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Customs Ordered

My recent trip to Toronto (or “Tronno” as the locals say) reminded me of the time I was almost deported. . . from America. . . despite my American citizenship and residency.

Okay, a little backstory here — when I was younger, I decided to come out of my mother’s womb while she was living in Canada, a decision I never felt would cause a problem. Then, we moved to my mother’s hometown of Boston, I grew taller, my voice changed, and I went off to college where I wanted to spend a semester traveling abroad during my senior year. I was off to Spain!

As it was my first time out of the country as an adult, I sought the advice of my father who had spent about six months out of the year traversing the friendly skies during my youth (with better-than-even odds it wasn’t because of me).

On the surface, listening to him seemed reasonable, but here was a man who always puts forth some odd theories — he believes the healthiest food for you is fried food because it kills off the bacteria; he feels sugar cane is the best for your teeth; and whenever he needs to diet, he eats nothing but a head of lettuce for one day.  So. . . this is whom I was listening to.

Anyway, he had this silly idea that it would be safer to travel abroad on a Canadian passport than on an American one.  This was to Europe, more specifically Spain and France, mind you.  He was afraid that if a terrorist would target my airplane, they would scream, “We are taking over this plane and going to crash it into a mountain killing all of you in the name of Allah!!!! . . . Now, if all the Canadians can please show us your passports, we would be happy to equip with parachutes so you can float to safety before we destroy the infidel Americans.” Seemed reasonable.

So far, so good. Four months of gorging myself on paella and tortilla and not one inquisition on my nationality. . . until I returned.

After four months in Spain, a layover at Heathrow Airport in London, and about 20 hours of total traveling, I stood in Boston’s Logan Airport, its international terminal, and watched my entire plane clear customs, a passenger roster that included our state’s governor, as I was asked to remain.

I saw my parents come to the glass window, wondering why their son was not with the rest of the plane. They waved to me and I waved back.  But that was the extent of our contact as Customs Guy #1 was busy grilling me.

“Where were you born?”

“Canada.”

“Where do you live now?”

“Sharon. Twenty-five miles from here.”

“Where are your parents from?”

(Uh oh, I gulped. I saw where this was going.) “Well, my mom’s from Boston. . .”

“And your dad?”

Yeah, about that. . . He was uh, kinda born in. . . “uh, Egypt.”

(This was post-2500 B.C. so any mention of the Middle East raised red flags.)

Customs Guy #1 bore down on me. “Okay, lemme get this straight. You were born in Canada, raised in America, and your father’s from Egypt?”

(Gee, since you put it that way, I don’t see how that makes any sense either.) I was too tired for sarcasm and didn’t think that would help my cause so I just replied, “Yes.”

Was this case so unique? I couldn’t believe I was the only Canadian-born Bostonian he’d ever seen?  He’s a customs officer, for crissakes. But he just scratched his head and said, “Stay right there. I’m going to get my supervisor.”

A few minutes went by and Customs Guy #1 returns with a taller gentleman, Customs Guy #2. (I think they ranked them according to height.)

He didn’t really add much to the conversation but did proceed with, “Why did you travel outside the country on a Canadian passport?” (Oooo, now I could see why this guy was promoted.)

“I don’t have an American passport,” I said.

I had stumped the panel. (Don Pardo, tell him what he’s won!) Customs Guy #2 told me to wait as well.  Then he walked away.

More passage of time. I turned to my parents and shrugged.  (I didn’t do any of that overly dramatic stuff like putting my hand on the glass for them to touch the other side.

And now he returned with Customs Guy #3. I checked to see how many customs officers remained at their stations to screen other travelers. It was beginning to look like I was a codex and they needed all available men in solving the riddle inside me.

“So you’re from Canada, but live in America?” 

“Yes, sir.” (We were gonna rehearse from Act One again, apparently.)

“We’ve never run across anything like this before.”

I did say “Canada,” right?  Not Mars!  You’ve never come across a, dare I say, foreign-born citizen living in America before? “Give us your free, your poor, your huddled Canuck masses. . .” That doesn’t ring a bell? In all your time in customs officer training and then your subsequent internship and residency program — I have no idea what it takes to become a customs officer — this has never come up?  Boston is literally a one hour flight from Canada.  You have more of a chance seeing one of us than someone from that far off land of Philadelphia.”  Oh, in my head, I was having some fun with this.

He finally offered up a resolution. . . as they had run out of customs supervisors to bring over. “We’re going to have to order you back to Canada.

Really? I shrugged. What’s another two hours of flying? I thought. I could visit my cousins, and live with them.

Or . . .

There’s an “or?” Where does the “or” come from and why not mention it first assuming it’s better than the first option. (I was betting against, “Or we could throw you on a spit and serve you to the natives.”) Otherwise, why bring it up?

“Or you could pay $100.”

Seems kind of arbitrary to pull a penalty out on a situation they’d never heard of before. . .  Meh. Whatever. Works for me. “See that man over there, the Middle Eastern Gene Wilder?” I said, pointing at my father.  “Go see him.  He’ll pay.  He’s the reason I’m standing here in the first place.”

So at the end of that entire adventure, I learned that US Customs is like all other American businesses — an office filled with lots of redundancies all making it up as they go along in the effort to earn an extra buck or two. I’m sure those three officers each got $33 out of it (with the tallest guy getting $34) toward a nice dinner at Legal Seafood, a local tradition, once they got off their shifts.

It was a win-win.  Except for my father who was out $100.  But he paid for a good lesson. . . a lesson you think he might have learned while accruing hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles each year. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that a head of lettuce is much less expensive than a nice dinner at Legal Seafood.