tones: “Any joy?” Eventually, this repeated enquiry was too much for the waiter, who smashed down the tray he was carrying on a table and, as the restaurant fell silent, screamed at my friend: “Look, I've only got one pair of hands!”

This incident came to mind when I arrived at immigration control at Washington airport the other day. As I stood there for two hours among the huddled masses in a queue that snaked this way and that around the barriers, and barely moved, I ached to ask the officials: “Any joy?” They might have responded, firmly: “Look, we've only get three customs officers!” That's right. This is the capital city of ostensibly the most advanced, most prosperous, most outward-looking country on earth, and they keep people waiting for hours on end to get their passport checked because they haven't got enough people to process them.

It's not as if they were taken by surprise. “Oh my God, three jumbo jets have landed at our airport! Why didn't anyone tell us?” Those from my British Airways flight waited, as you may imagine, with dignity and patience. The passengers who arrived in the hall after us, and faced an even longer wait, were rather less phlegmatic, and you could sense the tension rising. Someone demanded to know why it was so chaotic. “It's always like this on a Sunday night,” one of the officials responded.

What? Was that really what she was saying? Don't come to America on a Sunday. We're a little bit short staffed. We've got a few people on holiday, and then, guess what, two others called in sick this morning. What kind of country is this? I will tell you what kind of country it is. It's where they like to tell the rest of the world how to conduct their affairs, and why the American way is the best. And yet your first impression of the place is that it's so utterly broke that they can't afford to pay for a few more public employees so that visitors wouldn't have to stand for hours on end to get their passport franked. However, the joy of getting through the ordeal is only intensified when you hear the words: “Welcome to the United States.” Never fails to thrill.