Not more than a month or two ago, I was walking with Daniel, from the trolley in San Ysidro to enter into Mexico. Through the tunnel that winds upward toward a corridor that spans interstate five, we walk a high bridge where one can watch the traffic enter Mexico. And sometimes the pedestrians witness the momentary happenings of the people who check cars in a secondary inspection before admitting them entry into the United States of America.
Words to the unwise, do not talk on a cellular telephone, and do not stop to gawk under any circumstances. The guards will come out of otherwise inconspicuous doors and exits and force you to move on as only they have been trained to do. Forcefully. Like guard-dogs. As if one was trespassing on private property.
We were walking through that overhead corridor, and watching a rescue team with tools of their trade attending to some large vehicle, surrounded by various uniformed personnel and so on.
Lights below us were flashing like a seventies dance party.
"I wonder what that is all about," Daniel said aloud.
"They are in the process of prying a smuggled Mexican out from underneath a dashboard," I said. "There it is. You should write about it."
Daniel smirked. He hasn’t, so far that I’ve noticed, written anything about that moment.
And he should. He is an excellent poet. All that I can give you is the blunt reality of it all, and assure you that I know, even at a glance, what is going on there. I have this advantage: I have crossed the border thousands and thousands of times. Daniel has spent most of his time in one place or the other.
Also know this: If anyone can make poetic sense out of the border then it is Daniel. He can slow it all down. He can paint you a picture whereas I can only give you a pencil-sketch.
And in order to share a most wonderful experience about the border, I have recommended that Daniel also obtain a magic wand, otherwise known as a Pedestrian Sentry Card.
He is thinking about it.
Yesterday morning, the magic wand came in very handy, there was a very long line to get into the freak show that I am fond of calling the United States of America. I passed hundreds of people in line for the show and entered my lane, waved my wand, and approached the spot where I stood and posed for the camera.
There was something on the floor.
A twenty-dollar bill, folded neatly and quite flat, felt strange on my fingers as the uniformed man motioned for me to come forward. I laid the bill on the counter as I placed my left index finger on the reader.
"Ah, you dropped some money," he said, awaiting the computer’s affirmation of a fingerprint match.
It came quickly, this computerized recognition.
"No, it isn’t mine," I replied, referring to the twenty.
There was another uniformed man there, by chance, the very one who started the application process for me. He was no help at first, he said nothing at all, only grinning slightly.
"I found it on the ground as I approached the camera," I said.
No response. I think that they expected me to put the bill into my pocket. Heh. Nothin' doin'.
"Well," I continued, "I don’t imagine that you can accept this."
"No," he said. "I can’t."
I was not happy at all. The twenty-dollar bill wasn’t mine. I could’ve used an extra twenty, but it wasn’t mine. I looked at both of them and then the twenty and wondered what to do next.
"Say," said the one who helped me to apply in the first place, "I bet I know who dropped it. This girl who works in the Duty Free store."
"Seriously?" I asked, hopeful and desperate.
He nodded and I handed him the offending bill.
"Have a nice day, sir," the other said as I waived the wand and the exit doors parted.
There are some things in life that a government background check simply cannot reveal.
I would never have passed the Vehicle SENTRI lane background check. A combination of youthful indiscretions, not-so-youthful indiscretions, and other things not worth mentioning would have branded me as a non-desirable traveler. How do I know?
A wonderfully candid conversation with one of the officers that fingerprinted me during the Pedestrian SENTRI application process confirmed my suspicions.
"I passed the background check, then?" I asked, somewhat relieved.
"Yes, not bad," she replied, implying that there was something. "Were you expecting a negative response?"
"Well," I said, "other than some silly misdemeanors, I suspect that the Federal Government might have me in some sort of a file."
"Well, I assure you, it was quite innocent. When I was a young lad, one year I filled out my income tax return and it was, let’s just say, less than generous with my return. When I ran across the line that asked what I did for a living, I filled in that I was a ‘Communist Agitator’."
"I suppose that this process is less strict in that respect," she admitted.
"How so?" I persisted.
"Well, let me tell you something, a while back I was working in Otay, helping to process the Vehicle SENTRI applications. Now that was a tough check. It went to Washington and took at least three months to complete and return. Let me tell you about this one guy…"
She took my prints throughout all of this. She was wonderful. Professional, thorough, and everything that one would want in a government employee. I have no doubt that my fingerprints were perfectly replicated in that scanner.
Someone should clone her.
"This guy that applied, he was good-looking, obviously educated, suit-and-tie, all of that. I had to tell him that his background check came out negative. It was terrible."
"Oh?" I egged her on. I am good at egging people on.
"He couldn’t understand why, and we’re not allowed to say why. I told him that he would have to get in touch with the Federal Government in Washington. He stood there shaking his head in disbelief, and then something occurred to him. ‘If this is what I am thinking it is, then I can’t believe it. I mean, I was a teenager. It was an innocent mistake.’ I told him that while I couldn’t actually tell him what it was, that if he mentioned it I might could nod my head in a certain way. I felt terrible for him."
"I can imagine," I lied. I had no idea where this was going.
"So, he tells me all about this story when he was eighteen at some county fair in the Midwest, and he and his friends have a few beers and run around and visit the various booths that sell stuff. One was a hat store. They were all trying on hats and he leaves wearing one and gets arrested for shoplifting."
"That was it?!?" I asked.
She nodded affirmatively.
"The Vehicle SENTRI background check is very selective," she admitted.
I suppose that it would be quite difficult to fit an illegal alien in my backpack while walking through the border. Especially through the X-ray machine. On the other hand, I suppose that if someone steals a hat, accidentally or on purpose, then an illegal alien wouldn’t be too tough to fit underneath the dashboard a car.
Communist Agitator or not.
And as if to complete some sort of a perfect shape or formula or better yet, some sort of a perfect sequence in humanity's time on this planet, this morning the man informed me that the young lady was grateful to have reclaimed her twenty dollar bill.
If I am lucky, then we shall never meet. She might then think that human kind, through all of its faults, provides her with the hope that at times any lost cash might be returned to her.
Or else, she would be faced with just another strange gringo with an odd sense of the definition of karma.
And an ex-communist agitator.