A routine crossing of the US-Mexico border turns into The Great Wall of Silence.
The border between the United States and Mexico is roughly 2,000 miles long. The largest of its 42 ports of entry is at San Ysidro, which separates San Diego, CA from Tijuana, MX, with 24 northbound lanes, each manned by an inspector from US Customs and Border Protection.
Over the years, I’ve encountered border inspectors who were friendly, funny, professional, pleasant, courteous and helpful. I’ve also run into inspectors who were surly, sarcastic, curt, caustic, racist, rude, edgy and weary. In other words, pretty much what you’d expect when the house odds are one in 24.
But the one we ran into last Friday was unique.
Three friends of mine, including railfan and IBIT guest columnist Walt Baranger, had gone down to our favorite TJ restaurant, Villa Saverios, a beautiful, classy Mediterranean resto whose food and decor can hold their own with any other on the planet.
After cruising for a few minutes around the city, we headed back to San Diego, which meant getting in one of those 24 lines at San Ysidro.
Anyone who’s ever made that crossing can tell you it’s not a fun experience. In fact, it’s the principal reason why I scarcely visit Tijuana anymore. You have to make your way through a labyrinth of streets just to get to the border crossing, then sit in line for an hour or more as you inch your way up to the gate.
And so it was that 75 minutes after getting in line and crawling past the street vendors selling everything from steamed corn, ice cream and Clamato juice to newspapers and cell phone accessories, we arrived with passports ready at Gate 9 to face the inspector.
Who looked at us.
He looked to be in his mid- to late 50s, of Filipino extraction. One of those drawn, hard faces, creased with long, vertical striations that gave his visage a petrified appearance. A face you could’ve chipped arrowheads out of.
A face that continued to look at us, and say…nothing.
Not “Hello” or “welcome to the United States.” Not “what’s your citizenship?” or “do you have identification?” Not “who the hell are you people and what were you doing down there in Tia Wanna?”
This inspector had a stare that could travel the length of the US-Mexico border from end to end…and back.
And I think it did.
We were waiting for some sort of questions, some sort of commands, which is the norm when crossing almost any international boundary in the world. What this inspector was waiting for, I have no idea.
He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at us. We looked at him. His head didn’t move. His eyes didn’t blink. No air passed through his lips, in or out.
For a moment, I feared we had become the unwitting test subjects for some experimental interrogation technique. Either that, or we’d somehow blundered into a remake of that movie, “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”
Were we being investigated? Were we being shunned? We had no idea…and Inspector Stonehenge definitely wasn’t saying.
I began thinking of crimes to which I could confess, just to see if that might prompt a response.
Okay, I did it! I held the ladder for the guy who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby! I packed D.B. Cooper’s parachute! I mowed the grassy knoll in Dallas!
I’m not sure how much time we passed in this stony silence, but when it began to look as if we might be here until nightfall, I figured somebody had better say something.
So I did.
“US citizens?” I offered, preparing in the next breath to reveal the location of Amelia Earhart’s missing airplane.
With that, the Sphinx slowly extended his hand, a gesture we took to mean he wanted to see our passports.
“Where do you live?” he suddenly asked.
I damn-near had a heart attack.
Another question or two, a brief perusal of my car trunk. He then handed us back our passports, and—
Silence again. Not an “Okay,” a “have a nice day,” or even “get the hell on outta here.” Back into Sphinx mode.
Had he found the Lindbergh baby in my trunk and just didn’t want me to know?
On the CBP Web site is a six-point “Pledge to Travelers.” The first two of those points read as follows:
- “We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States.”
- “We pledge to treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect.”
It’s safe to say we didn’t get any of that.
I think this guy is missing his calling. He probably could make a very nice living as a professional gambler.
Or a mime.
It takes all kinds to make an agency like the CBP function, but the strong and totally silent types may not be the ones you want to have dealing with the public.