So I decided to just do it: I have entered the New York Marathon.
My husband and his running partner have been building up to this event for a few months now, and we have been talking about whether I should stay home and send encouraging thoughts, go along for the ride, or go along and take part. I’m not a sidelines kind of person, but would have had no problem had he decided to take the trip without me. Once it was decided that I should go along, though, it was a no-brainer: of course I would enter the race.
I will be entering as a walker, though, not a runner – albeit a fairly fast walker. I have done a bit of running in my time but have never really loved it. I took to long-distance walking instead and taken part in the Discovery Cape Times Big Walk as often as I could. Besides, there is too little time between now and 3 November to become a runner who is fit enough to run her first marathon. The cut-off is eight hours, and at my current walking speed I should be able to complete the distance in about six hours.
It is, essentially, a runner’s race though and so I am starting to add some running sessions to my normal long-distance walking routine. It would be very nice to be able to run some of the way, and it would be especially good to run, rather than walk, across the finish line.
But first things first: I need a visa.
I completed the online application form for the American visa – all eight or so pages of it – had my very unflattering photograph taken (hair brushed away from forehead and tucked behind ears, no smiling), uploaded it, booked my appointment for interview, and read through all the requirements for a South African applying for a non-immigrant visa. I had heard that the American visa is quite difficult to come by and, since the 50% non-refundable deposit had already been paid, I started working myself up into a froth of worry.
Admin people like to be able to put things in neatly parcelled boxes. So, if you try to open a new bank account, apply for credit, a cellphone contract or a visa, the process runs most smoothly if you are employed by a nice big company. That way everyone knows you are a fully functioning member of society, not a waster, an anti-establishment hippie, a potential defaulter. I am a freelancer. This means I usually need to jump through some hoops before it is established that I can be trusted. I usually need to present at least three months’ bank statements, proof of tax payments, work orders, a letterhead, and whatever else the organisation can think of.
So, off I went to photocopy my most recent bank statements, worrying all the while that they are not looking quite as healthy as they did last year when I had a glut of projects (should I add some extra statements, maybe six months’ worth, I fret), as well as an IRP 5 and a batch of work orders.
This done, I proceeded to frantically turn the house upside down: I needed my current passport, as well as all previous passports. I had my current passport, but where were the others? After some panicked unpacking of drawers and boxes, flinging and crumpling of various papers, and an archaelogical find of vintage cellphones, I found a very old, chewed-up passport jammed at the back of a junk drawer. I rewarded myself with a few gulps of air (breathe – must breathe!) and a cup of tea. The other passport, a temporary one, which I had discovered was expired on the morning that I was about to set off on a river rafting trip in Namibia (but that’s another story), was missing. If was definitely somewhere safe, along with a whole of other essential bits of paper that I really shouldn’t lose but haven’t seen in a decade.
The night before the interview I stayed up as late as possible. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep, and so decided to stay up until my eyes felt like hot coals. I went through all my bits of paper again and put them all in a neat, blue folder.
At midnight I realised that I didn’t have the most essential piece of paper: the barcoded confirmation letter. Not only that, but the printer was out of ink – completely bone dry; I wouldn’t even have been able to print out one of those ugly, irritating, streaky documents. Worse, the interview was scheduled for ten o’clock and the print shop opened at nine: not enough time to make it to the print shop, print the letter and make it to the American Consulate on time.
At least now I had something to think about while I lay in bed, wide awake, until morning. I got to bed at 12:40 am. By 3:40 am I was still awake, playing out various scenarios in my head. I must sleep, I thought, willing my body to shut down, I must sleep. Just when my body was about to surrender to sleep, my husband started snoring … perky and refreshed was not going to be the day’s look.
As soon as I crawled out of bed, I emailed the document to my sister-in-law, hoping that she would find the time to check emails and print the document in between getting two boisterous young boys ready for school. While driving my own youngster to school I received an email from her to say that she’d done it. Ah man! All those hours of lost sleep!
So, finally, I’m dressed in my interview finest and ready to leave. I go through my blue folder again. Everything’s in there. But where are my two photographs? I rush to my desk, shove items around, lift the keyboard … theres’ one … but where’s the other one? I rush back to my bag, pull out my wallet, rummage through it. Head back to my desk, dump all the receipts and pieces of paper from my wallet onto my desk … there it is! Right. I have both photographs (I need only one, and I already have two from my Schengen visa application in my folder – but you never know, you know!). I’m ready to go. As I reach for the door handle I remember: passport! Where is my passport! It’s not in the blue folder, it’s not in my bag, it’s not in my wallet, it’s not in my other handbag in the bedroom, nor in the drawer … where? Back to my desk I rush – it’s there, under the pile of receipts that I had pulled from my wallet.
I head off. At last. I’ll be on time. I hope.
I pull into the American Consulate’s drive with time to spare, only to be told that I must find my own parking. By this I understand that I should drive into the adjacent parking lot and find a parking space. This is a misunderstanding. I may not drive into the adjacent parking lot. I must drive past the parking lot, which has lots of open parking spaces, and I must drive back out, down the road, and park at the shopping centre. Luckily it had stopped raining, and luckily I had opted to wear flats, not heels.
I arrive back at the consulate’s doors, obediently on foot this time, and join the back of a queue. Who would have known you’d have to queue to apply for a visa! There must be something to this US of A!
We’re allowed to enter only one or two at a time, at the discretion of the strict security guard in charge of opening the door. I go through my blue folder one more time while I stand in the queue, and indulge myself in pondering all the reasons why I would be denied an American visa.
Finally the security guard heaves the door open and waves me through. I walk straight to the wrong desk and attempt to sign in. I’m waved away to the next desk where I am asked to hand over my photograph, my passport, my confirmation letter and my application form. I feel myself go cold … application form? The website specifically said I didn’t need an application form, just the confirmation letter. I decide to keep quiet and hand over what I have. It seems to be good enough and I’m sent back to the desk I went to in the first place.
‘Switch off your cellphone,’ I’m told. I hold the red button down and the security guard and I both stare at the LCD panel. I hold my breath. Why won’t it switch off? The light on the panel fades. I breathe. My phone is put back in my bag and everything is put onto the conveyor belt. I watch as it disappears into the X-ray tunnel and step through the metal detector without setting off any alarms, despite the many heavy zips on my coat.
My bag comes out of the X-ray tunnel and I am told to remove my cellphone, wallet and iPad. The security guard opens the iPad cover and tells me to switch it off. I feel a small sense of panic … ‘I don’t know how,’ I say. ‘I never switch it off.’ She looks at me. I look at her. ‘You must switch it off, ma’am,’ she says firmly. ‘I don’t know how,’ I say again. ‘Do you know how?’
‘No,’ she says, though I am certain she does. This is not the first iPad she has seen in her life. I hold down a button until the screen goes dark. ‘Phew!’ I think. She lightly touches the button and it springs to life again. ‘It is not off. Please switch it off,’ she repeats. Now, if she knew to do that, then she knows where to switch it off, surely? I look around the room, desperately searching for someone who knows how to switch an iPad off. I see everyone staring at me. They look away. No one is going to make eye contact. It’s not their business. Another security guard comes over. They both watch me try to switch it off again. I do what I had done before: I hold the button down until the screen goes dark (what is that thing they say about a sign of madness … doing the same thing again and again, expecting different results?). The security guard does what she did before: she pushes the button and the iPad wakes up. Security Guard Number Two takes the errant iPad from me, feels along its edge and finds a tiny button. She pushes it. It goes to sleep. I feel a sense of surprise as air passes through my lungs.
Security Guard Number One takes the iPad, touches the screen with a funny raggedy little lappie, tells me she’ll be back, and walks away, out through the security doors, and is gone. I stand there waiting, feeling conspicuous. What to do? I fiddle with my blue folder, and look at the document the woman at reception had given me. It says I should write my passport number on it. ‘I’ll need a pen for that,’ I think, and reach for my handbag. As I rummage for my pen, Security Guard Number Two lunges at me. ‘Please leave all this stuff alone no, ma’am,’ she says, and moves my handbag and iPad away from me.
I am puzzled. The handbag has been X-rayed. I’ve been X-rayed. I am hiding nothing on my person or in the bag that they don’t know about. But clearly there are still criminal things that I could get up to, if only I had a more criminally adepts mind.
Obediently I fold my hands in front of me, put my feet together and gaze out the window until Security Guard Number One returns. Without a glimmer of a smile she hands me a small key with a tag attached to it, and tells me to lock my bag in number 24. I open the locker and shove my bag in. It won’t fit. Of course it won’t fit! Why would things start going well now? I shove again. I take it out, fold the handles over, turn it on its side, and shove again. Security Guard Number One and Security Guard Number Two keep stern, watchful eyes on me throughout my little pantomime. The receptionist turns to look. No, I don’t know what crime I could commit at this point either. Clearly I would make a terrible bad guy.
So, so far, my cellphone has been switched off, my iPad has been switched off and swabbed, everything has been X-rayed and, for good measure, everything has been locked away. Feeling suitably held in check, I follow the next instructions: ‘Go out that door and someone will show you where to go from there.’
I step outside to where yet another security guard is leaning against a railing. Hesitantly I walk towards him, not sure if he is the person who was supposed to be at the door, waiting for me. ‘Does it all have to be so scary,’ I ask. He laughs. It’s a really, good, happy belly laugh that breaks the tension. ‘We’re very serious here,’ he says.
Another security guard opens the next security door and tells me to wait at the blue sign. There are three blue signs. Which one?
It makes most sense, to me at any rate, to wait at the same blue sign where everyone else is waiting. I sit down on the nearest chair.
‘No,’ she says, ‘please wait behind this sign and you will be called to Window 2.’
Feeling a bit of a fool (yet again), I get up and wait behind the blue sign.
By now I am so deer-in-the-headlights I can only focus on what is immediately in front of me. I see only the person behind the impenetrable glass of Window 2. I don’t see the instructions pasted against the wall and window. I step up to the window and slip my passport and confirmation letter through the small gap, almost expecting to have my fingers rapped.
The woman behind the glass looks at me. I look back. Now what? She raises her eyebrows towards my left shoulder. Oh! Right! Had I seen the instructions I would have known. I pick up the handset and she tells me what to do – I am to place the fingers of my left hand on the glass panel, place the fingers of my right hand on the glass panel, place my thumbs on the glass panel. Wait … Wait … All good. The system recognises me. I may go and sit down and wait to be called for my interview.
I sit down and look around the room. There is something about being there that makes you feel as if you are doing something illegal, or that you are about to do something illegal. All around are posters of people behind bars – this is what will happen to you if you lie during your application! Ulp! I wasn’t thinking about lying, but still … I start looking up at the ceiling. There must be a camera around here somewhere, I figure. I twist my head around. Aha! There it is! Okay, hang on … maybe now I’m looking suspicious … eyes front …
Back to some more fiddling with the blue folder … Hang on! Where’s my key? I feel in all my pockets, rummage through the blue folder, unzip and rezip my wallet, feel in my pockets again, my movements speeding up … Ah man! It’s taken me less than two minutes to lose my key! I’m worse than bloody Mr Bean!
Whoever is watching me on CCTV is on his feet already, I’m sure, hand on stun gun, or whatever it is they use on crazies like myself … Where is my key? I was already picturing how I was going to be nose to nose with Security Guard Number One while Security Guard Number Two restrains me, their faces grim while I plead ‘Please, please, I need my handbag, I don’t know where the key is …’
Then I see its orange tag on the counter of Window 2. Now what? What will happen if I get up without permission? I’ve heard of Guantanamo Bay and I’m taking no chances. The person standing at Window 2 has completed her fingerprinting and is about to hand my key to the woman on the other side of the window. ‘That’s my key,’ I find the courage to call to her. Ah. The relief. Again. I put the key in my pocket, zip the pocket, sit back again.
Then I hear my name being called. I step up to Window 3. I unsnap the elastics of the blue folder, ready to pull out my race entry form, my confirmation of trip form, my deposit receipt, my three shameful bank statements, my IRP5, my selection of work orders. I poise myself to convince the nice young man that I have every intention of returning home to my sweet children, that I am the last remaining patriot, that I have no intention of deflecting to the United States.
‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ asks his voice through the handset.
‘I’m going to the New York Marathon,’ I say. I can’t make myself say that I’m running. I find it hard to lie at the best of times, and there are all those posters around the room …
‘You’re running the New York Marathon?’ he asks.
‘Well …’ I hesitate. ‘I don’t know how much running I’ll be doing.’
‘You’re walking the New York Marathon?’
‘Err … yes. The cut-off is eight hours, so there’s plenty time to walk it,’ I say.
‘Really?’ He sounds surprised and interested.
He asks me some questions about my work, what I do, how long I’ve been doing it. I never know what to say when faced with the ‘what do you do’ question. I write, I edit, I proofread, I project manage, I translate, I photograph … but, really, there is only one box to tick, one line to fill … what is the short answer? Which one is most truthful?
Don’t talk too much, don’t talk too much, I keep reminding myself. I tell him I edit school textbooks; have been for about 20 years. It is what I have been doing for 20 years. I have just also been doing all the other stuff for 20 years. But he doesn’t want me CV. He needs enough information to fill the allotted space.
His fingers fly across the keyboard, his eyes flick from my face to the monitor and back. He never looks down at his hands.
‘Have you been to America before?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I say. I’m about to say ‘But I’ve been to Peru’ but again decide against talking too much.
‘But you’ve been to Europe,’ he says. ‘Was that also for a marathon?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘That was for fun.’
‘And a marathon’s not fun?’
‘Not as much fun as drinking …’
Argh! I had wanted to say ‘Not as much fun as drinking chianti and eating pasta’ but the word ‘chianti’ wouldn’t come to me. Oh no! I’ve blown it! He’s going to think I’m going to piss it up all across America, cause trouble, pick up young men, end up in jail, get deported!
He laughs … the second big, happy, delightful laugh I had heard that morning.
‘But probably healthier,’ he says. He tosses my passport into a basket. ‘Go and speak to those people over there. They’ll tell you how to get your passport back!’
It’s done. It’s over. All those hours of lost sleep. All that agonising. All that worry, stress, panic. I can pick my passport up in two days’ time. My face feels weird as it breaks into a smile. I feel taller as I begin to breathe. I am going to New York.
Best I get serious about that training!