In 1974, I took a bus to Montreal from a distant part of New England. At the time, I was a British citizen with alien status in the United States. Recent events at the United States’ southern border, though far more serious than mine at Canada’s, bring it to mind. In this excerpt from my unpublished memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh, I describe my encounter with Quebecois immigration agents.
“And Monsieur, how long will you be staying in Canada?”
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“To study German at McGill University.”
I handed the customs official my green card, with a photograph of me taken soon after my arrival in America seven years earlier, a thirteen-year-old on cortisone. At Canadian border crossings, you weren’t required to produce a passport.
“One moment.” The customs official clambered down the bus steps, taking my green card with him. I heard two men outside ending a serious discussion as they reached the bus door. The man came back to my row. “Monsieur, come with me.”
Rejecting the temptation to pretend I didn’t realize he’d spoken to me, I closed the book on my lap, zipped up my bag, unfolded my white cane and edged past the uncommunicative passenger in the aisle seat. There’d been little talking on the bus before. Now it was silent. This was the eleventh hour of the twelve-hour journey.
The man went ahead. I unfolded my white cane and followed him down the steps. Another man and he half directed, half pulled me toward a building. In a room off a confined entrance, the man showed me a seat and said he’d be back.
I waited. The whole trip had been about waiting, waiting for each hour to pass. Having wasted so much time on the bus, whose unrhythmic motion made it hard to read braille, I opened the first volume of an introduction to German. Even without an English translation, I’d figured out the German “rot.” Americans often pronounced “t” the same way as “d,” and I’d heard somewhere that an “o” in the Dark Ages often turned into “e” in modern English. So “rot” might mean “red.” From other words I half understood, I figured I was looking at a lesson on colors. I said to myself, “What rot!” a dated pun that might occur, if at all, only to someone transplanted from England to America and studying German for the first time.
The customs official returned with a colleague, who stayed standing as he asked, “Do you have papers from McGill?” Like the first man, he spoke with a French accent.
I’d anticipated this difficulty, but decided a nation that accepted a green card in lieu of a passport wouldn’t make it an issue. There’d never been a problem during crossings into Ontario with Mum and Dad to see relatives.
“No. The school didn’t mail confirmation in time.”
“How do you know you are accepted?”
“They told me over the phone.”
“Who did you speak to? What phone number?”
I told him the name and number, which I knew by heart. They wouldn’t help him because the school would be closed. It was July 1, Canada’s Dominion Day.
“Then where will you be staying?”
“In a residence hall at McGill.”
“Who do you know in Montreal?”
“Someone is meeting me at the bus station.”
“A relative? Friend?”
“I’ve never met her.” The resistance biographies I’d read in boyhood had trained me to answer each question concisely.
“How does this person then know to meet you?”
“She’s a counselor at an organization for the blind and offered to help out.”
The freshman dean at Amherst College had taken it on himself to call up Montreal organizations to find out about the resources available for blind people. Véronique LeBlanc, A woman he spoke to, had offered to meet me at the bus station and put me up the first night. I’d been reluctant to accept. Plonking myself in an entirely new situation was part of the adventure, and I’d planned on a night in some cheap hotel free of obligation to anyone. Now, I had to admit, I was glad someone would be meeting me.
I waited for the customs officials to ask if she was blind. She was, but they didn’t. They didn’t even ask for her name and number, and I was glad about that, too. She might have been alarmed at what she was getting into had the authorities contacted her about me.
The first man spoke up, as if he’d figured out a new way of approaching the puzzle I presented. “What is that in your hand?”
“Introduction to German, the textbook for the course.”
“How does it work?”
I opened it to one of the first pages and said, “It’s braille.”
“And you know what it says how?”
I ran my index finger over a few words and attempted to say them. “It’s German. I doubt I’m pronouncing correctly.”
The second man asked, “How will you be supported?”
“I have money, and my father will send more if I need it.”
“Your father is where?”
“Your family is British?”
“May we borrow that?” the second man said. I handed up the weighty volume. What did the customs men expect to get out of it? Its brailled contents would be concealed from them. The two men went into a separate room, and I imagined them running mystified fingers over the rough pages. Then I remembered the Connecticut Braille Association printed titles on book covers. Maybe the print title would convince them.
Now my only company was the noise of traffic passing on the highway.
The minute hand of my watch moved to the place it had been when the customs official boarded the bus. They must have let the bus depart by now. What had happened to my baggage? Had they thought to remove it? How would I get to Montreal? Would they let me on the next bus? When was the next bus? What would Véronique do when my bus arrived without me?
The men returned. “You must give your word that you will leave Canada in August,” the second man said.
A face-saving demand, I supposed. “I give you my word,” I said, feeling it cheapened. There was no sacrifice, no dilemma behind my commitment.
“Monsieur,” he said. The book was nudged against my arm. “And your card.”
The bus was waiting, its motor idling like fingers drumming. I climbed aboard, conscious I’d made everyone’s long trip even longer but keeping my face expressionless, and found my row, the fourth. The aisle passenger had moved to the window seat. I sat down, taking care not to bump her, trying desperately to hide the shame I wished I didn’t feel.
Did I look suspicious, or had the other passengers figured out, as I finally had, why the customs officials had interrogated me? Their interest in my braille books and how I’d support myself indicated a concern that I might throw myself on Canada’s welfare system.
The door hissed shut, the brake released and the bus turned to the road. Our arrival time in Montreal had come and gone. Would Véronique wait? I prepared myself to ask strangers about hotels and public transportation, even though it would be close to midnight by the time we arrived and affordable accommodation might be hard to find.