Stunde Null, Part 1
The window on the plane to Phoenix, the first stop of the trip to SF, showed the most stunning (and varied) cloud vistas I’ve ever seen: puffy, chunky, grape-y over the ocean, specks and daubs, strips and archs… We were very late yet just in time to the most spectacular, glaring sunset I can recall. The terrain was flatter than paved and the rare mountain or wrinkle were surreal, engulfed in a 3d-program plane of flatness or marred by veins that were rivers and lakes. I saw city-piercing highways from above for the first time and they were majestic and car choked. The street grid was perfect and every house had a pool. I didn’t know it would be the last time I’d look at the States in years.
At the immigration check passengers of several flights converged at the same time. There were 5 officers or so and our tripulation was one of the firsts. I was assigned the leftmost officer and from his line I watched all the other lines flow by at a ridiculously fast pace, dwindle, and some even finish off. My officer was a very fastidious dork who didn’t know Mexicans don’t need a visa for entering Canada and so shouted the question across the other 4 officers, who gave him the wrong answer. It was a bad line and I knew it five minutes on it. I didn’t change because I didn’t dare. With one person ahead of me, he escorted a passenger to the interrogation area, and the guy in the front was assigned to a different, breezy line. That could have been me.
I pretended to be on vacation, screwing up here and there in my story as usual, only this time I was asked to sit down at the nearby office to be asked more questions. My exiting the US a week ago after spending 6 months was surely suspicious but friends have pulled similar stunts many times before. That quick interview is the crucial one and they almost always overlook the details and let you through. Except when they don’t.
In the office a purdy blonde officer badged Petersen was professionally mean right away. I missed Dork. She doubted my story immediately when I couldn’t offer her proof of my nonexistent return flight and sat me down. I’m up again and she confronts me several times asking me the same incriminating question “…because you live and work in the United States, right?” in the apparent hope that I would trip up or something. She was always the hardest.
By now some other officers had gathered, they ask for my wallet and with each item they take — with my California driver’s license, my Bank of America debit card or my door-opening card from work yet logoless — they sing victory and affirm I’m living and working in the US in that mocking assumptive tone I learned so well. I’m scared out of my mind but surprise myself by unfazingly spinning a yarn about me being a wealthy brat who just graduated from college and is off on a parent-supported sabbatical road trip. It was perfectly possible to me in that it was something I would totally do had I the means. They are not buying it.
They bluffed once or twice about some items —as in, we have a card reading machine right here, why don’t you save you the embarrassment and confess this is not a Gold’s Gym card?— but it was obviously all bull and I didn’t budge. They got me into the tiny, closed room, sitting down in front of 2, sometimes 3 officers. I would spend hours in that office.
Herrera is a big man of Mexican ancestry who’s the boss and “the bad officer”. Czech is a friendly, older officer with Czech ancestry (so he told me later) and is “the good officer”. They played the spiel so by the book I can’t help smiling now and then. Petersen comes and goes with findings like “Why did you bring four big bags full of nothing but books?” But I add it all into my tale, I’m a eccentric, book-obsessed mathematician now. They ask me to list mathematicians and I happily oblige. Petersen softens and mentions how she was always bad at math. Herrera & Czech are furious, they threaten me.
But something strange has happened: I’m not afraid. I’m good at this and I’m fully absorbed in the moment. I realize their only threat is denying me entry to the U.S. and I’m not afraid of it. That’s always been a possibility and I accepted it when I came here. I haven’t met anyone who loves America more deeply and unabashedly than I do but the world’s a big place and I can carry my love affair from afar.
Part 2 coming up tomorrow. I need some rest now. Sleeping in a cell floor: not too comfortable… :))