Barry Smith: Irrelativity
September 25, 2011
U.S./CANADA BORDER – I’ve never had a job in which I was in a position of authority, so I don’t really know how I’d respond to having power.
Though I have a pretty good idea: I was a volunteer usher a few times, and it was my job to tell people where to sit. These people were actually asking me to tell them where to sit, so I wasn’t exactly your classic “authority figure.” More like an information booth. And not a very good one.
“Here are you seats. If that’s OK, I mean. I don’t want to tell you where to sit or anything, I just … well … sorry if I was too bossy earlier.”
Then I’d run home and write a column about it.
Some people, of course, embrace being in authority. And for those who really get into it, I’m guessing that U.S./Canada Border Patrol is the ultimate gig. And, as a bonus, if you score “condescending jerk” on your personality profile, it must actually increase your chances of getting hired.
I’ve just finished up my summer of Canadian performances of my comedy show, “Jesus in Montana.” It was a great run, filled with appreciative audiences, creative collaborations and general artistic goodness. Oh, Canada! And now it’s time to come back home. But first, a bit of time with the Anti-Welcome Home Committee, also known as the U.S. Border.
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“Turn your car off!” The border guard yells at me. OK. I just hope it starts again. I hand over my passport.
“What were you doing in Canada?”
I know the drill. Sunglasses off. Eye contact. Answer questions briefly and concisely. I had the audacity to travel outside of the U.S., therefore I must be considered a criminal. It’s his job to protect my country from the threat of terrorism, or whatever, and I need to make it clear to him that I’m just some guy. I’ve got nothing to hide and have done nothing wrong, so I don’t have to lie about anything, I just have to jump through a few hoops and I’ll be on my way.
“I was performing at a theater festival.”
“Do you hmmph whmmph hmmmph Canada?” he asks.
He’s ducked back inside his little glass booth and is typing something into the computer, his head down. There’s traffic noise outside so I can’t hear him.
He repeats his question, speaking directly to his keyboard. I can only understand the word “Canada.” In an ordinary conversation this is where I’d just say “yeah” and move on. But I certainly can’t do that here. Who knows what I’d be agreeing to?
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t hear you.”
He looks up angrily and yells, “DO! YOU! HAVE! ANYTHING! WITH! YOU! FROM! CANADA!”
Hmmm … well, I did have that warm fuzzy glow that comes from spending time with friendly people, but that’s pretty much gone as of now. Thanks, Officer Mumbles.
Tappity tap tap.
“And why are you traveling alone?”
“My show is a one-man show,” I say.
“That just means you WORK alone,” he looks at me with a triumphant “Aha! Nailed you, terrorist scum!” look. “But why do you TRAVEL alone?”
I honestly don’t know how to answer this. My best response, “Spend a few minutes with me and you won’t have to ask,” is clearly inappropriate. But I don’t even know what the “right” answer is.
“Uh … because … it’s just me?”
That’s the best I can do.
I know that this is all on purpose. I know that these people are trained to play little psychological games with you to see if you crack. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole mumble/yell thing was a tactic straight out of a recent training exercise.
“OK, here’s a good one. You mumble a question a few times, then when they ask for clarification you yell at them like you’re scolding a child. This one’s fun, because it really upsets the ones with daddy issues.”
I know the guy’s just doing his job – keeping us safe from the ever-increasing threat of U.S. Citizens who sometimes visit Canada – but he obviously REALLY likes this part of his job.
I wonder what that says about him?
Satisfied with my answer, he hands me back my passport and I drive on, thinking, “I can’t wait to write a column about this guy. That’ll show him – safely, from a distance – just who’s boss.”
And I REALLY like that part of my job.
I wonder what that says about me?
(You don’t have to go to Canada to see “Jesus in Montana.” You can catch it on Dec. 8 at the Wheeler Opera House!)