Saturday, February 19, 2011

Is a red ape a Communist?

Does the word "red" signal "Communist" to the American mind?
I had a flash of paranoia yesterday at the U.S. border when I thought my Red Ape licence plate had got me into trouble.

I was grilled by a female officer with the personality of a piece of granite and my car was searched with mechanical dispassion.

The male officer at the crossing post had commented on my Red Ape licence plate and then with few questions sent me to be searched with a form scrawled with the words "RED APE" in bold letters. It was at that moment that I panicked at the thought that the word "red" can have inflammatory connotations in the United States that it doesn't elsewhere.

This is a country that got uptight that the universal health care bill of President Barak Obama was the kind of subversive socialism that is found in Cuba, a country which, as Fidel Castro pointed out last year, had universal health care for its people half a century earlier. In Canada, socialism and universal health care are so perfectly natural that we don't question them. We call it democracy. (Canada was founded as an almost-sovereign state in 1867, the same year that Marx's Das Kapital was published, purely by coincidence.)

But the real reason why I got grilled and searched at the border was a tale of misunderstood love. Apparently I am visiting my girlfriend Wendy too much.

My red ape keeps watch on humanity from my car
Somehow it is suspicious that a grey-haired university professor would be visiting his girlfriend regularly in a humble but efficient black Subaru wagon loaded with books and clothes and a big stuffed red orangutan in the back. 

I have been searched many times before in airports in the U.S. and other countries, and accepted it like you would locker room humour. It is rite of passage. It was always cheerful, but efficient, professional in a friendly way.

But this was different. It had an air of ill will and cold suspicion that left me troubled overnight. They make you feel guilty and suspicious even when you aren't.

I wondered why I was affected so much, because I accept the need to be screened and checked and I was never bothered by being frisked at the airport.

I think it was because the female officer seemed to take whatever I said as sinister and incriminating. The truth was no longer plausible and I felt that I was being criminalized. In all the years I worked as a journalist covering police and prisons I never experienced this side of the law personally, although I certainly heard the tales.
Yes, border agents, Wendy exists.

I have to say that these are tough times to be idealistic and romantic, when good intentions are apparently not credible any more.

Officer Granite had a lot of probing questions. Income? Mortgage payments? Rental income? Clothes kept at Wendy's? Why take summer clothes across the border now? What is the value of the clothes and books being left at Wendy's? Engaged? Why no engagement ring on my finger?

The officer had trouble with the $25 silver ring from Bali on my left little finger. "What is a Bali ring?" she asked when I called it that. "A ring I got in Bali," I said with a smile, "a place I like very much." Now I can talk about Bali, I thought, but the officer wasn't interested in that enchanted isle. She wanted to know why I didn't move the Bali ring to my left ring finger -- where it wouldn't fit, as Wendy reminded me later. Wendy thinks more practically than I do when being interrogated. She also warned me later to be totally serious at the border with my poker face, although I don't have a poker face.

"What will I find in the car when I search it?" the officer asked yesterday. I was so annoyed I wanted to say "enough guns and cocaine to keep the Pacific Northwest happy for a while," but said the truth instead, "A lot of cereal, plus books." I explained that there is a type of cereal I like that I can't get in the U.S. so I was bringing a summer supply down early. I think I brought 12 boxes. You can never have enough cereal. But the border guards seemed baffled by someone who thinks ahead.
Won't eat expired dog biscuits from Canada.

I also had some dog treats in the car for Wendy's sweet dog Emo and wondered if I needed to declare them too. Wendy pointed out later, that, practically, the dog treats had expired, so they might kill a fragile old pooch like Emo. I felt guilty about that too.

While my car was being searched, and everything unzipped by the thorough female officer but not zipped back again, I sat with two ordinary-looking men who didn't have much to say. I told them that I was being searched for visiting my girlfriend too often, as a way of asking them indirectly why they were being searched. It didn't work. They looked like people who had eaten expired dog biscuits.

Usually when I cross the border there is some sort of discussion of orangutans. It is so much a part of my life and work and I am ready to seize any opportunity. I had a bit of a chat with a female immigration officer in the Seattle airport the time I was wearing a bright orange shirt emblazoned with the words "Orangutan appreciation day," like something a harmless crank would wear. This officer liked animals and was a big fan of the San Diego zoo. We connected about animals. I can be the harmless crank for orangutans.

But my last time through the Seattle airport I was grilled about whether I was engaged, whether a date had been set for marriage and had I started the "paperwork," which it took me a while to figure out might mean immigration papers. The male guard seemed like he was taking the time to type into the computer a novel about my relationship with Wendy. I thought, this is a  guy without a girlfriend.

And then yesterday I got the criminal treatment for romantic Canadians.

It bothered me more than I realized at first. It was so easy to break the sense of trust that I have always had about Americans just because of the nasty cynicism of a female officer.

The Marijuana Nation flag?
But Canada is a small nation and often misunderstood. It is something we live with. I remember the time on the enchanted isle of Bali when a cab driver insisted that Canada's red maple leaf flag is marijuana. He was totally convinced that Canada was a liberated country flying the symbol of the great weed openly and wouldn't take the word of an actual Canadian that it was otherwise. Everybody who went through his taxi for years must have learned from him that Canada is Amsterdam North. It took some time to persuade him of the truth. He looked terribly disappointed in the end. Canada will never be the same for him, nor crossing the border for me.
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