I unexpectedly had a call-free locum tenens night, which is a rare treat in an of itself, so I decided to head up to Canada to visit Kingston Ontario. Kingston, so I had heard, is a wonderful city with nice shopping and restaurants and bars and culture and history. It is a university town on the north shore of Lake Ontario and is basically just across the lake from where I was working as a locum tenens urologist.
I was alone.
I was bored.
And any who knows me well, knows that driving up to Canada, just because I could, is something I would jump at the opportunity to do.
So I found myself heading north on I-81 as the sun set, toward the Thousand Islands Bridge.
The Thousands Islands region of NY is spectacular, especially in the summer, and totally worth the visit. The region is so named for the myriad and multiple islands of granite and vegetation that pop out from the surface of the upper St Lawrence River as she begins her 732 mile journey from Cape Vincent, NY, the spot where Lake Ontario ends and the St Lawrence begins, to the Atlantic Ocean, on a meandering course that, according to geologists, defies the laws of hydrodynamics.
Many of the tiny islands have even tinier summer homes on them. Some tiny islands have mansions on them, the Thousand Island's equivalent to Long Island's "McMansion" phenomenon. There are castles here that were built, on some of the islands, during America's Gilded Age. Several of them are tourist spots and can be visited for a modest fee, thanks in part to the Underwood Act of 1913, which established federal income tax in the United States. A result of income tax was the top to bottom wealth redistribution and the rise of middle class, which forced the super-rich to sell their assets to pay taxes.
But I digress.
The history of the region is fascinating. During the war of 1812, Canadians living along the river were forced by the British to hand over food and supplies to the military in order to supply the war effort. In order to survive, the people "accepted" food and supplies from American entrepreneurs, their enemies, on the New York side of the river. The Thousand Islands, during the War of 1812--and again during Prohibition--saw intense smuggling that authorities on either side of the border found impossible to curtail due to the sheer number of hiding spots amid all the nooks and crannies the islands had to offer. I suspect smuggling still happens here with some amount of regularity given the availability of inexpensive medication and legal marijuana from Canada.
I'd find out soon enough that American Customs and Border Patrol suspected smuggling was rampant here as well.
I had toured the area several times over the past few years whenever I was in the area doing locum. I didn't know much about the Canadian side because I was never willing to risk going to Canada while on call. Was the Canadian side nice as well? I suspected it would be and I'd find out soon enough. What tension I felt faded as I crossed the Thousand Islands Bridge and I looked out on the St Lawrence River below me.
I kept going and I approached Canada's border patrol stop.
"Good evening" said the Border Patrol guard. "May I see your Passport."
He asked me a few questions and without delay he waived me through the check point and into his country.
Canada is a different country from the USA. Many Americans find this fact surprising...and I was one of them. But Canada is not the United States and she seems to not really want to be, either. We may share common language and get along pretty well but the countries are distinct from each other. I could sense this immediately upon entering it. All signs are in English and French and the metric system is used, as opposed to the imperial system that we in the USA still use. I still remember when the United States was contemplating adopting the metric system in 1975 under President Carter.
Carter was just too far ahead of his time.
I began to notice the highway signage, mostly the speed limit of Max 100.
Until I noticed the teeny, tiny KPH next to it.
Friggin Canadian wusses.
I had a moment of panic when I saw Kingston 36 and my GPS said Kingston 20 or so miles. Does GPS not work in Canada? Did I take a wrong turn? Was I going to a different Kingston?
Oh yes. Metric.
I noticed other interesting signs like the ones honoring Loyalists and Canadian military prowess during the War of 1812. Yes, this is a different country, indeed. Loyalists are never honored in the United States. My daughter, Lex, had an assignment in grade school a bunch of years ago. The students of her class were told to ask their parents if they, the parents, would have been Loyalists or Patriots in 1775. Of the 23 kids in her class, she was the only student that had a dad as a Loyalist. She was humiliated--her first in a long string of eccentric-father embarrassments. I tried to explain to her that I could see the Crown's point of view. The colonists were happy to accept King George's money when they needed the aid to defend against French led Indian attacks during the French and Indian War. However, when the King needed to recoup some of his losses with modest and perfectly reasonable taxation, we, the colonists, went nuts. I just thought I'd have seen it then for how I see it now, assuming I could have avoided the tar and feathering.
"Dad, you are a dork."
I found other signs fascinating as well, particularly ones related to Canadian Naval victories during the War of 1812, which seemed to me to be the very same battles that Americans claimed as victories in our signage just across the lake.
Yes, it is true: history depends on who does the writing.
As I neared Kingston, the traffic began to grow as did my nerves. I called Lex on the phone.
"Lex, I'm freaking out!"
"I am in Canada."
"I am busy." Click.
I finally arrived in downtown, historic Kingston--aka Centreville--by 5:30 pm. The night was moonless and pitch black, aside for the street lamps, and I was unable to see any of the beauty from the waterfront park where Lake Ontario, the St Lawrence and Cataraqui Rivers meet. Plus, it was 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which in Celsius is, like, a lot less. I walked around Princess Street for a bit and when my nuts were just about frozen solid, I walked into a coffee shop that had a roaring fire. I purchased a delicious cheesecake brownie and a cup of latte'.
I only mention this because I truly believe that it was this very cup of latte' that was the deciding piece of evidence to keep me out of immigration detention upon my return to the United States later that evening.
I only stayed in Kingston for an hour tops because, one, it was cold, and two, my iPhone GPS no longer worked. I read once that people's innate sense of direction and navigation has been worsening since smart phone usage has become so ubiquitous. I believe that to be true. I was not certain at all how to get home from Kingston without step by step directions from Siri, but I had no choice. Rodgers, the mobile carrier in Ontario, would not give me access to Siri.
It took my full concentration but ultimately I found a sign reading "Bridge to USA" and I-81 next left. I sighed. Phew.
Five minutes later I approached the US border patrol station. I was remembering many years ago. when I came through Check Point Charlie into the American Sector of West Berlin, how amazing it felt to see my fellow countrymen. I rolled down the window of my rental car.
We like to think of Canada as our wonderfully nice neighbors to the north but we forget that Canada is different from the United States and that going there is not like going, say, from Illinois to Iowa. Crossing an international border entails the giving up of certain rights, one of which is to travel unimpeded.
"Hello" I said.
I handed the young US Border Patrol agent the blue passport of the United States of America.
"What is your nationality?, he asked.
"United States" I replied. Duh!
"What were you doing in Canada?'
"Where did you go?"
"What did you do there?"
"Walked around, got coffee."
"You went all the Canada just to have coffee."
"No, I went to Canada to see Kingston. I had coffee because I passed a coffee shop and decided to have some."
"Where are you staying in the United States?"
"You are from Watertown?"
"No, I am from Long Island."
"What are you doing in Watertown?"
"Do you have any weapons in the car?"
"No." Though I couldn't recall if I my prescription Atorvastatin, 10mg, was in my bag or not. I was getting nervous.
"Any biologics or plants?"
"How much cash is in the car?"
"I don't know. However much is in my wallet. Maybe 20,30 bucks."
"What is in the back pack?" My back pack was in the back seat. He shined a flash light at it.
"I don't think so. Maybe some socks and a few tennis balls,"
"I need you to pull the car up 6 feet then stop."
I pulled the car up.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! I said 6 feet. Does that look like 6 feet?"
I looked at how far I came. It looked pretty reasonable to me.
"This is more like 8 feet." he said, annoyed.
I said I was sorry. I thought it was 6 feet but now that he pointed it out I could clearly see I was wrong.
"Do you see the officer, over there, that is flashing the light? I need you to pull the car up to her."
"Ok." This is not going how I envisioned it would. I pulled up to the female CBP agent.
"You can take your cellphone. I need the car keys. Go to the office over there." and she motioned to the station house.
There were maybe 3 or 4 sullen looking people sitting on metal benches. A young male, CBP agent, pointed at me and said, "I'll take you over here. We'll get your passport back to you as soon as possible and get you out of here."
"What were you doing in Canada?"
"Tourism. I wanted to visit Kingston."
"Who did you meet?"
"What did you do there?"
"I walked around. I got coffee."
"You went all the way to Canada to have coffee?"
"No. I went to Canada to see Kingston. The coffee was incidental."
"What do you do in Watertown?"
"I am a urologist covering call at Samaritan Medical Center."
He repeats me, robotical, "YOU ARE A UROLOGIST COVERING ON CALL AT SAMARITAN MEDICAL CENTER. Do you see how rehearsed that sounds?"
I paused, unsure how to proceed. Is he going to start testing me on my urology knowledge? I began to think that going to Canada might not have been a good idea.
"No. I don't see that. It is not rehearsed. I am a urologist. Samaritan has only one urologist and when he is away, the hospital needs coverage. I am covering beginning tomorrow."
"And they take you, all the way from Long Island?"
"Yes, that is correct."
"When did you come up?"
"How did you get there?"
"I flew JFK to Syracuse then drove, in this rental car."
"You said you work at Samaritan on occasion. Do work on Long Island?"
"Yes, I have my own practice."
"What is it called?"
"Richard A Schoor MD PC." He wrote it down.
"You said you got coffee. Do you have any proof of that? Any receipts?"
I began to search my pockets and I found the parking receipt. I could not find the coffee receipt. It was hours later, after I calmed down, that I realized I never got one.
"Here is the parking receipt." I handed it to him. He took and studied it. "No coffee receipt? What was the name of the coffee shop?"
I shrugged and blew air out of my mouth. "I am not sure. Something Crave or something or other is coming to mind. I don't know. I am sorry."
He told me to have a seat and pointed to the metal benches. He'd be back soon, he said.
I sat there on the bench. I was reading on my iPhone, trying to stay calm, when I was yelled at.
"Hey, no cell phones. You see that sign? It says no cell phone."
I didn't respond but I put the cell phone away immediately. In truth I was more annoyed than alarmed because I had done nothing wrong. Perhaps they were just doing their jobs, perhaps I fit some profile, or perhaps they just wanted to mess with me; I did not know. I did feel powerless, however, and I hated it. I can only imagine how terrible it must be for people of color in the US for whom this type of encounter with law enforcement is a frequent occurrence. Driving while black.
The CBP agent returned 15 to 20 minutes later. He waived me over to him.
"We found a cell phone in your bag." He paused to let that fact sink into my brain.
"Why do have 2 cell phones?"
"One is for work. So I can call patients back."
"Why are they 2 operating systems? Your other phone is an iPhone. The one in the car is Android."
"It is a Google phone. It is cheaper than an iPhone."
He paused and stared at me for moment or so. He then indicated that the questioning--which to me was an interrogation--was over and that I was free to go. I was given my car keys back and was allowed to return to my car. I wasted no time getting the fuck out of there and I gunned the engine in acceleration back onto the highway, never looking back. It was not until I was over the Thousand Islands Bridge and back onto the US mainland that I noticed 2 items in my cup holders. One was my hospital ID badge from Samaritan Medical Center. The other was a coffee cup. There was still some liquid in it. I picked it up and peered at the side of the cup.
Crave Princess St Kingston ON.
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You have been reading an excerpt from my soon to be released book, Stream of Consciousness: A Tail of Male Infertility, Medicine, Life, & The New York Thruway (A Real Cock & Ball Story).