Viet Nam Generation
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OK. Here it is mister. I'd like to join your club; you may or may not like the idea but the rules say you have to give me a chance.
"Please park over there and wait inside," says the customs man. "The immigration officer will see you in a few minutes." That's all he has to do, like me or not.
OK. Here we are inside. Good, a water fountain. I try to wash some of this cotton down my throat. I'm sure I check out the clock a dozen times: Is it early enough? Ten or eleven o'clock by now--and I got up before sunrise. No matter: it has to work now. Just keep everything straight. More cotton in my mouth. Why? Why? Here I am on the beach head, and everybody is being polite and civil; I stand to lose nothing more than a little of my putative dignity. At the most, confinement in prison. Loss of that amenity, my liberty.
Wait! Back up! I get a trial first: Why is my mind already greasing my ass? He is thin and balding, like the man who has driven me here, but shorter. A man like me, or as I am becoming. He invites me into his office to speak privately. So far I am encouraged; this station is quiet, almost somnolent. Only a car or two has passed through. All the immigration officer has to do is favor my application. I'll have my banjo.
He invites me to sit before his desk. I do, with posture that would gladden the heart of General MacArthur himself. The truth is, this jacket's too big, and I have to puff up like a blowfish to fill it. I try crossing my legs jauntily, ankle on knee, but my damned shoes show enough room behind the heel to slip in an orange, and I let the crossed leg quietly slip down to the back of my knee, below his line of sight.
The immigration officer asks what he can do for me. Why, I want to get Landed I declare ("become a Landed Immigrant of Canada"). He springs his questions: What makes me want to come to Canada? Have I visited Canada before? We go on in this vein for five, ten, maybe fifteen minutes. I sense an ineluctable falseness ringing in my ears. Sounded by my own words. The Bald One does not once smile at me.
This is peculiar. I thought I had convinced myself. But I sense instead that my aspirations are hopelessly immature, chimerical, askew. Shitheaded.
If I'd consummated the purchase of a fifty thousand dollar business, by God I bet he'd have smiled.
But no. He comes up with this one: "Have you ever smoked marijuana?"
I look him in the eye and lie: "No," I smile. The Committee's warned me about this one. "I prefer beer, personally." Which I do.
A mortician's politic smirk may have passed his face, with that pleasantry. Or maybe he was anticipating this question: "Are you now being sought by any agency of the law in the United States, for any offense?"
"No." Maybe I said, "Not that I know of," with a cunningly careless inflection, which would have been scrupulously true. But if I'd known that there was a warrant out for me, I'd have lied again: anyway, he omitted saying "Except for violation of any draft laws." The Canadian government wasn't considering these to be offenses, at that time, so one was being technically truthful to answer "no." For that matter, immigration officials weren't supposed to ask.
He asked. Am I coming here to escape military service?
And I answered, along the lines of my coaching, "That doesn't make any difference here, does it?" Ah, this Technical Truthfulness!
The smile again. I knew that none of this was fooling him; I hope he gave me credit for knowing that. Fooling him didn't matter, despite all this crap of the clothes and the tricked-out suitcase. All that mattered in this foolish charade was that I met the minimum criteria of an acceptable performance. What the fuck man: I, sentient being, was worth fifty points. And I knew it.
Well, he says now, in processing a spontaneous application for Landed Immigration status, the standard procedure is to leave the decision to interview up to the discretion of the immigration official on duty. Now Mister Yori I have a number of duties to perform and my schedule for the day doesn't permit me to interview you at this time. (Please ignore the snoring coming from the outer office.) I will be glad however to make an appointment for you ten days to two weeks from today.
What? What? What the fuck does he mean, he doesn't have the time; what the fuck have we been doing here. Jesus I even translated the French for him and now he's too busy! What--do they have a card game scheduled for the afternoon?
Well, I answer, perhaps I was negligent in not making an appointment until this late date, but my prospective employer wants me to begin working within a few days and unless I can, he's clearly stated that he'll be forced to find the services of someone else.
If you doubt my sincerity, I have this telephone number here, perhaps you can call him--
Mr. Yori, if your job offer can't wait until we have time to interview you, then I would be forced not to consider it a Valid Job Offer. Perhaps you'd like to call him yourself...
This bald rat sends me out to the pay phone. I don't know exactly what the game is here, but the smell is clear enough. I am not about to give up without doing my damnedest.
It's pretty plain, though, that I won't get landed today. Before I go back across the border and back again into Canada, I'm going to have myself an appointment. This crummy trick won't be played on me again. I'll have at least this to count on, in the next two weeks.
So I fish the number out of my papers and call my prospective employer. I explain what's happened here and ask him to extend the job offer until I can give a performance that can't be refused--not even by the most punctilious bastard at the whole damn border.
My employer refuses. He needs somebody by Wednesday. He can't hold off. Sorry chum. Let me know how you make out.
Perfidious wretch. Two months of crossing only at corners has just evaporated. My luck is running like piss through sand.
Now what. Well, save my ass, that's what. The U.S. border crossing sits across the way and I'm not too happy about going through it. I'd much rather go directly from here, back to Vancouver. That's it.
I go back into the office and that bastard politely asks what my prospective employer had to say. I tell him the news and say, "I consider my application withdrawn." Another technicality. Jesus these damn games. I'm a sentient being. I'm worth fifty points.
Was, ten minutes ago. Now I'm not worth a small turd. "Now sir," I go on, "since I've withdrawn my application and since my job offer can't be considered valid, I'd like to enter Canada as a visitor and travel to Vancouver for a few days in order to solicit another job. I have some friends there I can stay with."
Just the barest hint of that smile, just the barest: oh, he's so officially neutral. But I see that smirk: he's got me across the barrel. He's got my nuts in hand. And here comes the knife: "Well, you see, since you've come to me declaring your intention to immigrate, I can't allow you to cross the border. I can't do that."
What? Not even to visit?
And off they did come. I go back outside. The driver and me go back into the van. While I explain what happened, we are parked in view of the American customs station. If someone over there looks out the window, he can see us sitting. The side where the cars stop and pass is slightly around the corner. I spend some minutes taking my legit ID out of my wallet and replacing it with the phony which brevets me, voila, six feet one. I remove my personal papers from the suitcase and hide them under the seat--they bear my name. I have to hide my check too. That reduces my wealth to forty-odd bucks.
OK, thence back to the U.S. We pull up and this officer sticks his face in the window. Who's the driver? The driver answers. Who am I? I recite my name. I tell him where I'm going: down to Bellingham to visit friends, yes, friends of this very driver here (no hitch-hiker, I) and from there I'll be making my way back to Ontario for the beginning of the semester.
"Park over there and please come inside," says the officer. "I have a few more questions I want to ask you."
Oh shit. Oh damn. Oh God. We pull over to the indicated spot and get out, stretching our legs after that long ride of a hundred yards. I can feel my knees quivering like the two prongs of a cheap tuning fork, that forever gives the wrong note when struck. Across the way, another officer is rummaging through the trunk of a sports car while two long-hairs look on. A middleAmerica car is stopped a few seconds and waved through.
Inside. The officer asks to see my ID; asks a few more questions and I invent some plausible elaboration of the basic story. He makes me fill out some form, I think it's for visitors, and my hand shakes. Just shakes, man, and this guy is standing there looking at me weave my way through the signature of a name I practiced a dozen times last night. Last night. This morning. Bad dreams.
The officer looks at this thing I've filled out for a minute. Then he turns to my driver and says, "Mister--I'm going to refuse your friend here entrance to the United States until he has transportation of his own and more money."
Oh Christ. Three hundred dollars, uncashed. And they told me to cash it. But it had my NAME on it! And now here I stand, without even my worthless name, nowhere to go, caught between a rock and a hard place.
We go back out to the VW van. "What now?" the driver asks. Jesus, I don't know. I don't know how much money a person needs to get into the United States. "What now?"
Why, back to Canada. Maybe I can get that bastard to be human for a couple of minutes. We go. I go inside and plead, almost, to be suffered to enter Canada as a visitor.
No again. Bastard.
Back to the van. I sit there a couple of minutes, then more minutes. I can't get back into the U.S., I can't get into Canada. We sit in the front seat without passing words, while I chew on Camels. I've run through every idea in my wooly brain and the only one that's left grows bigger and bigger. Hey man. I'm going to jail.
I get into the back of the van, loosen the borrowed tie, take off the borrowed jacket, remove the borrowed shirt and pants. I dig in the bottom of the suitcase for my own rags, and put them on. I give the driver the check, endorsed with a pen from his glove compartment, and our address in Vancouver. I give him the cash too. Gary and Cindy will need it. There is still this immigration file. It's full of names and addresses. Many of these people are activists. I take the sheets out, the letters of support, character references, everything, and burn them one by one, carefully, until not a single word can be read, and grind the ashes under my foot. I am become a name.
I put on my denim jacket and tuck my personal writings under my arm. At least I still have that. On my person is all I have in the world. I trust the suitcase to the driver and say good-bye.
"What's going to happen to you?"
"I don't know." Prison, I expect. I walk across the distance. And there I am world. I feel better. Maybe at least I can do this right.
I go inside the U.S. building and throw my wallet on the table. "OK here I am."
"Wha-a?" asks a white-haired officer with a kindly face. He takes the pipe out of his mouth and stares at me, open- mouthed.
"Here I am, here I am. Do this thing here, let's do this..."
"I'm a draft dodger," fer Chrissake. I don't know how to tell him. He doesn't get the idea. Thank god, the officer who got me the first time comes in and picks this up:
"Oh-h. You're the guy that was here a little while ago."
"Yeah, that's me." It's like meeting an old friend.
The older man finally gets the idea. He takes my wallet and looks at my draft card. After a few minutes, they take me to an inner room where they have a radio setup with the border patrol and all that, and put in a call to the FBI in Seattle. I'm tired, very tired. I'm looking forward to being put in a cell somewhere so I can sleep and not have to worry about my next meal. I'm looking forward to it, get that?
Meanwhile, my driver appears in the other room. "Hey, we got this guy too," says the first offender. He's just scored a goal, see; he's damn happy about all this. "They got him trying to take this suitcase through the other side and sent him back." Now I don't know what that was all about, but I was thinking, Jesus, he's going to wind up in the slammer too.
But it was just some business about the suitcase. They awarded it back to me--I didn't want the damn thing--and sent him on. Heh-heh, he still had the dough.
Tedious it were to tell, and harsh to hear. I sat in this room then, finally rid of my nerves, and engaged with small talk with the officers on duty. I sat on the counter. I walked around--they didn't care. What were we waiting for? I asked.
For the FBI to return the call. It's Sunday, and they don't have many people on duty. They have to check through a lot of junk to find the right piece of paper so I can properly be stuck behind bars. The officers, especially a young one, engage me in a little Vietnam repartee. The Army's not that bad, says the young one, suggesting of course that I'm afraid of a hard day's work.
I spout some Social Thesis crap, but all I really want is a rack and some food. Food! I haven't eaten in seven hours. My stomach feels hollow down to my knees.
It gets incredibly boring, sitting here. The counter is hard and they don't have an extra chair. I talk with the kindly one about what kind of tobacco he smokes. My mouth, now with some saliva in it after all the border bullshit, feels the urge; I break out my sole surviving pipe (the others were stolen with my clothes, the first night I hit Van) and bum a pipe load from him. But I've smoked this bugger so much, it's sour as grape skins. And I'm hungry too; that makes it worse.
The return call finally comes in; it's definite and affirmative.
"Well son the FBI says there's not a warrant out for you so you're free to go."
And they weren't kidding. They sprang me from that dump without a night's sleep, a meal, or a snowball's notion in hell of what to do next. I walked through the little town there, thinking. If you could call it thinking. I'd just sent my money across the border so I couldn't get to another station and try to get across. Not after this little act. Gary and Cindy and I didn't have a phone and I couldn't remember the number of the guys across the hall--only Bruce's, but the phone wasn't in his name. And those were the only people I knew in metropolitan Vancouver--almost a million people--after two months. I couldn't have somebody come and pick me up because I couldn't get through to ask anybody. And I just burned my whole immigration file.
Here in the States, the nearest people I knew were at the Minnesota border of North Dakota. Yessir, I was free.
And the last thing I'm told, leaving the border station, is "Oh by the way! Remember it's illegal to hitch-hike in the state of Washington!"
And I had eighty-six cents in my pocket.