BADIOU IN TRANSIT
Let’s start with the pleasantly undisputed fact that LAX International has an official tune. Back in 2003, the PR department of California’s busiest airport adapted a largely forgotten country ballad from the early seventies. The song had originally been sung by retired country star Susan Raye, who returned to a dapperly balloon-decorated stage on the airport’s anniversary. Backed by a Bakersfield band, Raye’s performance celebrated “75 years of connecting Southern California to the world” - but then, Canadian singer Shirley Myers was hired to re-record her hit.
According to LAX’s director of public relations, the original version had been “a bit sad, broken hearts and all that”, so her team had some more upbeat lyrics written. Almost one and a half decades after the “Great Pacific’s welcome door’s” new hymn had first aired on the airport’s traffic radio station, America’s new president endeavors to get rid of the “sad stuff”, too. On January 27th, he signed his first executive order to temporarily close the countries’ welcoming doors a good slit. I arrive at LAX on February 4th.
I appear to have good instinct for bad timing. The first time I ever travelled to the US had been shortly after 9/11. About to spend three months in New York and attend a screenwriting workshop, I had flown in with some formal mistake in my visa. Given the short duration of my stay, I wouldn’t have needed one in the first place. But for the sake of accuracy and increased homeland security, I was sent back from Newark to Frankfurt, Germany to have the local Embassy issue a new piece of paper. It felt absurd, but twenty-years-old and used to sleepless nights, I took the crossing-the-Atlantic-three-times-in-a-row as an adventure. The film school’s secretary had taken responsibility for the mistake in my papers, so they offered to pay for the extra flights. I was held at the closed-off secondary inspection area for five hungry hours while waiting to be put on a plane back - but a friendly Border Patrol agent sneaked in some pizza. I didn’t expect a welcome pizza at LAX. But I also didn’t expect “The great Pacific’s welcome door” to be slammed against my notion of free movement.
I grew up in a divided country, but throughout my adult life, borders and boundaries have presented themselves as challenges rather than bulwarks - as something to be blurred, pushed, crossed or pulled down altogether. The purpose of my trip to LA was the long overdue visit of a friend I had shared a flat with while studying in the UK; a few years later, our paths had crossed again in Berlin. I guess we are both part of a generation that does not merely move between cities and countries fairly naturally, but also soon learned to distrust clear-cut lines - be they drawn between nation states, work and life, days and nights, creative disciplines, gender roles, or relationship models.
While I stayed in Berlin, my friend had moved on to LA and got married. And while across the globe, political camps were drifting apart, distances kept collapsing. We searched cheap flights and discussed the New Left’s nouvelle vague over Skype, lit countless Gaulloises, and took our liberté for granted. Toujours.
Smoking is prohibited in all customs processing areas. In certain sections at LAX, the U.S. Customs and Border Pro- tection (CBP for short) also forbids the use of cell phones. According to sufficient warning signs, mobiles can be confiscated and may not be returned. Being referred to secondary inspection, I find myself texting in my backpack like a school kid. My friend has come to pick me up at the airport. I message her a string of bombs, knives, and turbaned-man-emojis, and that the bad hombres at the customs had taken me hostage. Then some palm trees, champagne bottles and that I’ll be with her in a bit. She replies with a short video of herself under a supersized flatscreen that displays the smiling face of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti welcoming guests from across the globe to the City of Angels.
“Traffic humming in my ears, as my destination nears,” goes the first line of the LAX song. It is followed by a fanfare of washed out language. “Sun is laughing in the sky, ocean breeze rolls softly by”. While washing ashore a wave of California cliches, like rolling hills, vista views, sandy beaches and beauty queens, the song lacks to credit LA’s less scenic sanctuaries: I have just read an article on the plane, about Garcetti defending the city’s ambitions to protect unauthorized immigrants. Following the mayhem of a weekend who’s incredibilities have just gone through the international news, the majority of LA’s leading politicians openly objects Trump’s travel ban, calling upon residents to “lean against the darkness of ignorance and exclusion.” Apparently, thousands of passionate protesters do, and, like so many American metropolises, LA finds itself filled with fresh collective life.
Only reading about it while approaching that city I had only just visited one time before has instilled within me a strange sense of belonging. “Where coming back is just like coming home”, goes another line of the LAX song. A good hour later, I am sitting shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of strangers, stranded in transit. I talk to a French girl, who is holding her newborn baby and a book by Alain Badiou, while waiting to be questioned by a public authority that claims to “serve the American people with vigilance, integrity, and professionalism.”
Continue reading the story in our print issue.