With the falls adequately admired, we got back in the truck to cross back over the Rainbow Bridge that leads into the United States and begin our journey home. We had no idea that moment would be the beginning of a 2-day ordeal, as we scrambled to gain access back into our own country.
As we crossed the bridge we had a lovely view of the falls. We fell in line behind the many other drivers attempting to cross into the United States. Heeding all the signage we obediently got into the lane marked: RVs, busses and trailers, removed our hoodies, hats and sunglasses so the facial recognition cameras could compare our mugs to those of known terrorists, pulled out our passports and all the paperwork issued to us from the elevator company, and prepared to speak with the border agent.
We pulled up and immediately it was clear that like his Canadian counterparts, this US agent felt we were a shady pair. He asked us to pull over to the inspection station (a request that would be made of us multiple times this trip as we attempted to cross international borders) and exit the vehicle.
An agent met us at our truck and escorted us inside where we sat with an armed guard that watched us while the truck was inspected for contraband. The tension was thick, and our anxiety was high. I found my Secret deodorant failing me. Despite its famous tagline, it was not “strong enough for a man” at least not strong enough for a man who was under border security scrutiny. I know they thought we had to be hiding something big (as if an elevator isn’t big enough) by the anxiety they saw on our faces. Once again, an agent approached us, asking again if we were importing any of the illegal items listed on the posters around the waiting room. The tone he used reminded me of my own tone when I am giving my kids one last chance to fess up before they are caught red-handed. I wracked my brain.
I was pretty certain our truck was drug and alcohol free.
I thought to myself, ‘If any critters had stowed away in the cab (something cats and goats have done before) surely we would have discovered them by now, so I think we are livestock-free.’
I knew we didn’t have any raw meat or foreign plants.
‘It must be a weapon,’ I thought to myself…
I knew we didn’t have any guns or Samurai swords but we were in Toby’s work truck which contains plenty of everyday tools that would probably be considered weapons of mass destruction in this day and age, so I looked at Toby, raising my eyebrows, letting him know, with the look only wives can give, that if I end up in a Federal slammer because of an Exacto knife he left under his seat, he’s a dead man! 😊
He paused, thought, and reconfirmed that no, there was nothing illegal in the truck. The guard left us under the watchful scrutiny of a guard who took her job very seriously, not allowing anyone to use the bathroom unaccompanied or leave their seat without permission.
As we sat in the heavy silence it hit me. I DID have contraband. Like a still frame from a movie, the image of an orange, leftover from breakfast and tucked in my bag, hit me. EEK! I was the mule trafficking illegal goods, not Toby, and it was my orange that was going to earn us 10 to 20 years in a federal penitentiary. Sure enough, a few minutes later the team of inspectors returned, and the orange had been removed from the truck.
But the orange was the least of our issues.
We were called up to the front desk and informed that we had been denied entry into the United States and we were being sent back to Canada. The issue was not with Toby or with me or even the rouge orange, but with the elevator. We discovered that we had somehow stumbled into an obscure gray area of bureaucracy that would come back to haunt us. The issue was that we were crossing as individual citizens (no problem there) but because the elevator we were towing cost more than $2000.00 it was considered a commercial import. This meant we needed all sorts of special paperwork and certification that we, as non-commercial drivers, didn’t have.
A kind border agent took pity on us and tried to explain this rabbit hole we had fallen into, and what the United States was demanding of us to gain entrance. We asked what paperwork we needed to provide him, and he clarified, “Oh, you can’t give me anything. Civilians must hire a customs broker to appeal to the government on their behalf. He explained that without hiring a customs broker our elevator wasn’t crossing the border. At this point it was 8:00 pm. We had no idea how to get ahold of a customs broker or if they worked weekends. Outside the window I could see the “Welcome to New York” sign 20 yards away and for a moment considered channeling Bonnie and Clyde and making a run for it, but quickly dismissed the plan, knowing that with the trailer in tow there was no way we could get backed out and turned around before they would be on us. 😉
We were escorted back to the truck by armed guards, I guess to prevent crazy, desperate attempts like the one playing out in my head, and we were sent back across the bridge to Canada.
We pulled up to the Canadian border crossing, following all the same protocol on this side of the falls, only to have our story questioned once again. I guess someone traveling to Canada to purchase an elevator seems like a shady story. Once again, we were denied entrance and forced to U-turn our way back to the U.S side of Rainbow Bridge.
At this point we had resigned ourselves to the possibility that we might be living out the remainder of our days in an elevator crate on the walkway of Rainbow Bridge, trapped between two countries. I thought of the movie, “The Terminal,” and the ingenious ways Tom Hanks survived living in an airport, as he too was trapped between two countries that would not allow him to enter, on crackers and ketchup packets.
Our resources were more limited, but I figured we could at least beg for handouts from vehicles crossing the bridge into the United States. We could unload them of all their high-risk contraband, like raw meat and illegal oranges, and save them from a similar fate,
all while carving out a life for ourselves on the Rainbow Bridge.
(At least it’s a cardboard box with a great view.)
After another pat down (on your tax dollar) we were given a piece of paper proclaiming that we would only be entering Canada long enough to file needed custom’s paperwork and that we wouldn’t be setting up residency and working illegally as elevator installers. With paper in hand we finally got off the “Bridge of Nonsensical Bureaucracy” and found temporary sanctuary at the Ramada Inn of Niagara Falls.
Then we began working the phones.
With the help of Google (how did people manage crisis’s like this before the internet?) we found a listing of customs brokers and began calling and emailing them one by one. Hours later we had left messages with 50 different agencies, and now we waited. It became clear that nothing would happen until Monday, as evidently customs brokers don’t work weekends. We tried to salvage our mini getaway and recapture the relaxed and refreshed state of mind we were enjoying prior to trying to reenter the good old U.S.A. We tried to set aside our worries about whether we would ever see our children again, and tried to make the best of a bad situation…
A skill Toby and I have developed a real talent for as result of two decades full of moments like this one.
(More on the fun we carved out of this crisis in the next blog!)
On Monday morning, we began working the phones at 8:00am, as soon as offices opened. Once again, we discovered nothing was going to be smooth or easy. Most brokers were unwilling to take our account since we were a one-time pass. Most were only interested in setting up an account with those who would be a repeat customer and who would be transporting elevators across the border regularly which left us high and dry as we had no plans to ever leave the country again, assuming we ever made it back into the United States.
Finally, a customs broker suggested we call FedEx, who apparently has customs brokers and handles one-time accounts. Who knew?! And they happily took our account. After hours of filling out paperwork, working the phones, answering emails, faxing forms, requesting a one-time exemption from the supervising border agent, and waiting on approvals from the U.S government we were finally cleared to cross the border.
We were assigned to cross at a commercial border crossing 30 minutes away. We were given a crossing ID number, a commercial manifest, and were told we should have no problems returning home.
One again we drove up to the check point, our stomachs in knots. And once again we were flagged. There was no record of our account with our broker and were pulled off the line as a rig trying to illegally import goods into the U.S.A. Once again, we found ourselves in a waiting room, waiting on agents to declare us (and the d*** elevator) safe to cross.
I’m sure hundreds of kilos of cocaine entered our country this weekend while U.S. agents’ backs were turned and they were distracted with the urgent task of shaking down the notorious McCleery elevator runners.
FINALLY, our paperwork was located, and finally we were deemed safe to reenter our own country.
“Just one last thing,” the agent declared. “The toll to enter will be $13.05.”
No one, in all our time bonding with various government agents over the last 48 hours thought to mention that on top of the hundreds of dollars we had already paid out to Uncle Sam for the privilege of reentering the land of our birth, that there would be a $13.05 toll.
Who even came up with that amount?!
Opening his wallet, Toby let out a sigh of relief to see that he had $13.00…exactly. Nothing more, nothing less. He pulled out the bills and turned to me to ask, “Do you have a nickel?”
A frantic search of both our pockets resulted in one…lone…Canadian quarter. Toby held it up, inquiring sheepishly of our straight-faced border agent, “Will you accept Canadian?”
To which the border agent responded, with crossed arms and tight lips, “No, this is America.”
There we were feet from freedom and five lousy cents stood between us and home…AHHHHHHH!!!
When it was clear Mr. Grumpy wasn’t budging we started scanning the floor for fallen change. Luckily a kind stranger donated a dime to our cause, making him the hero of this comedy of errors.
We got in the truck and made a beeline for the border, fearful that if we made eye contact with anyone in blue, or hesitated for any reason, they just might change their mind and send us back to Canada for good.
Never did a sign look as good as this one!
We are home
We are never leaving the country again!!