Trouble at the Canadian Border
I nearly missed my flight to Vancouver. I woke up on a university campus in San Francisco with a bad hangover, as was usual at the time. My breath smelled like pure garbage. I reeked of booze and body odour, but I was wearing my best shirt – I had woken up in it. I was already late, so said a quick goodbye to my host and ran out of the campus. There was no time to shower or shave.
I managed a bus and then a train to the airport, where I arrived at the wrong terminal. Apparently flights to Canada were considered domestic. Paranoid that I’d miss my flight, I scurried around with the liquor sweats until I was in the right place. Upon checking in, I discovered that I was obliged to fork out an extra $25 for checked baggage. “Fuck America,” was the mantra I repeated as I frantically got myself to the ATM then back to the check-in counter to give the cold bitch behind the desk my money. I dig America: it’s a fun, exciting place, and if you have money in your pocket, you can do anything you want, but it sucks when you’re broke. I had about a hundred bucks left at that point, but I made my flight out.
I was restless and uncomfortable on the flight back to Vancouver, still stressed from the morning’s delays and worried that the Canadian customs officials might ask me to prove sufficient funds for entry. I was also run-down from over a month of drinking and doing drugs. My eyes were baggy and bloodshot and my dreadlocks were smelly. Even my best shirt couldn’t disguise me from looking like a full-time trashbag who couldn’t look after himself.
Before disembarking the plane, I tied my dreads back and put my game face on. I knew I had to be confident in the lies I planned to tell. Money was the bottom line. The customs official looked at my passport, then up at my face and then back to my passport. Still looking down, he asked if I had a job. I told him that I worked at the casino in Kelowna as a cook. When he asked me the name of the casino I folded momentarily with an, “I don’t know,” but attempted to amend that with a long-winded explanation of where I worked during the winter season, name dropping my previous bosses and then explaining that they had offered me a position at the casino for the coming summer and that I would be having a meeting with them upon arrival. This was half true. The Nazi seemed satisfied and stamped me in.
I walked to baggage-claim, dehydrated and bloodshot like a dog who had just been kicked. I was uncomfortable with the brightness and sterility of the airport and burnt out on feigning respect for those who wore uniforms. My mouth was dry, but I needed a smoke. I’d had a song in my head for about a week. At first it was just the tune, then I started to remember some of the chorus. Finally in the airport it came together:
“You’ll have to excuse me I’m not at my best / I’ve been gone for a month I’ve been drunk since I left / And these so-called vacations will soon be my death / I’m so sick from the drink I need home for a rest.“
I found out later that the song was by Spirit of the West, a Canadian band. As I sat down and waited for the bag, I realised that Canada was home for now and that I had just about earned my time to rest. I sighed and freed my dreadlocks from the hair tie. It was over: I had made it through the bender. Admittedly I was a few brain cells short and had a black eye and a lost toenail, but it was a good party.
Then there was a scumbag in uniform at my side, jabbing me with loaded questions that I didn’t have the answers to. He wasn’t too much older than I was, but he was making an effort to sound young and cool, to find common ground. I knew he was up to no good. I was already panicking internally.
“Where er ya comin’ from bud?” he asked, looking a little too strong and clean for my liking, with that passive-aggressive amicability that is somehow so Canadian. Something just wasn’t right about this cunt: a fake smile, a crew cut, that black uniform and shiny badge like a TV cop.
Cavity search me? I almost asked. My poor brain: scrambled but not quite fried; not yet anyway.
“Just came from San Francisco.” I said it simply, trying to feign innocence.
“Oh ya? What were you doin’ down there?”
He looked me in the eye with open body language as if he was just making meaningless conversation, as if he was just wondering.
“Well I went to a big music festival called Coachella.”
Dumb answer. I should have just dropped my pants and spread my cheeks right there in front of the baggage carousel. But that wouldn’t do – this fucker still wanted to play his game.
“Oh ya? Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah it was awesome.”
It was one-directional, authoritative questioning under the pretense of friendliness. I wasn’t sure whether to elaborate further or ask him questions in return or to refuse to talk to the rat. I resolved to say the minimum. That was when he started to fuck with me. The questions got more personal as the tone became completely impersonal.
“So did you bring back any weed from The States?”
“No you wouldn’t bring sand to the beach, right?”
There is no right answer to that question. He was insinuating that weed is really good, cheap and easy to get in British Columbia (which it is), but by simply saying “no” it could appear that I was acknowledging that. Simple trap.
“So did you do a lot of drugs at the festival? It’s ok, you can tell me, you’re not going to get in trouble now.”
“No, I just stuck to the alcohol.”
“But you smoke pot, right?”
“No, I don’t.”
“When was the last time you smoked pot?”
“Um… a few months ago.”
“Had to think about that one eh?”
“Well your eyes look pretty red…”
He held his stare, right into my pupils. I didn’t dare break eye contact.
“To tell you the truth I’m pretty hung-over, I had a big few weeks on vacation.”
His demeanour became stern and accusing. He could see me sweating and smell my fear and I could tell that he really got off on it. I daresay he masturbated over the feeling later.
“What does your bag look like?”
“It’s a big backpack with paint stains all over it and a skateboard attached to the side.”
He gave me a look that said dirty punks are the ones who get cavity searched.
“And what’s in it?”
“Just some dirty clothes, a few books and a sleeping bag.”
“Ok, so what if I told you that I got a tip-off this morning that a guy with dreadlocks and a green shirt was carrying a lot of drugs over the border today?”
“Well that’s impossible, because I’m not carrying drugs.”
He said nothing, walked about five metres away, folded his arms and stared at me. It was ominous and intimidating. I looked to the carousel and felt dizzy. I scanned for my bag, making a great effort not to seem perturbed by the man. I was fighting an illogical urge to sprint for the door. I remembered a quote: “A man gets paranoid when he has 300 hangovers a year.” It was slightly concerning that I could already relate to Bukowski.
Eventually I spotted my bag, walked to the carousel and shouldered it. As I turned around I realised that the maggot in uniform was right behind: he’d followed me to my bag. I half expected him to draw his gun and jab it into my ribs like in a movie.
“Come with me please.” He said it mechanically, as if the system was now functioning autonomously. Or maybe he had become dispassionate, because that was his way of dealing with performing a cavity search. I followed him in silence, feeling sicker with each step, my mind repeating the words “cavity search” over and over again. He lead me into a back room that was completely white and cold, with nothing but a table in it. I was instructed to put my bag down on the table. There were two other cockroaches in uniform waiting there, big veiny arms folded, short haircuts, each managing a bored snarl.
“You look nervous,” one of them said.
“Yeah well… I am.”
“Why are you nervous?”
“You guys are intimidating.” They paused for a few seconds to acknowledge and enjoy my intimidation as well as to savour the compliment. The original monkey who’d poached me from the carousel took over the questioning again as if claiming rights to his kill.
“What’s in the bag?”
“I told you, clothes and books”
“No man, fuck”
“Any drugs at all?”
“Anything illegal at all?”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m absolutely positive.”
“What’s in this pocket?”
“Any drugs in here?”
“No, none in the bag whatsoever”
“What about in here?”
“No, I told you”
“You look nervous.”
“Yeah well I am.”
One of the apes in the background cracked a smile. They all loved that answer. They repeated the same line of questioning maybe 15 or 20 times and I just sweated and got progressively more nervous. Paranoia, intimidation and repetition. I just wondered when they would decide to check my cavity.
Now he got frustrated and started to yell.
“Last time I saw a guy as nervous as you he had so many drugs in his bag!”
“Yeah, but I don’t.”
“When was the last time you smoked weed?”
“Maybe a month ago; I don’t remember.”
Then he really snapped at me – started screaming.
“Before you said it was a few months ago, so now you’re lying!”
“I’m not lying. “ I whined it like an eight year old.
“Yes you are! Are you lying about not having drugs in your bag too?”
“No, keep checking.” I said, now encouraging him to invade my personal property.
“Well you look nervous, too nervous. I think you have something to hide. Your eyes are red, you’re paranoid… I think you’re stoned right now.”
“I’m not – I’m just hungover.”
“What are you thinking about right now?”
“I’m thinking about going outside and smoking a cigarette.”
“Do you know what happens if I find drugs in here?”
“I get deported?”
“Oh you’ll get more than just deportation buddy, so I’m gonna ask you again. Are there any drugs in this bag?”
This continued for hours. My brain was like a can of spaghetti. The uniformed men greedily pried it open, shoved their forks into it, twisted them around and shoveled my spaghetti brain into their mouths. The uniformed cannibals chewed and swallowed with gluttonous lust. I was sure that eventually they would pry open my anus, like they had done to my skull, and start raping me with their gloved fingers and badges. They couldn’t stop until they had feasted on my ideas, feelings and vital organs.
My hands were shaking when I finally got outside and lit my cigarette. I felt weak and timid. I got the Skytrain to Granville Street. I walked through the rain to a pay phone from which I called some friends. I went to their house in Kitsilano and smoked bongs with them, partly in spite of the customs officials.
The next day I shaved my face clean and then shaved off my dreads. My black eye had cleared up and I looked like a completely different person. I looked clean cut, even straight, and I felt kind of defeated for letting them get to me this much. I resolved to retain my reckless lifestyle for the summer at least.
I had figured it out though: it’s perfectly okay to be a scumbag but the trick is not to look like a scumbag.
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Nat Kassel is a freelance writer and assistant editor at Global Hobo. He likes eating out of bins and taking photos of people taking photos.