The American border is intrusive, aggressive, destabilizing. The American border x-rays bags, dusts hands, searches bodies. With a hostile disposition and banal questions, border guards attempt to identify sketchy and suspicious travellers, those most likely to be boxed as potential or actual terrorists, I suppose.
Last month, I crossed the American border in Montréal–Trudeau International Airport. (Yes, the American border is there, too.) Men in military-looking garb barked questions at travellers. Our interrogator whisper-barked while keeping a hard stare on the computer screen. Such hardness surely required an unsuspecting level of concentration. He scanned our passports, first with his eyes and second with a machine. He asked us about our work. Could simple five-word answers about our occupations be grounds for further interrogation, or worse?
Regarding our travel intentions, he shot us a series of questions: Why are you visiting Chicago? How long will you be there? Why would you visit Chicago for 25 days? That’s too long! What, do you have family there? (His questions usually followed a strict pattern: start with what, mark a pause, and, finally, ask a question.) We told him about our upcoming road trip from Chicago to San Francisco. He asked, “What, do you have family in San Francisco?”
Against all odds, we had fallen on a border guard unfamiliar with travel and tourism.
He continued to whisper-bark. We continued to repeat “pardon” and crank our necks and faces towards him, attempting to suggest that whisper-barking is a waste of time, and inaudible.
Fast-forward 25 days.
We are in San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Here we have the pleasure of dealing with the security screening staff of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Waiting in line to pass the bomb detector machine, I read a sign that outlines the TSA’s pledge to safety and courtesy. A pledge! The Pledge of Allegiance, a virginity pledge, the Girl Scout pledge. What pledge? In a sea of discretion, TSA pledges do not reassure me. Laws exist in international airports, but these spaces are notorious for being extra-this and extra-that: not quite national, not quite international, nothing recognizable. This sort of absurdity, and the American border, make me lose my mind.
When losing my mind, I undergo a series of physical transformations: my movements become unnatural and heavy; my body temperature rises; I can barely stand still. When I lose my mind, thoughts quickly become spoken words. The retorts I had imagined a few seconds ago become snappy remarks about border procedures and violations of rights and privacy. I am, in short, that crazy lady you watch with horror and delight.
I am angry that thousands, see millions, of people are denied entry across borders across the world. I am not one of those people. All I have to do is shut up, show my passport, maybe purchase a tourist visa as I would a bottle of water, and cross the border. American borders are hostile, but I get through them.
A friend’s parents, Albanian passport carriers, were denied entry to Canada to attend their daughter’s wedding. Citizenship and Immigration Canada deemed their daughter, a graduate student, insufficiently wealthy to associate with international visitors. Daughter, by the way, was not listed as parents’ official host. Future parents-in-law were.
Acquaintances and friends have nearly drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Spanish—or European Union—soil. That soil is tricky. Akin to quick sand, it looks stable, but once you step on it, you step in it, and you don’t know where you’ll land. (I imagine a slow descent to the centre of the earth. A nightmare scenario.)
But let’s return to SFO, where we’re waiting to be screened to eventually board a plane to Montréal. A security agent with a pink highlighter asks us our names. My boyfriend asks the agent to repeat himself, as the question is, at this point, irrelevant. Safety doesn’t start at home. It starts with knowing your name.
We move ahead to the bomb detector machines. I notice that my laptop, sweater, belt, shoes, backpack, and purse—all placed in grey plastic bins, the kind used in restaurants to collect dirty dishes—are not moving along the conveyor belt, which resembles the metallic-tube conveyor belts in Ontario’s state-controlled beer stores. Omitted instructions: Apply lateral pressure to your load to ensure the metallic tubes collectively carry forward your beer to the cash.
Sensing my incomprehension, a security agent instructs me to “just shove” the grey plastic bins into the x-ray machine. I repeat the words in my head. Just shove it. I shove it and shove it and shove it. Each time with more strength. And if you haven’t already guessed, with more craziness. My boyfriend, standing behind me, asks me what I’m doing. Aware I look like a fool, I tell him, “I’m just shoving it. I’m just shoving it. I’m just shoving it.” He nods and silently watches me. I don’t understand how we got to this point, the point where invasive and ubiquitous border and security policies are acted upon as common sense and necessary.
I walk through the antibomb machine. I imitate the illustration in front of me: I lift my arms and separate my legs. I should have worn a longer top. The woman security agent on the other side of the machine instructs me to walk toward her. Hooray, I’m clean. She exclaims: “Show me what’s in your hands! Show me what’s in your hands!” Not thinking she meant the boarding pass that had already been read by a couple of security staff and marked up with a pink highlighter by one of her colleagues, I look around myself in confusion. What is she talking about? Finally, I understand; I lift my chin towards the ceiling and hand her my boarding pass. She quickly looks at it and hands it back.
Meanwhile the woman ahead of me on the post–antibomb-machine beer-store conveyor-belt takes her final belongings from her caravan of grey bins. She walks away and leaves behind her five empty bins. Three travellers, myself included, crowd behind the woman’s bins, trying to assemble our respective piles of stuff—laptops, shoes, belts, bags, keys—into their original place: in our bags, on our feet, around our waist, on our shoulders, in our pockets. Unable to reason myself into a calm state, I blurt out, half-asking, half-asserting, “The princess can’t pick up after herself.” She doesn’t respond. So, the answer, I tell myself, is no, she can’t. I immediately feel lousy.
Walking through the terminal, I slowly relocate my mind and regain a sense of control over my body. Crossing border. What folie.