Interrogated and Admitted

30 10 2013

The bus driver stared through the glass doors at me, looking down every so often at his watch. He was waiting on me — and so were 20 some other people sitting on the Cantrail bus.

Meanwhile, the border patrolman continued his interrogation.

“John, you sell your stories, right?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, and then I began to give him more background on my career before he stopped me again.

“And what are you doing in Canada?,” he asked.

Again, I had no plans. This trip was more of a whim. I was this close, staying with a dear friend in Seattle, why not? Actually, I had always thought my first excursion into Canada would be into Quebec or Ontario. British Columbia, however, was proving to be difficult.

I told the officer I was planning on seeing two new friends for dinner that night in Vancouver. I had never met these gentlemen and that was part of the intrigue. One being a Canadian citizen, the other from Indonesia.

“How did you meet them?,” the officer asked, now sitting down in front of his computer behind the counter, no friendly expression on his face. To my left, through the glass doors, the bus driver began to pace. No doubt pissed with this situation and probably hankering for a cigarette.

“I only know them through the internet,” I explained. “This will be the first time we’ve met.”

At the border

At the border

This ticked off the officer even more. He demanded the address of the restaurant and immediately looked it up on his computer. It was a pizza place near the bus station.

“You don’t have a hotel reservation, you can’t tell me who you are here to see and I don’t know how you are getting back,” the officer declared. “I don’t know, John, this all sounds suspicious.”

He wanted my airline reservation back to Florida, but I was not letting him into that e-mail account. He then went for the holy grail — Facebook.

“Let me see it,” he said, demanding the i-phone. “I have one of these too.”

Suddenly, the bus driver came through the glass doors.

“How much longer we got here,” he asked the officer, while another Canadian guard, a black man about my age, walked past me and into the office behind the counter. He stared at me while he passed. I smiled and he continued on his way, but I did not want to see where he was going and I had had just about enough of this situation.

“I wanted to write about your beautiful country. This is my first time here,” I said.

The officer told the bus driver a few more minutes and turned his attention back to me. “I’m sure, John, if I was to come to Panama City you would want to know about me,” he sarcastically said.

“I would welcome you,” I said. “We are allies, after all.”

This was the one time during the course of his interrogation where we agreed. Scanning through my Facebook account, he asked what I wrote about in Panama City. I recalled one of my last assignments at the News-Herald when I reported on a murder case at a bayside motel. I told the officer I had always maintained a professional and courtesy relationship with the police.

“Why don’t you join them?,” he then asked, again with a sarcastic, yet serious tone. I had no answer.

He didn’t need one.

“Okay John, I’m going to let you in,” he declared, getting up out of his chair and handing me my passport back. “But make sure you don’t miss that flight back to Florida.”

Some welcome.

He then gave me my i-phone back, remarking “It looks like you like to hike a lot.”

I felt so defeated. I met the bus driver outside and we walked to the bus together without uttering a word between us. I was greeted by a strange silence as I climbed aboard the bus again. Some glances thrown my way but no one spoke. Before I could take a seat in the back, the driver loudly announced, “Next stop, Vancouver.”

At the station, I waited for the driver to unload everyone’s luggage before approaching and giving him a nice tip. He smiled and shook his head, “That’s the world we live in, kid,” he said.

Politically, tensions abroad were running high as the United States weighed its military options on Syria while a covert war raged across Africa. My first order of business in Canada was to the Greyhound Bus terminal to purchase a ticket back to Seattle. I would have less than 24 hours to celebrate Canadian liberty and I was damn determined to make the time count.

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Border Bliz

12 10 2013

My first visit to Canada almost did not happen. It gave me pause, literally.

Still in Seattle celebrating the end to a four-month long and arduous government contract, I decided to take a trip and see what our neighbors to the north were like. Ryan had to work so I was on my own. He recommended taking this “bullet bus” that cost just 20 bucks, but I stubbornly ignored him, intent on purchasing my fare from the Amtrak Station. It took a couple buses to get there as the station was located near the NFL football stadium and, by chance, there was a game that day. Seattle has a good team this year. The Seahawks they are called.

Of course it was raining.

The station was elegantly designed and the Amtrak tellers sharply dressed in their vests and ties. I showed the Ginger behind the window my passport and bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. As we waited, the rain continued to fall and Seahawks fans filled the terminal. Leaving around midday meant that I would not be taking a train, but rather a bus. I quickly made friends with the driver.

“Is there a bar on this thing?” I asked.

“You’ve had enough,” he shot back with a grin. The driver had a stomach that overhung his belt. It looked like blubber. He also chain-smoked. But he would ultimately come to my aid. The bus didn’t even display the company markings of Amtrak — “Cantrail,” it read on the side in big green letters. It was about half full of Canadians and Americans. As we left, the crowd from neighboring Century Link Field roared with the excitement of the Seahawks doing battle against the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars.

“What’s that sound?,” one young lady asked, oblivious to the sports world.

I sat near the back, wearing Levi blue jeans, a white and tan plaid shirt, my trusty Columbia hiking boots and Yellowstone ball cap. I had just my black hiking backpack with me. Someone on a previous trip had even left a copy of the Vancouver Weekly in the seat so I perused it while filling out customs form. The entertainment ads were quite impressive. Everything was perfect.

And then we stopped at the border.

Everyone had to get off the bus and go through a border “security” line. Posted directions were in English and French. The first border patrol officer, in his 40s, tall and resembling an Indian, perhaps, with dark black hair and brown complexion, asked me where I was going. “Vancouver,” I responded. He looked at my passport and asked me who I was going to see. “Friends,” I responded.

“How did you meet these friends,” the officer asked.

“On the internet,” I replied.

“What website?,” the officer asked.

And without thinking … “Instagram,” I replied.

This answer prompted him to send me into the office behind him, while everyone else on the bus was allowed to exit stage left and reboard. The next border patrol officer, from behind a counter, stood up to greet me as soon as I walked in — asking my occupation, who I worked for and what I was doing in Canada. I explained I had recently finished an assignment in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and was traveling on vacation and while I was a freelance journalist, I had no itinerary and, more troubling to him, no hotel reservations.

“All this sounds suspicious,” the officer said. He was younger than the first guard and had much more of a dominant attitude. Caucasian, 6-foot-5, blond buzz cut. He didn’t like me. “Give me the address of where your friends live,” he continued.

I didn’t have it.

Frustrated, the Canadian pressed forward.

“What kind of articles do you write?”

“Travel and adventure,” I replied. And this was certainly turning into just that. The officer, dressed in cobalt fatigues with the name “Anderson” etched across his left chest, continued his questioning as the rest of my fellow travelers sat on the bus waiting.

“I can’t believe you don’t have a address or a hotel reservation. Do you have a ticket back to Florida?”

I did, but I did not have a way of showing him. My I-phone was jammed. No signal. Now, I felt he was clearly playing games. He made it clear that he did not want me to overstay my welcome and enroll for Canada’s “social services.” I told him we had this issue in America and I assured him this would not happen. I then complained that I had recently traveled to Italy and getting in was not nearly like this.

“Yeah, well, Europe has a lot more lax standards,” he said.

The interrogation would continue.





Seattle First Report

22 09 2013

I’m in Seattle. Gloomy clouds linger over the skyline. I have a perfect view from my friend’s flat in Capitol Hill. Ryan and I are former colleagues in journalism from my time in the Florida panhandle. Ryan did four years. I stupidly stayed 10. Glad to be reunited in Seattle. This is my first visit and the city is quite amazing, its terrain much like that of the hilly layout found in West Coast neighbor San Francisco. I have had no problem hiking this concrete jungle, rarely getting winded. Yellowstone has prepared me well.

Ryan has been taking me to some of Seattle’s unique nightclubs and already I have encountered interesting characters. The Queer community here is strong and appears to be well organized. Ryan usually spots a friendly face. I have experienced similar reactions during my daily patrols of the city. People here seem to strive to be nice. I have seen quite a few gestures of kindness and goodwill toward fellow man. While waiting for Ryan to finish work at a smoothie shop in Queen Anne (the rich neighbourhood) I saw this eldery man attempt to drive his vehicle the wrong way on a one-way street. He didn’t get too far. Thankfully. Another man came off the sidewalk, hands waving and yelling for the car to “Stop!”  It did, thankfully,  without incident and was able to turn around and continue on.

Walking in the city has been my mode of transportation. I am reminded of how Stephen Ambrose described Merriweather Lewis as a good explorer, writing that he had “long legs” which allowed him to cover much ground in one day. While not near the level of Lewis’ Oregon Trail journey, my time here is one of discovery nevertheless. My dear Ann is in Chicago, staying at a hostel at last word. I pleaded with her not to go to the south side where there is so much violence and death reported. She probably thinks I’m being an overcautious daddy. She might be right.

I have perused the Pike’s public market these last two days. Fresh fruit, chocolate, cheese and fish in abundance. From the docks you can take a scenic cruise into the bay or beyond with a chance of seeing whales. Everyone here seems happy. It is quite touristy, but the workers do a good job of entertaining. An old hippie playing a wooden piano in the center of the market earns a good living. Music is a major part of Seattle. While still a baby compared to its European contemporaries, Barcelona and Krakow, perhaps, Seattle is definitely an emerging travel destination. Rooted in a grungy style of rock & roll with favorite sons such as Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, Seattle, certainly, has its place in sound. So far I have only experienced those talents of a record dee-jay although I hope to see a band perform soon.

Despite its socialist tendencies, Seattle does require money to live in as I’m finding out. Ryan works two jobs and lives in a fabulous neighborhood, neatly mixed with brick apartment complexes and wooden row houses. The locals call it Capitol Hill or “The Hill” for short. There are pretty coffee shops and retail shopping nearby as well as that big bank bastard BofA. I like the bus stop just a few blocks down le rue. Lots of cultures here as one bus ride will tell you and it takes a true talent to drive one of those things up and down some of these hills. On my ride down to the Space Needle our driver must have thrown at least five people off the bus. Just by his driving alone. He looked like a crazy mad scientist type, just back from resurrecting Frankenstein.

Gotta go. Write later.

Pike's Place

Pike’s Place





Gordon’s Moon

31 03 2010

A lot has happened since Jim and I returned from that vacation.

I now live in a house with three other people. Still waiting on that check from Uncle Sam.

I talked to Gordon today on the I-phone. Wonderful product that I-phone.

“Who is this?,” he asked.

“Gordon, it’s John,” I said. “John McDonald.”

“Oh, John, thank you for coming over to see the play,” he said.

I had just returned from Jacksonville, where Gordon was directing the Eugene O’Neill classic “A Moon For The Misbegotten.”

'Moon' Set

O’Neill’s work tends to be gut-wrenching and Gordon’s adaptation was proof. Not many director’s are up to this kind of challenge.

“Your show made me come away thinking,” I told Gordon.

“Good,” he replied. “That’s what we want.”

He then proceeded to run down the theater scene in Panama City pretty good and I couldn’t say that I blamed him. It leaves much to be desired. Still clinging to hillbilly musicals and cross-dressing comedies.

These days, if one is to be truly intellectually challenged by the theater, they must hit the road — or take a plane  — and get the hell out of Panama City.

And Gordon was doing just that when I called,  heading back to Jacksonville — by bus.

“How ya like riding that Dirty Dog,” I asked him, remembering my most recent experience taking the bus to Atlanta. Some of those stations can be pretty scary.

“Oh it’s fine,” he said, in a reassuring tone.

I told Gordon that when he returned again from Jacksonville, we must meet for lunch. I had several questions about O’Neill’s play and it had been a while since Gordon and I dined out. I missed him.

Last night, I joined a group of nine at one of Bay County’s best waterfront restaurants. The chef personally made several trips to our table.

The conversation started with sports, shifted to business, inevitably moved into politics, then Hollywood, and ultimately ended with that tired game of “Who’s Gay.”

Don’t get me wrong, it was an entertaining evening, the food delicious, and I got to wear my skinny tie from New York. The one my Japanese friend Keita bought me at the American Apparel store on the lower East Side. I so enjoy dressing up for dinner.

Theater didn’t come up much at the table. I did mention seeing the O’Neill play, but only one other person seemed interested, so I didn’t spout off too much. After all, it was a pretty depressing story.

Intermission Mingling

Still, I marveled how, in Gordon’s “Moon,” words such as “Queer” and “Limey” and “Shanty” were tossed about and no one flinched. The crowd was so obedient that night. The actors clearly had many in the palm of their hands.

Above all, the performance made you think. Think about a lot things — overweight women, poor dirt farmers, alcoholism. And there were times when you wanted to look away.

That, my friends, is powerful theater.

And I don’t see anything wrong with that.





On to Mobile

19 10 2009

The Greyhound goes West before it goes North.

From the Panama City station, we pulled out shortly after 5 on a Sunday evening. The bus was nearly full and it would get fuller as we made several stops before my switch in Mobile, Alabama.

Alabama. The Heart of Dixie. This is where I received my college education.

Those were the days.

Flash forward some 20 years and here I am riding the bus with all of my worldly-belongings stuffed into a bag in the seat underneath me.

Looking around, there wasn’t many clean-cut professional types on this particular route. In fact, there were some pretty hardened criminals on board. This I noticed before boarding in Panama City. Seems the ol’ Hound is how some law enforcement agencies elect to transfer their folks…in bright orange jumpsuits, of course.

Riding along was a healthy dose of our country’s rising Hispanic population. The bus is their means of transportation as well.

Occasionally, a baby would cry and there was spurts of chitter-chatter among some of the passengers. One man spent a good 45 minutes running down the people of Bay County.

“Pay County!,” he declared. “That’s what they should rename that place.”

I got the impression, instantly, that this man was glad to be getting away. He wasn’t the only one.

As we passed through Panama City Beach — where the construction boon during the Bush years transformed this sleepy Southern outpost into a major player on the vacation circuit — the man became more irate.

“Overbuilt,” he decried. “Look at all those empty condos.”

Although he was sitting across the aisle, I did not wish to engage this man in his commentary. His head was a little too shaven for my taste. He looked like the kind of person who was steadfast in his convictions. And plus, he seemed really angry.

We picked up more passengers the closer we got to the Alabama line. Thankfully, the angry man got out in Pensacola. His seat taken by a young lady with a carefully constructed appearance.

She smiled and pulled out a tube of lipstick from her purse.

I went back to reading my book. The bus driver reminded everyone that we were bound for Mobile and if anyone wanted to stay in Florida they had better get off now.

“Where ya headed?” the young lady asked.

“New York,” I replied.

“Oh.” She seemed surprised. “Why?”

“To find work,” I said, trying not too sound too friendly as I very much wanted this conversation to end. Must keep my guard up, I thought, for it will definitely be needed in the City.

Her interest piqued and her confidence bolstered with a fresh tint of makeup, the girl didn’t want to stop talking.

“I’ve never been to New York,” she said in an admittedly cute backwoods drawl.

I continued to read my book.

She got the hint.

The layover in Mobile was five hours. Utter boredom. There would be no stops on the drive to Atlanta and I slept the entire way. I was the only passenger to get out at the airport.

I was leaving one demographic and joining another.

Onward, must press onward!