Life & Liberty: What About All Those DRUG STORES?


I am not an immigrant; I am a Resident Alien. I am "entitled to reside permanently and work in the U.S." I pay taxes but may not vote, serve on juries, stand for most public offices, or be drafted. Many of my American friends envy my status!

However, I do have to carry a numbered "green card" produced by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) of the Department of Justice. Only a government could make a "green card" that's blue. It bears my photo, signature, thumb print, and my Alien, or A, number, A38543182. My wife's is…184 and my son's is…185. Who is…183? My wife kids me about it; I tell her that some bureaucrat is ripping off the system, pilfering numbers in the middle of family groups. Few Americans understand the point until I tell them a green card brings several thousand on the black market.

The back of the card carries over 60 more identifying numbers in clumps of 2 to 7. Some I can understand, such as 072884: it's the date I was readmitted as an alien, the evening the Olympics opened in Los Angeles. Whatever the numbers mean, I have a PBD of 1422, a COB of 180, and an ISS CODE of 093. I don't like the sound of that last one.

My wife, Christine, and son, Miles, were also processed. Miles's photo is pretty good. One sees a 20-month-old towhead, in a red and white, toddler OshKosh, with big blue eyes, diapers, and puppy fat. I'm sure he'll enjoy showing his blue green-card to prospective employers in 15 to 20 years. INS "waived" his signature and thumb print.

So, what is it like to be a "Brit" in America?

A few weeks after I first landed on a limited visa in the spring of '82, I met an old college chum in Greenwich Village. He took me to a pub-style bar for lunch. Within seconds a waitress was hovering. What did I want, inquired my friend? Cheese sandwich and a beer, I replied. A barrage of questions followed. There were 10 different cheeses, 8 different breads, innumerable "fixings"—whatever they were—and on the beer front, imported or domestic, draft or bottled, and light or dark to choose from before we narrowed it down to a manageable list.

I felt I'd been pulled right along a complex decision tree! And, had it not been for our accents, I doubt the waitress would have been so understanding.

Choice and service impress the Alien enormously. A year ago I was showing the well-known British economist Arthur Seldon around northern Virginia, where I now live after several years in California. We stopped off at the posh Fair Oaks Shopping Mall, just west of Fairfax. "This is clear evidence of the failure of capitalism," he announced ironically, drawing blank looks from shoppers as he waved his arms around at the vast, two-level, indoor, air-conditioned collection of 100-plus stores. "Any of my fellow countrymen thinking of joining the Labour Party should spend a day here first," he concluded.

There is much to confuse the Alien, especially one who speaks English (as in English). The classics of "trunk" (boot, where I'm from) and "hood" (bonnet) have been flogged to death, as has "eraser" (it's a rubber—but try saying that here!).

Driving an open sports car, a Morgan, I discovered a new wrinkle. Hood is English for top. Hence, American admirer: "Nice car! What d'ya do when it rains?" Brit: "Put the hood up"!

Forget the upside-down light switches. Forget going to the wrong side of the car—I still do it. And forget those southern receptionists: "Oh, I love your accent, I could listen to you all day! Uhh—who did you say you wanted to speak with?"

It's the nuances, the subtle signals of the written and spoken word, that are the hardest to master. Take Englishman Peter Marlowe's recruitment by the American King in Clavell's King Rat. On starvation rations in a Japanese POW camp, Marlowe is offered eggs:

"They were the best fried eggs Peter Marlowe had ever seen, so he paid the King the greatest compliment in the English world. 'Not bad,' he said flatly. 'Not too bad, I suppose,' and he looked up at the King and kept his face as impassive as his voice and thereby added to the compliment.

"'What the hell are you talking about, you son of a bitch?' the King said furiously. 'They're the best goddam eggs you've seen in your life.'"

Or take the ubiquitous American "drug store." A few days into my parents' first visit, they returned from a tour-bus trip around the area obviously glum about something. That evening over bridge, my mother finally spilled the beans (as you say). "It's very nice here, John, but do you really want your son growing up where there are so many drug stores?" Christine and I laughed, knowing instantly what the "problem" was: outside of a couple of yuppie London suburbs, "drug stores" are known as chemists shops or pharmacies, and drug means an addictive, illegal narcotic.

Today my Americanized son is equally confused in England. On a recent visit Granny asked, "What would you like to eat for tea?" Miles replied, "You don't eat tea, you drink it."

Americans do many things differently. Consider the task of interviewing new staff. The British résumé is a bare chronological account without editorializing, let alone superlatives. Its U.S. counterpart is likely to start with "Recent Accomplishments," in which the author shows how he personally saved his former company from bankruptcy daily, possibly hourly.

The omnipresent American college degree confuses signals further. I'm not talking merits, I'm talking confusion. I grew up in a system of 14 years' school before college to which only 5 percent were admitted. Now I am working in a situation where it's 12 years' school and over 50 percent admittance. American college graduates simultaneously rank among clearly the very best and easily the very worst in the world.

One of the more bizarre aspects of life in America is local government. The United States has a written constitution to "secure the Blessings of Liberty"; the United Kingdom's is unwritten. The U.S. does not have hard-left Marxist local authorities, the U.K. does. Yet otherwise sane local council members in the United States daily exercise horrendous powers that megalomaniac Brits can only dream about.

In Palo Alto, California, you can't hang out the wash or build a child's treehouse. In nearby Atherton, a fascist planner's heaven, residents can't rent out a room in their home, and there are no businesses. In Fairfax, Virginia, no more than three unrelated people may share a house, and basketball hoops on free-standing poles are tightly regulated and closely monitored by local officials. You're not free to dribble in Fairfax driveways.

Without specific legislation authorizing such nonsense, no British judge would hesitate to throw it out. The dark side of American local government and of the, to me, totally foreign neighborhood association system cannot weather a test of reasonableness.

In the private, albeit highly regulated, sector of professional sport, it's equally confusing. Last year the Mets were dubbed "world champions" of baseball, and talking to many Americans you'd think they were intergalactic champions. Yet they play in a competition restricted to U.S. and Canadian teams. Why aren't the Lakers, the Giants, and the Oilers also "world" champions? Of the four, it's the Mets who least deserve the title—any seniors' team of lady cricket players could shut out the Mets!

When I think of America, its sheer size overwhelms me. It takes as long to fly the North Atlantic as it does the USA. Coming from a minuscule country off (not "off of") the European mainland, I struggle to make Americans realize the different scale. Visiting Australians catch on faster.

Resident aliens by definition have a big jump on U.S. citizens. We came, we saw, we conquered the INS. Outside certain parts of Southern California, Florida, and Texas, most Americans barely know the INS exists. In rare charitable moments, I reason that it is a deliberate, strategic creation of the federal government. Some bright spark thought that if immigration was made into a very difficult obstacle course, the winners would include a high percentage of very bright, determined people—an asset to any country.

But such moments are very rare. If America has a Gestapo, it is its INS. Queuing for a day in a vast room at its downtown San Francisco offices, I witnessed a dozen cases of needlessly antagonistic and brutal behavior. Every half hour somebody would break down and have to be helped sobbing from the room.

As the day wore on a queuing ethic emerged, and we all saved each other's places in line as we took short breaks. Finally, close to the head of the line, the Chinese girl in front asked me to save her place. All day I had envied her forethought: she had come very well prepared with a small stool and books to read. Five minutes later she was back, and five minutes after that a Chinese attorney appeared with 20 clients' files under his arm. He paid her off, took her place, and was soon greeted with smiles and a handshake by the erstwhile thuggish INS louts. His clients' papers were quickly processed. Next day I, too, hired an attorney.

Besides the INS, there's the so-called public education system and the instant on-the-spot fines if you don't carry your driver's license at all times. The latter dumfounds me. Should I ever have my wallet stolen, the successful thief will not only have all my credit cards and my green card, but also my driver's license. In Britain one keeps the latter in a safe place; if it is needed you have seven days to produce it.

On the other hand, the British are responsible for that stumbling bore Alistair Cooke on PBS, whose only saving grace is his inspiration of Monster Piece Theater on "Sesame Street." I often wonder if the old fellow realizes the externalities he imposes on his countrymen as a result of his verbose, pompous introductions to tax-funded BBC extravaganzas. "Give him his due," commented a fellow alien once. "He's done well to make so much of so little."

On the positive side in America, there's the tremendous friendliness, hospitality, and generosity of the people. There are the superb medical and dental systems and the far higher standards of personal hygiene and public cleanliness. And to cap it all, there're the shopping malls, the hot dogs, and the L.A. Raiders.

Alien Blundell is executive vice-president of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University.