Sunday, March 02, 2008


I was born in Otherland, right on the border with Theland. As you can tell by the names of each country, they are very similar -- similar in culture, as well; language, customs. To be honest, if you run into a Thelander, you might just as well mistake the person for an Otherlander. After all, we are close national neighbors. Each is the others' largest trading partner and numerous treaties have been signed allowing -- with proper documentation -- citizens of one country to work in the other. Overall, a positive relationship exists between the two nations.

We all wear green hats. Hat-wearing is part of our shared culture. And you can only get our kind of green hats from our respective governments. Some people trying to get into Theland or Otherland sometimes wear phony green hats, but it's pretty obvious they're fakes. You turn them inside-out and you find they're red inside or paisley, or some other color. The real ones are green through-and-through. That's how it's always been.

This distinction became very important a few years ago when some paisley-hatted guys from another nation attacked a Theland city. Since then, the color of your hat's been immensely important. Sometimes, life-or-death important.

I live in Otherland, but work in Theland. My green hat was in perfect order, so I was issued a purple work hat. Every time I go over to Theland, I have to wear my purple hat. No problem. Often, when I travel to Theland to visit an art gallery, see a concert, visit friends or go to a restaurant, I wear my green hat and my wife wears her green hat. Like any other travelers, we're asked some questions by the Theland border guards. After the paisley-hatted attack years ago, it only makes sense.

The other night my wife and I went over to Theland to visit friends. We were meeting them at a restaurant in a sketchy part of town, so my wife and I took my car over -- it's an old warhorse and doesn't much matter if it's vandalized on top of its road-weariness. Since we were going to a bar afterward, I left my purple hat at home because I didn't want to take the chance of losing it or having it stolen. It would be a royal pain in the ass if I lost my green hat, but the green hat would be much easier to replace than a purple hat. I'd gone over with my green hat a hundred times before and didn't think twice about it.

That is, until I pulled up to the border guard booth. He typed my license plate into his computer. He asked our citizenship, the purpose of our trip and what we were bringing over. We answered all of his questions. Then he asked me where I worked. When I told him I worked in Theland , he asked to see my purple hat. I told him I had left it at home because I was going out to a restaurant and then to a bar and didn't want to take the chance of losing it. When not crossing for work, I always used my green hat and never had any problems.

Thelander border guards have a reputation for unpleasantness. Deserved or not, it's there and I've personally witnessed it on many occasions. Times I've gone into a Thelander border station to renew my purple hat, I've witnessed Theland border guards berating other applicants. It's one thing to ask questions and demand to see proper documentation, but some Thelander guards did this with overt hostility and naked belligerence. I once witnessed a guy in an orange hat being asked to prove where in Theland he had attended school. The orange-hatted guy showed the border guard a postcard from the campus. I was at the next wicket, and winced, knowing what was coming. The Theland guard went up one side of the orange-hatted guy and down the other. He then asked for a full accounting of the orange-hatted guy's life: every family members' name, had the orange-hatted guy ever been arrested anywhere in the world. All of this was carried out at full volume so that everyone in the office could hear what was said.

Another time, in the middle of the day while I was renewing my purple hat, a Thelander guard shut off the office lights and announced, "Sorry, we're closed." Then he turned the lights back on and barked laughter at his joke.

Most days, going to work, I encounter ordinary, pleasant Thelander guards. They have a job to do; they're not customer service reps, their job is security, and I not only understand that, I'm protected by their efforts.

The night I went over with my wife, I got one of the pricks.

When I told him that I had left my purple hat at home, and why I had done so, he bellowed, "You have a purple hat and you must wear it every time you come into Theland !" In the nine years I've had a purple hat, I'd never known about that. But if that's the rule, that's the rule. No sweat, I'll wear the purple hat. It's all the same to me.

"Did you know that?" the guard sneered. I told him no, I didn't. He repeated the statement. I had understood the first time he'd said it, but what was I to do? Teleport home and teleport back wearing the purple hat? "OK," I said. "Now I know."

That wasn't good enough, though, for the prick. Although my background had been thoroughly checked every year I renewed my purple hat -- having even been fingerprinted so that I could have a yellow band for the purple hat that allowed me through an express commuter lane -- the prick pulled me into the border guard office.

The border guard office is always a treat -- if you think of miserable experiences as treats. There are usually ten guards standing around behind a counter, chatting, while a line of people stand in the center of the cramped room, as still other people sit in plastic contour chairs awaiting further interrogation by one of the guards. My wife and I walked into the crowded office and were met by a shout from a guard behind the counter.

"Step over here," he said, indicating somewhere near the counter. I must have taken one too many steps toward him because he quickly growled, "Not that close." The pricks among Thelander border guards are known for speaking with such wonderful specificity. Once I had stepped back, the guard then told me to approach him -- I imagine the pricks were uniformly children who grew up tormenting animals and pulling the wings off of flies. He took from me the slip of paper the guard in the booth had filled out. Then I was directed to a wicket further down the counter. The guard there -- seated at a computer terminal -- looked at the slip of paper and asked me, "Don't you know you're supposed to wear your purple hat when crossing into Theland?" I said that I hadn't known that.

"How long have you worked in Theland?" he asked. I said about eight or nine years. And he said, "And you didn't know that you had to wear your purple hat any time you cross into the country?" It struck me as odd the number of times he asked the same question. I said, again, that I didn't know, but now I did. When he asked the question again I had the distinct feeling that he was fucking with me. He then took my green had and my wife's green hat and told us to sit down. As we sat down, I wondered not for the first time what the Theland Security screen looked like on their computers. Last year, not long after renewing the yellow band I wear around my purple hat, I was pulled in four times in the space of 10 work days. Each time they wanted to check the validity of my purple hat. They could check all they wanted, but while they were fussing around with me weren't there guys with paisley hats to be watching out for? Every time I sat waiting as they re-keyed my information into their system, I wondered, Why don't they have a Save button on their screen so they don't have to redo the work that was done the last time I was in here?

And I thought of years before, on my way to work, when a Theland border guard asked me if I had anything to declare. "All I have with me is my lunch," I'd said.

"What is it?" he'd sneered, as though he was about to catch me in a lie.


"What's in it?"


"Turkey?!" he shouted, honestly outraged. "Turkey's a banned substance." He said it like I had plutonium in the car.

"A 'banned substance'?" I'd said.

"Yeah, a banned substance!" he'd shouted and then pulled me in for secondary inspection. There, the guards had just laughed off the slip he'd attached to my windshield and let me continue on my way.

While my wife and I waited, a young, pretty girl came into the office. The guard who dealt with her spoke so loudly I heard that the girl was trying to enter Theland without her green hat. She'd just forgotten it. The guard at the counter told her to sit down. A moment later, he called her to the counter again. He asked where she worked. "In Otherland," she said. The guard asked if she owned a house there. "Yes," she said. He asked if she paid taxes, hydro bills, if she had a mortgage. The girl answered "yes" to each question. He told her to sit down. A few minutes later, he summoned her back to the counter and told her, "The next time you enter Theland, you'll have to bring proof of your mortgage, your most recent tax return and copies of your hydro bills." Then he let the bewildered girl go.

A few minutes after the girl left, my wife and I were called back to the counter. The border guard holding our green hats asked me again if I had known that I was supposed to wear my purple hat whenever I crossed into Theland . A feeling of unreality passed over me and I suddenly wondered if the border guards looking through my car outside were planting drugs in it. I wondered if the border guard before me was going to void my purple hat, rendering me instantaneously unemployed. Or, if he was going to demand that the next time I entered Theland -- which would be two days hence -- that I would have to bring proof of my mortgage, my taxes, the parish priest and five box tops from Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Why not? The guards existed in a strange, seemingly ungoverned sphere where they could make up the rules as they went along.

On this night, however, the guard told me to wear my purple hat from then on and he released us. When I later told a friend about the experience, he said:
I can just see a bunch of punks who got their jobs thru army buddies or family contacts making life miserable for any captive audience. Pathetic. There is a terrible passion in this country for authority. Thelanders are frantic to exercise authority over anyone and everyone. This is true not just in cops, but in store clerks, courthouse secretaries, anyone who is supposed to be answerable to the public. It's sad and irritating.
It's the same anywhere, I guess. Although Otherland has a mellower reputation than Theland, Otherland is very much run by an oppressive bureaucracy. Sometimes it feels as though a silent coup took place years ago in Otherland where the bureaucrats took over. The lights in the country still work, water still flows from faucets and people continue showing up for work, so everything appears to be in order and functioning. But the moment one comes into contact with any semblance of officialdom, there's a feeling of brushing against an executioner's robes and that one's neck is being appraised for the next noose.

We live a good life in Otherland and Theland, but even green hats cast shadows in the sun.

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