Ah the brain drain, that mythical, mystical device that efficiently sucks talented Canadians into the United States.
I got clogged in the brain drain just recently.
It began, as these things do, with a trip to the border by car. In order for me to work in Phoenix, I needed to obtain TN status on my passport. This is a NAFTA thing, and the websites leave the impression that this is no big deal.
A two-hour drive to the border, and a two-hour interview later, I found myself denied entry into the United States. The major issue was that the agent didn’t believe me when I said a) I was an academic (‘what’s the university of reading?’ ‘reddding‘ I helpfully pronounced…. don’t ever contradict the agent) and that b) the work involved teaching. ‘Try this again, and you’ll be arrested for fraud, and perjury’.
Talk about being humbled with a wee bit of humiliation as I tried to explain to the Canadian customs agent why I was denied entry…
The clock was ticking. The advice I had was that there was nothing wrong with my credentials, or the job description, and that I should try again. I was still nervous about that whole ‘fraud’ thing, since I had done nothing wrong but try to apply for my NAFTA rights. Don’t read the websites that tell you what to do: they’re lawyers, trying to sell their services, and they’ll make you sick with worry.
I know. I did. I puked. My wife talked me down from the edge, and I resolved to try again. After all, I really need the job. I’ve been an academic since 2002, and haven’t yet managed anything more permanent than a single one year postdoc or a perpetual sessional gig. Basic supply and demand. We churn out phds, but nobody knows what to do with us now we’re out. Not like a specialism in stamped brick could go wrong, you’d think! (note to MAs out there: don’t bother with the PhD, it’ll close your job opportunities. Do it only if a) it makes your entire being sing to be an academic or b) you’re married to an existing faculty member somewhere. I’m glib, but that’s not far from the truth.)
This time, I got a new haircut. Put on a new suit, tie. Put all of my documents into a crisp and sharp portfolio. I grabbed every document I could think of, including my house taxes – a random fellow on a forum suggested this would be helpful. Word to the wise: it’s not what’s inside that counts. External appearance is everything. Look the part.
Wednesday, 6 am. Get up, get dressed, drive to airport.
11 am. Embark on first leg of air journey: feeder airport to Toronto.
12am arrive in TO. Next flight: 1.30 pm
12.10 present myself to customs pre-screening
12.15 agent begins to look at my papers (hey! everything’s going great! hands are shaking, but that’s normal for me)
12.30 agent informs me that everything looks great, but he’s going on break, so new guy will handle things.
12.40 new guy picks up my folder.
1.30. Flight takes off. Shawn sits in waiting room, staring at shoes. Tie is uncomfortable.
2.00 new guy beckons me over. “Everything looks fine, but my supervisor wants to see a copy of the contract. Our fax machine is broken, so I’ll take you out to the air canada desk, you can use theirs. Then get a new flight booked.
2.30 queuing for air canada desk, now that I’ve found it.
2.50 agent gives me the fax number. phone call later, and the non-signed copy of the contract is faxed to me (the original having been returned to Human Resources)
2.56 resume queuing.
3.20 very nice agent explains that since I booked the flight as a reward flight, I have to phone Aeroplan, and points me to the pay phones.
3.23 Elevator music.
3.56 elevator music.
4.10 agent. After much ‘can you please hold’ I’m told that there are no flights for me, and I’ll have to rebook for the following week.
4.30 american customs says, gee that’s too bad. here’re your papers back, we would’ve stamped your passport, but you’re not travelling today.
4.35 resume queuing at air canada.
4.40 same nice agent. I ask for a ticket back home. She was an absolute star, one of the only bright points in an otherwise long long day.She is outraged at Aeroplan, and begins to work some magic. She finds me a new ticket, this time to Los Angeles (with connection to PHX). Flight leaves at 5.50pm.
5.20 She runs me back to customs, jumping the queue, and takes me back into secondary processing. I sit down. She goes and talks to the second customs agent who looked at my stuff – who’s about to have a shift break. There’s another fellow with him. He looks upset to being harangued by the ticket agent, other agent doesn’t seem upset. Ticket lady leaves, says she’ll be waiting outside with my itinerary, once it gets printed.
5.25 I get called over. ‘Why did you give us all these photocopies? You’re supposed to give me originals!’ shouts the newest agent. previous agent points out that he took the photocopies. I present the originals. ‘why did you get denied entry five days ago?’ I retell my tale. This agent is not impressed, but other agent intervenes. ‘This contract isn’t signed! Why should I let you in, with an unsigned contract!’ I point out that the signed version has already been sent to HR, and I wouldn’t have even bothered coming to the airport if HR hadn’t said, Ok, great see you soon.
‘Why haven’t you got an I 94?’
‘I don’t know. What’s an I-94?’
‘We can’t process you, without an I-94. This is an I-94. Fill it out!’
‘This is in Spanish.’
…nobody likes a smart arse…
Other agent intervenes, fills out form. Silence ensues, then I’m sent to the cash to pay the fees. TN status is mine!
5.44. I leave customs, proceed to security. Shoes off, laptop out, change in the bin. Old lady in front of me. My nervousness, stress, tiredness and hunger attract attention.
5.48. I clear security. Shoelaces untied, I race down the looonnnnng corridor to the gate.
5.51. Gate is shut. Plane is gone. Aircanada lady says, ‘we paged you. you should’ve been here’. New ticket for tomorrow morning is issued. Please leave airport.
6.00. Canada Customs. ‘you don’t have anything to declare? no duty free?’ I patiently explain – again – that I’ve missed a flight, and NO, I certainly WOULD NOT be doing ANY BLEEDIN’ SHOPPING.
One should always be polite for customs agents.
7.00 Safely ensconced in an airport hotel, I try to drown out the noise of the party next door with my pillows, hoping to get on the flight in the morning…
Thursday. 6 am. Leave hotel for airport.
6.30 in the customs queue.
6.35 cleared the queue. Angels sing; balloons fall from ceiling; fireworks.
8.00 on plane to LAX
— no idea what time it is when I get to LAX, but I have to get from the one terminal into terminal seven. This involves crossing several lanes of traffic. I re-check in for the final leg of the flight – a stroke of luck! I can fly standby on the earlier flight. All I have to do is clear security. I go up to the security level.
There’s one x-ray machine.
For the entire bloody terminal.
The queue stretches out of the terminal, across the bridge to the parking garage, into the bright LAX smog. I miss the earlier flight.
But victory is mine, and by 9ish PHX time, I am in Arizona. One last leg to the hotel: where do I pick up the shuttle? Instructions are sought, given, and I stand out on the median, watching the shuttle go by on a different road entirely.
By god, I’d better like this job.