On the Border

I thought I saw down in the street
The spirit of the century
Telling us that we’re all standing
On the border.

– Al Stewart

According to physicists and astronomers, the Universe has no boundary. It’s not infinite, but it has no end or edge.  Beyond the Universe there is no time, and if there is no time, there is no “there” there.

Back here on Earth (a sphere with no boundary), we have plenty of borders. Boy, do we.

Prior to the Roman Empire, there weren’t any real borders. Nation states had a hazy understanding of how far their influence extended, but the “border” was usually a natural obstacle like a river, mountain range or forest. With such porous borders, people moved freely if they had the inclination. Greeks and Parthians and Celts came and went, thither and yon.

Then came Rome. In order to maintain a statistical grasp of their empire, the Romans established borders. Some were hard, some were soft, but the borders of the Roman empire were strictly observed. It helped keep the tax structure logical, kept the serfs in one place and controlled unwanted migration.

Border patrol, ca. 65BC.

The outcome of war defined the edges of the empire and many a Roman administration fell when territory was lost. Such changes required cartography,  and maps created a whole new way of looking at the world. Romans even began issuing “passports” to people seeking to traverse the empire.

Border enforcement became the quintessential definition of a nation. You could have all the kings and lords and slaves you wanted, but if you had no border control, you were just a tribe. By the early Middle Ages, borders described the civilized world, from Spain to China.

Nowadays, borders are observed so closely that Croatia is still bickering with Slovenia over a 1.5 mile stretch of salt marshes. They cannot join the EU till it’s settled, and there is no end in sight to the disagreement. Canada and Denmark are in protracted arbitration over a teeny tiny shitbag island off the coast of Greenland.

Disputed island is tiny dot inside red circle. KILL! KILL! KILL!

Borders have become a theater of the absurd.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States.

People used to love visiting America. We have all kinds of cool shit and a tolerant and friendly population. But since 9/11, we’ve made sure visitors feel as unwelcome as possible. First, even if a visa isn’t necessary, you have to register 72 hours before arriving. You’ll be assessed a $14 entry fee, $10 of which goes to (now get this) promoting foreign tourism.

At the airport, you’ll be isolated and questioned. Better not fuck that up, or you won’t be getting on the plane. Of course, you are subject to an invasive search and you can’t carry on a carton of juice or other such terror weapons. When you arrive, you’ll be questioned again and fingerprinted. Joy.

Europeans have grown weary of the new Stalinist approach to American borders and have stopped visiting by the millions. After all, there’s a fucking Disneyland in France nowadays. Why bother with America?

What 21st century international tourism looks like.

Of course, our neighbors to the south still come to America in droves – some legally, some not. And believe it or not,  visits from the Middle East have gone up while visits from Europe continue to dwindle.

America just isn’t fun to visit anymore. And since we’ve clamped down, other countries have seen fit to return the favor. Brazil now requires visitors to be fingerprinted – but only American visitors.  And Canada? Oh my God, Canada…

Don’t get me wrong: I love Canada. I’ve lived in spitting distance of the US-Canada border for 17 years. I love British Columbia and Vancouver is my favorite city in all of North America. But since 9/11, crossing the border into Canada has gone from fun to trying to exasperating. Why? Because we’ve done even worse to Canadians visiting America, and the Canadian authorities feel we deserve a taste of our own medicine.

"Children of a Common Mother" - and both are brats!

The Peace Arch stands on the border between between Blaine, Washington and White Rock, BC. Its capacious open gate signifies the history of the world’s longest undefended border. A border of peace that extends from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  A border whose 200 year history is slowly unraveling in a heap of bureaucratic stupidity.

Visiting Canada used to be a lark. We’d load up a car and head north to see some rock show or weird movie that wasn’t showing in the States. The Canadian guards would glance at a driver’s license, see the Bellingham address, ask us when we were coming back and wave us into the land of maple syrup and fuzzy toques.

After 9/11 turned Americans into a bunch of paranoid pussies, things started changing at the border. Canadians coming to Bellingham to buy gasoline and TV sets started getting hassled. The Border Patrol would tear their RV’s apart, searching elderly Asian Canadians for bags of dope or pipe bombs. Canada responded in kind by requiring local Americans to carry either passports or birth certificates. No more waving ’em through with a drivers license. Cars were searched and any hint of profiteering on Canadian soil was investigated with ruthless efficiency.

Don't try to visit Canada in this. Really.

Rock bands touring the west coast all but gave up on doing shows in Vancouver. The border guards and customs agents made their lives a living hell. If you plan on performing in Canada and (God forbid) selling a T-shirt or a CD, you better bring an immigration lawyer with you.

Eventually, the fascism at the border started affecting yours truly.

It started when I had to go to my company’s sister office in Vancouver to calibrate a bunch of gear. I had all my stupidly expensive calibration gear with me, along with a laundry list of all the items, signed by our logistics manager. Not good enough, apparently. I needed actual sales invoices of every device, every cable and every probe. After all, I could be trying to sell oscilloscopes in Vancouver’s underground nerd market.

After much animated debate, I was allowed to pass, but from that day on Canada had my number. I was persona non-grata in the border database. Each successive visit became increasingly burdensome, until I just gave up and stayed away.

Then, last June, I found a camera bag online I really wanted to try. I could drive to Seattle or cross the tiny, quiet border at Abbotsford, BC and visit a Canadian camera shop to check out the bag. With my well-stamped passport in hand, I headed north.  Little did I know what I was driving into…

Portal of Peace or Gate to Hell?

At the border, the guard asked the usual questions and I responded earnestly and honestly. I was heading to SevenOaks mall to buy a camera bag.

“A camera bag? Can’t you buy that at home?”

“In Seattle, yes. But it’s much farther away and I like visiting Canada.” (big smile)

“Pull over there.”

Smile FAIL. I waited at the drug-check area until a guard took me by the elbow and led me inside. I was asked to step away from the line while my passport was scrutinized. After 10 minutes, I was called to the window.

“Ever been arrested, sir?”

This is the big one. Americans visiting Canada with ANY arrest can be turned away. No conviction – just an arrest is enough to get you booted back to the USA.


This was, in a legal sense, true. When was 20 years old, I got into a legal disagreement with the State of New Jersey regarding an insignificant amount of banned intoxicants. I was given probation and a fine how-do-you-do. Because I really wanted to live an honest life, I paid a lawyer a princely sum to have the disagreement expunged from my record. It was expunged forthwith. But it wasn’t expunged from Super-Secret FBI records, which left me in a pickle at the Canadian border.

“When did you leave New Jersey, sir?”

It was so long ago – a lifetime ago – that  I wasn’t exactly sure.

“Hell, I think I was 22. Or 21. I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember?”

“That was over 25 years ago. Geez. If I had to guess, I’d say I was 21. That would have made it around 1985. Wow.”

“Wow, sir?”

“Yeah, wow. That was a LONG time ago! Before you were even born!”

The young guard smirked. That was  a bad move on my part.

“So you’ve never been arrested? Not convicted or anything – just arrested. Never?”

I remembered what my expungement lawyer told me.

“No, never.”

“No DUI?”

“Certainly no DUI. No arrests at all.”

With that, I was led to the “guilty fuckers” area while high-ranking border guards started to swarm around my passport. I thought about what a drag it would be to go back to Bellingham with my tail between my legs, sans new camera bag. I thought about it for a long time.

After a good 20 minutes of careful consideration, I was called back to the window.

“Enjoy your stay, sir.”

I was free to enter Canada and spend ridiculous amounts of money on fancy camera bags. But all the joy was drained from me. I knew damn well that Canadian shoppers suffer from this crap more often and more brutally than us Americans, but that didn’t lessen my sense of disenchantment. Canada was dead to me.

Enjoy it while you can, kids.

I harbor no ill will toward Canada. I adore Canada. I would love to live there and wear a furry cap and eat poutine and trash talk Americans. Short of that, I’d love to visit there as often as I could, watching movies at their fancy megaplex, day tripping in Gastown, winking at pretty Chinese girls on Davie and Robson, dodging junkies on Hastings and watching the amazing international fireworks competition from Stanley Park. Canada: I love you.

But my love is unrequited. I have no intention of going back unless I have to. I have become the European disenchanted with America. I have become the Russian no longer welcome at a Greek resort. I am persona non-grata, all because of a superfluous legal disagreement I had over 25 fucking years ago.

Oh, Canada, where did our love go?

Just remember this, Canada: you’re not the only one that I enter. Oh, no. There’s plenty of others.

Regular readers know that last September I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I crossed from Croatia into the Serb-held territory of Bosnia known as Republika Srpska. This is an antagonistic ethnic enclave, a festering sore of ethnic hatred whose very existence was nearly snuffed out in 1995 by repeated American attacks on their army as well as merciless bombing of their historic capital, Belgrade.

And here I was, an American, heading across their border. The guards looked at my shiny blue passport, shrugged and let me in.

That’s right, Canada. It’s easier for this American to enter a nation that we nearly bombed out of existence a scant 15 years ago than it is for this American to enter Abbotsford, BC to buy a camera a bag. Think about that, Canada.

Maybe one day, our respective governments will come to grips with our neuroses and return to the days of mutual admiration and respect. I look forward to that day. Until then, I’ll be driving my sorry ass to dreary old Seattle. They may not have gleaming green skyscrapers and pretty girls in lush public parks, but they won’t treat me like a Russian at a Greek resort.

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2 Responses to On the Border

  1. brudder henry says:

    Dude – such a can of worms. I agree – it sucks. Crossing the CAN-USA border is a royal pain in the arse. As you noted, the USA “started it” by being such a bunch of stupid dicks after 9/11, and as you noted, searching elderly couples in their Toyota Camry on an Xmas shopping trip to buy gifties for the grand kids in Buffalo for dope or dynamite is simply and utterly stupid. And it happens all the time.

    And GOD forbid you have any personality at all and crack a joke.

    A few years ago we were on our way to Indiana. At the USA border, the guard asks us do we have any food? We say no, and my daughter, who was 10 at the time, said “I have these cookies” and the guard said (joking) “Well, you’ll have to turn those over.” causing her to burst into tears. I cooly looked at the officer and he just said “Go – just go…” I politely replied “Thank you” and drove on.

    Then there are examples of border stupidity like this:

    The guy was a dick, but the USA border patrol was being even more dick-like.

    And there was a telling comment in the comments section by a typical semi-literate American:

    “look bro if you want to come to another country you should know you are going to have to deal with this shit otherwise normal looking “shoppers” blow the fucking mall up there when they get there so even if they are not the friendliest of people DEAL WITH IT cuz I want my fuckin people safe”

    Now, no malls have been blown up lately, but it’s that kind of xenophobic bullshit paranoia that really grinds me, and, as you have noted, everyone else trying to visit the USA.

    And then there’s the example of Dr. Peter Watts, a Canadian scifi writer, who had the shit kicked out of him by the USA patrol.


    and an interview with him about the results:


    It goes on and on from there…

    I agree the border situation is messed up, but the USA is in the position of power, and can easily reverse this downward spiral through better attitudes and fairness. The USA needs to be nice. The USA is broke, bankrupt, and the rest of the world is losing interest.

  2. Pixiemeat (a.k.a. Alexander von Dorken) says:

    I have a similarly tainted criminal career. “Have I ever been arrested?” Well, my interpretation of that is No — I’ve never been jailed. Of course, the technical definition is that anytime a person suffering from the incongruous dichotomy of having both a gun AND an insecurity complex puts handcuffs on you, well, jeepers, you are “arrested.”

    Never mind that you may be free in five minutes, or that the whole case will be tossed out by an irritated judge — you have an arrest record.

    In America, a nation that is currently sliding toward bankruptcy for its efforts to incarcerate more people per capita than any other regime in the world (2 million souls at $40,000 per year) getting arrested is nearly a promise for anyone daring to go outside or, for that matter, attempting to age gracefully into their troubled teens. We do this during peacetime, without even bothering to be at war, so why the fuss?

    The Canadians who ripped apart my phone and harassed the living shit out of me for wanting to attend an international green roof and green wall conference in their nation did so for their own special reasons. They were bored. There were no less than four of them and, over the course of two days — two IDENTICAL interrogations — they took up roughly three hours of our time.

    Had I no real interest in going to the conference, I might have jokingly pointed out that they could rotate through their ranks and, using the four handcuffs available, quickly arrest and release me multiple times and thus multiply my “arrest record” in the space of minutes. It still would mean nothing.

    No, realistically I’ve been red flagged for something else. Most likely, due to some popular commentaries offered during the Bush presidency and efforts at environmental journalism, I’ve been put under my own nation’s “watch” list. Therefore, since we share every bit of information with our Canadian brothers and sisters, I am to be watched.

    Fuck ’em.

    If they hate democracy so much, let them go bankrupt with their reactionary and isolationist policies. If they are bored enough to harass people into loathing what should otherwise be pleasant visits to their nation, again, let them go bankrupt.

    I do love Canada — it is smarter and has nicer legs than America — but there is no reason at all for me to visit such a hostile, malicious, and unwelcoming place.

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