“Tigers Waiting To Be Tamed” How I turned my East side sentence to a West side story…chapter 1:
It’s just after 9/11. I’m standing in the security lineup at Vancouver International Airport underneath a patch of sun, and beneath my Armani suit, I’m starting to sweat. My boss is already on the other side, and I know he’s getting impatient. He needs to discuss our big meeting with the A-List client we’re flying to meet in Boston. But all I can think about is what I’m going to say when the customs officer looks my name up on the computer. Interpol loves names and birth dates, and I smile as I think about how casually most people dispense their data to anyone who asks. After all, they’ve got nothing to hide. But I know Big Brother isn’t going to look down so kindly on me.
A swarm of Chinese cruise ship passengers are ahead of me; my stress level is rising and I wince as their grating tones pierce the air. A handful of families with noisy kids make up the rest, along with one or two super-sized Americans. We’re moving at a snail’s pace. I try to control the butterflies in my stomach and harness my racing thoughts. Finally, the guy ahead of me passes through like he won a lottery ticket and the officer absent mindedly beckons me over. Already I feel like I’m back in the paddy wagon wearing handcuffs, out of breath from the struggle. My heart gallops as I stride up to the counter with a smile on my face and an air of confidence. I hand him my passport and ticket.
“Where are you heading?” He’s a burly looking man who doesn’t smile much. His uniform looks too tight and I can see it’s been a long day.
“Boston.” Keep it short and simple, and keep smiling, I’m thinking. He punches away at the computer, stares at the screen, and then his eyes widen.
“Are you Jake L. Hodgson?” he asks.
“What does the L stand for?” he asks suspiciously.
“Louis.” I say as if this is such a common thing to be asked, a lump in my throat trying to choke the words from my lips.
“Spell your middle name.”
I spell it but can’t help but think even an ESL students can spell my name.
“What’s your birth date?” As if he doesn’t have it on the All seeing eye of his black screen.
I tell him.
“Holy shit!” he exclaims out loud as he leans back in his chair clasping his hands behind his head while staring at the monitor. “Do you have a criminal record?” I feel fifty pairs of eyes burning a hole in the back of my head trying to get a glimpse of why he is asking me this. A bead of sweat trickling down the length of my spine causing me to shiver like someone just walked across my grave.
Naively I say “Yes.” (Take-away point: don’t guess what they have on their screen. Err on the side of innocence. Just my opinion.)
He puts his hands behind his neck and leans back in his chair. “What happened?” he asks with genuine curiosity.
“I got into a fight,” I say. Nothing more; nothing less.
He pauses, looks back at the screen again, and continues to read.
“Well, you’re going to have to visit INS.”
He pecks at his keyboard then gets down off his chair and beckons me to follow him. I do like a whipped dog. The old fight or flight urge comes over me like a rush of ice water. I swear under my breath as I pick up my briefcase and decide to risk a quick check of my cell phone. I see my boss has called three times and I assume he’s waiting in the bar. No need for him to see me get tasered, tackled by security while I piss my pants, or something equally as embarrassing. All I know is if I miss this plane, I’ll lose my job. These days it’s the game of one strike you’re out, not three, since the west has bought into the Chinese philosophy of behind every able man are a hundred able men. Loyalty is only a marketing line these days and seems to have no place in business other than expecting it from your clients and debt-ridden employees. Goes without saying, I need this job like a junkie needs a fix. New twin babies, sixty days behind on my mortgage, and a mountain of debt. Disney is dead and I’m living a Tim Burton nightmare of my own design.
The INS office is stuffy and full of agitated, sweaty foreigners with unhappy faces. Twelve chairs line the glass walls and six cameras are watching every move. An African woman wearing a bright smock yells at an officer, “I’m going to miss my plane!” He loses it for second (so much for the advertisement behind him saying, “We are the face of America”) and snaps back, “I don’t give a crap if you miss your plane lady! You wait for the process or go back to Canada.”
This looks promising, I’m thinking as I take a seat. Twenty minutes pass before a stocky no-neck officer with healthy beer gut and oily, pock-marked face finally calls my name. I look down and catch a flash of the neon lights dancing of the polished black steel of his Berretta patiently waiting to be released from its leather jail. All the power is in his hands. I make no attempt for small talk and maintain eye contact as I stand before him like a child about to be scolded by his teacher. His fat fingers clatter away on the computer keyboard as I follow his school ring with my peripheral vision. He then begins to rattle off a series of open-ended questions. I smile and think to myself the advice of a past mentor, cool heads prevail, as I lower my blood pressure and answer away; never breaking the ever searching eyes of the US border agent who is certainly taught the eyes are the windows to the soul.
Bam! Within seconds, I’m right back in my past life, re-living vivid scenarios as they flash through my memory at lightning speed: I see the glint of my German-made blade as it slices through the flesh of two thugs who mistakenly thought I was someone else as they cornered me in a dark alley; I feel the agony of a 120 pound police dog dragging me by my balls, its eyes wild with excitement by the smell of blood; I hear the hollow sound of my baseball bat connecting with the Asian gang leaders head; I see the slow motion arc of his blood against the pale blue summer sky; I hear the scream of the neighbours fearing for his life and the clang of the steel doors slamming, and the roar of my hammering heart on that first night in a maximum security prison.
I have no idea what events in my colourful past are showing on his screen, but like a prize fighter I bob and weave, deflecting questions and giving as little information as possible, leaving my face blank as a Texas Holdem champion. I don’t try to be buddies and I certainly don’t give him my life story, but am very thankful they don’t yet do brain scans as part of the screening process.
The officer then abruptly disappears through a door that leads to the big two way mirrors that I watch my reflection in, purposely leaving me to my thoughts. I look at my phone and swear again. My shirt is soaked beneath my jacket and I long to change into my track suit and pour a sweet glass of distraction I call Jack. Still I’m waiting. I’ve mentally prepared myself for another latex encounter, which from personal experience beats police dog interaction hands down, and thinking, my job is toast, chubby saunters back with the swagger of Daniel Craig and stands in front of me for a second looking into my eyes as if they truly were the windows to the soul. Then, without a word, he slams the big stamp on to my passport and dismisses me with a wave of his hairy arm.
After hesitating in disbelief for a beat, I turn and bolt out the door just in time to hear the loudspeaker crying out “Final call for passenger Jake Hodgson…Jake Hodgson, please come to departure gate forty-five, the doors will be closing in five minutes.” I’m sprinting now, doing the classic O.J. Simpson run down the mile long airport hallway. Heart pounding; teeth gritting: Note to self, restart work out regime. No time to look cool, I can do that later. I come flying up to the check-in counter and hand the constipated-looking bald, gay guy my boarding ticket. He smirks as if he has a secret showing the fashionable gap in his bleached white teeth.
No time for a “moment”. Boom! I’m past him as his eyes seem compelled to watch my skinny butt propel me down the gangway as if it was a security threat. Sweating profusely by now — I am a fatty! Shit. I gotta start working out. At this point I’m a total soup sandwich. What a mess. My dark hair pasted against my head like I just got out of the shower, my laptop case cutting all circulation from my hand, fingers bone white and tingling.
I finally arrive at the plane door and stop cold. The flight attendant, weathered and aging; a remnant of the glory days of jet planes and pilots that earned real money; glaring over her thick glasses as she impatiently contemplates my next move. I paused and looked at her just long enough for her to break contact assuring her I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about her schedule as there is no way in hell I’m walking on that plane looking like I just out ran a van load of terrorists looking for YouTube footage. No. I closed my eyes, entertained a quiet thought and took a long deep breath and held it for fifteen seconds and let it out as I counted to ten, a little technique I learned from my new book mentor, Anthony Robbins. This calmed me as I opened my eyes and walked on the plane like I owned it. And of course, who would be sitting in first-class sipping Champagne with a look of disguised interest? You guessed it, my boss with his bright red face, forty-six inch waist, Rolex Daytona, ridiculous dyed hair and matching moustache. Can you say ladies’ man? Perhaps Gold Digger’s man is more appropriate.
I barely made it through the doors when I feel the plane lurch backwards confirming to all that I held up the plane. As I make my way towards my seat in the deepest part of cattle class, I know I’ll find at least seven hours of peace since he is not sitting with me. I ponder the question he is sure to ask, “What the fuck’s wrong with you? If we missed that meeting your ass was grass.” He was a real charmer no question. So I would just lie. Blame it on another passenger, computer glitch etc., anything to detract the heat.
Finally, I settle in to the dreaded window seat; the land of those who don’t pee or have no control of travel. I get out a book to take my mind off things. As soon as I’m allowed, I unconsciously order a double Jack but seconds later change my order to club soda; my hands shaking as I imagine the sweet stinging smell raising up my nostrils and the satisfying burn on the back of my throat. It’s been ten years since I’ve had a drink and I’m not ready to traverse that slippery slope; too much to-do and too many people depending on me. My head slowly leans back as I stare through the double glass window, foggy and scratched, making the billowing clouds look like something from a Monet painting. I start to relax as my mind disengages from reality as we rocket high above those earthly troubles and slowly drift into a restless coma; Technicolor dreams of my childhood jungle and the battles for survival and ambitions of significance.