I hit a deer in Montana, and my airbag deployed. I killed the deer, and the airbag ripped two big gashes in my wrists. I’d been driving since then, the flaccid airbag hanging out of the center of the steering wheel like a discarded birth sac. And maybe that’s where my problems began. When I pulled up to the border post, my front bumper was rumpled and there were pieces of deer lodged in the grill of my car. I looked like a deer killer.
This was before 9/11. Before homeland insecurity. Back then, you didn’t need a passport to go to Canada. Even so, the border cop sitting in a tollbooth-sized shack gave me a look. I had a bad haircut and a homemade t-shirt. I was traveling alone. She didn’t even have to think about it. She told me to pull over.
I was at a minor border crossing. A sleepy place. The scenic route. These border cops were clean-cut and they were bored. They asked me where I was headed. I said I was going to Vancouver. They asked me how much money I was carrying, and this seemed like a personal question. Like it was none of their business. They told me to get out of my car and to sit on the curb. So I sat there in my shorts with my two cut-up wrists and I watched as three big guys began ripping apart my car with a kind of fury that was funny at first because I couldn’t believe it. Then it stopped being funny. They found things I’d forgotten about. Things I thought I’d lost a long time ago. My Subway Sub Club card with four stamps on it. A glossy brochure for the Trees of Mystery. The key to my old apartment on Caldwell Street. I always wondered what happened to that thing.
Part of the reason I got into trouble was because of my mom. Before my trip, my mom bought me a can of athlete’s foot spray. It wasn’t really a can of foot spray, though. You could unscrew the bottom and stash things inside. Mom put a ten dollar bill inside the can and told me to keep it in the car in case I had an emergency. I wasn’t sure what kind of emergency ten dollars could fix, but I thanked my mom and tossed the thing into my car. I should have known better. One time, my mom bought me a battery-powered “neck massager.” That’s how the packaging described the thing. It was a vibrator. She had no idea.
The border cops found the fake can of foot powder. I guess they find that kind of stuff all the time. The short, stocky cop who found the thing showed it to his boss, an older guy with a cop mustache. The young guy unscrewed the bottom and pulled out the ten dollar bill and smiled gleefully, like he’d just found ten kilos of uncut cocaine. I could see that shit-eating smile from where I was sitting on the ground, and I suddenly knew two things: these border cops were assholes, and I wasn’t going to get out of here any time soon.
The fake can of foot powder made things serious. The border cops rolled out a big metal table, like something you’d render a deer on. The deer you hit with your car, whose ghost haunts you. The big sad eye that flashed in your headlight just before the impact. Then the border cops put on blue latex gloves and unpacked my bags, laying everything out on the table, item by item. Socks, t-shirts, underwear. Shoving their hands in the pockets of my pants and reaching into the sleeve of my shirts. All the stuff that should stay packed away was laid out in the open, under a summer sun. Then they found my travel journal, the tattered notebook where I scribbled down all the stuff that crossed my mind while I was rolling through Idaho and Wyoming and Montana. The border cop with the smirky smile started leafing through it, and he pointed out a few choice passages to his boss with the mustache. They’d read a few things, then glance over at me with meaningful glances, then keep reading. I didn’t get the idea that these guys were impressed by the prose. One of the border cops, a lady, noticed my eyes welling up. “It’s okay,” she shrugged. “We do this all the time.”
After that, the mustache cop told me to go inside the little border patrol office and sit down. A lobby with a desk and a few plastic chairs. I was the only person in the place. No one used the word at the time, and only later would it occur to me that I was being detained. There are places where this is a perilous thing to be: places where the space between one border and the next can be a trap or a maze or a grave. But I was on the border between Montana, USA and Alberta, Canada, so being detained felt more like being humiliated. Like getting pantsed on the playground.
I found out later the mustache cop went up to his office and called my dad. The cop told my dad that I was carrying a fake can of foot powder and a notebook full of suicidal scribblings that would one day become the 10th issue of the zine I write. The mustache cop had the idea that I was a suicidal drug smuggling weirdo on a dark mission to Canada, and he explained to my dad that he had qualms about letting someone like me into a country full of sweet maple syrup, morally unimpeachable mounted policemen, and virgins. Or something like that. I don’t know what my dad said, but in the end, the cop told me to load all my stuff back into my suitcase, and to pile all the scraps and litter of my life back into my pickup truck and that I was free to go. I remember the awkward silence that followed that moment. The strange split second after the cop told me that, after all those hours and all the hassle and humiliation, I could leave. He waited for a second. Daring me to say something smart aleck-y. Ready to pounce. But I’d already been to high school, and I knew a thing or two about bullies and meatheads. I put the ten bucks back in my fake can of foot powder in case of an emergency, and I drove away.
Before there were walls and motion detectors and high resolution surveillance cameras that float on blimps, there were border markers. 276 of them between the Pacific Ocean at one end and the Gulf of Mexico at the other. I was down in El Paso, so I decided to visit Monument #1. It was erected back in 1855. Some people say it marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Other people say it marks the border between the part of Mexico that still belongs to Mexico and the part that got stolen by the U.S. The monument is a big stone obelisk. While I’m taking some pictures of the thing, a rattly old pickup truck drives up from the Mexico side of the border. It’s a Mexican border cop. He smiles at me and waves. I wave back.
I spend a while at the monument. The border in El Paso is heavily guarded and patrolled, so I’m happy to have found a quiet spot where I can loiter without getting hassled by the U.S. border cops. I should have known better. There is no place like that. After I’ve gotten my fill of the border monument, I get in my car and start driving back to El Paso. Suddenly, a border cop is tailing me. Then another. And another. Pretty soon, I’m parading down the highway with five or six border patrol trucks behind me. They don’t turn on their flashing lights, so I keep driving, hoping that maybe — just maybe — I’m not the object of their attention. This goes on for a mile or two, till I can’t stand the suspense any longer. When I see a touristy Mexican restaurant up ahead, I pull into the parking lot. So do the border cops. All of them. The lot fills up with border cops. Then they turn on their flashing lights all at once, and the cop in charge leaps out of his truck and yells at me to stick my hands out my window. I do. In my side mirror, I watch a gang of big, twitchy, amped up border cops, hands on their sidearms, watching me. I hold my breath.
It takes a while to clear things up. It seems that the whole time I was enjoying the quiet solitude of Border Monument #1, the border cops were watching me on their surveillance cameras. They saw the Mexican border cop drive up and they’re curious to know why I waved at him. I realize now that it was a mistake to wave. It was a mistake to be innocent and naïve along a border that is neither of those things. The border cops ask me if they can search my car, and I tell them of course they can, they can do anything they want, they have guns and they’re scary, so go right ahead, be my guest. When they don’t find bricks of cocaine or bundles of hundred dollar bills or even a fake can of foot powder, they calm down. The border cop in charge even manages to smile.
“We were expecting some drug smuggling out at Monument #1 today,” he lies, “So your timing was bad.”
I know it’s a lie because I’ve heard it before. The border cops don’t hassle you because they have a reason. They hassle you, and they come up with a reason later.