Monthly Archives: June 2009

My day with Michael Jackson

There only seems to be one story on the collective mind of America (and indeed the world) right now, and strangely it doesn’t appear to be the fact that I successfully got my green card yesterday. I feel bad that so much time and effort had been put into street parties and tribute concerts to welcome me into the lovingly litigious arms of the United States, only for a 50 year old man to die three thousand miles away forcing people to box up the champagne and take down the flags.

The strange thing is that this isn’t the first time that Michael Jackson has impacted my life. Although in all honesty, I suspect it may be the last.

When I first moved to London, I started my career in the capital as a showbiz journalist working for a wire agency whose chosen level of moral fibreer would have made Bernie Madoff look like a latter day saint. Nothing was too low for these people, and as a result it was probably one of the most endlessly fascinating jobs I’ve ever had. I left after a year, unable to take the scurrilousness of it anymore, but not before I’d stolen a fax with possible house purchases on it from Jarvis Cocker, doorstepped Emma Bunton (Baby Spice, for the benefit of my American readers) and inadvertently pimped out one of my female colleagues to Gene Simmons.

But the time that particularly stays in my mind is the day that I spent in the company of Michael Jackson, travelling around London for a photo-feature on The King Of Pop on the streets of the city.

Actually, I say ‘Michael Jackson’ but what I really meant was ‘one of the world’s leading Michael Jackson impersonators’, a guy called E Casanova. The agency figured that a newspaper would lap up a photo feature on a fake Jacko shocking tourists at various attractions, and duly managed to convince E Casanova to take part in return for the promise of untold riches and fame.

Another reporter and I were roped in as fake bodyguards for the occasion, and we managed to get a local company to loan us a stretch limo to complete the look of – ahem – a worldwide megastar taking an incognito tourist trip.

The day didn’t begin very well, when we turned up at the skanky hotel that ‘Michael’ was staying in, and the star wasn’t willing to take part unless we made various promises about the levels of fame and cash we would bring him. Duly perjured, we set off with him and his manager (a guy who had a second career – and I swear that I am not making this up – as a Lionel Richie lookalike).

And to be fair, this guy looked incredibly like Michael Jackson. If you got too close, you could tell the difference, but from anything more than a few yards away, it could have been the man himself. And as a result, anywhere we went, we were pretty mobbed by people wanting to get autographs or to have their picture taken. When we had ‘Jacko’ pose with a guard at Horse Guards Parade, you could desperately see the poor guy trying not to break his stiff uniformed stance while at the same time thinking ‘f**k me, that’s Michael Jackson standing next to me’.

Over the course of a few hours, we made our way around London taking pictures of Jackson in various locations – 10 Downing Street, Big Ben, by the Thames etc. ‘Jacko’ insisted on winding down the window of the limo when we were stuck at traffic lights, allowing fans to gaze in and try to grab his hand for a fleeting second.

While at Piccadilly Circus doing the compulsory Statue of Eros shot, Jackson noticed the then-Tower Records store across the road. He’d already been pretty unaccommodating during the day, and now he insisted that we go in there to do some record shopping.

I think it was at this point that the mystique behind the day began to fall away. After all, it’s difficult to maintain the illusion that you are with the real Michael Jackson when you’re at the Michael Jackson section of a record shop, with dozens of music fans all around you, flipping through the CDs to make sure that you’ve got them all. “Bad – got. Thriller – got. Off The Wall – got. Dangerous…have I got that? Oh yeah, I bought that in Paris. HIStory – got…”

Then Jacko and his manager insisted that they go for dinner, ahead of a ‘business meeting’ that they had set up at lapdancing club Stringfellows. We’d already reserved them a table at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden – a poor man’s Hard Rock Cafe, if you will. Having watched them change tables three times (“We want somewhere private. No, not that private – we want people to see him. What about this table in the very centre?”) we managed to make our excuses and leave.

We’d barely been back in the office for more than five minutes when the phone rang. The manager was complaining that people were gathering around them and they couldn’t eat their burgers. One chat to the manager later, and they were calmed. Ten minutes passed. Another call. Why hadn’t we paid the bill at the restaurant – now they were scrabbling around for cash so that they could go to their meeting.

Another ten minutes elapsed and the phone rang one more time. The limo driver had headed back to his base, leaving Jackson with no car to take him to Stringfellows. Given that it was only 400 metres or so away, they decided to walk. But the sight of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie casually strolling down Long Acre was too much for passers-by to take, and the pair were being mobbed by all-comers. They’d been forced to take refuge in an old fashioned red pay phone kiosk, and were calling in the hope that we would come to rescue them.

We didn’t answer the phone for a while after that. But in my darker moments, the thought of Jacko and Lionel running to Stringfellows with a baying mob behind them has always been enough to bring a smile to my face.

I’m bad. You know it.

A question of love

If you ask me, marriage is like a steak – they get better with age, and good ones are rare. And to be fair, if you ask some of my less fortunate acquaintances, lifelong legal partnerships can also be bloody, and too much of it might kill you. It works on so many different levels.

Fortunately my marriage is like a grass-fed, properly aged and well marbled porterhouse, and I can’t get enough of it. Having someone you can share the highs and lows with without fear that you will be judged is one of the best feelings you can have, and I’d recommend it to anyone. And, after almost two years of marriage, I still feel as happy as I did on day one.

However, this week The Special One and I have to go prove it to the United States of America, and suddenly I’m starting to be racked with fear that a particularly unromantic immigration officer won’t be impressed by our little notes and wedding pictures, and will instead force us into an impromptu winner takes all edition of Mr & Mrs. Or The Newlywed Game, as I believe they called it over here, demonstrating a peculiar lack of panache in the naming department if you ask me.

The fact is that I know a lot about The Special One, and she knows a lot about me. But put one of us in an isolation chamber, and ask the other one questions about their partner, and I think we’d be a bit rubbish. After all, I love The Special One but that doesn’t mean that I know what her first pet was called. Or that she would be able to tell anyone what my nickname was at school. Or that I would be able to inform the immigration officer any number of things that no husband should really be expected to know. Like the colour of his wife’s eyes, for instance. I mean, obviously I know the colour of my wife’s eyes, but not everyone is so diligent.

Looking online this weekend, we saw a huge number of different questions that could be asked of us, including what colour our bathroom is, how many ceiling fans we have, and what we each bought the other for our last birthdays. Given that I can barely remember what I bought for lunch last week, my chances of getting through this unscathed are slim to negligible.

Of course, we do have the fact that The Special One is sporting a rather fetching bump in our favour, although I will be watching with interest to see if the immigration officer asks her any questions about her friendship with – say – a milkman or tennis coach. But just to be on the safe side, I’m going to be revising my Special One knowledge all week – by the time of our interview, I’ll know everything there is to know. Starting with the colour of her eyes, obviously…

Losing my voice

It’s probably fair to say that my greatest fear as an expat is losing my accent. Not that my accent is anything to get excited about, or a strange dialect that only three people in the world speak. But the idea of waking up one morning with a strange mid-Atlantic twang is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.

A Brit Out Of Water Sr was in the city last week, and fortunately it appears that my distinctive Britishness is still firmly intact. I say ‘fortunately’ as otherwise he would probably have spent four days shaking his head and muttering something along the lines of “I used to have a son” under his breath. Being able to explain the nuances of baseball while sitting in a bar watching the Yankees play the Mets is a healthy sign of assimilation; using words such as ‘geez’ or ‘awesome’ without the faintest sense of tongue in cheek irony is a step too far.

As I may have mentioned before though, my ability to spot the American accent is fading, as I slowly get used to a new sense of normality. A couple of times in the last few weeks, I’ve had to ask The Special One whether a particular actor on screen is American. In retrospect, the fact that they were wearing a big stars and stripes T-shirt, carrying a rolled-up copy of the constitution, and sitting underneath a pink neon sign that said “For the avoidance of doubt, I am an American” should have been a bit of a giveaway. But now the American accent is the norm, and it’s the exceptions I’m more reaily able to identify.

After yesterday though, I’m worried that my British friends and family may be humouring me about my accent. Perhaps I’m turning to the dark side after all, and everybody’s too polite to say anything?

Sitting in training in the office, I realiszed that the trainer was British, and while we waited for the rest of the attendees to turn up, I engaged her in conversation for a few minutes about various things. Not quite able to place her accent exactly, I asked where she was from.

“I’m from a place called Nottingham,” she said. “You know, Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood and Maid Marian? It’s in the centre of England.”

I managed to stem my tears, you’ll be pleased to know, although it was almost too much when she looked at me as she told delegates to let her know if any of her British-isms were confusing.

Maybe I am subconsciously a language chameleon, who takes on the speaking style of all those around him? An ability to blend in could admittedly be useful if I ever launch a new career as a conman.

That said, it doesn’t augur well for forthcoming trips to Tennessee and Newcastle…

The game of the name

As I may have mentioned before, my mother is a worrier. Whether she’s panicking that I’ve got some kind of tropical sleeping sickness simply because I momentarily yawned on the phone to her, or reading a story about a car crash in – say – Idaho and phoning to check that I’m OK, she truly deserves her monicker She Who Was Born To Worry.

Of course, when you tell her that her daughter-in-law is going to have her grandchild, her worrying swoops into overdrive. Every pause, phrase or look is microscopically examined for medical problems, and news of morning sickness is greeted with bitten nails and nervous enquiries. I tried to tell her that it was probably just the dodgy kebab that I’d eaten the night before, but she’s not listening by that point.

But if She Who Was Born To Worry was being truly honest, there’s one thing that she’s more worried about than anything when it comes to the impending arrival. One thing that keeps her awake at night, and sends her off into paralysing emotional agony whenever she thinks about it. And that’s her fear that she could have a grandchild that has got an American name.

Don’t get me wrong, She Who Was Born To Worry has nothing against Americans, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it when she’s barging them and their oversized cameras out of the way on the streets of Chester. But whatever she thinks of Americans themselves, I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to the name game, she’s of the opinion that the United States should be represented on the outside of her latest grandchild’s passport but not the inside.

Of course most names these days are universal; there’s now probably more Dylan’s in America than there are people in Wales, after all. Whether it’s Joshua or Thomas, Grace or Olivia, people on both sides of the Atlantic tend to work from the same book when attempting to pick a name for their child that will provide bullies with one less reason to pick on their precious one.

That said, classic American shortenings such as Chuck, Herb and Hank are probably out. As indeed is any name which would seem to make the child more suitable for a career in the US Army than for life as a professional morris dancer. Similarly, while I have an oft-professed admiration for country music, and The Special One hails originally from Tennessee, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll be ruling out names such as Millie-Jo, Billy-Ray and Tammy-Lou.

She Who Was Born To Worry’s greatest fear though is that we’ll be seized by the American desire to make up strange names, such as Shawnika, Raynard or Johnetta. I think she could almost live with Messiah, Huckleberry or Melky, as long as we don’t go for Paige Darcie.

Still, nobody need get hot under the collar just yet. With the hastily-established naming committee having decreed that both The Special One and I have the chance to use a full and final veto on any name that the other one comes up with, we’re yet to find any name that we mutually agree on. And while we’ve got some options for girls, the cupboard is pretty much bare for boys. Feel free to send your thoughts our way – just don’t bother with Cody or Madison though, OK?

Checks and big balances

If the stubs on my book are anything to go by, in the three years preceding my move to the US, I think I probably wrote maybe one chequecheck. And even then I can’t be sure that I wasn’t just in desperate need of a piece of paper to write a phone number or address on. From the big stores to Mr & Mrs Badcrumble at the farm shop, everybody takes plastic and the cheque is practically obsolescent.

Of course, plastic is equally omnipresent here in the US. The banks even discourage check use by charging customers for their check books – a practice that seems to me to be akin to giving a friend an expensive birthday present and him subsequently invoicing you for the time taken to unwrap it. Yet despite this, I seem to go through check books like a particularly wealthy philanthropist with a peculiar writing fetish.

Finally I’ve come to the realisation that it’s because I pay for our medical bills by cheque. And despite being a remarkably healthy family, that means writing at least 87 different checks a month to around 43 varied medical providers.

Naively, when I signed up to give away a healthy proportion of my salary to a health insurance company, I assumed that this would mean that my health bills would be paid if and when I had a problem. Sure, I knew that there would be a “co-payment” (surely an insurance company invention to ensure that hypochondriacs don’t go to the doctors every other day) but I somehow believed that would be the end of it. How wrong could I be?

Essentially a health insurance card is less a payment mechanism, more a discount scheme. You might get about 20-50% off the total amount, but they’ll still come after you to cover the costs after your ‘discount’. I can just imagine the ad campaign…”Got a broken leg? – it’ll normally cost you $8000, but with Blue Cross insurance we’ll let you hobble away on crutches for just $6800! It’s a deal so good, you’ll feel like breaking your other leg!”

Whether it’s a simple injection or a laborious operation, insurance companies have got a way to ensure that they never have to pay the full amount, leaving you hoping that you only have to go to hospital during the January sales (heart bypasses half price, and buy one ingrowing toenail removal, get one free). Although if medical care was indeed like shopping and you’re anything like me, you’d go out with the intention of having an appendectomy, and come back having had your tonsils out because they were on special offer.

After all, how do you think I got my third nipple?

Funny how things change

It’s strange how your concept of what is acceptable in life changes as you grow older. When I was an eighteen year old, there would have been more chance of me running through the streets of my home town sporting nothing more than one fluorescent sock and a smile, than – say – wearing a cardigan in public. Fast forward twelve years, and I found myself in a store pondering whether I should buy the aforementioned woollen item in black or in grey. Needless to say, I bought both and wore them with pride. 

Similarly, I spent the first thirty two years of my life steadfastly avoiding any piece of music that could in any sense be termed as ‘worthy’. While rock, pop, alternative and metal could all find a home in my extensive collection, there was no space for classical, opera or – shudder at the thought – modern jazz. Then with no warning I suddenly found that listening opera was a perfectly pleasant accompaniment to coffee and croissants on a Sunday morning, and suddenly the flood gates were opened. I still draw the line at modern jazz, you’ll be pleased to know.

Things change. Perceptions change, and so do our priorities. So when The Special One burst into our bedroom in floods of joyful tears, and then dragged me into the bathroom to show me a pregnancy test, I was almost shocked to realise quite how happy I actually was.

After all, for thirty years I’d lived in abject fear of being ushered into a bathroom and having a positive pregnancy test thrust into my sweaty shaking palm. Let’s be honest here. When you’re a bachelor, being shown a pregnancy test could potentially feel like the visual equivalent of having a cell door slam shut behind you. When you’re a man who has found their partner, the news opens the door of life, from behind which the high-kicking Rockettes emerge to perform an octane-fuelled number entitled ‘The Start of a Whole New Dynasty’.

Of course, having successfully managed to avoid the dreaded positive test for so long, my success suddenly counted against me. After all, I had no frame of reference to tell me what the piece of strange looking plastic I was looking at actually meant. All I had to go on was that there was a line in the clear window, and that my wife was crying. With evidence like that, even Hercule Poirot himself would throw his hands up in the air and claim that there was nothing he could do.

So many questions run through your head at this point. Was The Special One crying because she had thought she was pregnant but wasn’t? Were her tears a reflection of the fact that she had changed her mind about having a child after all, and the thought of continuing my gene line filled her with a sense of unutterable dread and foreboding? And why on earth has technology not developed to a point where a pregnancy test can have a little thumbs up sign to indicate that your little general has successfully delivered its payload to the required destination? Even a written sign that says ‘you’d better start saving, mate’ would be better than a non-descriptive line.

Thankfully she doesn’t seem to mind too much when I ask what the hell is going on, and happily tells me that I should probably not make any plans for September. I hug her and tell her that it’s all going to be OK. For some reason it feels like it should be her who’s reassuring me though.

After all, it seems like I’m going to be a dad. 

You win some, you lose some

I’ve always hated the word ‘expat’, abbreviated or otherwise. It’s not the word itself, I guess, but more the notion that I ever ‘belonged’ to one part of the world in the first place. And more to the point, when I think of ‘expats’, I bring to mind the likes of Frank, Doris, Ethel and Brian, who live in Spain on the Costa del Sol, and eat pie, chips and gravy in 90 degree heat. I’m sure that some people can think of nothing better than putting their car keys in a bowl and hoping that Florence, (the positively spritely 68 year old from Harrogate), pulls out the keys to their imported Volvo – but I’m not one of them.

Nonetheless, an expat I am. Although we don’t have a car, just to be on the safe side. The thing about being a British expat in America is that your life becomes a weird meld of cultures and experiences that you create for yourself over a period of time. You abandon the sacred principle of watching early Saturday evening TV, but you gain the concept that eating hot dogs from a street vendor is acceptable. You lose the horror of watching representatives of an openly racist political party get voted into positions of power, but you are forced to replace it with medical providers who would charge you for breathing within ten yards of their establishment if they could get away with it.

The point is, you accept some alternatives into your heart (baseball is a more than acceptable summer replacement for cricket) and you reject others (the day I regard corn dogs as OK is the day I pack up and go home). As a result, your life becomes a constant succession of choices as you slowly create your new normality, horse trading with yourself to ensure that you assimilate without losing your sense of where you come from.

For instance, The Special One this week had reason to comment that I am “becoming more American than an American.” No, I was not seized by an urge to invade a foreign territory, nor did I feel the need to cut somebody off mid-conversation and start a whole new topic of my own. But I did realise that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” has become one of my favourite records.

There is an arcane law in the United States that requires “Don’t Stop Believin'” to be played at least once an hour on every radio station in the country. Yet somehow, despite a music knowledge that I would regard as pretty comprehensive, I’m not sure that I had ever even heard it before moving to the United States. Now I can’t get that small town girl taking the midnight train anywhere (or the city boy born and raised in South Detroit, for that matter) out of my head, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

To compensate for this, I have been forced to declare that pretzels are a product of the Evil Empire. If Americans were truly honest with themselves, they would sheepishly admit that the big doughy knot of salt studded nonsense is quite literally ‘not all that’, and that they would actually be better off just pouring a sachet of sea salt and a tablespoon of vinegary mustard down their neck instead.

And don’t get me started on ‘mini pretzels’ or ‘pretzel sticks’. When you’ve got a perfectly sensible potato chip staring you in the face, why would you even think to pick a pack of mini pretzels off a shelf? At best they taste burnt, and at worst they have the ability to absorb all the liquid in your body within 13 minutes. Those little silica gel packets that you get in bags and boxes to suck up moisture? There’s actually no such thing as silica – it’s just ground up mini pretzels masquerading as ‘science’. I would rather eat salt studded toe nail clippings, to be honest.

Ah, the yin and yang of life as an expat. It’s not easy being this opinionated, you know.