Susan does Dallas. Customs, that is.

January 18, 2008 by susan
Debbie does dallas poster

And now, something totally different.
Hola mes amigos, just back from Costa Rica, where I hiked and birded and swam and sweated in the rainforest of the Osa Penninsula. No internet, no phones, and only dim solar lights which petered out by 9 pm. Not saying I was roughing it, as I wasn't, but it was a head-spinning change from the razor-sharp cold of Minnesota -- and the dull thuggery of Bush world.

For a day or two I was a quivering junky, detoxing from this nasty internet habit, and then I gave in to the seduction of life without the Need to Know. Or at least the need to know details of the latest arms deals with the Saudis and Israelis. No good gonna come from that Devil's pact.

And I tell you, I was a quivering wreck being in a country that has set aside one-third of its land for preservation and has no military. How can they get by without it? And boarding a plane with no security checks? Don't they know about the axis of evil? Nevermind.
The trip was a joyous lark. Returning to Minnesota, via Dallas, was not.
(Yeah, I'm getting to the part about customs. Read on.)

I've got an op-ed spinning in my head about this reentry, the Welcome to America aspects of it that had all the warmth and efficiency of the Cold War Soviet Union -- a gleaming modern flag-bedecked customs hall bigger than a ball park, with 40-50 booths for customs agents on both the American side and the "foreign" side, but with only about six of those windows actually open.
Agents with leash-straining dogs patrolled the lines that snaked around the stanchions and out into the corridors, easily a thousand people or more in each line, a line that crept along for two hours in my case, causing innumerable missed connecting flights. (Including my own.) No one other than flight crews got preferential treatment, not the family with three small children whose youngest daughter threw up in line and who would miss their flight if they had to wait, not the hugely pregnant woman holding her fussy toddler, who'd just gotten off a 15-hour flight from Japan, not the elderly man crumpled in his wheelchair and coughing consumptively, not the Navy guy home on leave. And we were pale-skinned Amerkans, can only imagine what it was like on the "foreign" side.

Well, the beautiful slight young man carrying the ashes of his father, who died unexpectedly in Costa Rica at age 61, did, because I found an off-duty female agent and dissolved into tears when I told her his story, causing her to whisk him away. Maybe she was rescuing him from my 61-year-old mawkishness, but I like to think he made his connection to Providence. That's capital P, as in, Rhode Island.

The only good in all of this was that by the end, once we all realized we'd missed our flights and would be dozing in the Dallas airport for much of the night, the stress dropped. Bolstered by black humor, we began to look out for each other -- holding the pregnant lady's child, saving places in line so bathrooms could be used, bantering about what a mess George Bush has made of everything so surely this was his fault as well, making a list of all the reasons to loathe Dallas, trying to draw up a list of 10 good Texans (we did it) -- all that cheery camaderie that comes out in minor disasters like black-outs and blizzards, but since when did going through customs take on disaster proportions?

When I finally got to an agent, I asked him why it was so inefficient. He gave me a very chatty (perhaps the problem right there) tale of woe about how bad the turnover rate is, can't keep agents employed, lost 52 just last month alone, etc. Now, the place is bustling with TSA workers and thousands of others scrubbing toilets and serving fast food and doing much worse jobs, so I don't see how this could be the case.
But I asked him how what could be done to change it. "Start with the man at the top," he said, pointing at my Obama button with a wink. Well, we'll see.
But once again I found myself saying, "I want my country back." Given the givens of this current world, that's probably about as likely as getting my golden youth back. Still, I know we can do better. We couldn't do any worse.
Or could we? Never mind, I am repressing my need to know.

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