Cross­ing the Line

If you think fac­ing border pro­tec­tion is in­tim­i­dat­ing, try act­ing nat­u­ral when you’re pack­ing po­etry—or worse, a sax­o­phone

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Con­tents - BY GARY BAR­WIN IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GRA­HAM ROUMIEU

Bor­der pro­tec­tion can be in­tim­i­dat­ing, es­pe­cially when you’re an artist. GARY BAR­WIN

NEARLY EV­ERY TRIP across the bor­der feels like an or­deal: the anx­i­ety, the agent star­ing deep into your soul, lines as long as the ones in a Walt Whit­man poem. Are they go­ing to find the or­anges you stuffed down your pants? Do you even re­mem­ber the name of the place you’re go­ing? New Pork. I mean York. York!

When the guard asks you ques­tions, it’s im­por­tant to act nat­u­ral. What is the av­er­age rain­fall of the Ama­zon Basin? When did you start cheat­ing on your taxes? Where were you the night of Jan­uary 24? Spell your mid­dle name. Back­wards.

Be­ing a poet, I’m be­wil­der­ing to the in­quisi­tor in the lit­tle booth.

“And what’s the pur­pose of your trip, sir?”

“A po­etry read­ing.” I might as well add, “Of course I’ve brought bon­gos.” Once, upon learn­ing my pro­fes­sion, a bor­der guard pulled a sheaf of orig­i­nal po­ems out of her jacket and read them to me for 10 min­utes. It was my chal­lenge to think of suf­fi­ciently com­pli­men­tary things to say so she’d let me into her coun­try. “I love how you com­pare love to cheese sticks. So beau­ti­ful and so apt!” Those be­hind me, swel­ter­ing in their cars, must have as­sumed she was grilling me. Maybe it was all a so­phis­ti­cated in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­nique to make me ad­mit I was re­ally go­ing shop­ping for dis­count shoes.

I LEARNED YOUNG that be­ing in the arts can lead to awk­ward sit­u­a­tions. It all began in the 1970s, when I was 12 years old. I was start­ing my first year at an arts board­ing school in north­ern Michi­gan. Trav­el­ling there from Ot­tawa, I had a lay­over in Chicago. I had never taken a plane alone be­fore. Of course, I was car­ry­ing my sax­o­phone. Un­der the X-ray ma­chine at se­cu­rity, the neck looked sus­pi­ciously like an old-fash­ioned flint­lock gun.

“What you got there, son?” the se­cu­rity guard asked, brush­ing back his Elvis pom­padour and open­ing the case. “Looks like a gun.” “No,” I choked. “It’s my sax­o­phone.” “Yeah?” he said. “Prove it. Play some­thing.” I looked around for help. There were hun­dreds of peo­ple in line be­hind me.

“What should I play?”

“If this re­ally is a sax­o­phone, some­thing cool and jazzy.”

I was a pre-teen kid from the sub­urbs. My favourite song was “Baby Ele­phant Walk.”

Pan­ick­ing, I quickly re­viewed my mid­dle-school band reper­toire: “Sil­ver Bells,” “Slavonic Dances,” “My Grand­fa­ther’s Clock.”

“Cool and jazzy,” the guard re­peated, look­ing at me.

There was no way out. I began play­ing “The Pink Pan­ther.” I tried to make it as slinky-cool as pos­si­ble. I even added a growl ef­fect I’d been prac­tis­ing. When I fin­ished, much to my hor­ror, the peo­ple wait­ing in line ap­plauded.

“Nice work, son,” the guard said. “Next, play some for the pi­lot.” I didn’t re­al­ize un­til much later that he’d been teas­ing me.

THESE DAYS when I’m trav­el­ling south, I don’t take any chances: I sim­ply avoid telling agents I’m in the arts al­to­gether.

But just in case you’re a guard read­ing this: I’ve never seen those or­anges be­fore. I don’t own bon­gos. And okay, I ad­mit it. I am go­ing shop­ping for dis­count shoes.

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