Eric Bergeson: Tense moments crossing the border
Crossed into Canada and back last week, which required I go through the checkpoints at the border, a process that undoes me every time.
When I encounter people who have absolute power over the rest of my day, I seize up.
Border agents don’t have to let you through, and some of them want to make sure you know they have that authority.
As the agent acts all tough and tries to throw me off to see if I am actually a drug runner, or a terrorist, or an undocumented something or other, I start to wonder if I am actually a drug runner or a terrorist or something or other.
What if a stem of wild marijuana wrapped itself around my driveshaft? What if I forgot a pint of whiskey in the trunk even though I don’t drink whiskey?
What if there is a dried up apple under the passenger seat and I just lied when I said I had no fruit? Ecoterrorism!
What if they decide that I just look suspicious and need to be taken out back and shot?
My guilt-ridden Upper Midwest upbringing — which we all share unless we turn out to be sociopaths who never feel guilty for anything, even things they-ve actually done — haunts me at the border crossing.
Sociopaths sail through border crossings and other encounters with power-drunk bureaucrats by projecting breezy confidence.
True Midwesterners doubt their own innocence as soon as they pull up to the booth.
Going into Canada, my guilty look got me pulled into the office for a background check.
“Have you had any trouble with the law?” the agent asked, after brusquely grabbing my passport as if I was guilty of murder.
“No,” I said, then paused to think.
“I don’t think so!” I added.
“Okay, if you have been in trouble with the law, it will be easier for all of us if you tell us right now,” the agent said, and looked at me as if he was sure I something was going to come out.
“I got a warning for speeding six years ago,” I said, wanting to be forthright.
“I think you know what I mean!” the agent snapped.
While in college, we crossed the border to see Huey Lewis and the News in Winnipeg and when the agent asked if I had any drugs, I breathlessly confessed to having two cold medications along.
“I think you know what I mean!” the agent said then.
So, Mr. Border Agent, if you actually meant illegal drugs, why don’t you say illegal drugs? You said drugs, and over-the-counter drugs are still drugs.
If I am trying to get illegal drugs across the border, why would I suddenly decide to confess, “Yes! I have illegal drugs! They are in the air filter! I will show you!”
But they’re in charge, they do what they want.
Some countries actually train their customs agents and passport control people to represent their country with kindness and competence, while our customs officers seem to make it a point to bump you around a bit so you know who’s in charge.
Of course, they have an important job. Of course, they run across bad people.
“Whose car are you driving?” the agent asked this past week as I attempted to cross back into the USA.
“Mine,” I answered.
Finally, I had the good sense not to get into the technical issue that I haven’t paid it off yet, so actually the bank still has the title.
“Why were you in Canada?” the agent asked, offended that I would want to leave our great nation.
“A meeting,” I answered.
She clearly thought I was lying, so I began to wonder if I was lying. I pondered, what were my real motives going to Canada?
Maybe it was an urge to escape the debt crisis. Maybe I secretly wanted to hear spoken French. Maybe I hoped to see a polar bear.
In any case, if the agent had hooked me up to a lie detector, I would have failed no matter what.
“Is this your name?”
“Well, actually, Mom was hoping for a girl, so she had picked out Chris, which works both ways, but...”
Beep, beep, beep!
Sorry sir, you will have to be shot. Step this way.
In reality, I answered in one syllable grunts. It worked. I didn’t get shot. The criminal background check revealed nothing, to my surprise.
“Have a nice day,” the agent said without making eye contact, in a tone which felt like “Get out of here, you sorry waste of time.”