It was a 14-hour drive to the border.
We had planned to go to Canada for months, although you wouldn’t believe it if you asked us why we were going.
“I want to drink a beer in another country,” I told everyone. And truthfully, that was the extent of the longing to head north.
That’s also what made it so difficult when the border agent asked what we were planning to do in Canada.
I was already nervous because although Jessica and I had been driving for half a day with the express aim of crossing the border, neither of us were sure we would actually make it.
We placed the chance at 85 percent that we would make it to Canada that night, and had already decided on a Plan B for the 15 percent chance of failure. We would just stay in Buffalo the night and head to NYC for the weekend.
We had nothing illegal in our possession. We both had our passports (and had checked them periodically throughout the trip) but still, things tend to just go screwy sometimes.
As we approached the border agent, I didn’t exactly do us any favors, either.
There was a sign that said there was a $1 toll to cross the border. No big deal. We had paid several tolls throughout our trip through the Ohio Valley, so I grabbed a dollar and pulled down my window. As I approached the toll worker, I held out the dollar.
Except that wasn’t the toll worker. It was the Canadian border agent. And now it looks like I’ve tried to bribe him with a single, American dollar.
“Passport.” He stated. Yes, stated. There were several other words contracted into that single word, as in “Give me your goddamn passport right now before I find an excuse to perform a full body cavity search on you just because it’s 11 p.m., I’m bored and I’m pissed off that you just waved a dollar in my face.”
Jessica leaned over and asked “Does he need my passport too?”
“Two passports,” he said, now saying it like our passports were admission tickets to a party we were way too underdressed to hope to attend.
He took the passports from me and went to his computer terminal (it decidedly was not a tollbooth) and began asking where we were from and other questions that I felt should should have been answered by him looking at the passports.
Still, he asked why we were going to Canada and it came out pretty easily: Toronto. Vacation.
And then he asked it: “What do you do?”
There are many names for it, you know. Reporter, newspaperman…but my favorite is journalist. Especially in an era when so much of what I do is online.
I spoke it before it even occurred that it could be considered a four-letter word with border agents.
“What do you mean a journalist?’ He asked as his voice ratcheted up into an accusation. “For YOURSELF?”
Thoughts of the photos and stories I intended to share on this blog flew through my head immediately, but I knew that was just my mind thinking what I should not say. Happens from time to time, and sometimes I actually make the right decision.
I explained that I worked for a newspaper back home and he eased his tone, but still kept an incredibly suspicious demeanor. “What on earth is Canada trying to hide from the world?” I wondered.
We were the only car at customs, so he took his time, but following the three-minute interrogation, he let us through, adding that we would need to pay $3 at the next terminal.
I scarcely cared that the price to go to Canada had tripled. They could have asked for a kidney and I would have obliged I was so glad to get away from that Canadian asshole.
I pulled up to the tollbooth where the final insult awaited. The price was $3.25 to enter Canada.
What the hell was that? We were delirious the entire two-hour drive from the border to Toronto after our shakeup. We felt like fugitives that had narrowly escaped into another country. I was too nervous to even push the speed limit, nevermind the fact that it was in kilometers.
Weren’t Canadians supposed to be friendly?
We asked our newly made Canadian friends and they told us horror stories about border agents, too. One friend said he was almost detained due to a disagreement at the border, but all of them said that the United States border police were way tougher to deal with.
The Canadians tended to welcome them back, they said, almost like dogs that had been let loose outside to do their business for a couple days. “Oh hey you. Get back in here.”
That wouldn’t be the case for us, they warned.
But Jessica and I weren’t stupid. We knew the buzz word that had set off our agent was avoidable, so we spent various conversations during the next three days deciding exactly what the correct answer was to the question “What do you do?”
I was considering unemployed, but was too scared he would sense I was lying. Journalist was definitely out. Reporter, too. It brings too many questions. What do you report on?
Jessica struck gold, though. “Tell them you’re a writer. You’re a writer for the local paper.”
I polished it. “A writer for my hometown paper.”
Now the stage was set and the script was written.
I rehearsed in my head: “Writer for my hometown paper.”
By the time we arrived at the customs line, we were so ready to be back in the states.
The putrid washed up tourist portion of Niagara had robbed us of any appreciation for the falls and, for the day, the entire country.
We sat in line and I rehearsed and read quotes from my passport. This was it. Why did I feel like I was about to make a heist?
We eased up in line until it was our turn.
We handed our passports to the U.S. Border Agent and he began the questioning.
Where are you from? How long were you in Canada?
“You drove up from North Carolina for three days?” he asked.
All at once, I realized how ludicrous it truly sounded. If ever a terrorist plot was poorly conceived, it likely would be a trip like that. What should I do? Tell him I just wanted to drink a beer in another country? No, write around it.
“That’s all the vacation time I could get,” I said. There. Now ask me what I do.
“What do you do?” he asked.
It rolled off my tongue like honey. That doesn’t make sense, I know, but it was delivered so perfectly.
“I’m a writer for my hometown paper.” I wanted to smile afterward, but resisted. Good job, Ty. Now just remain calm.
I’m still terrified I’ll never be allowed back home. The last interrogation was scary. It tested me something fierce. Can I relax and respond to these questions in a believable way? What comes next?
“Do you watch SNL?” he asked.
I didn’t even have time to think about the substance of the question. I wanted to answer quickly, succinctly, honestly.
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re not using your paper, not for writing, but for rolling doobies are ya?”
By now, Jessica is onto the game. I can hear her chuckling a bit, but I’m nowhere near that relaxed. To me, I still feel like a murder suspect being questioned under oath.
“No sir,” I said.
“You know Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker?” he asked. “Yes sir,” I said again, becoming aware that we were spending three minutes discussing SNL skits while hundreds waited behind us to come to America.
“That’s who I was for Halloween last year,” he revealed, then launching into an impression: “Living in a van DOWN BY THE RIVER!”
I finally cracked a smile. The experience was the complete opposite of our Canadian border incident in direction, stress and cost.
Oh yeah. No toll to enter the United States from Canada.