Short Takes: Border Crossings


Introduction: From the Very Start

This issue’s Short Takes is about crossing borders. We’re prefacing it with a highly selective immigration timeline, beginning when these shores were first invaded by immigrants from England. Our purpose is definitely not to engage in that most reprehensible of right wing rhetorical devices: excusing the latest horror by pointing out that somebody else has done something like it. Quite the contrary. There have always been two strains in the American view of immigration: our better selves welcome the tired, the poor, and everyone else, to share with us this bounteous land; the worst want to roll up the bridges and build walls to leave everyone but themselves on the other side. Our aim in this timeline is to show that, yet again, Hyde, not Jekyll, is in the ascendant. We begin with a verdant continent, already well settled by its indigenous people.

1607: English immigrants arrive at Jamestown, Virginia.

1619: A Dutch slave ship from the West Indies unloaded 20 African slaves, the first unwilling immigrants to the new world.

1717-1769: More than 36,000 British convicts, over 70 percent of the people convicted at the Old Bailey in that period, were forcibly transported to the American colonies.

1790: Newly created U.S. government adopted its first “Alien Naturalization Act,” permitting citizenship to “free white persons,” which omitted slaves, indentured servants, persons of color (including Native Americans), and women.

1814-1850: Although born within the continental U.S., Native Americans could not become citizens: not white. Tribe after tribe in the south were made to cede their lands to the federal government and move west of the Mississippi, in forced marches now called the “Trail of Tears.”

1816-1847: Irish immigration to the U.S. began. So-called Nativists attacked the immigrants, decrying their supposed impact on the economy, but even more their Catholic religion. Numerous Catholic churches were burned. The Nativists succeeded in electing a number of officials throughout the northeast, including, in 1844, the mayor of New York City.

1849: The Nativists became the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party, with a platform arguing that native-born (i.e., English) Americans were culturally and psychologically superior to the Irish and German immigrants.

1863-1880: Chinese immigration to the U.S. began, supported by the decision of Central Pacific Railroad to import laborers to construct the transcontinental railroad, and by the gold rush.

1870:   The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended citizenship to former slaves, the first naturalization statute to drop the racial condition.

1880s: The first great wave of European immigrants to the U.S. arrived. While earlier statutes limited citizenship, only in the 1880s did any laws limit immigration. The Immigration Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited entry of “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspended entry of Chinese into the U.S. for ten years. These statutes were rapidly followed by more limits and exclusions.

1886: The Statue of Liberty, which had long languished in pieces in Madison Square Park, was at last on her plinth on Bedloe’s Island, and open to the public.

1891: Congress established the first federal agency to regulate immigration; Ellis Island opened the following year.

1898: The Supreme Court confirmed that the 14th Amendment gives citizenship to all persons born in the U.S.

1903: The Anarchist Exclusion Act passed, ushering in the beginning of statutes that exclude immigrants based on their political beliefs.

1907: The Expatriation Act revoked citizenship of women who married foreigners.

1910-1915: Immigration of Mexicans into the U.S. intensified, owing to political and economic problems in Mexico; allegedly to curtail this, Congress in 1915 authorized “mounted guards” to patrol the border. The guards, however, were mostly deployed to California, trying to restrict Chinese immigration.

1917: Immigration Act denied entry to immigrants from Eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands, adopted a literacy test for immigrants over 16, and instituted a head tax; it barred entry to “idiots, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons, alcoholics, professional beggars, persons who were mentally or physically defective, polygamists and anarchists.”

1921: The first quota statute passed, limiting immigration from everywhere except Protestant Northwestern Europe.

1923: The Supreme Court ruled that East Indians did not qualify for naturalization: not white.

1924: The Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S.

1929-1936: Mexican Repatriation Act passed; it provided not only for forced deportations, but also stopped public welfare payments to non-citizens and barred them from many jobs.

1942: Japanese Americans were interned.

1943: Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed; Chinese were allotted an annual immigration quota of 105 and permitted to become citizens.

1942-1964: The Bracero program, which permitted entry of temporary workers into U.S. from Mexico, ended in 1964; scores of undocumented workers continued to enter U.S. annually.

1965: Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act abolished immigration criteria based on national origin, race or gender, and established new immigration criteria: kinship ties, refugee status and “needed skills.”

1968: Armed Forces Nationalization Act permitted active-duty veterans to become citizens.

1976: President Gerald Ford called Japanese wartime internship a “national mistake.”

1980: Refugee Act extended immigration to individuals seeking asylum from persecution in their home countries.

1980s: Supreme Court rejected various attempts by States to deny welfare, education, or health care benefits to undocumented immigrants.

1996: Congress enacted welfare “reform” plan that includes provisions denying most forms of welfare to legal immigrants.

2001: 9/11 prompted increased military presence along Mexican border.

2005: Asylum provisions tightened, and grounds for deportation increased.

2006: Secure Fence Act authorized 700 miles of double fencing along the Mexican border. Construction halted in 2011.

2012: President Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects from deportation undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

2012: Reversing its longstanding rule that immigration laws can be made only by the federal government, the Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law requiring state law enforcement personnel to determine the immigration status of anyone they arrest or detain.

2013: Provision protecting undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic abuse was added to Violence Against Women Act.

2014-2016: President Obama announced executive action to prevent deportation of undocumented immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens or of legal immigrants. Supreme Court voted 4-4 on a challenge to this executive order, which, effectively, put it on hold.

2017: President Trump signed executive orders to increase border patrol forces and to recommence construction of a border fence.

2017: President Trump announces end to DACA.

2017-18: President Trump signs an Executive Order forbidding entry into the U.S. by people from predominantly Muslim countries. Federal courts question the Constitutionality of the Order, so the President issues a slightly watered-down version. A number of federal courts enjoin enforcement of that one too. But, on the third try, with immigration from North Korea and Venezuela added to the ban, the Supreme Court upholds the Order in part, pending full hearings in the lower courts.

2017-18: California becomes a sanctuary state, and many cities declare themselves sanctuary cities.

2018: In April, the Supreme Court heard arguments on the Executive Order.

There are many weapons to combat the forces that would seal off the United States against immigration. Good will and good writing are among them, as the wonderful Short Takes in this issue so aptly show.
 
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Deep Lessons in Hospitality

The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be such good friends
you don’t care…No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world…

— Naomi Shihab Nye, “Red Brocade”

 

We began the 2015 Migrant Trail Walk in Arizona with these words. Sixty of us set out in late May to walk 75 miles in the footsteps of desert crossers from Sasabe, Sonora, Mexico to Tucson. It was a pilgrimage in honor of those who have crossed and those who did not make it.

There were deep lessons in hospitality. There was the openhearted welcome to first-timers from the veterans, showing us our jobs (mine included the pop-up outhouses) and preparing us for the coming emotional rollercoaster. There was sustenance from the church and humanitarian groups, providing meals throughout the week.

What of the hospitality shown to the desert crossers? Shortly before the Walk, an exhausted migrant knocked on a neighbor’s door. She gave him food, water, and a safe place to rest. Though she speaks no Spanish, she’s asked God to send anyone lost to her. She asked me to help. We learned he and two cousins crossed near Sasabe, walking ten days to reach her neighborhood.

I walked a similar route, taking seven days. I had a safety net. I knew where I was, what lay ahead. And it was still damned difficult. Not all of us finished, but none of us died.

For lack of hospitality, many have perished near where I live, some 45 miles from the border. Twelve sites of recovered migrant remains are within walking distance, most marked with crosses reading Desconocido (Unknown).

On the Walk, we carried simple white crosses, some with names, many without.

How do you show hospitality to the dead? Our trek became a funeral procession, walking single file in silence. Periodically, a leader shouting a name or “Desconocido,” would break the quiet, each call followed by a group shout-out of “Presente!” We know you lived. We know you died here. We know your spirit lives on and we will never forget you.

At our closing circle beneath a bluff west of Tucson, with five great horned owls looking on, we held out our crosses for a sprinkle of water. “Here, Desconocido, it’s way too little and way too late, but here’s some water for you, at last.”

“Now I’m home again, Desconocido, after walking in your footsteps. No, I was not busy when you came. I do not need to pretend I have a purpose in the world. You are my purpose.”

 
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An Egg a Week

~for Lyn, a British war bride

 

Her voice
delicate
cherry
blossom
syllables
falling.

An egg a week, she says.
During the war, in London,
that is what we had,
but when I told
the family of the man
I married,
they brushed my words
and me away.
 
They told me, you know,
we had rationing here, too.
They really had no idea
what we had been through.
 
It made me angry
when I first came
to this country;
they said I had
a chip on my shoulder.

 
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Don’t Stand By

January 2016. I am in a tiny harbour town on the Greek island of Lesvos. On the days when the sea isn’t too rough and the snow storms have subsided, a steady stream of inflatable dinghies leave the Turkish shore 6 km away, packed with people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Morocco.

I remember that day sorting socks by the sea,
snow on the waves, numb fingers, sky grey.
HAMdillah ‘assaLAMeh across the Aegean Sea.*

I witnessed the arrival of boat after boat after boat.
an exodus of individuals, like that woman,
the one climbing out of the sinking boat
the one with blue lips in a light summer coat
the one whose life jacket does not even float.
And I know that that woman could be me.

That little girl,
the one too dazed to take sweets or fruit
the one not crying, the one who’s mute
the one Assad’s soldiers didn’t shoot.
That girl could be my daughter.

And that elder,
the one so weak she can barely stand
the one clutching grandchildren in each hand
the one uprooted from her ancestral land.
That elder could be my mother.

That toddler,
the one who arrived sick and damp
the one who was crying and suffering from cramp
the one playing happily in the refugee camp.
That boy could be my grandson.

I am part of an international movement of people, each of us adding our drop to the ocean of compassion. I offered my services to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos set up by Alison Terry-Evans. My task is to pack the discarded wet clothes into bags and pile them by the side of the road where they are picked up by a commercial laundry.

A sock reeking of vomit, of diesel, of pee.
You left it behind to find a safe place to stay.
I remember that day sorting socks by the sea.

Your sock it was torn; it was worn; it was dirty.
From which war-torn country had you come from that day?
HAMdillah ‘assaLAMeh across the Aegean Sea.

Once the dirty clothes have been collected, we bring the clean, dry clothes delivered by the laundry to the clothing tents at the reception camps, to be distributed to the next boatful of people.

I look into your eyes as we meet, you and me,
and give you dry socks to wear on your way.
I remember that day sorting socks by the sea.
HAMdillah ‘assaLAMeh across the Aegean Sea.

*(HAMdillah ‘assaLAMeh – Arabic for thank God for your safe arrival)

 
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Passing

The ghosts say –
to cross oceans be like water
lie
dead weight
on wet backs
inside floating coffins
in airs passed on
from the holds of funeral songs
sung
in passing

But what do ghosts know?

In passing
I want you to know
this is how I deep-sixed those spirits:

I flew it
a name a face a number
switch-coded between red covers
English
sing-ling Yankee-doodling Brit-Ozzie slanging
a yellow woman
Mandarin passably passing.

Still water
ghost
running

lying…

 
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Turn Right at the Isle of Wight

Each year for the past five years was a drawn-out oakum thread in the long rope that was England. For Prem Sidhu, at thirty, the accumulated strands lay as rough and bloody at his feet as the years of incarceration. When he entered London’s city gates, he was young and hopeful like Dick Whittington, but the streets quickly turned from gold to red. “Pakibashing” was the energetic metaphor; death was its reality.

Emerging from his bellhop job at 1 a.m., he would dash through the mean alley-cells, calling on all the anthropomorphic deities of his childhood for protection from the brown-shirt gangs that lay in wait. Being beaten up once had been enough to frighten him for the rest of his life.

He remembered each blow, each mad eye, each sputter of saliva, and that horror of discoveries that a man could suddenly strike like a demon and that the pain he could inflict would be so unbearable, a foretaste of the gods’ karmic wrath.

His one relation, a married uncle who had to slay his own demons, offered no refuge. His letters of appeal to his parents were turned down with reminders of moral strength and family responsibility; no, they wouldn’t hear of his return to India. How were all those young Indian men there surviving? Had he no backbone? Prem admitted that he was homesick but it was more than that: he had seen hate and wanted no more of it.

How was he to live out his life – use that rope to ascend the holy mountain, to cross the chasm, to hang himself?

He would build a rowboat on his weekends. He would sail back to India on this rowboat, a dory, 52-inch beam, 15 feet 5 inches long, no frames, narrow bottom. It took him three months to build, all by himself, at a local dock amidst dockworkers’ jibes. Finally, one gorgeous September day, he set out for freedom. Nearing six miles off Portsmouth, his boat started to leak but he persisted, stopping for a few minutes to ask directions from a Royal Navy ship. “Which way to India, sir?” The sailor peered down at the water rising at Prem’s feet, nodded spiritedly, and replied, ‘Turn right at the Isle of Wight.”

 
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Flight

Looking backward, his pitch-black eyes, glassy as mirrors, reflect his mother’s weathered face as she slaps tortillas with worn, rough hands, bent as usual over charcoal fire sticks in her flimsy huipil, all he’s ever seen her wear, and his brave wife nursing their new son, while two small daughters swing on her faded aqua skirt. He memorizes the scene – the crumpled, rusty tin roof, the dirt floor in their hut swept smooth as polished wood, the withered husks of blown cornstalks that didn’t kernel out – carefully, purposefully; he stuffs it away behind his despair, his determination to make it, between cracks in his mind, further down than the pesos sewn in tiny stitches within seams of his torn khaki pants. In his ruptured heart, he buries it even deeper.

He turns around, limping barefoot. Shoved along, trying to keep up with other migrants on their flight, he guards the stack of tortillas in his bulging rag bundle, for they must sustain him. The journey ahead is long; all night he’ll shuffle alongside these men toward the border, hiding in daylight, and then he’ll wait for a boat to cross a river to a different land, to the labor he must find to keep his family alive.

They arrive. It’s nearly dawn. Pink and lavender streaks are already breaking above them; ruthless coyotes grab their pesos and keep packing the men onto rickety rafts. Another dust-covered man, the one who shared his last tortillas, pulls him aboard and ties the end of a frayed rope tightly around their chests. Bound together, arms and legs entwined, some lashed on top of others, eight men drift between tall weeds on the riverbank, stifling their coughs, holding their breath, still waiting. He reaches for a sweat-drenched cord circling his neck and kisses his grandmother’s scapular. Suddenly, the raft is pushed forward. Eyes squeezed shut, he blocks out the wind spray and weary growl of the greasy motor, listens instead to songs of his grandmother and feels the soft, warm skin of his wife breathing next to him. A howling sob escapes his parched throat as muddy waters keep churning.

 
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Love Knows No Borders

This story begins in 1879 when my great-grandfather, a Swedish cargo sailor on vacation, crossed the border to Norway. In a small town he stopped at a sweet shop for pastries and found someone even sweeter. That resulted in the ensuing quarrel between the owner and his sixteen-year-old daughter.

Tears glisten in Marta’s eyes as she boldly argues with her father, “But Papa, I love him.”

Throughout time girls have uttered this phrase, certain that such passion will persuade their fathers of the suitability of a suitor. Papa wasn’t swayed. “What do you know of love? Compose yourself before a customer comes.”

Marta yanks off her flour-dusted apron and flounces to the living quarters adjoining the shop. She throws herself on her bed, but hearing her parents’ voices, hops up to press her ear to the door.

She hears Mama say, “Now, Papa, don’t be unreasonable. Remember when we were young.”

“That was different. He’s a Swede.”

“You know our daughter is stubborn,” Mama says. “They’ll find a way.”

Silence follows. Marta knew a father changed his mind if his daughter was pregnant, for her an impossibility. Her whole love affair with John Grien had been conducted under the surveillance of her parents. Their relationship was based on smiles, the brush of fingers during business transactions, and looks that spoke of their mutual love. John asked Marta to take a stroll with him. Her father ordered him from the shop.

Papa speaks again. “We often talk about going to America to be with my brothers in Minnesota. The time is now.”

Marta trembles. Though once excited about the prospect of moving to America, she regards this as a tragedy.

The same darkness fills her months later as she stands on the deck of the passenger ship. She looks back as the ship continues to create distance between her and happiness.

Someone taps her shoulder. John!

“I am working for passage. We can’t be seen together. Just tell me where your family is going after New York.”

Marta barely articulates, “Storden, Minnesota” before he vanishes.

The unsuspecting parents can’t believe the change in their gloomy daughter. Filled with joy she dreams of being reunited with John.

Almost a year later, Marta sighs as she sets out a tray of John’s favorite raisin tarts in the family’s Minnesota bakery. The bell on the door jangles, and she looks up to see her dream come true. Later John tells her of his adventures and hardships as he caught rides on wagons but mostly walked from New York to Minnesota. He has changed his surname to the more American “Green.”

Two months later, Norwegian Marta marries Swedish John Green. Her papa has crossed the border in his mind: “Swedes, Norwegians make no difference. We’re all Americans now.”

 
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Oma

My mother’s mother, our Oma, always insisted in her thick German accent that the boy Anne Frank kissed was not Peter Van Daan, but Peter Van Pels. “His mother was my cousin, Gusstë. Augusta Röttgen Van Pels.”

My twin sister and I would laugh. Didn’t she know anything? Who would change names in a DIARY?

When Oma was three in Dortmund, a horse and buggy crushed her foot. Her nanny had been chatting, and she wandered to the gutter. All the apologetic doctors could do was sew the remaining mass into a ball.

Every time she visited, my sister and I would shout, “Take off your shoe!” and stroke and poke the misshapen ball and pinky toe. She would extend her leg to us, happily murmuring, “Oma-toy.”

When Germany’s Ruhr Valley industrialized, Oma’s grandfather, a farm-to-farm peddler, expanded his cart into Röttgen’s department stores and prospered. Although she was crippled, his wealthy, well-educated granddaughter was considered a catch.

Tall, fair, and imperially mustached, our proud future Opa had served Germany bravely in the Great War. “Bah! Hitler will pass.”

Oma frowned, sent their children to school in Brussels, learned legalese, and fought fruitlessly to save their property. Finally, in 1938, selfish Uncle Solomon in America agreed to sponsor his relatives.

In November, the family checked into a hotel in Stuttgart to get their visas. The young officer at the police station met my shy 15-year-old mother’s eye, smiled, and stamped the paperwork.

That night, the SS came to the hotel and arrested Opa. As her children slept, wide-awake Oma listened to crashing sounds outside. Rushing early to the central station, they skirted piles of broken glass. The night would be called Kristallnacht.

The same young man was behind this new counter! He nodded, disappeared, and returned with Opa. Such relief. Oma would smile. “Your mother thought it was due to her charm.”

Within weeks, the intact family was sailing from Rotterdam with the clothes in their suitcases, no money, and their lives.

America would be tiny Queens apartments, drudgery as a house-cleaner, and long, frugal years on a New Jersey chicken farm.

When Opa died, Oma bought a small, river-view apartment in Washington Heights. Proudly, she urged her twins to visit, inviting us to museums and Broadway shows.

But we were bell-bottomed teenagers. All we cared about was getting to West Fourth St. on the A train.

I sit at the doctor’s, weeping, reading an article on Anne Frank. “When Anne kissed Peter Van Pels,” it says, adding, “Anne’s father changed certain names.”

Brave Oma, you died mindlessly years ago in a Pennsylvania nursing home. I will never be able to hug you and say, “You were right. Anne Frank kissed the son of your cousin, Gusstë Röttgen Van Pels.”

 
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The Eyes Have It

The young man is grateful that one of the villagers he’d met speaks English, since he does not speak Slovak.

The aroma of strong coffee is the first thing he notices as they enter the house. The old woman seated at the kitchen table has gnarled fingers wrapped around a steaming cup of dark liquid. She is short and stoop-shouldered. Sharply contrasting the pale, wrinkled skin of her face, a black patch covers her right eye.

The villager talks to the woman. The young visitor stands quietly by, understanding only the word America repeated several times in the rush of conversation in Slovak.

“Now,” the villager turns to the visitor, “tell her your name.”

The visitor smiles at the woman, taps his chest and says his last name.

Her hands fly to her lips, “Oy, Oy.” With outstretched arms she urges him to come closer. When he steps before her, she reaches up and touches his face, quietly repeating the family name. A tear rolls from her uncovered, milky-blue eye.

His quest has been successful.

 

When she was an infant in the arms of a smoker, hot ash from a cigarette dangling from the lips of the smoker fell into her eye, blinding that eye for life. Years later she, her parents, and her siblings sailed to America. Arriving at Ellis Island, like millions of others wanting to immigrate, they were subjected to medical examinations.

The goal of immigration officials in the late nineteenth century was to avoid the spread of infectious diseases and provide the growing nation a strong, capable, healthy work force. Of particular concern was the contagious eye disease trachoma, a condition that caused more deportations than any other ailment. Diseased individuals and those with obvious defects were rejected.

The little girl with the blind eye was not allowed to immigrate. Sent back to Europe, she was left with her mother’s family in this village. Promises of reuniting at a future time were made by her tearful parents. But separated by an ocean, world events, and time, her life flew by. Even the exchange of letters stopped over time. Nurtured by loving relatives, the girl grew into a woman, married, had a family of her own, and lived a long life in the beautiful mountains of Slovakia.

Now, close to a century later, a name she had all but forgotten resounds in her cozy kitchen. A young man who carries that name is smiling at her, happy to meet her and eager to hear her stories. Her father and his great-grandfather were brothers.

Decades pass. The little old woman is buried in her native land and the visiting man is no longer young. Odd, he muses, how the crystal-blue eyes of his smiling, two-year-old grandson remind him of a little old lady with a milky-blue eye and a black eye patch an ocean away.

 
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Crossing the Stanton Street Bridge

When I moved to El Paso, it was still a groggy border town that had never heard of a cartel and was safe enough for those of us teaching at the University of Texas in El Paso to stretch our salaries by doing our grocery shopping in the Juarez Mercado – as long as we hired a loitering teen from Avenida Cinco de Mayo to watch our car.

It was one of those days I was having students over for an evening discussion of Joyce, and I needed tortilla chips and Cokes, so as soon as I picked up Jennifer and Dicky from kindergarten, I veered across the Stanton Street Bridge for a quick stop at the market.

I paid the usual five pesos to the car watcher and buckled the children in the back seat with rainbow colored sugar sticks while chip grease soaked through the brown paper sacks, and hoped Dicky’s Latina mother wouldn’t mind his having candy in the middle of the afternoon. When she’d come by a few weeks earlier and wept that she had to divorce her alcoholic husband and get a job and asked if I could take Dicky to school and bring him home with Jennifer, I forgot completely to check on food restrictions.

I’d driven onto the bridge and was idling five cars from the kiosk and the sign, WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES, before it struck me.

I didn’t know Dicky’s surname.

I could be smuggling the beautiful dark-skinned child, possibly bribed with a sugar stick, across the border.

Four cars.

I glanced in the rear-view mirror. “Dicky, what’s your name?”

Three cars.

He pulled the multi-hued candy cane from his sticky mouth and shouted happily, “Richard!”

Oh, shit.

One car.

“You two don’t move. And don’t say a word. Not a syllable. Understand?”

The border guard leaned his ruddy face down to peer in my window. “Nationality?”

“American.”

He looked hard in the back seat. “These yours?”

Never lie to border guards, who’ve been trained to recognize the cadence of dishonesty.

“Aren’t they sweet?”

With his thick fingers, he waved us on across the bridge.

 
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Whiling the Wait

We took a taxi to the border between Bulgaria and Greece that Friday afternoon –my colleague, Keith, and I – to celebrate my birthday in Thessalonica. Keith arranged with Lucky, his preferred taxi-driver in Blagoevgrad, to drive us south the sixty kilometers to the border.

We arrived at twilight. Trucks, cars, busses stretched about a mile waiting to cross. We planned to walk across. Lucky veered the taxi along the shoulder and drove us closer to the pedestrian walkway.

“Sunday, same time, same place,” Keith told Lucky.

Drivers and passengers sprawled on the sparse grass plot along the roadside or sat in the cabs of their dusty trucks and cars, doors open – glum, smoking, complaining. Colorless Russian Ladas, European Fords, Fiats continued to line-up. The Bulgarian border was closed.

Keith, fluent in Bulgarian, asked around.

He told me, “The guards are eating,”

“How many?”

“Does it matter?” he replied.

“Well, why can’t they take turns, do shifts?”

He looked at me, admonishing. I took a deep breath remembering not to say, again, “Why can’t they?” That’s what they do. The guards eat together.

The café on one side of the road was crowded with weary families trying to amuse and coddle their kids, obvious hookers, and a few holiday hopefuls like us. I traipsed down a sloping dirt footpath to the Turkish toilet covered by a flimsy green wood shed. Next to the café, a duty-free shop with mostly empty shelves sold milk chocolates made in a local Nestlé factory and cigarettes, probably produced in the tobacco factory in Blagoevgrad. On the opposite side of the road, vendors sold Bulgarian souvenirs and hand-made goods from open-air, wooden stalls – tablecloths, afghans, knitted clothing hung on clotheslines and stacked on folding tables.

I sauntered across, stopped at the table of a woman standing over stacks of small handmade goods.

Younger than me, I knew by her neck without crepe. A scarf on her head, apron below a straining blouse, unbuttoned pilling sweater, sleeves too short to cover her full arms. A boy of five or six sat on a folding chair behind the table. His large brown eyes fixed on me. She wore no rings, nails bitten to the quick. I pointed to a doily, like the ones my Lithuanian-born grandmother made when I was a child. I used my fingers to pantomime the act of crocheting.

“Did you make this one?”

“Da.” She shook her head side to side, Bulgarian yes, English no.

“Kolko.” (How much)?

She wrote, 200 L (leva).

“Dobre.” (OK).

She folded and placed the doily in a small plastic bag. “Blagadaria.” (Thank you).

“Merci.” (Thank you).

One dollar. It was near dark. Keith came behind me. “You should have bargained.”

To protect my precious new memory, I slid the doily into my shoulder bag, without reply.

“So what’s the story with the border?” I asked.

“Just opened. Let’s go.”

 


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7 thoughts on “Short Takes: Border Crossings

  1. Walt Fujii

    You captured the “on the road” experience. We come from different cultures but we are all only human. I look forward to more of your shared thoughts.

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