Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Code Red for Embarrassment - U.S. Customs officers make up their jobs as they go along

This friendly, genial-looking young man attempted to cross the U.S./Canadian border on April 25th while carrying "a homemade sword, a hatchet, a knife, brass knuckles and a chain saw stained with what appeared to be blood."

As you do.

Although U.S. Customs officers confiscated these items -- safety first! -- the genial young man was fingerprinted and then sent on his way. Bill Anthony, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, smartly points out "[b]eing bizarre is not a reason to keep somebody out of this country or lock them up. ... We are governed by laws and regulations, and he did not violate any regulations."

You see, America does stand for freedom and human rights!

Well, the story of the genial, industrious young man does not have a happy ending. To the shock and dismay of all the friends he made at the Calais, Maine border crossing, it turns out that this bright-eyed young man, who surely has a song in his heart, may have been involved in some wrongdoing.

No, no! Before you protest that this genial-looking young man surely couldn't be involved in wrongdoing, I submit that not all of the facts are in and the case could go either way. This situation calls for broadmindedness!

You see, "[t]he following day, a gruesome scene was discovered in [the young man's] hometown of Minto, New Brunswick: The decapitated body of a 74-year-old country musician named Frederick Fulton was found on Fulton's kitchen floor. His head was in a pillowcase under a kitchen table. His common-law wife was discovered stabbed to death in a bedroom." Quote from CNN.com.

Well, those quick-thinking, on-the-job authorities in the Home of Homeland Security and Guantanamo Bay weren't fooled -- this genial-looking young man, regardless of his obvious merits, came under immediate suspicion. Games are not played in the United States when it comes to law and order. Justice is blind, after all.

So, now this hope-filled young man with so obviously a bright future is now jailed in Massachusetts awaiting extradition; doubtless winning friends and influencing people there.

I realize this comes as terrible news to all of the business owners on the eastern seaboard of the United States who would surely have lined up to offer this young man a position in their firms. Alas, he is unavailable.
__________________________

You see, I live in a border city, and for the past few years (though, no longer) I worked in the great state of Michigan, commuting daily from my home in Ontario. Even with my Nexus Pass, which was to assure quick and painless entry into the United States, I was often questioned and detained like this genial-looking young man by U.S. Customs officers.

An experience I had one morning a year ago sprang to mind as I read this article on CNN.com. I was crossing into America, sitting in the Nexus Pass Lane, when a dour-faced serious-looking young man, who worked for United States Customs, approached my car (as he approached other cars in line). He barked his orders at me, to which I complied. He asked if I had anything in the car. I told him all I had with me was my lunch.

"What's in it?" he hissed.

"Chili."

A knowing, administrative glint came into his eye. I knew what he was thinking: Mad cow disease. There had been a case of it elsewhere in Canada, in the province of Alberta, a mere five thousand kilometers away. A Canadian cow had been given feed purchased from the United States and the cow came down with mad cow disease. That cow was immediately quarantined and the problem remedied. The American press, with nothing else to report, kept the story aloft as long as they could, like a bunch of kids hitting a balloon in the air at a birthday party. All to the same end and effect.

"What kind of chili?" the officer asked, squaring up for the kill.

"Turkey," I said. I happen to prefer ground turkey to ground beef. Sorry Alberta!

"Yeah, well turkey's a banned substance," was the officer's authoritative rejoinder.

A banned substance -- like mescaline at the Olympics. Turkey -- my lunch -- was a substance. Banned, at that.

Never in my life had I answered back to a Customs officers, but that morning the words just fell out of my mouth. "Turkey is a banned substance?"

"Yeah, for the next two weeks."

Right.

Well, this officer was all business and had me immediately pulled into the inspection area. He had caught his villain for the day. He wasn't taking any chances of some culinary terrorist fucking around with the meat at his local Jack-in-the-Box.

When I got to the inspection area, the officers there asked why I was pulled in. "My lunch is a banned substance," I said. I wish one of the officers had been witty and quick enough to have quipped, "Whaddya eat? Plutonium?" but it was all those dullards could do getting their gun belts on facing the right way.

A female officer asked if I was going to eat my lunch that day. Biting down on myriad sarcastic replies, I answered in the affirmative. After weighing the situation with the widsom and solicitude of King Solomon, she said, "OK." Which is Detroit-border-crossing-Speak for, "You may go on your way. Sin no more."

It's unnerving as hell to comptemplate that there is actually a job out there that involves (a) unintelligent people who (b) can make up the guidelines of their jobs on the spot, (c) while carrying loaded weapons.

Well, no more heads were cut off by the genial-looking young man after the U.S. customs officers swung into action with Massachusetts law enforcement. I have not brought turkey chili into America since my own run-in. This experience inspires in me a strange feeling of kinship with the genial-looking young man, thinking that we could have been placed in the same holding cell at the U.S. border. I imagine him sitting on the top bunk, myself on the lower one, in a grim, unlit pen. He plays a harmonica, and I sing spontaneous words that reveal my plight:

Mmmmm... turkey...
Turkey chili my wife made for me...
Got me locked up
in the land of the free...

2 comments:

Nadon said...

Matt,

It's too funny that you posted about this as I have had a far too similar experience.

I too, work in Michigan and cross the border daily from Windsor, Ont.

One early morning I approached the border patrol and was greeted with the same warm words that I hear daily - "citizenship?", to which I used my canned response - "canadian". I find it amusing that most of my conversations with the border patrol on both sides of the border are sometimes one word questions and answers.

"declarations?" - to which I replied my canned response of "laptop, lunch, clothes."

The "guard" - (I use this term lightly, because I've crossed enough to know that most of the employees that I run into during my daily commute couldn't "guard" a penny that was taped to their ass, let alone have the capacity to filter out who enters the country) sat straight up in his chair and all of a sudden took great interest to why I wanted to be admitted entry into the country of his origin.

"what's for lunch?" he asked.
"turkey sandwich", I replied.

He then turned in his chair and looked at his "partner" (like there needs to be two people in the booth..???) who I hadn't yet noticed and proclaims, as if he'd hit the motherload -

"turkey sammich....!!"

I asked if there was a problem, he went on to tell me that there was a ban on poultry entering the country. I tried to explain that this was not a live animal - that it was two slices of a dead animal, lovingly placed between two slices of white bread. It was no harm... and if it got out of hand during my travel - I was pretty sure that I could subdue it.

The two "officers" conversed and finally came to a decision in approximately two minutes of discussion.

"we'll let you go... THIS TIME! You should know that I could charge you a $500 fine."

I, of course, played along and thanked them so much for not throwing me in jail - since I did not have my Get Out Of Jail free card with me at the time.

As I was ready to leave and had received "the look" which they sometimes give that tell you it's ok to move on, the guard said..

"enjoy your LAST turkey sammich..."

I laughed out loud as I pulled away and prepared to pay my toll.

Jas... said...

Great post! I enjoy your humor and writing style very much, and will definitely be returning.

Smiles!
Jas...