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The Great Poetry Caper
Last May, I went to visit my brother Alex in Mexicali, just across the California border. It was the big goodbye. After many years of talking about moving to La Paz on the tip of the Baja California peninsula, my brother and his wife were finally going to do it come July. Watching the border become increasingly dangerous convinced them of it. They had already been threatened because my brother owned a taco stand, pictured above. Even as a small business owner, he was a target for kidnappers and armed robbers–a sad reality of the times in my beloved homeland.
I was saddened that my brother’s dream was coming to an end that way. But his family’s safety mattered first. I flew from NYC to California, took a bus down from Riverside to Calexico, and then walked across the border with only a backpack and my cane.
“We’re leaving most of the books,” my brother informed me over the phone. Not his collection, but mine. Over the years, while I was moving from one state to another, I had been depositing books in my brother’s home that I didn’t want to lose. Alex and his wife Lupe had been making painful decisions about what to pack, what to give away, and what to leave behind–only things that they could stand to lose. My long-distance library was going to be one of the sacrifices.
I went down there to say goodbye to the house, the place of my final memories of my father, my earliest memories of the border. I went to say goodbye to the neighborhood whose residents had inspired characters in my first book of poetry, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water until It Breaks, like the mortician, the refrigerator repairman, and the umbrella salesman. I went to say goodbye to my uncle, my father’s brother, who refused to receive me as he had refused to see any of us over the years. He would die a few months later, and my brother and I would be saddened by that because the cantankerous recluse never even gave us a chance for a final exchange on earth. So long, old road that used to be a canal, where my brother and I bathed as children and netted catfish. Adiós, ghost of the tree that used to hold up our hammock. Farewell, beet farm turned low-income housing project. Farewell, my first collection of poetry books.
I ran my finger across the spines. They were smeared with some kind of hardened baby food–evidence of my niece’s mischief. It added insult to the injury of their neglect. Accusatory layers of dust had settled on the top edges of the books. But I could only take a handful back with me. I had to make the same trek back across the border on foot. Two days later I kept second-guessing my choices, so I resorted to a desperate measure: I put all the books back and I waited until my brother was in the car, the engine running as he prepared to drop me off at the international crossing line. I gave myself five minutes to make those final selections. It was my very own five-minute poetry caper: under duress, what would be the gems I would run off with?
The choices were made. I stuffed the books in my bag and resolved not to look inside until I was on the bus en route to Riverside again. All was going well until I actually had to cross immigration inspection. This part always made me slightly nervous. I am a U.S. citizen with an American passport, but there’s something so stressful about the power these officials represent. I watched the strong men of my family–my father, my grandfather, even my brother–act so demur when they had to cross. It was always a necessary performance, the display of humility was a way of asking for permission, maybe even an apology. But it had to be done. It kept the interaction disarmed and people out of trouble.
As a person who didn’t have to cross the U.S.-Mexico border more than once a year, I resented the theater, and was even more resentful at having to show my documents. Sometimes I was deliberately testy and refused to show them at all, challenging the officials to force me to produce them. I never did this, however, if any of my relatives were with me because I could endanger them. This was a private kind of rebellion, almost a cheap thrill.
On foot and alone this time, I wasn’t planning to refuse to show my papers, but then the Latino border guard and I made eye contact and it was an immediate mutual dislike, almost a hatred. I knew the baggage I was carrying, and he must have been carrying his own. It was a perfect combination for a confrontation, an international incident.
“Documents,” he barked.
“I don’t need them, I’m a U.S. citizen,” I answered in the most arrogant voice I could muster.
“It’s a privilege, not a right,” he said.
He was taller than me, but I didn’t let that intimidate me. Behind him was the X-ray machine, where everyone crossing had their bags and purses screened.
“That’s right,” I said. “It is my privilege to cross without papers.”
When he narrowed his eyes at me I knew I had pressed my luck. He wasn’t having it. Not today. There was long line of people behind me and I had stalled the process unnecessarily. I was being a jerk. And so, he decided to be one as well. He grabbed the backpack out of my arm and nearly knocked me down. Suddenly he noticed my cane.
“Let me have that cane,” he said. “You might be smuggling something inside of it.”
I chuckled. “Really?” I said. “Well I can’t walk without it.” I realized then that I had surrendered a useful piece of information. Idiot me.
“Let me have it!” he said, and instead of waiting for me to hand it to him he snatched it away. I lost my balance and as I dropped I reached out to catch myself, but only managed to latch on to the backpack he was holding on to, and which came down to the floor with my weight. The backpack opened and the stack of poetry books spilled out, a most unusual contraband.
It was at the moment that I took quick stock of what I had salvaged: Muscular Music by Terrance Hayes, Some Are Drowning by Reginald Shepherd, Antebellum Dream Book by Elizabeth Alexander, Names Above Houses by Oliver de la Paz, Middle Earth by Henri Cole, Bite Hard by Justin Chin, Chants by Pat Mora, and The Concrete River by Luis J. Rodríguez.
There was something very staged and unreal about what had just happened. This was drama. Everyone around us froze. The woman behind me stepped back and stared wide-eyed. No one seemed to breathe until another official, yet another Latino, taking pity on me, stepped forward and said to my assailant, “Chill, man, chill.” He helped me up, gave me back the cane and then knelt down to gather my books.
“What kinds of books are these?” he asked, perhaps drawing attention away from the dagger-stare I was giving the other guy, who was now being escorted away. What a ludicrous exchange between Latinos, over the artifice of border control.
“Poetry books,” I said. “I write poetry.” My body had numbed, so I didn’t feel any pain at the moment. That would come minutes later.
“A poet, huh?” he said as he handed me the backpack, a forced smile on his face. “So you guys like to cause trouble?”
I wanted to say: “We can’t keep our mouths shut.” But instead I stored the experience for later use and hobbled over to the X-ray machine. I dropped the bag of books onto the conveyor belt, then watched it disappear into the mouth-tunnel. I imagined the ink coming to life, the pages igniting in the dark.