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.