Vancouver’s American Suburb by Valerie Chalker Whitfield

“You’ll have to go inside for inspection,” he said, handing me the dreaded scrap of orange paper.

One of the friendlier border guards was in the booth. He had appeared ready to wave me on when I told him I was going to yoga class. But then he wrinkled his forehead, squinted at his screen and did not utter the magic words: Go ahead.

“Not again?”

“I’m afraid the computer has selected you,” he said, as if to let me know he had nothing to do with picking me, and that if it was up to him, I could have gone on my way.

It was a sunny Saturday morning in July, 2015. I sat in the NEXUS express lane going into Point Roberts between the fortress-like columns of yellow posts that surround drivers entering America. There was no escape.

I drove to the left and parked in the inspection area beside two other cars. When I entered the Customs building and stood at the counter, I didn’t recognize any of the faces in the office. I stood there for at least two minutes before a blond-haired guard strolled over to me. I passed him the orange paper, and he slapped an immigration card on the counter for me to fill out, not even speaking to me. I was familiar with the routine. I answered “No” to all the questions regarding bringing food, alcohol, tobacco or large sums of money into the US – I was only going to yoga class! He went away and left me standing. Eventually, I sat down on the bench next to a man who was also waiting while the guard appeared to work on his computer for what seemed like ten minutes. A tall, heavy-set, female guard smiled at me from across the room where she was assisting another traveller. Finally, taking his time, the blond guard walked up to me and asked for my car keys. I surrendered them with a sigh, realizing I would be late for my class.

“D’you have a problem, ma’am?”

“I’m trying to get to yoga class for 9:30. I’ve only been stopped the last three times I crossed.”

“We’ve had the right to stop people at the border since 1776,” and he marched out the door towards my car.

“Fuck you,” I said quietly to his back before I could stop myself.

He didn’t hear me, but at the counter the female guard’s head jerked up and she glared at me, as if she had never heard anyone swear before. I looked past her, pretending I didn’t notice. The man sitting on the bench looked over his shoulder at me, then got up and walked out of the building as if I were contaminated.

I sat and fidgeted. When did it become so complicated?

When the blond guard came back from inspecting my car, the female guard whispered in his ear, glancing over at me. He went into the office of his superior, the station chief, a kindly looking grey-haired man. I could see them speaking heatedly through the glass walls. The blond guy came out, and the chief called me in. He shut the door and asked me to sit down. I took the stool offered.

“Do you want to lose your NEXUS card? Because if you do, I can make that happen right away.”

“No, of course not.”

“You’ve already had a number of infractions. Do you think you should be a Trusted Traveler?” he asked.

“They were minor. I’m just trying to get to my yoga class.”

“Do you think you are going to get anywhere with that kind of language?” he asked, not so kindly. I felt like a child, back in school, humiliated.

For many years, I made the trek down to Point Roberts, that little finger of Washington totally detached from the rest of the state. I had found Desiree, a yoga teacher whose classes left me feeling relaxed but energetic, a good antidote after a long week of work. This was the reason I got a NEXUS card in the first place.

Earlier in the year I had my first truly random inspection at the Point border crossing. I had lunch in my car because after yoga I was going directly to downtown Vancouver for another class. As I filled out the customs form that day, I told them I had a mandarin orange, as I knew that oranges were a no-no. On that occasion, the guard returned from inspecting my car holding the orange like it was a hand grenade. I was allowed to go with a reminder to read over the sheet of NEXUS rules and with a warning: “You know we have taken away a person’s NEXUS card for less than this.” I wondered what could be less than a mandarin orange, but didn’t ask and left, grateful to still have my card. This did not make for the best frame of mind for yoga class.

The next encounter happened only two weeks later when again I was planning to go to yoga then downtown to class. I couldn’t believe I was stopped again. The guard in the booth told me I was just unlucky to have another random check. I again had lunch, with no orange, but I had some grapes. At that first incident, I had had a small container of grapes in my lunch; they didn’t take the grapes, so I thought they were allowed. The officer scolded me about the grapes as if they were a container of bullets.

“But you didn’t say anything about grapes….”

“That doesn’t matter,” he interrupted, not allowing me to finish my explanation. The rules surrounding grapes are complicated as they depend on the time of year; sometimes you are allowed to bring in grapes, other times not.

The third episode happened about a month later. I ventured down to class again, thinking that I couldn’t get another random check and not yet willing to believe that they were targeting me. That morning I had been very careful to make sure there was absolutely no food in my car. Again, I was given the orange slip of paper and I thought, OK, this time I will be golden. But after inspecting my car the short, stocky guard returned with a baggie that he held by the corner with his blue-gloved hand and barked:

“Do you know what is in here?”

I was shocked as I had truly forgotten about what he had found. I hesitated before answering. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.

“It’s dog food.”

“I know that,” he said, but “But, do you know what’s in it?”

“Not every ingredient,” I replied truthfully, and before he could cut me off I protested, “You didn’t take that away in either of the last two inspections.”

“That doesn’t matter. Just because we didn’t pick it up before doesn’t mean you can break the rules!”

Now I know that you can’t take an open package of dog food into the US, for reasons that are not exactly clear to me. But I had completely forgotten about this little stash that I had put away in the glovebox months ago for a treat when I am out walking the dog. It had obviously crossed into Point Roberts and back many times!

“You don’t seem to understand the rules,” the chief was saying.

“I wasn’t bringing anything into the US,” I said. “Nothing was going to leave my car.”

“That doesn’t matter. You don’t seem to understand the rules. Therefore, we can’t trust you. I don’t think you should be a Trusted Traveler. I’m going to take your NEXUS card away and send your file in for review. What do you think of that?”

I stood to leave. There was nothing else to say.

As I exited his office, I paused before the counter where my car keys were lying. I stopped, expecting him to hand them back to me right there. But instead, he gave me a shove on the shoulder and ordered: “Keep moving. Out behind the counter.” He then said to the entire office in general: “I am going to take away this person’s NEXUS card and send it in for review. We just can’t have this kind of activity going on down here.”

He handed me my keys, and I walked out in disbelief.

My ears were hot and pulsating as I got back into my car. I wanted to turn left and go back into Canada, but there was a long line-up. Instead, I turned right into the Point and went for my last yoga class.

I was twenty minutes late and when I tiptoed in; Desiree guessed that I had been detained at the border. I joined in with the sun salutations, but my mind wasn’t on them. My balance was off, and I struggled in tree pose. As I progressed through the class, the scene replayed itself over and over in my mind, ruining the serenity I had come here for.

I couldn’t believe the way these guys acted: it was as if they had just come up from working the Mexican border. And maybe they had – for some respite. Those who live only a few kilometres from Point Roberts consider it almost a part of Canada and just don’t understand what all the fuss is about: there is nothing down here to protect except some gas stations, summer cottages, a marina.

My mind wandered as I lay in savasana looking out the window at the leaves of the maple trees waving in the sunny morning. I still couldn’t grasp why my minor misdemeanours had triggered such a drastic reaction. There had to be a reason why the Americans were so protective of this seemingly unimportant border. Maybe they had hidden something really important down here: a bomb, a missile, or the US treasury’s gold reserves in an underground vault. Why were they so concerned about a 60-year-old woman going to yoga?

After the class, I stayed behind to talk with Desiree.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “They gave you a hard time again, didn’t they?”

“Worse than that. They took away my NEXUS card.”

“Oh, my!”

I related to her what had happened.

“It’s not good for my business either,” she said. “I’ve spoken with them and with the business association, but it does no good. I have no idea why they do this. It’s not just you. I’ve heard many stories like this from other students and visitors.”

“Des, I’m not going to be able to come to class anymore. Now that I don’t have my card, I won’t have time to wait in the regular line-up for half an hour with all the other drivers coming down to get gas.”

“I understand,” she sighed.

“And I’m not willing to put up with this harassment. They have ruined this place of enjoyment for me.”

“I’m so sorry.”

We hugged good-bye.

I loved going to those yoga classes. I loved going down to Seattle and the San Juan Islands for short jaunts. It was similar but different from British Columbia, all a part of the Cascadia region. Canadians used to be able to go with just a driver’s license for identification.

All year I mulled over what had happened. How could I go blithely to the US as if the situation were normal? But, what if I had to go there for a work-related meeting? I didn’t have to go for any meetings at the moment so I didn’t need to make that decision, yet.

Then, in early 2017, the Muslim ban was instituted. I listened to the radio and CNN in disbelief as the names of the countries were listed from which Trump was planning to ban people from entering the United States. Iran: would my Canadian-Iranian friend’s mother be able to visit her son in Florida? After my own experience at the insignificant Point Roberts border, I imagined people from those countries being held in tiny, dark, boiling or freezing cells, somewhere in the bowels of no man’s land in the big airports of New York or Chicago. They would be terrified, maybe unable to speak the language, disoriented from questioning, no one to help them….

I talked it over with my husband.

“I don’t want to go to the US anymore. I just can’t bring myself. I feel like going there is supporting what the Trump administration is doing. We don’t need to go there for anything.”

“Yes,” he said slowly, thinking it over. “We should stay in Canada, our own mini-protest.”

Later in 2017, I ran into Desiree at a restaurant in Tsawwassen, just north of the border. We chatted as we waited for a table.

“I don’t go to Point Roberts anymore,” I told her. “I was able to get my NEXUS card back, but I won’t risk the potential humiliation.”

“That’s too bad. It’s our loss.”

“And I’ve banned myself from the United States entirely. I feel I need to do something to protest the restrictions being instituted. I’m just not willing to support the nascent dictatorship of Trumplandia.”

“I’m with you. I would do the same if I was Canadian.”

Valerie Chalker Whitfield completed The Writers Studio program at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, in 2015. Here, she began to free her imagination from the shackles of a life of academic writing and prepare for more creative expression in her third age. She recently had a flash piece published in the Beautiful Things column from River Teeth journal.

Issue Contents

Issue 14

From the Editor

Last chance

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