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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

"Canada, huh? Almost Made It"*

I loaded my car up with both my bikes, road and mountain. I made a new CD for my car’s MP3 player (heavy on the Latin), and I actually brought along a couple of changes of clothes this time in case I wanted to do something around other human beings and not get stared at for smelling like a goat. I bought a map of British Columbia and a book called Mountain Bike Adventures in B.C.. I had no idea where I was going but that has never stopped me from going someplace before.

I was going to cut over to Canada from Bellingham, Washington on Highway 9 through Sumas. I pulled up to the Canadian customs gate in my car. There was a young kid who didn’t seem too bright. He asked me a long series of questions about why I was going to Canada, where I was going, and for how long. Anyway, the little dipshit flagged me for a search so I pulled over and went into the customs building. At immigration I was asked a bunch more questions. They seemed a little confused that I was without really firm plans as to where I was going and for how long. I tried to be more definite than I really was.

The people at immigration were nice enough. One of them even commented on my Che Guevara t-shirt. I only then realized that I had worn this shirt that was bought as a gag. I now reflected on how this wasn’t the best sartorial choice for a border crossing. I won’t make that mistake again. It was on top in my top drawer that morning and I almost chose the "Dare to Keep Kids Off Drugs" thrift store t-shirt which I bought because I always thought that was one of the lamest programs/slogans I have ever seen. That, too, may have been an unwise choice because if I were a drug smuggler I'd probably wear an anti-drug t-shirt.

I was told to go check in at another desk. Another agent told me to “have a seat” while he checked my car. Before I sat down I went to the restroom. I had just finished at the urinal when the agent came busting into the bathroom screaming, yes screaming, asking why I had not followed his instructions and taken a seat. I told him it had been a while for me since I last had to ask permission to use the bathroom. He told me not to be a smart-ass.

He was a big guy and this was taking place in a pretty cramped bathroom. I half-expected it to come to blows. It was hard not to notice the fear and anger in his voice. I don’t get angry or scared in situations like these which further unnerves the other person. I even tried to apologize but he wouldn’t let me get a word out. Nice police work, asshole. I finally told him that when he gives people instructions perhaps he should be more explicit. “Have a seat” doesn’t mean the same thing as “sit the fuck down and don’t move.”

As he was tossing my car I talked with one of the other “good cop” agents I had spoken with before. I told him what a jerk the other guy had been. He said that I was welcome to talk to a supervisor about the incident. I thanked him. I passed on his offer because maybe it was his thick Canadian accent but the way he said, “Talk with a supervisor” rhymed with “cavity search.”

When I was instructed to return to my car bad cop was there but he had changed his demeanor a bit. He had been told that perhaps I was going to talk to a supervisor and he started explaining how tough his job is and how hippies will flush things down the toilet (I was using the urinal, Kojak). I was trying to be nice but I repeated that he needed to be more explicit when he gives an order. I told him that I was in the Air Force and when you were on the flight line there was a line painted on the tarmac. You did not cross the line or you got jacked-up by security police. It didn’t matter why you stepped over the line. It didn’t matter if you were out getting drunk and playing darts with the cop the night before: You didn’t cross the fucking line.

If you have never been to Israel then you should go if only to see how their security people work. They look as casual as can be but if they pick up the slightest flaw in your demeanor or story then it’s off to the little room. I tried to buy a one way ticket from Tel Aviv to Athens on one trip and the red flags may as well have come shooting out of my ass. I got the “come over here to this little room” treatment but it only took them about three questions before they had me on my way. They profile the living shit out of people because they know what and who they are looking for. The less time they spend dealing with no-threat people the more time they have to spot trouble.

U.S. customs is guilty of taking too broad an approach to searches and questioning of U.S. bound travelers. You don’t need to search everyone and by doing so you dilute your effectiveness against the true targets.

The agent was completely civil after our initial bathroom encounter. As I was leaving he said, “Enjoy your stay.” I can hardly wait to deal with customs on the U.S. side.

After I had a chance to reflect on this whole matter I realized that what the bad cop was experiencing was panic—plain and simple. Panic isn’t the best emotion for keeping borders safe. You have to remember, sometimes—most of the time—a guy taking a leak is just a guy taking a leak.

*If you don’t know this line (my favorite, I don’t know why) from Super Troopers then we can’t be friends.

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