My excellent adventure with U.S. Customs

Peter Jackson
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I came back from holidays last week to discover I could be making comparable money slinging coffee at the hospital.

I wouldn’t have this treasured forum for expressing my views, mind you. But I also wouldn’t have the routine pleasure of being called a loser and a waste of space by anonymous online trolls.

Unless I spilled hot coffee over customers. And given my partial vision loss, chances are good that I would.

So, with little likelihood of becoming a licensed practical doughnut-peddler, I guess I’m stuck with this journalism gig.

I took a week off last month to travel to New York.

For most of that time, I followed 99 high school students and their chaperones as they took in the sights and sounds of Manhattan, and performed at the WorldStrides Heritage Music Festival.

It was an exciting experience.

Less exciting, however, were my travails crossing the border.

It was the first time I’d gone through customs by myself since losing some of my vision almost four years ago. I thought I could wing it. Bad thought.

Protocols seem to have changed.

I remember customs forms always being handed out on the plane. But that’s changed since the U.S. decided to park its customs booths in the country of origin.

In Montreal, I followed a series of highly visible “Connections” signs until I arrived at a big customs room. When I finally reached a booth, the officer asked for my claim form.

“What form?” I asked innocently.

“The customs form you were supposed to fill out,” he said impatiently.

“I didn’t get one. I thought they were given out on the plane.”

Clearly annoyed, the man pointed to what was apparently a big, white sign high up at the back of the room. I decided this was a good time to play the vision card.

“I don’t see very well,” I said.

That defused things a bit. He pointed, with dramatic gesture, towards a table off to the side.

“Go over there, fill out a form and come straight back to me.”

I walked in the direction he indicated until said table came into focus. There were plenty of forms. But no pen.

I walked to the back of the room and stepped over a rope barrier. Two security guards sat at a high desk, chatting away in French. I asked to borrow a pen and made my way to another nearby table.

By then, the room was packed with passengers. I held onto the promise of the customs officer that I could go straight back to his booth.

So I told the two guards that I’d be crossing the rope and skirting around the lineup — the unspoken understanding being that they not leap up, guns drawn, and tell me to hit the floor.

The female guard appeared a little grim, and barked something at me in a Quebecois accent. I feared my special permission to skip line may have just been revoked.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Where’s my pen?” she repeated. I’d left it on the table. I retrieved it sheepishly and proceeded around to the front of the line.

The customs agent spotted me and called out for me to approach. I handed him the form.

“Where’s your passport?” he asked.

“You held onto my passport, didn’t you?” I said meekly.

“No, I gave it back to you.” He sighed. My vision excuse was starting to wear thin. “You must have left it on the table.”

I turned to retrieve it, when he suddenly jumped out of his seat.

“No. You stay here. I’ll get it.”

He strode quickly over to the side of the room. Peering through the haze, I eventually saw him return, waving the passport in the air like a flagman at a race track.

“I’ve got it,” he shouted.

For once, I felt fortunate not to be able to make out facial expressions in the lineup behind me.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email

Twitter: pjackson_NL

Organizations: US Customs

Geographic location: New York.For, Manhattan, U.S. Montreal

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Recent comments

  • Anon
    June 07, 2012 - 19:19

    No Eli Manning I never used a bible as a passport, I guess that means every knowledge of History I had is now void if I wasn't present to witness it... nice logic. You can't get a passport without being registered as biological property of the government or chattle. I don't expect you to research this notion on your own so I certainly won't waste my time explaining why that is. If you bother to sit down and search a few things, you might just not think a family bible to be such a bad idea. But hey, if you don't mind registering your children or becoming an agent of government so you can apply for legal documents that are already lawful, be my guest. I assume every statement that begins with "With respect" to contain none of it. So my apologies for the sarcasm should my assumption be spurious.

  • Anon
    June 06, 2012 - 16:13

    At one point all you needed to cross the border was a family bible with your name and date of birth in your mother's hand-writing. Now we have to write a novel of papers and applications. It's just a silly little line.

    • Eli
      June 06, 2012 - 19:26

      Hey ANON, with respect, when was the last time you carried the family bible to cross the border into the USA? Did you have somebody help you carry it? Ours was so big & clumsy the covers eventually came off. A simple little passport and filling in a destination card aren't that complicated. Peter didn't have the latter and like everybody else was told to fill one out.

  • Herb Morrison
    June 06, 2012 - 12:35

    Gotta love it People who spend most of their time on this website contributing two or three line posts (usually using their time to level juvenile, schoolyard bully type insults, having the audacity to question the journalistic integrity of either Mr. Jackson or anyone else who chooses to submit well thought out submissions to the Telegram for publication. If the comments weren't so laughable , speaking as a perdon who thinks before he writes, I would be downright insulted.

  • NowIsee
    June 06, 2012 - 11:14

    I travel often to the U.S.A. and have never had a problem with U.S. customs. Re-entering Canada on the other hand is when I find I’m being treated like a criminal. It’s a disgrace the way were treated here.

  • John Smith
    June 06, 2012 - 10:16

    ...did you say "journalism"? LOL give me a break....the Telegram and journalism are about as far apart as night and day...

  • David
    June 06, 2012 - 08:56

    I'm not sure you minded the customs experience as much as any hint of exposure to the french language. It's not a crime or sin, you know.

  • Richard
    June 06, 2012 - 08:47

    You get paid for writing articles like this?

  • Eli
    June 06, 2012 - 08:14

    Peter, That form is handed out AT THE CHECK-IN COUNTER when you check-in for your flight. That would change of course if you just had carry-on baggage, checked-in online & went directly to the gate. It's obviously been a while since you crossed the border by plane.