Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Customs-ary Tales: Fun at the Borders

Photos taken from the Internet

When I was an undergrad, I made the mistake of taking an Abnormal Psych class with a professor who did not like it when someone was as witty (or especially more so) than himself. He asked me to define paranoia, and I said, “Seeing a police car in the rear view mirror.” Waiting for the students to stop laughing so I could give him the correct clinical answer, the prof kicked me out of that day’s class. I ended up with a D in the class.

Which leads me to the following:

I have written before about a time when I had trouble with airport security. Now I’d like to tell you a couple of true tales of going through customs from Canada to the U.S.

Going through customers is always a challenge. It does not matter if there is a reason or not, it is their absolute power as gatekeepers that makes it unnerving.

While no experience has been as intense as the EXIT customs flying from Tel Aviv to Cairo in 1993, there have been some interesting moments, all I find amusing…in hindsight.

In February of 1979, I was returning to New York from visiting my girlfriend in Canada. At the Rte 87 (south of Montreal) entrance to the U.S., we all got off the bus, with our luggage. Even though it was after 1 AM on a Tuesday, the customs official had mirrored sunglasses. He was one of those guys who took his job super seriously. Face taut, his lips barely moved as he talked in a steady Jack Webb-ish monotone. The conversation went something like this:

Him: Citizenship?
Me: U.S.
Him: How long was your stay?
Me: Since Thursday.
Him: What was the purpose of your visit?
Me: I was visiting my girlfriend.
Him: Business or pleasure? [Hunh?! At this point, my patience was starting to be pressured; what exactly was he implying?]
Me: Pleasure.
Guard: What is that in your left shirt pocket? [A dorm mate of my girlfriend had given me some loose strawberry tea in a baggie, with a string wrapped around it.]
Me: Some tea.
Guard: What kind of…tea? [Yikes, I thought, with the headline popping up in my head, “Student shot smuggling strawberry tea across border.”]
Me: Strawberry. If you want to smell it, you’re more than welcome, and if you want, we can cook up a batch right now, if you have a dry throat.
Him: That is okay sir. What is in your other shirt pocket? [I look down, and think, oh, crap. I had just recently found out I had arthritis, and my doctor had prescribed indocin, which came in a huge bottle, so I had put some pills in a smaller bottle for ease of transport. And of course, the bottle was unmarked.]
Me. My pills.
Guard. And what kind of pills are THOSE?
Me: It is Indocin, which is a stronger form of aspirin. Says so right on the pill. If you want, I can pull out my doctor’s card from my back pocket and you can call him, though I’m not sure he’d pick up this time of night.” [He took the bottle and shook it, looking into its amber case without opening it. Then he gave it back. I was starting to sweat.]
Him: Here you go, you can put it away. Please open up your luggage. [I was the first person he had asked to do that. Following my father’s advice, I had rolled my underwear into little “jellyrolls” to save some space.] Why are your clothes rolled? Is there something inside you’re trying to…protect?
Me: No, and you’re more than welcome to unroll them, but it took me hours to do this, so I just ask you roll them back.
Him: [After unrolling one pair of underwear and handing it back to me.] It’s all right sir, you may board the bus.”
Me: Thank you.

* * *

Sure, I know to just answer the questions simply and to the point, but that’s gotten me into trouble, too. Once visiting Bernie Kugel in Buffalo in the early ‘80s, we decided, with some friends, to head over to Crystal Beach, an amusement park on the other side of Buffalo’s Peace Bridge. We all had fun, and headed back to Bernie’s house for dinner.

I pulled up to the customs booth, and the officer asked us the usual nationality / purpose / length of stay questions. Then he asked us if we had bought anything that we were bringing back. In pure innocence, I held up the only thing I had bought, a can of Coca-Cola, and said, “Just some Coke.”

Truthfully, I don’t remember the exact moment I realized I should have said, “soda” or “pop” (as they call it there). Perhaps it as the moment the words left my mouth, or maybe when we were all ordered out of the car.

They kept us there for over an hour while they searched every inch of my car. I have thought about whether the problem was that they thought I was being a smart ass, or I gave them some indication that there actually were drugs in the car that brought such a harsh inspection. Fortunately, none of us were imbibers, so of course nothing was found, but Bernie was pretty mad at me for a couple of hours afterwards. But we laugh about it now.

* * *

I’ll leave off with one positive, funny story, again going through the same Buffalo Peace Bridge. Just on the other side of the Canadian border was a Chinese restaurant called George’s that was walking distance from customs. Bernie, his then-fiancĂ©e Tink (this was the week they were to be married) and I went to go eat there. I had never been there, but Bernie and Tink had gone there often.

We pull up to the customs booth, and the guard asks our nationality. I say US, and before anyone else said anything, Bernie chimed in, “We’re going to George’s.” The guard’s face lit up and he said, “What are you having?” Bernie answered, “I’m having a number 5* and she’s having a number 12. He’s (meaning me) probably going to have a number 3, because he likes that stuff.”

The guard answered, “I’m a number 6 fan, myself. Go ahead.” And we went to eat. Yes, the food was good.

On the way back, we stopped at the U.S. customs, and when the guard asked us the purpose of our visit, I chimed in “We went to eat at George’s.” He said, “Great food. Go on ahead.” And we drove back to Bernie & Tink’s abode on Vermont Street.

* These numbers are made up because I don’t remember the exact ones.

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