by: Cynthia Close
A real-life story of an authentic connection across cultures where an encounter opens a wound and recalls thoughts of a war, fifteen years in the past, that should have never been…
The snow came in thick, dense swirls and though we knew it was coming the suddenness of its onslaught took everyone sitting in the Greyhound bus by surprise, including the driver. We were idling outside the customs station on the United States side of the border between Vermont and Canada. Ours was the last bus to leave Montreal heading south before the remaining buses scheduled for the next twenty-four hours were canceled. All of the passengers had cleared the checkpoint except two, who, for reasons unbeknownst to us, were summarily herded into the dark recesses of a building that the rest of us had successfully managed to enter and exit. Not that any of our clearances were a given. Even a well-traveled, aging and middle class white woman like myself feels her pulse quicken when asked to hand over her passport while the heavily armed border agent scrutinizes some unseen data on a computer screen. Will my past travels to Mexico City and Romania raise suspicion?
Each time I’ve crossed the border between Vermont and Quebec, it has been a nerve-wracking ordeal. Especially, on the American side. The Canadians don’t seem to have the same chip on their shoulders, nor do they appear to take their job personally, like the American customs officers. Our polite northern counterparts are paid employees, doing a very straightforward task in a very straightforward way. Alternatively, the body language the Americans display is reminiscent of guinea hens who walk into the middle of a road and think they own it. Their fervor implies you should be prepared to genuflect in order to cross the sacred border they have vowed to protect.
I’ve never been able to discern what triggers the seemingly random searches. How do the uniformed, heavily armed border agents decide they need to examine everything you’ve managed to cram into your backpack? This has at times included my dirty underwear, which was unceremoniously spread out on the counter by their latex gloved hands as though to protect them from whatever horrific thing I might be harboring.
Returning from Montreal on a brutally hot day last summer all the passengers were ordered off the bus by an imposing, rifle-touting customs officer. This was unusual. The anxiety level in the air was palpable. In a flat, emotionless voice the officer directed us to bring all our belongings along with us. My eyes met others who glanced furtively about, as if one of us held the answer to what dangers might lie ahead. Forty people huddled together at the curb as that same uniformed officer paced behind, and in that same flat voice told us to stand in a straight-line, a few feet apart, in the driveway in front of the bus. The woman standing next to me only spoke French and seemed somewhat confused. I nodded to her to follow me.
Warily we obeyed the officer, shifting our positions, looking to him for confirmation that we were indeed in compliance. Around the backside of the bus, a very focused drug or bomb sniffing German shepherd emerged, nose to the pavement, with his uniformed handler, eventually making his way between and around each tense passenger. No reason for this extreme vetting was given. Being a dog owner I was not as nervous as the obviously terrified Haitian woman who tried to shelter her three young children as they wrapped themselves in the folds of her brightly patterned skirt. Montreal has a large Haitian population. Family members frequently travel on this route that runs south to Boston and further on into New York City. It was all I could do to suppress an urge to stand with her. I was so angry I thought my head would explode. While shifting from one foot to the other I shouted out to the dour faced dog handler.
“Why are we being subjected to this?”
“Training,” was his cryptic one word reply.
I wondered if it was dog training or handler training or both.
“Can’t you see these children are terrified?”
I was pushing the envelope, but I couldn’t help myself. My pleas were ignored. Some of the other passengers looked at me with an expression that said, “please shut-up, you’ll get us all in trouble.” After the compliant yet intense canine completed his task without incident we were told we could return to the bus, leaving some of us shaken, angry, and vulnerable.
Long before the election of Donald J. Trump I would sweat a little at the U.S. – Canadian border. After the German shepherd incident my anxiety level kicked-up a few notches, calling upon images of Gestapo terror from old World War II movies. A child of the sixties, “question authority” was my mantra. Being meek and acquiescent is impossible for me. I can barely contain my frustration fueled by the futility of my anger. Knowing this nauseates me. I am aware of the fragility of Democracy and the powerlessness I feel when confronted by an individual whose self-righteousness is grounded in the fact that they have the entire U.S. government on their side. As the navy-blue uniformed, in this case female, examiner rummaged through my luggage, I bristled with indignation. Her stern expression seemed fixed as she shot me a suspicious glance and asked me accusingly if I was harboring any fresh fruit — a forbidden item not allowed over the border for yet another unfathomable reason.
“No,” I said deadpan, not making eye-contact, “I never eat fresh fruit only dried up old fruit.” My bag was immediately zipped up. She handed me my passport and I was curtly told to “move-on.”
While I have no data to prove my point, it is my opinion that white individuals or couples, crossing the border in their cars, are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as lowly Greyhound Bus travelers. Perhaps being in a car immediately earns you some protection, a leg-up perhaps on the economic scale, unless you are of a particular ethnicity, raising an entirely different level of suspicion.
Finally, after more than an hour delay, the two hapless young detainees emerge from the dank bowels of the building and sheepishly get back on the bus like a couple of wounded animals. I dreaded to think of the interrogation they had survived. By then the encroaching storm had completely enveloped us. Our driver, Alek (pronounced “Al-éek” as he informed us proudly when he introduced himself at the beginning of our journey) was one of the best bus drivers I have ever ridden with. I’ve encountered him before on a number of my past trips back and forth over the border to visit my daughter, her husband, and my two delightful granddaughters who reside in Montreal. Alek is physically fit, of some indeterminate slightly foreign nationality, always cheerful, communicative and most importantly, he takes his driving very seriously. When he heard me muttering nasty epitaphs under my breath impugning the brainpower of our border enforcers, he turned to me with a slight smile and said, “that’s not nice” — and, he was sincere. He added, “they’re very, very busy in there.” I was somewhat chagrined. Here’s a guy who faces this frustration everyday, as part of his job, and takes it in stride, while I, the impatient complainer, must only occasionally bear it.
The bus inches out cautiously onto the snow-covered highway and Alek announces over the P.A. system, “I will do my best to get you all to the next stop, the Burlington Airport, as fast as I can — but your safety comes first. Please be patient, and try to relax.” The rest of the trip was slow, steady and uneventful. I sit behind Alek, gripping the armrests in white-knuckled fear watching cars skidding to the right and left of us. Alek does as he has promised, delivering us all in one piece and not as late as we might have been with a less skilled driver.
As the storm intensifies I become concerned it will be impossible to find a cab once we arrive in Burlington, especially one willing to stop by Gulliver’s Doggie Daycare to pick up Ethel, my 110 pound St. Bernard / Golden Retriever mix and bundle of love. I board her there when I travel. It unfortunately lies in the opposite direction from my home in Burlington’s New North End, adding another treacherous stretch of driving before my ultimate goal of getting to my front door and the warmth and security it represents. Some cabbies are truly afraid of dogs, often with good reason. Others take such pride in maintaining a clean cab they balk when I show-up with my furry, four-footed friend who prefers sitting up on the seat rather than lying obediently on the floor.
When I see several SUV style cabs parked in the passenger pick-up area I feel relieved. Most of these cabs are single vehicle, owner operated companies driven by immigrants as opposed to the in-town cab companies with small fleets of cars driven by locals operating under the direction of dispatchers. The first driver in the line of cabs rushes over and energetically grabs my bag. “Where to?” he asks me. He looks pleasant enough: mustache, light coffee colored skin, maybe middle-eastern or eastern European. Here’s the moment of truth, I think. Apologetically, I mention that I have to pick up my dog before heading home and I give him the address. Without a moment’s hesitation he says, “Hop in, I know where that is.”
Commenting on the snow he reassures me that his cab is equipped to handle the roads and that he’s been driving all day. “Will you get to go home after this fare?” I ask. His voice lightens. Jokingly he said, “my wife ordered me to keep working as she is hosting a ‘girl’s only’ birthday party for my thirteen-year-old daughter and men, even dads, are not allowed.” He glances into the rearview mirror and asks what kind of dog I have. I give him a description, including her size and he seems nonplused. Smiling, he convincingly says, “I like dogs.” We pull out of Airport Drive and merge onto the highway. A large number of cars are still on the road moving with great caution as the snow builds up quickly in ruts. Some vehicles are already stuck in drifts. There has been little time for the plows to do their work.
Pulling into the parking area of Gulliver’s I again have a brief moment of anxiety. Talking about a big dog is not the same thing as having a wet, excited, tail wagging animal panting in your back seat and fogging up your windows. An air of chaos hangs over the entrance as stressed-out owners wait outside the main office anxious to pick up their pooches in a whirling mass of steadily mounting snow. Only one dog and owner at a time is allowed in the cramped office. That’s the rule, and it’s a good one.
Finally, it is my turn. Ethel comes bounding out, joyful and oblivious to anything beyond seeing me and knowing she will soon be transported home. I pay the bill and head back to the waiting cab. Our accommodating driver showed no signs of reluctance as he pulls the wide side doors open and this mountain of wet, burnt sienna colored fur leaps inside. Ethel never needed to be coaxed, as she relished riding in a vehicle, any vehicle, going anywhere, anytime. Sliding in the back seat I am now aware of that distinctive wet dog smell enhanced by pungent doggie breath as Ethel tries to wedge her broad head and big black snout between the front seats to get a good whiff of the stranger at the wheel to whom we have entrusted our lives. Apologetic, I pull her back, but the driver smiles. Putting his arm around her significant neck, he gives Ethel a hug. Clearly his affection for dogs is authentic.
I settle back in my seat as we pull out onto the interstate heading north towards home. Our driver exudes both modesty and self-confidence, gaining my trust with each minute and small gesture. I briefly explain where I’ve been and why and that I’m a relative newcomer to Vermont. I remark about his slight accent and ask, “where are you from?” He glances in the rearview mirror as if to take in the sum total of who I am and in that moment judge the impact of his answer.
It’s as though all the air is suddenly sucked out of the vehicle. Our eyes meet briefly in the rearview mirror. I sense a deep well of pain behind his dark glance. A tumult of words pours out of my mouth, head, and heart. In a rush I tell him how I was on a bus in the dead of winter in Boston on a freezing cold February night in 2003 headed for Washington D.C. in what became the largest anti-war protest since Vietnam. I tell him over 500,000 people of all ages, races and religions showed up that day who knew the impending war was based on lies and oil and greed. I want him to know whose side I am on and how far that knowledge goes. Even now, fifteen years later, that violation, that war that never should have been is still an open wound, festering and poisoning the soul of the Middle East.
A new energy enters the soggy, dog-filled air inside that cab. My cab driver and I are kindred spirits. We compare notes on our parallel histories in the lead-up to the war. He is extremely well informed about the push and pull of all the significant powerbrokers of the time and the role Vice President Dick Cheney and his minions played, and the myth of “weapons of mass destruction.”
My cabbie attended university in Iraq. Before the war that country had a highly educated general population. Before the first American incursion in 1991 under the first president Bush, their enrollment rate in primary school was nearly one hundred percent. Attending school was mandatory and the Iraqi literacy rate was the highest in the Middle East. A sophisticated cultural elite supported museums of undeniable importance to human history, all of which have been destroyed — in part by the looting encouraged by the laconic attitude of American soldiers. I remember being incensed seeing video shot at the scene by those very same soldiers who sat around and grinned in their ignorance as priceless treasures came crashing to the ground in smithereens. It is undeniably the result of American-led aggression, domination, and sanctions that have given us an Iraq left in tatters.
My cabbie tells me he has a Doctorate in Chemistry and speaks six languages, including Arabic, and that while Saddam Hussein was no angel, he was good for Iraq — his strong-armed leadership helped hold the country together. I interject about the importance of speaking languages other than your native tongue and how I’m so proud of my daughter who speaks fluent English, French, Spanish, and has a working knowledge of German, Japanese and Korean. She is a dedicated nurse running a volunteer women’s health clinic in rural Guatemala between her regular job in a hospital in Montreal and being a mother. My Iraqi friend acknowledges my pride in her work as well as her ethics. A shared sense of social morality is in our family DNA. My enthusiasm spills out to include those two aforementioned granddaughters, who are fluently trilingual, English, French and Spanish.
“Good girls, talented girls, smart girls”, I gush.
My driver nods approvingly. I ask if he has grandchildren? A cloud falls across his face and his mood shifts. He hesitates. “No, it’s been difficult. I have an adult son in Germany and a daughter in Turkey. I have only been in the United States two years. We were all trying to get to Canada, to be together, but we couldn’t make it work.” His voice sinks and is tinged with despair. “I have seen unimaginable things. Over five hundred people, civilians, women and children and babies killed in one bomb…” His voice trails off as if he were back in that unspeakable place in the middle of a war engineered by the country in which we now both live. I feel my heart breaking.
The snow now obscures the road signs and I realize we are approaching my driveway, which even in good weather is easy to miss. I point the way and my cabbie deftly makes the turn and plows through the deepening, drifting snow stopping at my front gate. I ask the fare. At this point he can charge me anything and I will pay it, but his quote seems minimal, based on the experience I just had. I give him a tip that is more than half the total. He hesitates, holding the cash in his hand, “Did you mean to give me that much?” It was indeed meant and I assure him, “I am so grateful for your expert driving.”
He jumps out, opens the sliding side door for Ethel and me, retrieves my luggage and undeterred by the deep snow sets the suitcase by my front door. We stand facing each other, about a foot apart, in what my youngest granddaughter would now call a tempest. For the first time I stare directly into this man’s dark brown eyes and start to sob uncontrollably, saying “I am so, so sorry” like a mantra, over and over as if I could, through incantations, wipe away the past and all the devastation that my country has caused him and millions of others like him.
Without a word, he put his arms protectively around me and silently, knowingly, waits while I wail. I lay my head on his chest for just a moment as Ethel sits patiently by my side, an unusual act for her. My connection with that stranger in that instant is one of the most deeply felt experiences of my life. With a sniveling nose and mascara dripping down my cheeks, I self-consciously pull away and apologize. I realize I don’t even know his name. He reaches in his jacket pocket and pulls out a business card. It’s one of those do-it-yourself designs, in big black letters, all caps. “AMERICAN CAB,” a phone number, and his name, Osamah Aljanabi is all it says. He says I should call him whenever I need a cab and he will respond. I thank him again, gather Ethel’s leash, and watch as he reverses out of my driveway, disappearing like a ghost into the whiteness of the oncoming storm.
Cynthia Close is a contributing editor for Documentary Magazine and writes regularly for Vermont Woman magazine, Art New England, Professional Artist magazine, and Art & Object. Her creative non-fiction appeared in the 2014, 2016, and 2017 anthology, The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop, and her essays have been published in various literary journals including 34th Parallel, Woven Tales Press, The Black and White Anthology, The Seasons of Our Lives, Agni among others.