Wasteland Bait & Tackle / James McMurtry

 

What Happened to the Border?

 

By James
McMurtry

 

     Late in the summer of 1992, my tour manager and I
crossed into the United States
from Emerson, Manitoba,
after a tour of Western Canada. We were tired
and disheveled. The U.S. Border Patrol agent at the gate was a big man with a
handle bar mustache and a big nickel plated revolver, with nice custom stag
horn grips, hanging from his hip. He wore the green uniform of the era, and had
a sense of humor, though a rather twisted one. He told me to pull into the bay
on the left and park on the orange tarp. I did as I was told, he had a gun
after all. Another officer, I think from U.S. Customs, met us at the open bay,
took the customs form on which I had listed descriptions of our instruments
complete with serial numbers prior to entering Canada, and told us to go into
the building while he performed the inspection. The building was full of
students yelling about their rights as American Citizens and silent, leather
clad bikers. The bikers were not the insurance man, brand new Harley riders of
today, their leathers looked live in, and they wore no helmets.  My tour
manager, Danny Thorpe, now deceased, was led off into another room because he
had the money. He came back only a few minutes later because there wasn’t much
money for Customs to count. He informed me that there was a biker by the door
who wanted to kill me for parking on his tarp.

    I crossed from Emerson with my band two days ago. The
place looked a little different than it had nineteen years before.  There
seemed to be cameras mounted everywhere, one of which flashed brightly as we
approached the booth. The woman at the window and the big man behind her both
wore the blue uniform of the Department of Homeland Security. I handed her our
four passports, as is now required. The woman asked the usual questions, twice
asking me how long we’d been in Canada.
Twice I answered that we had entered on the twenty-sixth of September. We
hadn’t counted our cash, so we didn’t have an exact figure for the woman’s
queries regarding the state of our finances, but we were pretty sure we had
less than ten thousand dollars. If you cross with over ten thousand dollars,
you must declare it or Homeland security can seize it all. Since 1995, our only
border crossings had been at busy crossings, Buffalo,
Niagara, and Detroit,
where we were never inspected, so we hadn’t anticipated much scrutiny. The
woman told us to pull up to garage door number one, and that we could have our
passports back after the inspection. Where the open air parking bays had been
in 1992, there was now an enclosed garage. I pulled the van up to garage door
one and killed the motor. Garage door two opened and we were ordered to pull
around. A stern looking woman waved us forward. There were several fast looking
Japanese motorcycles parked to our left. I handed the woman the customs form
and she ordered us to stand over by a stainless steel table and empty our
pockets. A male officer told us to turn our pockets out so he could see that
they were empty. They both wore the blue uniform, with light body armor,
carried night sticks and modern, polymer framed, semi-auto pistols and neither
seemed to have a sense of humor. The male officer asked me what we were
bringing in from Canada.
Usually they ask if we bought anything in Canada. The usual question was so
ingrained in my mind that I replied, “We didn’t buy anything in Canada.”
The male officer repeated, in a more intimidating tone,

     “What are you bringing in from Canada?”

     “Our gear”, I replied.

     The woman kept grilling Tim, our current tour
manager, about the money, tapping the declaration form with her index finger
and telling him to answer the question of whether or not we were carrying more
than ten thousand dollars cash. Her tone was that of a middle school teacher
who had had enough of a disruptive student. There were two bags of cash. Daren,
our drummer handles the merch money, Tim handles the gig money. We don’t sell
merch in Canada because the Canadians tax it too heavily for us to profit, so
all the merch money had been earned in the states and carried through Canada,
but there was no way to prove that. Tim counted his cash and Daren got out his
paperwork and checked his figures. Now, it looked as though we had somewhat
over ten grand. The officers took Tim off to another room to fill out forms and
recount the money, refusing to give back his pocket knife, saying they would
leave it in the van. I realized then, that I had a multi-tool in a belt pouch
on my hip. They hadn’t seen it under my shirt tail. I thought about offering it
up but didn’t. They hadn’t asked if we had anything on our belts. After Tim
left, the rest of us were told to wait in the waiting room, really more like a
closet with a one way window through which they could see us. From the inside
we could see our own reflections in the bright glare of the fluorescent
lighting. The walls were cinder block and painted yellow. I didn’t try the door
to see if we were actually prisoners. A woman in two tone leathers sat quietly
in the corner. There were two helmets on the chair next to her. In a while, a
man in two tone leathers, her husband I guess, was led back into the room. She
asked him if he had been treated nicely. “Oh, you know, third
degree”, he replied in a British accent. They were summoned shortly. As
they left, I thought I heard someone say “English people are not allowed
to enter this way . . . now, you’re not under arrest . . . we’ll have to move
the bike . . .”  After thirty minutes or so, The male officer came
and told us he had completed his inspection of the van and told us to pull it
outside and wait for Tim. As soon as I pulled the van out, the formerly ever so
stern female officer came up and asked to see Daren. There wasn’t as much cash
in the merch money bag as he had reported. He had forgotten to subtract credit
card sales from his total, so it turned out that we had well under ten thousand
dollars. We were proven innocent after only having been assumed guilty for
forty minutes or so, not bad as border hassles go, but it left a bad taste. I
haven’t traveled the world extensively, but I’ve been in and out of the country
a few times. I’ve never been treated like a suspect by officials of any nation
other than my own. Sure, they have a tough job and we didn’t have our shit
together. But they were nasty from the get go. I don’t know how such an
attitude helps them do their job.

     Entering Canada was different this time,
too. The U.S. officer who
gave me the customs form in Sweetgrass Montana,
actually insisted on looking in the van before stamping and signing the form, a
first. Then, Canadian immigration charged us four hundred and fifty dollars for
work permits, another first. The immigration officer folded the permits,
stapled them into our passports, told us we were good until the fifth and to
have a nice trip. I just took my work permit out and read it, here in Iowa. Apparently we were
supposed to have stopped at the port of exit to tell the Canadians we were
leaving and give the permits back. The immigration officer didn’t say a word
about exiting, and we’d never run into this requirement before. The last time
we’d been in Canada, a
couple of years before, one could simply leave Canada without a word. We’ll have
to get on this situation right away if we want to work up there in the future,
mole hills just seem to want to turn into mountains these days. We mused on the
changing world as we rolled toward Lethbridge,
Alberta. Wasn’t NAFTA supposed to
make it easier to do cross border business?

     I spent a week in Canada and watched the news a time
or two. Their news is different than our news. The Canadians are alarmed, to
say the least. Apparently, we now have gun boats on the Great
Lakes, drones and Blackhawk helicopters patrolling the land
border. There’s talk of building a fence or perhaps even a wall. What terrible
threat is coming at us from Canada,
I must ask? And how will we get enough Mexican Nationals to the Canadian border
to build a wall? Canadians don’t sneak into our country. They’re doing pretty
well up there, by the look of the place. Calgary,
Edmonton, Saskatoon
and Winnipeg
all looked prosperous. In none of those sprawling cities did I see the signs of
poverty so often evident from crosstown freeways in the U.S., and I
suspect their health care system works better than the elder George Bush would
have had us believe. No doubt many of us can be fooled into thinking a wall
would make us safer, keeping out drugs and terrorists, but I file such
arguments under “Yeah Right”. Where there are walls, there are
tunnels and bribes, and most walls are built to keep people in rather than out,
food for paranoid thought, given that Canada’s economy is holding up relatively
well, and they have the majority of the world’s fresh water which will soon be
the world’s most precious commodity (If you doubt this, note that T Boone
Pickens, former oil and gas tycoon, is now in the water rights business).
 Big Brother paranoia aside, any real threat is most likely to arrive in
one of the countless shipping containers I see piled up on our docks and piggy
backed on train cars all over our nation. I don’t know the current figure, but
I remember that during the rough tough Bush administration, Home Land Security
was allocated enough funds to inspect four percent of inbound shipping
containers. There’s no way to inspect them all. There are simply too many. So,
the politicians clamor for walls, to make us think they’re doing something to
protect us, pad the pockets of a few construction firm and high tech CEOs, and
keep the DEA funded to the gills. Meanwhile, a once friendly border grows more
and more militarized and unfriendly. This can’t be good for business.

 

 

Singer-songwriter James McMurtry lives in Austin, Texas.
When he’s not touring, you can see him at the Continental Club every Wednesday,
‘round about midnight. Full details at his official website.

 

 

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