Trapped in the Airport

How I learned what it’s like to be stopped for nothing at all


Oranges, apples, sandwiches and maps aren’t what comes to mind when you hear of threats to the homeland. Not so to U.S. Border Patrol.

In my case, it was a replica of an Ottoman map.

After a 12-hour flight from Turkey — Istanbul, to be exact, just in case you were mistaking me for one of the naive Westerners flooding across the country’s borders in pursuit of ISIS’ promise of kittens and Nutella — I arrived in Canada for a connecting flight. It’s late March, the end of many college and graduate schools’ spring break. I’m passing through U.S. Border Patrol’s pre-clearance process in the Toronto airport with my boyfriend/partner of five-plus years after his first trip overseas. We’re both exhausted and a bit snappy after delays, long lines and what seems like the possibility of missing our connecting flight to LaGuardia.

We approach an officer, passports and documents in hand, to get cleared and sprint to our gate. We’re asked to proceed separately — not an issue, of course, although most security personnel prior had preferred to process us together. I hand her my passport, receipt from the DMV-like process we had experienced in the adjoining room a few minutes prior and my customs declaration.

“Where did you travel?” she asks.

“Turkey.”

“What did you bring back?”

“Uh, clothes and a map.”

I glance back at my partner. If the plane is on time, then boarding would have started now. We still need to go back through security.

“Did you draw this map?”

“Er, no…”

She grabs a yellow folder, and huffs off with my passport and boarding pass in hand. I follow, as one does when another person is parading about with your documents.

“Go there and await screening.”

She points to a large cube in the left hand corner of the room. The entrance to the cube is two doors that open automatically whenever anyone with a yellow folder or a USBP uniform approaches. The glass is opaque, the same light teal color characteristic of airport offices throughout the world. Bold black lettering announces that it’s the “Secondary Screening” room.

Secondary to what? I was barely asked about my trip — hardly a preliminary screening.

I shuffle in, flop down on a chair and inspect my surroundings. I had no other instructions except to go to that room. So, yellow folder in hand, I watch an older businessman from the UK negotiate with an officer about something business-related. A few stray passages are seated throughout the “cube.” One is seated behind a full baggage cart. One is trying to check his phone — an action that the surrounding few officers condemn in the strongest possible terms. One, heretofore Anxious Man, approaches the first in a line of several desks every few minutes to see if anything has changed, his hands quivering.

The latter seems harmless, just confused. We all are.

I proceed to the first desk. A female officer is engaged in a heated debate with another stuck traveler. She directs me to one of the few occupied desks in the rear of the cube. I wander back, drop off my paperwork and sit down.

Ten minutes go by, nothing.

I turn to my neighbor — a lady clutching only a purse and in her 50s or 60s. I ask what she’s “in” for.

She had an orange. I call her Orange Lady. A few seats over sat Sandwich Lady, who had, for whatever reason, carried a sandwich with her to Toronto from Israel. Neither had disposed of the offending items, although both had offered to do so. Like me, they were simply whisked away.

Twenty minutes have gone by. In defiance of the “no cellphone” sign, I wander up to ask if I can use my phone quickly to tell my partner what’s happened. She denies my request and instructs me to sit down, barely missing a beat in her conversation with a businessman from the UK.

Anxious Man has been given his checked luggage. He rips it open, extracting a backpack and a pile of wrinkles papers.

“Sir! Do not open that bag,” she screeches. “We have not processed the contents of that bag yet. We don’t know what’s in it!”

“But my documents. You need my — ”

“I don’t need your documents right now. I will tell you when we need your documents.”

“But when will I — ”

He approaches the desk, documents in hand.

“Sir, get AWAY from the desk.”

“Sir, if you don’t sit down we’ll need to detain you,” says a male officer nearby. He stands just feet away from Anxious Man, hands out as if to push him away, his back straight. A defensive pose.

Thirty minutes.

Orange Lady walks out. Sandwich Lady has already left.

“HANNAH GAIS.”

I shuffle past Anxious Man and a row of empty desks. The UK Man is preparing to leave. I finally reach the coveted Desk in the Back.

“So, do you know why they sent you back here? Did they tell you anything?” asks a customs agent. “There are no notes in your file. Nothing.”

“I have no idea.”

I recount my interaction with the officer earlier. I explain the map in a bit more detail — the fact that it’s a reproduction of an older map, the fact that I bought it at the Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

“Honestly, I have no idea why I’m here,” I say, shrugging.

“Nor do I,” she sighs. “It seems like they just sent you back here.”

“I probably missed my flight too,” I add, glancing at my watch. It was scheduled to leave at 6:15.

“Look, you’ve been patient. Maybe it’ll be delayed. You can go. Just run. Tell the guys at security what happened. You’ve been flagged for a special search by the airline, so you’ll get a check that’s a bit different than everyone else’s, but if you go now you might be able to make it.”

That’s my cue. I hustle out of the “cube,” yanking my phone out of my back pocket and dropping Turkish lyra on the ground as I walk. My boyfriend’s on his way back to New York City, and Air Canada is sympathetic to my plight. It shouldn’t be a hassle, he writes, just as the plane’s doors begin to close. They all hate U.S. customs.

As for me, I really could use a drink. Orange Lady, who’s also now free to roam the Toronto airport, sees me and waves as I sit down at the bar.


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