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Do You Have Anything to Declare?

February 7, 2010

On Friday morning I took the train down to Mount Vernon, Washington, America, the Northern Hemisphere, Earth, to visit a friend. She had booked Thursday and Friday off work because it was her birthday on the 4th. I have every day off work because I am unemployed. So, QED, we both had Friday free. I had to be back in the Big V in time for a 1:00 class on Saturday afternoon, which meant it was about a 24-hour trip. It was fun and uneventful. In other words, funeventful.

But tell that to Canada Customs or its dear good friend U.S. Customs.

On Friday morning, a representative of the latter took my passport and in a voice whose tone and volume felt jarringly out of place in an almost deserted train station at 6:45 a.m. asked: “Do you have anything to declare?”

I don’t know what’s funnier about that line – the “anything” or the “declare.” Do you have anything to declare? Do you have anything to declare? L O fucking L, either way. It’s like the universe is handing you a long-longed-for legitimate reason to offload the sorrows and injustices and strange truths and outrageous aspirations of your life. It’s a raw freedom similar to the kind you get from a therapist who waits for you to sit down in her office and slide your backpack under her chair and hang your coat up on the little rack in the corner and then looks at you with kindness eight fathoms deep and says “So how are you?” – except the confession the Customs agent’s question elicits is public and government-sanctioned and deliciously mandatory. It’s against the law to leave anything out, Ma’am. If it is subsequently discovered that you have omitted even one item in your declaration, the Customs officer will roll up on yo’ ass, I believe the expression is, and put you in your place with some mace to your face.

But the funniest part of the whole situation is that a conversation with a Customs agent is the worst possible place to showcase your sense of humour. It also turns out, ironically, to be a horrible context for total honesty. Because this type of thing would happen:

Q: Do you have anything to declare?

A: [5000-word monologue no part of which belongs in this blog]

Q: Uh huh, and where are you headed today, ma’am?

A: Mount Vernon.

Q: What’s the purpose of your visit?

A: A visit is the purpose of my visit.

Q: A visit with whom, ma’am?

A: With a friend who lives in Mount Vernon.

Q: Where did you meet this friend? [Editor’s Note: At Customs they always say “friend” like it belongs in sarcastic quotation marks. Like it’s just beyond inconceivable to them that you might have made the acquaintance of another human being, let alone one who lives in another country.]

A: The Yahoo personals.

Q: Pardon?

A: The Yahoo personals, sir.

Q: Explain to me what that is.

A: It’s a dating-themed website for swingin’ singles like me and the friend I’m going to visit, and I say friend because things didn’t work out between us romantically. But that’s okay because it was a long time ago and everything happens for a reason and there are plenty of fish in the sea and many other platitudes and she has a fold-out couch I’m going to sleep on. In the interest of full disclosure, it’s on a different level of the house from her bedroom, and the thing about the fish, I meant it figuratively. I don’t literally want to have a relationship with a fish.

Q: What do you do, ma’am?

A: I write.

Q: What do you write?

A: I write a lot of things. For example right now I’m writing this blog post.

Q: Okay, and who’s your employer?

A: I am unemployered. Unemployed.

Q: Ma’am, I just asked where you work and you said you were a writer.

A: You didn’t ask “Where do you work,” you asked “What do you do.” Most people unless they’re really fortunate or really unfortunate would answer those questions differently.

Q: I’m going to need you to follow me into the office please ma’am. I’ll be conducting an inspection of your personal goods.

A: I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and not interpret that as a euphemism for something. But please leave the lid on the coffee I just bought, or if you have to take it off to make sure the cup isn’t full of plastic explosive, then make sure you snap the fucker back on all the way, because spilling coffee on myself in public is pretty much the story of my life.

In real life the U.S. Customs guy was fairly reasonable aside from his unnecessary loudness, but the Canada Customs fellow treated me with such persistent suspicion that I became extremely uncomfortable, and then of course I had to try to conceal the discomfort or it would have been misinterpreted as guilt or evasiveness. I brought back $30 worth of stuff – two used books and a DIY, community-craft-hour type pendant made out of a Scrabble tile. And I totally declared it all on my Canada Customs form. But the guy who got to decide whether I could re-enter my own homeland and go to my class asked me about 900 questions about it. He felt that everything I’d done was weird – having an American friend was weird, going to visit her on a weekday was weird (“Was there some special occasion?”), the mode of transport I had chosen was weird (“What made you decide to take the train?”), coming home 24 hours later was weird (“So you just went out there for a day?”), buying a necklace that cost $15 was weird (“Fifteen dollars? What kind of necklace is it?”), not having gone on a crazy shopping spree as soon as I arrived was weird (“So you didn’t buy anything other than this necklace?” “Yeah, I bought two used books.” “Used books?”…). That guy treated me like he was 95% certain I was a drug mule or jewel smuggler. No, let me redo that ending, I can make it way more ridiculous: That guy treated me like he was 95% certain I was a drug smuggler or jewel mule.

Much better. That was some killer self-editing. Are you reading this, poetry minotaur? Are you not beaming with pride that I am your manatee?

(She’s not reading this, it’s fine. Nobody’s reading this.)

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