In Babel there’s a scene where Amelia struggles at a border checkpoint. Going into Mexico was a breeze, but coming back was slightly more complex. Perhaps because of my own checkpoint memories the scene was particularly compelling.
Thirteen years ago, we as a family drove up with relatives to the promised land of large water faucets and infinite amounts of Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museums, I speak of course, of Niagara Falls. Entering Canada was downright festive as though trombones and confetti should have accompanied our arrival. I still remember the checkpoint guard as he waved us through with a huge grin. Perhaps he smiled because he was tickled at the fun we’d have trying to return
If that was the reason for his grin, he was dead on because the return to the US was a bit more complicated. I still remember us inching forward to the checkpoint amidst rows of cars, us cousins sitting in my parents gray minivan curled up in blankets and eating Doritos. I still remember the guard (let’s call him Bob). Tall and wiry with a brown mustache and tinted brown sunglasses and for some reason absolutely convinced our passports were fake. I remember my father’s exasperated insistence that we were US Citizens and I remember Bob smirking as he shrugged his shoulders, dismissing the proof we provided and responding in the nasal voice which I can still remember to this day: How do I knowww you’re an American Citizen? I remember showing him driver’s licences, vehicle registration, grocery receipts crushed inside purses, but to each he shrugged and invariably responded “How do I knowww you’re an American Citizen?” After an interminable wait where I presume they ran our passports, they allowed us to pass, but leaving us cousins bewildered but giggling as we imitated Bob the entire ride home in various reincarnations such as How do I knowww you’re not hiding the Doritos. For us it was silly strange Bob, nothing more, and we knew it was the last we’d see of him.
But Bob has shown himself to me quite frequently since then, particularly at check points where he feels my luggage always merits a second glance. Ofcourse I know its random. It is so random that my Brazilian classmates must have found me clairvoyant as I predicted our random selection minutes before we approached the ticketing booth. They must have been clamoring for a palm reading by yours truly for as we handed over our passports, lo and behold, the lanky agent with the carefully parted hair studiously read off the screen that it just so happened that my husband and I were selected for inspection. He took great pains to assure us it was completely random.
Years later as the number of Bob’s I encounter grow exponentially I still try to find the humor in it though the amusement is tainted by an unavoidable disappointment. I’ve accepted that it is what it is and I grin and bear it because I must and I understand the reasons behind it, I do. But I can’t help but feel slightly sucker punched as it is a reminder that though the US is all I’ve ever known, somehow I am still a foreigner within its borders.