I was sitting in the anteroom between worlds with my rights parked outside in my car. I might have been waiting for five minutes, maybe even an hour, but it felt like more. It was not the time already spent, wasted sitting on a wooden bench in a glass cocoon, but the uncertainty of the wait ahead. My questions would not be answered but my answers had better please them. You could look at them but they were watching you.
No clocks in here and I wasn’t going to look at my watch. Time was suspended between worlds. The lack of control (my American self might say) or the feeling of being controlled (my Irish self might say) was the killer. One culture used to dominating, the other to being dominated boiled down to the same thing – the lack of autonomy. The rebel demanding answers from behind the glass would probably be moved to the end of the queue; although they would call it a line and probably wouldn’t say anything at all. But they were no more interested in sitting down on a couch and listening to my feelings. It’s all a matter of perspective and mine didn’t count.
A man about my age (early thirties) and his father, at least he looked old enough to be his father (that was a presumption but prejudgments are an unfortunate part of this business), were sitting on a wooden bench across the room from me. I noticed them but made no contact. This was a zone of hushed voices and languages I did not understand. No swapping of stories, no mutual complaints about the service. The customer was never right here. We were in a room surrounded by glass walls like an ATM lobby for after-hours use. At the end of the rectangular room farthest from the door were several service windows. Behind the glass the uniformed agents looked sternly at computer screens, looked you in the eye to see if you were real and looked at your papers to make sure you weren’t fake.
The older man’s head was down. Dressed in what I would call his Sunday best, but of course he would likely use another idiom. Was he trying to make a good impression or was this his customary dress? Those with a birthright to cross did not care so much for impressions. The younger man was speaking to him in upbeat but quiet tones. He was carefully dressed too, jeans and t-shirt in the newest urban style and new sneakers. The designer glasses, conservative hairstyle and the fact that his clothes were not worn too loosely announced that he only dressed like this at the weekend. Was he telling his father not to worry?
Everything was in order: passport, green card (there was a longer more bureaucratic name and it was barely green). You handed your papers over to the hand waiting to receive them. No one had ever asked me to show my papers. After all it is a free country. But if I handed them nothing they’d have to ask. It was easier to spare both of our blushes by being prepared. Could I ask why I had to pull over? No came the answer. Obviously not correct because I had asked. But he was not pleased. You had to watch out for the young guys who didn’t take off their sun glasses. They were watching for other things. I pulled over, my documents exchanged for a piece of yellow paper like a parking ticket with an X marked beside an indecipherable code. I asked where to go, a man without a country.
The older man was called first to the window. There was an order to it all but they weren’t going to tell you. There was no first or last here. The younger man followed but he was told to have a seat. He protested that his father (not all presumption is wide of the mark) did not speak English. He was allowed to approach the glass to interpret.
Citizenship? Irish, not what you were expecting? Quickly mention the green card. You look at me expecting one thing and find something else. They have to be on their toes in their line of work. Looking the part doesn’t get you through the door. Where are you headed? Home. Where’s that? Why the suspicion, it’s five miles over there, with another country so close how could a former-island dweller resist crossing over? How did I obtain my green card? My wife – yes, she’s American. How did I meet her? Do you have that couch handy? You see I met her at a party…I met her over there and followed her over here. He was looking at the screen; I would never know what he was seeing. Then he handed me the yellow piece of paper and told me to pull over.
The two men had returned from the glass interface. The younger man was sitting on the bench with his head in his hands. The older man was stoically erect and speaking in low tones. Was he telling his son that this was the way of things – always, everywhere? The younger man was raising his voice arguing with his father. The older man put his hand on the younger man’s shoulder. Some people get angry when others lose their cool but the older man seemed to be silently communicating that the only thing was to look them straight in the eye, stand up straight and take it on the chin (or whatever phrase he might use). The son was not giving in. Was he saying that it was different here? The older man just listened with the wisdom that personal experience is always more real than someone else’s story.
There was no one else in the room besides me and the father and son; no one at the window, but still my name was not called. Why not apply for citizenship and avoid all the hassle? My wife’s voice in my ear. I had the passport to enter there but my life was here, or at least a few miles outside of this glass booth. I could maintain the fiction that I lived in limbo between the two countries, committing to neither, oblivious to both. But places change without you or you change without them. Doesn’t really matter, the result is the same and it makes people uncomfortable. An Irishman turning into a yank after a few years across the water. A successful assimilant reluctant to swear the oath. One culture despised the lack of resistance the other distrusted the lack of commitment. Like I said, it’s all a matter of perspective.
The father and son had been called back to the window. The father was standing a little back because his son had taken center stage. There was a small gap at the bottom of the glass window and the son was speaking directly into this small hole designed for the exchange of documents. The window was equipped with a microphone and speaker system so that both sides could hear each other but maybe the son wanted to make a more human connection by sidestepping the technology. Maybe he didn’t think the microphone was capable of conveying his voice to the other side, like those who speak into their tiny cell phones too loudly. He was waving some documents in front of the glass, flipping through the pages. They moved away from the glass and back to the bench. Still not free to leave.
What was the purpose of your trip to Toronto? Business. What kind of business? My own. Did you acquire anything on your trip? A few contacts eager for a free lunch; an empty coffee cup; dozens of emails to be answered; a speeding ticket; a need to use the bathroom as a result of the empty coffee cup. Explicit answers are expected to be tempered by common sense - no, just my belongings. Could I open the trunk? Sure if I can find the button. Thorough – but he seems satisfied. I understand that the price of freedom is toughness at the edges. We go unaware until we push up against them jarring the illusion of autonomy. Still I want to sail on through while they protect me.
The son approached me. He didn’t look directly at me until he was right in front of me, preserving the chance to abort at the last minute.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he opened, well it wasn’t as if I was doing a whole lot sitting there, “my phone is dead,” he looked me in the eye, “my father has forgotten some of his documents,” a slight inhalation of breath, “could I borrow yours to make a call?” He had crossed the border in this no-man’s land between his side of the room and mine. Not that either side belonged to either of us, but that’s the way we do things – this is mine, that is yours.
“Sure,” I answered, “do you know how it works?”
“Yes, I have the same one.” He returned to his father. His father looked across at me and nodded slightly. I mouthed a virtually silent – no problem – which he likely did not understand but could comprehend. The son was speaking excitedly into my phone, clearly relaying the story, then the tone dropped to resignation, persuasion maybe? He handed me back the phone. “Thank you.” I responded that he was welcome and we resumed our places.
My name was called. I walked up to the glass window and stood in front of an agent in his mid-thirties, short-cropped hair, perhaps a pre-emptive strike against the beginnings of a receding hairline. I smiled a little, not too much, you don’t want to appear too eager to make a good impression. He looked at me gruffly and made a jerking movement of his thumb to indicate the agent next to him. “Sorry, should I move over?” No verbal response, just the thumb and then he looked away. I moved over two windows and found myself facing a middle-aged woman with black curly hair. She nodded to me and looked down at the card in her hand, which I assumed was my green card. My phone rang. I looked down with the conditioned response that my various electronic messaging devices have instilled in me. Instant communication demands instant response. The agent was looking at her computer and still had not addressed me. I glanced quickly at the screen and silence the phone. It was a number I didn’t recognize – from overseas, but everywhere was overseas from this little glass island. I realized that the call was for someone in this room but not me.
“Should I let you get that?” The agent asked sarcastically from behind the glass. She did not appreciate my failure to give her my full attention. Part of me wanted to make her wait, show my importance, but I knew I had no such power here.
“Well, you see I think the call is for that guy over there,” the agent raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes, “he needed to borrow a phone…it might be important.” Whether she understood or not she was not indicating.
“Is this your legal resident identification card?” So that was the proper name – bit of a mouthful, but definitely more bureaucratic and imposing. I nodded. The phone was ringing again. “You do understand that this is an international border crossing,” I did indeed, “and that this is serious business?” I responded in the affirmative, knowing that I was not the only one in the room facing this serious business. There are walls built by others to protect us and we build our own walls to protect ourselves from others. If bad things happen on the other side of the wall, they happen to someone else. It’s a shame of course, we wish it was different, but what can we do? But he had crossed the line we had drawn between us and I didn’t push him back. I took my phone out of my pocket and held it up and looked over to the father and son. My message was received and understood. The son came over and took the phone from my hand. He sat back down I turned my attention back towards the agent.
“Do you know that man?”
“Why did you give him your phone?”
“Why did he ask?”
“His wasn’t working.”
The son handed me back my phone. I nodded to accept his thanks. “You know you’re not supposed to do that?” I knew I was supposed to stay on my side if that was what she was asking.
“No, I didn’t.”
“This is you?” She held up my passport so I could see it and tapped on an open page that displayed my picture.” I responded that it was. “Doesn’t look much like you. Please have a seat.” Well we’ve all seen better days. I sat back down on my bench.
The party across from me had become three. Whoever had been summoned using my phone had arrived successfully. There was a quick conference at the window between the father and one of the agents with the son as translator. They walked away from the window smiling. The son put his arm around his father and patted his shoulder - the triumph of youth and optimism over old-world fatalism. The disruption to the journey fading in the rear-view mirror. They’re just doing their job after all.
I was now alone in the room. I began to walk around now that I was liberated from the need to maintain distance. I noticed a yellow piece of paper sitting on the recently abandoned bench. I pulled my personal golden ticket out of my pocket to compare. The same box was marked, the same code of numbers and letters. I put my ticket back in my pocket and dropped the other back on the bench. My name was called. I returned to the window. The agent handed me back my passport and green card.
“You’re free to go.” I thanked her and received an acknowledgement that went perhaps fifty per cent of the way towards a smile. I started my car and headed back to where I belonged, that was not a country and that was O.K.