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Monday, March 12, 2012

Growing Accustomed

IS IT POSSIBLE to be too non-threatening? I’m on an Amtrak train in the Adirondacks. My wife and daughter and I spent a few days in Montreal (you’ll read about it here and in Metroland), and crossed the border, heading home, a couple of hours ago.

On the way up, we had a pleasant chat with a Canadian customs official. I was a little more nervous about confronting U.S. customs, so I suggested that we follow the conductor’s instructions to eat and/or get rid of all the fruit we might have. There also was a package of pâté we’d bought at a fantastic IGA store not far from out hotel. Meat and meat products are on the proscribed list. “Better get rid of that, too,” I told my wife, who was managing the foodstuffs. She grumpily complied.

My only run-in with customs officials took place in about 1983, when I’d traveled to Buffalo to visit a friend named Eric Fiedler. This was my first opportunity to meet his father, Leslie, a renowned literary critic, whose Love and Death in the American Novel opened the door for me for a more fulfilling relationship with literature.

He was a charming man who made me feel so comfortable that I freely confessed to having never read Moby-Dick, about which he’s written extensively. But he was okay with that. It was when I confessed to having never seen Niagara Falls that he told his son to get me the hell over to see the damn thing.

“We should go over to the Canadian side,” said Eric as he drove us near. “It looks better from that end. I’m just a little nervous about customs.”

In 1969, his father wrote a book titled Being Busted, tying together his brushes with the law in three locations: Newark, where he was born and raised; Missoula, Montana, where he taught for many years, and finally in Buffalo in 1967. That’s where a corrupt city police department, resenting Fiedler’s aggressive liberalism (and, no doubt, Jewishness), sent a kid with marijuana into the easygoing Fiedler home and then broke down the door and arrested people.

The book examined relations between police and society at a time of legendary unrest. Although its popularity helped pay the author’s legal fees – he wasn’t exonerated until 1972 – but did nothing for his relationship with bureaucratic officials. As Eric explained to me, “You couldn’t be a Fiedler and go to or from Canada without being strip searched. I had it happen many times. But,” he reasoned, “that was a long time ago.” We made the border crossing without incident.

I’m sure you know that the Falls, touristy as they are, remain a magnificent sight. Although the day was chilly, we took our time enjoying the spectacle. I took advantage of the situation to buy a trio of Cuban cigars, one of which I smoked while we wandered. Eric assured me that if I pocketed the others and said nothing, nobody would bother me.

As we stopped at the customs booth on the way back, an attendant looked us over and waved us to a parking-lot pull-in area. “Oh, shit, no,” Eric muttered under his breath. “Everything has been smoked in this car.”

We were sent into a building and ordered to sit and wait. Eventually a pleasant-faced man in uniform beckoned us to follow him into an office. “Hi, boys,” he said cheerfully. “Before we get started, I have to tell you that we have different search and detention privileges here at the border than you may know about. Therefore, it’s your right to have an attorney present. If you would like one and don’t have someone to call, we can get one for you.”

Eric and I exchanged a look. I tried to read his face. He looked frightened. I felt my bowels readjust.

He shook his head. I followed suit.

“Okay,” said the official. “Now. We found some stems and seeds in the carpeting of the car.” Eric hung his head. “It’s all right,” the man said. “We could tell they were very old. But here’s the situation. We have a very bad problem with drugs coming into the country across this border, and we have to be extremely vigilant about it. I’m going to ask you point blank. Are you carrying any drugs?”

“No,” we answered instantly. And truthfully.

“Good,” the man said. “Can I ask you to empty your pockets onto the table and remove your coats?”

Ah, shit. Out of Eric’s pockets came, I kid you not, a wallet, a key, and a nickel. Out of mine, a Harpo Marx-ish crap array. A set of keys. A notepad. A couple of pens and a broken pencil. Two briar pipes. A leatherette pouch of tobacco. A pipe tool and a Zippo pipe lighter. Two Dominican Republic cigars. Two Cuban Montecristos. A pile of loose change. And a pack of matches.

The man took Eric’s parka and my overcoat, and as he searched the pockets of mine he asked, “What is this? Gabardine?”

I nodded. “I bought it from a tailor in Connecticut,” I said. “It had gone unclaimed.”

“Then you probably got a good price. You’re lucky. Take good care of this – it’ll last a lifetime. Can I ask you boys to let me feel the tops of your socks? Thank you.”

On the table, two cigars glowed with light-saber intensity. He gave a cursory glance at the pile, handed back out coats and said, “Thank you very much. Sorry to trouble you, but it’s what we have to do. Have a good trip.”

Back in the car, heading back to his dad’s house, Eric shook his head and said, “I don’t believe that. It’s never been that easy before. Things sure have changed.”

“How did he not notice my cigars?” I wondered.

“He noticed them. He didn’t care about them. I still can’t believe it. My father isn’t going to believe it.”

I’m now five years older than Leslie Fiedler was when the Buffalo cops set him up for his bust, and enjoy an embarrassingly arrest-free history. I‘ve become the guy to which customs officials give the briefest of glances, and my wife insists that I should have had faith in that as we breezed through today’s brief border interview.

“And then you wouldn’t have made me throw out the pâté,” she concluded. “I knew I shouldn’t have listened to you.”

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