This story is a work of fiction, but perhaps relevant for our times.
So here’s a dilemma. The American government has been overthrown and replaced by a computer animated cat named Bootsey. I already bought my air tickets to see my girlfriend. Now this Bootsey thing happens. There’s riots. She says it’s dangerous. Should I still go?
I’m going. How bad can it be? I want to see Jenna.
Long haul from Heathrow to JFK. Everything looks fine on landing. Big room where they check your passports. American flags hang on the walls. Wreaths and a Christmas tree all lit up. The customs bloke has a little stuffed cat on his desk.
“Have you ever visited Iran? China? Mexico?” I’m from Leeds, mate, and I’m twenty-four. I met my girlfriend online. “Do you belong to any political organizations in the UK?” I hate politics. “Do you identify as homosexual, bisexual or transgender?” No. “Are you a Muslim?” I’m wearing a tee advertising Guinness, for God’s sake.
Bloke hands me my passport. “Welcome to the United States. Next.”
Jenna surprises me. Let’s spend a weekend in the city before we go out to Long Island. After a pint of Brooklyn Brown in a little pub in the East Thirties pretty much all is right with the world. There’s not much wrong with the world that a good pint can’t cure.
Times Square. Snow falling softly. Rivers of yellow taxis surge through the streets, throngs of Christmas shoppers hurry by toting glossy shopping bags. Jenna and I pause in front of the big digital billboard next to the Coca-Cola sign. Every minute or so, between ads for perfume and cars and Netflix series, it flashes a logo: Bootsey in a circle in front of a gently-waving stars and stripes. Sometimes the cat winks or shrugs or sticks its paw out. The slogan’s different every time. MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM BOOTSEY! Or, KITTY’S GOT YOUR BACK! My favorite: MAKE AMERICA CUTE AGAIN!
I don’t see any riots.
Jenna’s sprung for a hotel. Nice one. Drunk with each other’s sex—and with booze from the minibar—we lay in bed and she clicks on the telly. American TV sucks. Wrestling, home shopping channel, superhero movies, and cat videos. There’s literally seven cat video channels. Jenna laughs when I ask why we can’t get BBC. “That was one of the first things they banned. All foreign TV and most news channels too.” She’s rooting around in the minibar. “Oh, hey, here’s a little Beefeater Gin. A taste of home?”
Morning. We’re checking out, headed down to the lobby. The lift doors ping and slide open. Inside is a full police strike team with riot helmets and machine guns. No one says anything, but one of the troops wags his finger in front of me. The doors close.
The leader had a patch sewn to his arm—the Bootsey logo.
Subway to Penn Station. It’s morning rush hour and the train is thronged with commuters. At 59th Street a group of young men squirms and barrels onto the train. A motley assortment, some with shaved heads, some with Skrillex ‘dos or dreadlocks. All are wearing Bootsey or cat-related gear. Most of them are drunk. It’s eight AM.
The bloke with the dreads and the hockey jersey bearing the Bootsey logo clutches a 40-ounce Olde English 800 that’s mostly drained. He gets in the face of a mousey-looking chap with curly hair and tortoiseshell glasses. “You look like a libtard. You a libtard? Huh?” The chap tries not to react. The dreadlocked bloke guzzles malt liquor, swallows, belches in the man’s face. “Libtard!”
Jenna and I eye each other nervously. I’m wearing a T-shirt with the Union Jack on it. Will it provoke them? I zip up my jacket.
The gang carves a path of destruction through the car. One of them orders a bunch of commuters out of the corner, shakes a paint can and starts spraying the Bootsey logo on the wall. Another makes ape noises and scratches his armpits in front of an elderly black woman. After he moves on she reaches up behind her thick glasses and wipes away the tears squeezing from her eyes.
As the doors open at the next station a man starts pushing through the commuters toward the exit. He has a long beard, a black hat and curly forelocks dangling from his temples. One of the thugs notices him just as he steps off the train. He points. “Illluminati! Illuminati! They own the banks! They did Nine-Eleven!” But the Hasidim made his escape artfully, at the last second. It’s too late for the thugs to get off. The train is already moving.
Note to self: don’t wear the Union Jack tee anymore while I’m here.
From Penn we catch the train to Long Island. Jenna’s uncle’s house is a five minute walk from the beach. Sauntering in the dunes under the leaden sky, waves crashing, beach grass gently waving in the wind, it’s hard to believe there’s strife or hate anywhere in the world. I don’t get this in Leeds.
Christmas. A roast bird, splayed open like a dissected frog, steams on a wooden slab. Ned, Jenna’s uncle, is on his fourth glass of claret.
“I think it’s actually good that we don’t know who they are. They can solve problems without the press second-guessing everything they do.”
Jenna’s father shakes his head. “There’s got to be some transparency, some accountability. We don’t know who’s behind the cat, what their politics are or who they answer to. Suppose they’re connected to a foreign government?”
“Well, it’s clear the way things were going before just wasn’t working. Somebody had to try something new, right? And it’s only temporary. Just ‘til the government comes out of receivership. Once we get out from under that national debt, everything will go back to normal.” Ned winks at me over his wine glass. “You’re lucky. Your country works.”
I don’t have the heart to remind him that last month our prime minister dissolved Parliament for the second time in her still-unelected term.
Back to the city for New Year’s. Jenna got another hotel, but it’s much less nice than the one we stayed in before. Hard to find rooms on New Year’s Eve.
We’re at Broadway and West 41st at 9PM, shivering. I can barely see the ball from where we’re standing. Sleet ticks against the bill of my baseball cap. Jenna’s teeth are chattering. “I don’t know if I can make it ‘til midnight.”
At 9:26 a cadre of riot cops marches down the street. An armoured car, flashing blue, grinds along behind them. “Go home. Go home, please. Event’s been canceled. Terrorist threat. You’ll have to leave this area. Sir? Sir! You’ll have to leave this area. Event’s been canceled.”
As we walk back to the hotel we pass another knot of police. Three protestors are down on their knees, hands clasped over their heads. A cardboard sign that one of them carried lies in the gutter, poster paint streaking from the rain. It bears a crudely-drawn Bootsey logo, an equals sign and a Nazi swastika. I have an awful feeling this is the terrorist threat. We watch New Year’s on the Tonight Show in our hotel room.
JFK again. Headed home. I’ll miss Jenna but it’s been a great visit.
As the queue moves through the boarding gate I hand my passport and boarding card to the agent. A light flashes red as she scans it. She grimaces, scans again. Red flash.
A tall man in a business suit, coily cord leading down the back of his neck, appears out of nowhere. “Excuse me, sir. Would you come this way, please?”
“This way, please, sir.”
The room they put me in has a chair, a small table and two enormous HDTV screens which provide the only light. A microphone on a silver goose-neck sprouts up from the table like a snake charmer’s cobra. I can see no one. They took my hand baggage, my passport, my wallet, and inexplicably my shoes.
On one of the video screens is a display of my Facebook profile. On the other is my Twitter account. They’re moving slowly upward in erratic jerks, like someone is scrolling through them.
A red arrow appears and highlights something on my Facebook page. It’s a meme showing a heart with rainbow stripes and some message about LGBT solidarity. I shared it over four months ago. I don’t even remember it.
The electronic voice from the speaker is harsh and tinny. “You shared this post?”
“I guess so.”
“Speak into the microphone, please.”
I lean toward the silver snake. “I said, I guess so.”
“When you were admitted to this country you denied being a homosexual. Did you lie to us?”
“No. I’m straight.”
Facebook is stopped, but Twitter keeps scrolling. Then it halts too. The arrow appears again, highlighting something I retweeted from some environmental account. The tweet is some kind of warning about climate change.
“What about this? Did you retweet this?”
“If it’s there, I suppose I did.”
“Do you have any involvement with the organization that posted this tweet?”
“No. I just retweeted it. Can I ask something here? How long am I going to be—”
“We ask the questions here.”
In the dimness of the room I didn’t notice it before but I suddenly see, sitting on the edge of the table, a cute little plastic Bootsey grinning up at me.