I have travelled through the U.S. last year in January and saw hints of what ails this country. Almost the entire trip through to Mexico I saw the vast ruins and hardscrabble towns interrupted at regular intervals by shiny McDonalds or WalMarts. These poor states such as Oklahoma contrasted sharply with affluent neighbouring states such as Texas. Texas was surprisingly boring, bland and visually homogenous to travel through and thus reminded me the most of Ontario.
This trip though was to attend an academic conference in upstate New York, just a couple hours east of Buffalo. I love Buffalo – I really admire their arts community and the way they’ve preserved their heritage buildings. So I was eager to see some of the countryside and small towns on a road trip with friend and classmate Kyle Cihosky.
I’m always nervous going through customs. I’m sure that is nothing remarkable or unusual for most people passing through customs anywhere. No matter how many planes land safely I’ll always probably be a nervous flyer as well. Anyways, this U.S. Border Guard was not tall but muscly-bulky with a short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes. He was gruff, did not look at me as I talked to him and I could barely hear his grunted questions or instructions. Because I asked him to repeat himself I was afraid he would get annoyed and strip search us and tear my car apart. That is the nature of authority.
He waved us through and he turned out to be the nicest experience with an authority figure we had.
We arrived at the College at Brockport residences and met up with the conference coordinator. Our floor was men only for this event and he told me it was ok to use the women’s washroom – so I did! When I came back out there was Kyle, the coordinator and a not tall, muscly-bulky cop with short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes. He looked at me accusingly, evaluating who I was and what I was doing in the women’s washroom. He seemed to be standing in a defensive posture and one hand was resting on the mace on his belt. I know this because I looked to see what he was resting his hand on. Turns out there is a thing called campus police and their police station was on the first floor of this very building. This intrepid individual heard us talking and checking out our assigned rooms and patrolled up one flight of stairs to investigate.
He asked what we doing here.
The coordinator informed him there was actually a conference happening this weekend and lots of more people were coming to check in. I remember him saying softly over and over “no tensions, no problems” and giving us a slightly exasperated glance when this policeman finally relaxed and decided to end his investigation.
I got a sense that this is part of an overall cultural reality here.
Later, we went out for a beer and we were asked for ID. This pleased me as I’m over 40. Later, when we a bought a four pack of beer and twelve ciders at the local grocery store the cashier asked me for ID as well. I then realized there is no reflection, analysis or judgement allowed here – there is instructions to ask for ID no matter what is before your eyes. Our purchases were watched by male employees whose job it was to stand at each cash and watch purchases. They stood between us and the door.
Kyle and I played board games in our dorm room and sipped our drinks. When I went to bed, it was cold in the sparse dorm room with only a thin blanket and one flimsy pillow. There were stains on the hard carpeted floor. Kyle had it worse – his room had noisy pipes.
The next day the conference ended and we drove back. The video above is Kyle taking photos with my camera as I drove. You’ll get a sense of the many derelict business and homes that sit within sight of the road and almost every barn we saw was in an advanced state of disrepair. As we approached the border, no less than four black military helicopters flew overhead.
I chose the lane for our Canadian customs poorly. I noticed the guy kept directing cars over to the side for inspection. The other lanes were going more smoothly, more quickly. Fuck. It was too late to switch lanes now. I’ve always found Canadian customs guards to be more challenging, more stern — more macho somehow than their American counterparts. Looks like we got the guy with something to prove.
You see, we were nervous because we had more booze in the car than we were supposed to for a less than a 48 hour visit. I had two cans of beer left and Kyle had 11 cans of cider left and now one bottle of red wine he just bought for a big date he had the next day. Apparently, it is up to the whim of the Border official if you will be allowed to keep your purchase or pay extra. We chatted briefly about NAFTA and how this doesn’t apply to us.
Our turn came and we pulled up to the kiosk. Our Canadian Border Services representative was a not tall, muscly-bulky man with short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes.
I gave him exact answers to where we were and how long we were there. I got the name of the college we were at wrong and Kyle corrected me. Oh shit. I told him we had exactly 2 beers, 11 ciders and 1 bottle of wine in the car. We had given him our passports already opened to our photos. I hoped this consideration to his work would help.
He asked us for our receipts for this alcohol. We both sprang into action and I found the receipt for the original 4 beers and 12 ciders in my wallet – I had absentmindedly stuffed it in there. Thankfully. Who knows what would have happened if my paperwork was not in order. Kyle found his duty free wine purchase documentation papers. The officer looked at them and then asked me to re-state exactly how many cans of alcoholic beverages we had left. 2 beers and 11 ciders. This man would now know we had only three drinks last night.
We answered his questions correctly. He waved us through. He handed us back our receipts. I actually felt grateful for a brief moment that my car is an ugly green 2010 Hatchback Hyundai Accent. I think no one worth investigating is attending academic conferences in cheap, ugly cars. I think it’s important in the face of security experts to have a vehicle that is less nice than they would drive.
We drove back and I dropped off Kyle at his house near our University. It was dark now and we parked at his house’s drive way while unloading his stuff and making sure he had not forgotten anything. I heard a car on the street behind me and I looked to see a police car stopped in front of us, with a not tall, muscly-bulky cop with short cropped buzz cut and sharp, unsympathetic eyes staring at us. We ignored him and continued to chat by the car.
The police car then pulled into Kyle’s driveway and drove up beside us.
“You guys students moving out?” He leaned slightly to talk out of his open window.
Huh? Was this cop actually entering private property and asking us questions?
I did not reply. I just stared at him. I was suddenly very tired and resentful of being kept safe. Kyle briefly talked to him, assuring him (much like the conference coordinator did) that we were allowed to be here.
“Ok. I am patrolling around here tonight looking for parties”, he warned us, backing out and slowly patrolling down the residential street.
I have never experienced a police officer just entering my yard and demanding to know who I was and what I was doing. I wanted to confront him but it was Kyle’s place not mine. I did wait for awhile to get into my car and drive home because I was concerned this guy would pull me over if he spotted my car again.
That’s the way the law works.