I’m going to share with a little tale, a harrowing account of How NOT To Come Back To America. Last night, having just attended the awesome, community-affirming Zap Yer PRAM conference, I sped through a pounding rainstorm to the spot on Canada Hwy 2 where New Brunswick decides to become Maine. The U.S. Customs gate is like any other toll booth, only instead of asking for money, they ask for information.

“Where have you been the last few days?”

“At a conference on Prince Edward Island.”

“What were you doing there?”

“Giving a talk on digital film.”

“Is that what you do for a living?”

You know, the usual stuff. They ask these questions but don’t look at you for the answers; instead, they dart their eyes around your myriad belongings. Now, admittedly, I was looking a bit disheveled by the time I got to Maine, desperately in need of a shower, and ol’ Bessie the Land Rover was ill-packed full of various computer crap, discarded sweaters and semi-edible snack food. If everyone who goes through the border crossing looks about 5% suspicious, I probably looked about 12% suspicious.


Suspicious enough that they opened the back hatch of the car and rustled around. Then one guy opened the door behind the driver’s seat, saw my weird-looking boblbee backpack, immediately unzipped the top, and took out an unmarked medicine bottle filled with white powder.

I’ve had this particular object for three years. It’s only baby powder, and I use it to keep my feet and shoes dry during hoops. Unable to find a travel-sized dispenser, I poured the powder into a medicine bottle and it has served me well. Of course, this was done in a different era. The second the customs officer took the bottle, I realized what it looked like: a vial of anthrax.

The real question is this: why did it take me until this moment to realize something so obvious? I have carried that vial of white powder with me for three years around the most heavily-defended city in North America, refilling it occasionally, even taking it out on the subway. The only explanation I can give is that it is a relic, an artifact from another time that was grandfathered into my backpack without any of the new laws applying.

Either way, the customs officers were not amused.

I was ushered into a holding area, where the entire contents of my bag were spilled out. I was grilled about another medicine bottle, this one marked “VITAMINS,” which curiously held, well, vitamins. But they were piqued. They ordered a full search of my car, including a canine unit, and left me to sit for about three hours, while I wracked my brain thinking of what could possibly be in there.

Meanwhile, one of the customs officers was pulling up my records, and he asked me if I’d ever been stopped before. I thought about it for a few seconds, and couldn’t come up with anything. “Are you SURE?” he said, and although I knew he was up to something, I thought it also might be a trap. “Yes,” I said.

After making me wait for another hour, he came up to me and said, “Let’s think about a year. I’m thinking 1992.”

Again, I scoured my memory for 1992 – okay, I was living in the Purple House with Bud, Salem, Matt, Clay – but was I stopped at an airport? I was doing music sessions for my mom. 1992 was the Olympics in Barcelona. I was there a few months before –

And then it hit me. My erstwhile girlfriend was taking a year abroad in Spain, and we had smoked really bad hash on the beach. I’d agreed to take home some of her things, and she had plopped the hashpipe into the side pocket of a backpack. The dogs at Dallas/Ft. Worth had sniffed it, they had pulled me aside, but since there was only “resin,” they confiscated the pipe and sent me on my way. It sucked, to be sure, but I promptly forgot about it until now.

When I came forth with the information, the customs guy was not impressed. I mean, not to be too cool for school or anything, but I have had a lot more weird, harrowing, crazy experiences than that afternoon in Dallas/Ft. Worth. Some memories are just not going to make the cut.

Anyway, by then they’d also found out my license had been suspended because of a non-paid speeding ticket, which was news to me. This added a whole new dimension to the ordeal, as I was now stranded at the very top of Maine. Just as I got used to the idea of a night wasted at a shithole motel, more customs officers came over to me wearing blue gloves and furrowed brows. I was in a lot more trouble than I thought.

It seems that traveling with pharmaceuticals that aren’t in their proper bottle is very illegal. And I had a bunch. After my first kidney stone in 2001, the emergency room doctors took such pity on me that they shoved a bunch of pills (Vicodin, Percocet, one Klonopin) into a bottle and told me to use them if the pain came back. I had kept them, even though I’d filled the Percocet prescription and had enough for any kidney eventuality.

But my immigration problems didn’t end there. Because I hate flying, I take a Xanax – and since the pill bottle looked like all the rest, I put the Xanax pills into a white container so I wouldn’t take any by mistake. This was another big, big mistake.

Then the weirdest thing came out – apparently, my bottle of Allopurinol (used for gout) had SEVEN RITALIN pills in it. Now, I have never used Ritalin, never needed it, never even seen what a pill looks like. I began to feel myself going through the looking glass. How on earth had these Ritalin pills found their way into my ordinary gout pills? They looked like the other pills – did my pharmacist fuck up? Better yet, had I taken any by mistake?

All of this shit had a profoundly negative impact on my customs officers. One of them told me to stop lying (the Barcelona incident had been a “lie,” I guess). And then the canine unit came back from my car with the pronouncement that think they had found marijuana. Or at least what they called “chaff,” an unusable portion stuck in the seat.

Now I was really swimming in crazy crazy land. First off, Tessa has had neither drink nor drug for ten years. My own indulgencies in anything stronger than a snifter of Scotch have been so hilariously infrequent that if it weren’t for Tessa, I’d look like a Baptist Minister. Certainly neither of us had ever brought pot into our car. But I was beginning to fear the worst.

I spent the next several hours believing I was actually going to jail. I knew this nation’s draconian drug laws, and worse yet, the jocular, simian photo of George W. Bush was hanging on the wall of the customs lobby, lurching over me with his moron eyes. I looked at him and thought, “you have done more blow than I will ever see in my lifetime, yet I am going to jail because I have kidney stones.”

After six hours of sitting in the same chair, they summoned me to the desk. “We are charging you with ‘attempting to bring a controlled substance onto American soil.’ There is possible jail time and a $5000 fine. Your only way out is to write us a little paragraph explaining why you think this should not be your fate.”

I looked at the paper. “Um, is this the kind of thing a lawyer should look at?”

One of them lowered his head and took me aside. “Look, we are a whole separate deal. We are the prosecutor, the judge AND the jury. You should write something down – now.” When I told that bit to Tessa later, she remarked how horrifying that sounded, a government division with its own rules, but strangely, I felt comforted. I didn’t need a lawyer. These guys were going to decide my fate, not some faceless entity in another county. And besides, I was supposed to write an ESSAY. If my life ever hinged on anything, please God, thank you for making it an ESSAY.

And so I took the piece of paper, and did what I learned in 5th grade, honed in high school, perfected in college, and now used to earn a living: I wrote. I talked about the perpetual fear a kidney stone-sufferer is plunged into, I weaved this fear throughout the essay, ending with a mea culpa, a genuine concern for the wrong pills ending up in my oeuvre, and an exhortation of their good will.

They must have liked it, because they passed it around, even to some of the women officers who had nothing to do with my case. Finally, one of the heftier guys came over and said, “We’ve decided to let you go with a $500 fine.”

They confiscated my pills, then, on my eighth hour in that chair, they drove me to a local motel and dropped me off. By then, we had all assumed a certain rapport, and in my delirium, I thought they were basically good guys. The next day, when I got the Land Rover back, there were paw prints from the drug-sniffing dog all over everything I owned. Clothes, paper and wires were strewn all around. And I knew I was now on “that list.” To be singled out, again, for years into the future. But I was free to move about the country again, and the cold wind through a cracked window felt bracing and beautiful.

One thought on “Detainee

  1. block

    i can’t believe you’ve been hording all of the Zanax with out letting me know!
    While reading of your experience with the fuzz i had a flashback of my night in jail in Georgia some years back. My dad, good ‘ol dad, had to wire $666 to the backward Georgia county and call the judge at his home on a Sunday to get me out. As it was, i spent a terrible 10 hours in the county lock. it sucked back. i was wearing a the pink bathing suit i had bought back in Charlston so i could go swimming with celeste and he boyfriend.
    anyway, glad you made…

  2. Alan

    Oops – didn’t any of my fellow Canadians give you the rules for crossing? I had a friend detained for having a typewriter and another’s car seized for an indiscrete seed. [I am not criticising just letting you know.] So…my rules…rent a vehicle if it is a short jaunt. It is a tax write-off usually and pre-sniffedor at least clean. Then sort your stuff. If you know yourself too well, use your newest travelling bags – luggage over backpacks – look like a nerd. If you have prescription drugs, carry the prescription. Once you get into the other country, immediately buy something or withdraw money and get a receipt that prooves your entry. Calais and St. Stephen are handy for this as each have ATMs near. Keep every receipt, even for gum. Have fun in your travels but only clean or cleanable fun. Coming back, declare everything down to the gum – if you have 3 beer from 3 different case, say so. Don’t cross into the US with fresh fruit, don’t stash booze coming into Canada. [My mother was always smuggling meat from Scotland for some reason.] Organize the trunk neatly so that when it is opened it is like a book with chapters – but a boring book that they won’t want to read past the introduction. Have new country playing quietly on the stereo when you roll down the window. Know the rules about what you can bring in so that you anticipate a question or two. Bore them with your preparedness. I do this because I hate crossing borders and I know what utter control they have at that moment.

  3. doodoo

    Your lack of drug experience might have been your worst enemy. Always be paranoid crossing borders. By plane, train or automobile, it doesn’t matter. Something similar happened to me going into Canada ten years ago and now I never take any chances. Alan’s pointers are great

  4. Caren

    Is this a joke? They make people write an essay!?!? How come border patrol types don’t have to adhere to the same rules as the rest of either country? You could write an article on what to do and what not to do when crossing borders.
    [Insert witty closing sentence here.]

  5. Sean

    God, I am so glad it was you and not me. You reserve your temper for the basketball court, I am always itching to be hassled by the police. Every single encounter with the police has been marked by me asking them if they feel better about themselves now that they’ve hassled me.
    This is just amazing and wrong. An essay? I’d have written it in crayon

  6. Ian

    block – I remember that georgia jail episode. I also remember your dad didn’t seem to mind that much.
    Andy – I gave myself a cavity search later, if that’s any consolation.
    It is truly a strange thing about the essay. When you’re in grade school, you beseech the sky, wondering when on earth you’d ever need that skill. I was half hoping they were going to make me find out the volume of a cone (1/3 Pi (r)2 h)

  7. Johnny Rukavina

    I thought my fear of crossing the US border was somewhat irrational, until now. I have a friend who got in a lot of trouble for having the unmitigated temerity to attempt to bring roast beef sandwiches across the border, which is of course a threat to national security, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Any chance of posting your essay, or is it a classified document that can’t be published for security reasons?

  8. kent

    That sounds like a nightmare. It’s why I didn’t go to Windsor last time I was in Detroit. Life is too short to be treated like a criminal by your own government.
    On the other hand, where did those ritalyn come from? Dude if you’d taken ritalyn instead of gout medicine you would have KNOWN.

  9. Ian

    They definitely made a bunch of copies of the essay, as well as everything else. When my case was spread out on the table, it was at least 30 different pieces of paper, all, I’m sure, to be sent to every major border crossing in the States.
    I wish I’d tried Ritalin. It does come recommended.

  10. Havdala

    I keep seeing your blog linked on Tod’s so I thought I’d come visit. I had an un-fun experience at Denver last time (from the UK) and I’m very grateful for the info about medication and proper containers. I travel with all mine in a home-made dosette box.

  11. Ian

    Welcome, Havdala! I’ve read your site from Tod’s as well.
    Yes, make sure your meds are marked. I wonder what they do to senior citizens who keep theirs in those weekly dispensers with the day of the week printed on it.

  12. mamasmurf

    dude, your bobelee looks like a George Foreman grill. Thanks for the link – I learn something new everyday with you. PS Why should I believe you are innocent ;) and how did they know instantaneously that they were ritalin? signed, mama skeptismo

  13. Ian

    The Boblebee backpack is awesome for two types of people – gay men, and those with bad lower back pain, and being 3/5ths of those, it works perfectly for me.
    As for the Ritalin, the border patrol has these huge pharmaceutical dictionaries with pictures of each pill, kind of like how McDonald’s cash registers have pictures of Big Macs and Filet-o-Fish on them.
    It was pretty easy to find out what everthing was, esp. given than 95% of pills have a number, or sequence of letters stamped onto the surface.

  14. Adam

    The bottle of white powder is probably what sent them off into a tangent in the first place, though I can’t blame you for not thinking about your foot powder in terms of international terrorism.
    Fact is, if we DO start thinking about our routine lives in terms of terror and mayhem then the real terrorists have indeed won a critical part of the war. One; because the fear does influence the social and political climate of the United States (the point of terrorism), and Two; because the fear negatively affects our lives which in turn degrades our economy and our progress.
    I believe the border guards actions serve to indirectly help the terrorists goals. By reacting so profoundly they have turned you, Ian, into a scared citizen, and probably soured your outlook of crossing the border. I’d make an example of Israel/Palestine if it weren’t so blatantly obvious already.
    Does the impact make you not want to cross the border at all or really upset your life that much? No. You carry your meds in the right bottles and you keep your foot powder in it’s original container. Not so much to sacrifice for national security. Okay, fine.
    But I think the subtle systemic problems being created by the police, border, FBI, etc., will begin to appear in far more places and situations as time grows on, especially WHEN the country is struck again. Look at the hysteria that birthed the Patriot Acts I and II. With fundamentalist people like Ashcroft and Rumsfeld at the helm, it’s inevitable.
    It’s going to get alot worse before it gets better.

  15. Rob Paterson

    Sorry I have got your site so late Ian. What a ghastly story. I used to travel to Nigeria in the good old days when we were stopped every few miles and shaken down by the army but your experience sounds worse.
    By the way – do not try jokes. Years ago Canadians had to fill out a form to enter the US. One of the questions was “Do you intend to subvert the Constitution of the US?” My uncle was stunned by such a stupid question and wrote in response “Sole intent of visit” he could not go to the US for years as a result


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