It only happened a few times, and only on the 89 driving out of the country, past the last vestiges of Vermont: Swanton, St. Alban’s and Highgate Springs, hitting the 47th parallel.
The bright lights reminded me of a concert or airport though it was just the Canadian border up ahead. Quietly the US border station on my left that I normally whizzed past had now set up a blockade. I had to go through their lines in order to get to the Canada border station and then into Canada.
“What’s this?” my passengers asked in unison.
“Passports,” I said, holding out my right hand.
“The US wants to see our passports before leaving the US?” one of them asked. “We already had to do that to get in…”
“They do it once in a while,” I said, turning down the stereo before breaking Gretchen the Pug to a stop. One other car stopped ahead of us.
Two guards stood outside the checkpoint. The US station was mainly set up to receive visitors coming from the Canadian side who travelled south. All of the doors and windows indicated this. But they also had this abandoned looking booth set off from the main building for purposes just like this evening.
I rolled down my window as the first guard pointed his flashlight into the front and then to the back seat.
“Hello,” I said evenly, handing him everyone’s passports.
The guards looked more like military than like cops, or maybe it was their bearing. Cops never made me feel like the guards did, erring on the side of guilt until I could prove myself innocent.
The second guard walked around the right and back of Gretchen the Pug, his flashlight also working the angles.
“Where do you all live?” Guard One asked us. We answered: Boston, Montreal, Montreal and …
…when gal #4, Canadian Valley Girl, said, “Toronto” the guard flashed on her face longer than the others.
I looked in my rearview mirror to see that the line behind us grew with cars waiting to get in to Canada. I adjusted the mirror. CVG flipped her dark shiny hair behind her right ear. Emphasizing the girl-ness to her, adding a visual to her voice which sounded like Valley Girl, but Valley Girl from Canada since I’d caught her saying “bean” for “been” while she talked simultaneously to the other rider in the backseat and also into her phone.
Canadian Valley Girl had flirted shamelessly with one of the guys behind the Subway sandwich counter when we stopped in New Hampshire for something to eat and to gas up. When he gave her a 12 oz cup to fill up with soda pop for free, she acted as though this had always happened. I did not doubt this.
The attention this time on CVG was different, something she was not accustomed to.
“You’re Saudi,” Guard one asked.
“I’m Canadian,” she said.
“It says here…”
“…well I was born there but my parents who are from Pakistan moved to Toronto when I was a baby. I’m Canadian now,” she said.
This did not pacify the Guard, so he started asking me all kinds of questions. How did I know everyone. Why was I driving them. What kind of person drove strangers. Didn’t I know it was risky.
A few times in the past I answered the same kinds of questions at the Canada booth: “Well we all know each now…it’s been 5 and a half hours in this little car!” Which worked only once.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “I don’t really know who I’m driving,” I said.
It bothered Guard One that I was not looking more upset. “How do you know they’re not terrorists?” he asked me.
“I don’t,” I said. I grouped the fingers on my right hand together into a board and then tapped the board on the steering wheel for emphasis.
I looked at the faces around me, all female, all under the age of 24.
Guard One pointed to the Valley Girl Canadian again and sneered, “How do you know she’s not a terrorist?” I racked my mind for an answer that would satisfy this guy. I thought back to my townie friend whose Peabody MA accent coated her speech with a tough outer skin.
I decided to chance it with the Guard.
“I’m bigger than she is. I’m tougher than she is, and I could take her out.” I emphasized route as in take her route.
My Peabody friend and my younger sister had hung out at my apartment several years back, spending an afternoon sliding down the long oak bannister from the 2nd floor to the front door. ‘And I could take youout,” was their theme song, twins separated from genetics, time and space.
Guard One turned purple with laughter. Yelled at Guard Two, “Hey, yeah, she could take her route!” His shoulders dropped an inch. “Yeah,” he said again. “You could.”
He handed me back the passports. He signalled with his flashlight, moving from right to left in Arabic reading fashion, that we could leave.
I drove up to the Canadian border crossing. Handed the Canadian guard the passports and answered badly in French until she switched over to English. I said in monotone, “We don’t know each other. We just met.” She let us go after typing things into the big Canadian database.
Usually driving past the restroom building, separate from the border compound, induced exhortations of glee. Only an hour left, right? And then talking about their evening plans. Or texting friends and family about where to meet up with them.
One of the Montrealers exhaled, “That was rough. I can’t believe he called you a terrorist.” Canadian Valley Girl remained silent.
We crossed the Champlain Bridge, took the 10 to downtown and drove beneath the telltale spotlight on top of the Place Ville Marie building, blessing everyone entering the city from the south. The party light usually made every single one of the riders fidgety and optimistic. Rather than dumping them all off at the McGill station on University, as I usually did, I drove the young women to each of their meetups. Canadian Valley Girl was last to leave my car – to the bus station on rue Berri. I asked her, “Check to see you’ve got your phone and wallet, ok? Do you want some M&M’s for your ride to Toronto?”
I turned away from the 720, the faster way to get north, and headed west on Sherbrooke to take in the night lights of the city, the gorgeous architecture of the area, the groove of the pedestrians heading for destinations noires.
I tuned the radio to 90.3, a university station that offered up weird evocative music more often than the usual set lists, just like in Boston. I passed by Philomene’s neighborhood, past R’s old neighborhood, past the place where one of my first riders went to visit her sister, a villagey kind of area, back to the bustle of NDG and then onto the deCarie, taking me up to the long dark highway, home.