Friday, July 31, 2009

Ejected with an Englishman (and Josh)

Here's what I can tell you about today: it started with me thinking I was going to go to lunch with Josh and his friend Felix, who had just flown in from England for a month-long vacation, before they left for a road trip to Wisconsin.  In reality, I ended up sitting in the holding pen at the Canadian border for several hours before the country demanded I turn around and get the hell out.   

Here we go:

11:50 PM 

Josh calls. 

"Hey," he says.

"Hey," I say.

 "How do you feel about going to Canada today?" he asks.  "Felix wants to see the Falls."


 "Actually, he wants to ride the Maid of the Mist.  He saw it in Bruce Almighty, and it's all he wants to do."

 "Uhm, okay," I say. 

 "Okay.  How quick can you get here?"

 I am sweaty from my early morning walk, and I look disgusting.

 "Uhm, I can probably be there by 1:00?"

 "Okay," Josh says.  "Great."



 I arrive at Josh's.  He and Felix, who is tall and has a stellar accent, are throwing darts.

 "Hello," I say.  "Nice to meet you.  I need deodorant.  I was rushing, and I forgot to put it on."

 "Well, I'll be goddamned," Josh says.

 "Do you think Kristen will mind if I borrow some of hers?" I ask.

 "No," Josh says.

 "And I need some gum, too," I say.  "Do you have any?"

 "Gum?" Felix says.  "Gum? I've got some gum."

 He fishes some gum out of his bag and hands it to me.  It looks like a thin Chiclet and it tastes like Luden's cherry cough drops.

"English gum!" Josh says.  He puts a piece in his mouth.  "Well, I'll be goddamned," he says.  "This is weird."



We are in the car.  I am driving because Josh's car is sketchy about being put in reverse.  We are running a few errands before we head for the border.  Josh needs to go talk to his supervisor for a bit, and then he needs to go to the community center where he works.

As we are driving toward the first location, Josh spots his supervisor walking down the street.

"Pull the car over!" he says.  "I'll run her down!"

He goes to find her, and I turn the car around and wait for him.  

Felix and I, who met mere moments ago, are now alone in the car and forced to make conversation that is not initiated by Josh.  Naturally, this means we start talking about masturbation.

Since he and Josh worked with special needs children at the summer camp in Wisconsin, I figured he would appreciate some of the stories I hear from my teacher friends who preside over special needs classrooms, so I lead with the story about my best friend and the boy in her classroom who has a penchant for masturbating during nap time, which, as you can imagine, is pretty uncomfortable for my best friend and her aides.

He has a few thoughts about the masturbators from camp, and we have just finished comparing masturbating stories when Josh comes back to the car.


At the next stop, Josh dashes into the community center where he works.  Felix and I are alone again, but we have exhausted our witty masturbation stories.

Across the street, a game of basketball has started on the community center's court.

"I love basketball," I say.  "I used to love playing.  I was pretty okay, too.  I could throw a mean shot from far away.  In middle school gym class, I was like a secret weapon for my team."

"Basketball," Felix says.  He makes a face.  "It's not very popular in England."


"No.  I think you Americans like to make up sports or make adjustments to the rules of sports just so you can say you're the best at the world in them."

"We are assholes," I say.


We are on the highway, headed toward Niagara Falls.  We are just about to pass through the toll to get on Grand Island when Josh gasps.  When I glance over at him, I see there is horror in his eyes.

"Oh my God," he says.  "I forgot my passport."


We turn around to go retrieve the passport.


We are back on the road, and now everyone has their passports--even Josh, the boy who grilled me about my passport as soon as I walked in the door.



We are on the Rainbow Bridge, sitting in the line and waiting our turn to go through customs.

"Do you have any Beyonce?" Josh asks.  


"Single Ladies?" he asks.  "Can we listen to Single Ladies?"



We are on the Raindbow Bridge, sitting in the line and waiting our turn to go through customs, and we are listening to Beyonce sing about putting a ring on it, and Josh looks about as happy as I've ever seen him.

We can see the Falls--sort of--to our left, beyond the bridge.  It's as close as we'll get to them all day.

“I need to pee,” Josh says.

“Me too,” I say.



At customs, we answer the standard questions about nationality and how everyone in the car knows each other.  The agent writes out a yellow slip and hands it to me.

"You're going to need to pull in over there," he says.  "That guy needs to get his passport stamped."

He is not specific about which guy needs to get his passport stamped, but we all assume it's the foreign guy sitting in the car, the one who has already said bollocks (which made me want to clap I was so excited by it).

We park and go inside the holding center, which I have been in once before when my mother’s boyfriend swore that a parent did not need to bring a proof of citizenship for his child while trying to cross the border.  We told him that things had changed, and while that sort of lax nonsense had been allowed before 9/11, it certainly wasn’t allowed now.  He got huffy about it, so we shut up but then at the border we were pulled over because—aha!—you need to provide birth certificates for minor children when passing into Canada—yes, even when you’re a citizen of New York, and, yes, even when you’ve lived in Buffalo all your life and crossed the border a million times without issue.  We sat there for a long time being investigated for possible child abduction and smuggling, thus delaying our trip to the Niagara Falls Butterfly Conservatory.

This time at the center, we are a little less sure about why we were there.  The sentence That guy needs to get his passport stamped isn’t terribly informative—after all, we aren’t sure which guy or why the passport needs to be stamped.  Still, we are directed to a line and we wait.

Josh is not a good wait-er.  He gets antsy.  He gets irritable.  He gets annoyed at the delay in plans, in the deviation from the way things were supposed to be.  Further annoying him is the fact that there are three agents sitting at the desk our line is diverted to, and only one of those agents is actually calling people forward.  The other two are busy on their computers.

“Oh, you know they’re probably on Facebook right now,” Josh says.  “They’re two inches from your face, checking their walls, and you will never know.”

There are several groups of travelers in front of us.  There are some Latinos, some Asians, and a few Europeans.  Behind us are more Asians, a cute couple that looked to be honeymooning, and a bunch of tiny Asian nuns that are dressed entirely in white.  White habits, white headdresses, white stockings, white shoes.  Two of the nuns are wearing nondescript shoes, but the third is wearing a strappy white sandal with a little heel.  I like her gumption.



The few groups in front of us take forever.  It is unclear what the problem is, really, but part of the problem might be that no one speaks English very well.

“Do you think there’s a bathroom in here?” Josh asks.

“There’s got to be,” I say, although I can’t see any English/French signs that direct the way.  There is a water fountain in the corner, but that’s about it.  “You’d think they’d have to have a bathroom in here,” I say.  “I mean, this is a long wait, and some of those people in the chairs along the walls have been here since before we got here.”

Josh starts shifting his weight from one foot to the next.

“Assholes,” he says. 



It is our turn.  Another agent has come out from the back room—where seized contraband is stored; I can see locked cabinets labeled with bold print: LOADED WEAPONS.  NARCOTICS.  ILLEGAL WEAPONS.—and she seats herself at another computer.  She calls us forward.

Felix hands her his passport—again, because we thought the problem was him, the guy from England, and the border guard said the “he” was supposed to be the one in line to get a stamp in his passport.

The woman gestures to Josh and me.  “I need all three passports,” she says.

This is a surprise, but we dig ours out and hand them over.  She arranges them in front of her and starts typing on the computer.

“Okay,” she says.  “Has anyone here ever been denied entry to Canada before?”

“No,” I say.

"No,” Felix says.

“No,” Josh says.

“Oh really?” she asks.

This doesn’t sound good.  She narrows her eyes at Josh.

“Well, back when I studied abroad in Quebec there was some trouble with my student visa,” Josh says.

“So the answer is yes,” the agent says. 

“But they let me in,” Josh says.

“The answer is yes,” the woman says, clearly disgusted.  She motions to the chairs.  “Go sit down,” she says.  “Wait.”



“I really wanted one of those ponchos from The Maid of the Mist,” Felix says.

We are sitting along the wall, far from the original line we’d been in.  The place is filling up.  The seats directly across from the area we were sitting are full of people are also having a tough time getting access to Canada.  We are now closer to the front door.  The woman has told us nothing about our status, about what she is doing with our passports, about what she is trying to find out on the computer.  She has just commanded we wait. 

“I am going to piss myself,” Josh says.  He looks pale and sick.  He looks like he might just piss in his pants. 



There is some shouting from the other end of the room, and it sounds like one of the agents—maybe ours—is shouting.  It almost sounds like someone is shouting, “JESSICA!”

I lean over and listen.  “JESSICA!” someone shouts.

“Do you think they mean me?” I ask.  There are a lot of people in the room, and the chance that someone is shouting “JESSICA” and assuming only one person will step forward seems odd.

Then I hear my whole name being shouted, so I launch out of the chair and head back around the curve to where our agent is tapping my passport on the edge of the desk.  She is impatient.  She is annoyed.  She thinks I am pretty stupid.

“Yes?” I say.

“Jessica,” she says, “what’s your social security number?”  I give it to her.  “And how much money do you have on your person right now?” she asks.

“Uhm, well, I don’t know exactly.  Probably only twenty dollars,” I say.  “But I’ve got my debit card and my credit card.”

She nods and then narrows her eyes.  “Let me ask you this,” she says.  “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

This is a laughable question.  I am, after all, the girl who was so nervous about being caught aiding and abetting the boys who were climbing the fence of the town pool to take a dip on a warm summer night that I cowered in the parking lot of the church down the road until the boys were ready to go.  Still, I do not laugh.  Nothing is funny about this agent and the way she is looking at me.  This woman hates me.

“No,” I say.

“And have you ever been called upon to stand before a judge in this or any foreign country?”


“Fine,” she says.  “Go sit down and wait.”


I turn and walk back to the boys. 

“What did she want?” Josh asks.

“She wanted to know if I was a criminal and how much money I had in my pocket,” I say.



The boys are called up in turn.

When Josh is up there, I tell Felix it’s okay, this will all work out, we’ll go get a beer afterward and some lunch—we are starving—and after lunch we’ll get on that boat, and we’ll go for the ride up to the falls, and he can put on his poncho and be happy that he got to do the thing they showed in Bruce Almighty.

When Felix is up there, I tell Josh it’s okay, this will all work out, see? See? Felix is smiling at the lady! It must be okay! It must be working out! It’s looking good! Why would he be smiling if it isn’t working out?

“Oh boy,” Josh says.  “This doesn’t look good.”

In fact, that’s about the time Felix flashes the woman a big, fake smile and a hearty thumbs-up.  He storms away and back to us.

“This,” he says, “is ridiculous.”

Apparently, she’d been insisting he had a felony on his record, and, while, yes, he did have a scrape with the law when he was in the U.S. doing volunteer work at the camp with Josh, it was no such thing.  It was not a felony, and in court it had been dropped down to a mere violation.

Still, the woman behind the desk was sure, was certain, was definite about one thing: the Englishman was a convicted felon, and he was not getting in the country.

“I told her I just wanted to get my passport back then so we could go,” Felix says.  “She told me to sit down and wait for the paperwork to be done.”  He sighs.  “She told me that I could never come here.  Never.  And she said that if I came back in the next ten days, they were going to throw me in jail and keep me there for a few days.”

Josh slumps down in his chair.  “I really need to go to the bathroom,” he says.


“I can’t take it anymore,” Josh says.  He stands and walks over to the agents attending the desk in front of us.  He asks if he can use the bathroom.  There isn’t one visible to us, so it must be in the back.

“Did your agent say you could go to the bathroom?” the new agent asks.

“She hasn’t told us anything,” Josh says.

“Well, I don’t know your situation, so you’ll need to go ask your agent permission.”

Josh sighs and slouches over to the other side of the room, and we can’t see him asking—begging—to go to the bathroom, but when he comes back he is not pleased.

“She said no,” he says.  “She told me I couldn’t.  She told me to sit down and wait.  I told her it was an emergency, and that I might just go in my pants, but she told me to just sit down.”  His eyes roll back into his head.  “I might do it.  I might piss in my pants.”



We can see our agent puttering around in the back.  She has a stack of papers in her hands.  She gestures at us, but it’s an unclear gesture, and she’s walking in circles behind the desk.  It’s unclear what she wants.

“Does she want us?” I ask.

“Are we supposed to leave?” Felix says.

“Did she mean we need to go over by the door?” Josh asks.

We have no idea, just like we have had no idea all day long.  We have had no idea what the problem is, what our status is, what we are supposed to do, and what is going to happen to us.

The agent leaves through the door, and we look at each other.  We shrug.  We decide to go after her.

She is waiting for us outside.  She shoves a piece of paper in my hands and is walking away, speaking to us but pointing her head in the other direction.

“Excuse me?” I say.  I have no idea what she has said to me, although it seems fairly critical.

She turns and heaves a sigh in my direction.  “Drive over there,” she says, and then turns and speaks the rest of the sentence into the wind.

"Could you say that again, please?” I say.

“THE GATE!” she says.  “DRIVE TO THE GATE.”

I don’t really know where the gate is, but I know I can’t ask any more questions, so I nod and the boys and I get into the car. 

I drive around the building until I find the gate, and the gate is a gate to the US.  We are being turned around and kicked right out of Canada.  It is the first time we’ve been told this.  Actually, we aren’t being told even then.  We are just being handed our passports.

“Give these to the agent over there,” the guard says. 

And that’s it.  That’s our explanation.  That’s our status.

“Can I ask a question?” Josh asks.  “Can I ask you what happened? Why aren’t we being let in?”

She points at him.  “You don’t have enough money,” she says.  “You need to have at least twenty dollars in cash to cross the border.”  Josh looks horrified.  I'm sure I look horrified.  I have never, ever, ever heard that rule.  Next, she points at Felix.  “You need special FBI clearance or else you’ll go to jail if ever you come back here.”

“I’m not coming back,” Felix says.  “Ever.  Trust me on that.”

“And what about me?” I ask.  “Does this affect me?”

“No,” she says, and then she waves us on our way.

And then, a few minutes later, we are safely back in the U.S., and we make the decision that that has been just about enough excitement for the day—Felix doesn’t even want to attempt to see the Falls from the American side—and so we decide to go back into the city and drink until we are a little less annoyed.

And Josh? We stop at the first gas station we see, but the gas station doesn’t have a bathroom for its patrons, and while I pay for the coffee Josh is desperate about getting, he dashes around the corner of the building and finally gets to do his business—which seems about just the right note on which to end our little adventure.

“Weird stuff always happens to me when I’m with you,” I tell him as he gets back in the car.

“I know,” he says, “but this is really weird.  I mean, even for me.  It’s just really weird.”

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