The way out is through: on being stranded in America

I just spent the past few days at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, talking about what it means to do science fiction prototyping, and promoting The Tomorrow Project: Imagining the Future and Building It. I’m really proud of my story, “Photographic Memory,” and I’m proud of the panels I did while in San Francisco, especially the one with Genevieve Bell and other members of the Labs crew. People from the audience were coming up to all of us afterward, because we’d had such an interesting discussion.

But now I’m in Los Angeles, because someone stole my wallet, my passport, and my Canadian permanent residency card while I was at a private screening of Vintage Tomorrows*. I have no valid photo ID, no health insurance, and no proof of who I am. I am living on cash wired to me by my mother. I just spent four days in a five-star hotel, followed by twelve hours on a Greyhound bus. The man sitting behind me spent those twelve hours talking to himself and blasting speed metal. It started just after Oxnard. I woke up in time to see dawn on the Pacific. It was a rare and beautiful moment, after hours of crying and nausea and wondering when, exactly, I would get to come home.

I still don’t know when I am coming home.

First, I need a passport. I need one to apply for any Canadian visa whatsoever. Without one, there’s no hope of my getting home. But in order to obtain a new passport, I need to make a second police report, make an appointment at the passport office, fill out the application, get the photo taken, pay the fee, and do the non-trivial work of proving that I am who I say I am. Documents are on the way to help me do that, but it’ll take at least five days. That’s five days that I’m not at home, and that I’m living on the good graces of my former roommate and her husband.

Second, I need a document to get me back into Canada. I’ve heard varying reports on what this document should be. The Canadian consulate here in LA (there’s none in San Francisco, at least none that handles immigration matters, which is why I’m here and not there) said I didn’t need anything at all, just a US passport. The CIC officer Dave spoke with on the CIC helpline said I needed a “Travel Document.” My immigration attorney says I need a “one entry visa.” (If anyone knows which of these is accurate, do let me know.) The LA consulate appears to have its own issues: the email inquiry I sent them was answered with a massive REPLY ALL, with other permanent residents’ Client ID numbers and personal addresses included. Laughably avoidable security breaches aside, whatever happens will take another few days to process. More days not spent at home. More nights not sleeping in my own bed.

For now, I’m just waiting. Today I tried to make another police report, because SFPD rejected my online query. (Imagine an online manuscript submission page, only with direct impact on your freedom to sleep in your own bed next to the person you love.) At first, the guy behind the desk at Hollywood Division said I had to go all the way back to San Francisco. “It’s a jurisdictional thing.”

“SFPD told me to talk to you,” I said.

“I’m sorry they misled you,” he said.

I sat down in silence for a while. I called Dave. I cried. I flashed back to the time I was denied entry to the Canadian border, in 2006. I was 22, then. I am 29, now. I have two Master’s degrees, a two-book deal, a great relationship with a major lab that looks after my needs without blinking, a doting old cat and a wonderful partner. I have survived immigration, academia, and divorce, all before the age of thirty. But my centre cannot hold in moments like this, moments when I run up against a repetition of my past experiences of powerlessness and abjection at the hands of bureaucracy. I become that girl again. The one who begged and pleaded to be let in. The one who spent the following two months curled up in a ball, watching television allegedly intended for women. I’m not proud of this. It’s just what happens.

It’s probably what happens to everyone, when their greatest fears come to pass. Since being refused entry to Canada, I’ve always feared that it would happen again. Now it has. The thing I worried about, nightmared about, bit my nails about, got sick to my stomach about — it’s happened. I am re-living a part of my past. And ironically, I have returned to my birthplace so as to reach my home-place. To go back home, I’ve had to come back home, to the city where I was born. Los Angeles. I am now beholden to a police department that my mother raised me never to trust.

“SFPD says to talk to a sergeant,” Dave told me, as I stood outside the station. “Don’t leave without that report.”

So I went back in. “What did SFPD tell you?” asked another officer.

“They told me to talk to a sergeant, please.”

This was helpful, until I had to produce valid photo ID, which I had none of — it being stolen, and all. So tomorrow I go back, assuming some documents expressed from Canada have made it here intact.

Limbo is a funny place to be. It’s funnier when it’s a quick drive to the farmer’s market where your grandmother used to buy her favourite cashew butter. It’s funnier when you’re back on your old roommate’s couch, smelling her old fragrance, the one that once permeated your dorm room. I am lucky to be here, and not in a hotel somewhere alone. I am lucky to be surrounded by friends and family, physically and digitally. I am very lucky to work for an employer that won’t leave me stranded in a foreign city. I have a very affectionate cat to cuddle each night, and dogs to play with, and beautiful Art Deco buildings to photograph and museums to visit. I understand this, and most of the time it makes me feel strong.

During the other times, I’m reminded that I am between countries, between identities. That it will be weeks before I see my own home again. That I won’t see the trees start to change outside my own window. That I’ll miss dinners and readings and laughter.

But what I am most convinced of is that Toronto is home, for me. That David is home for me. And that, for as difficult as it may be and for as much as I may cringe at the vastness of the machine I am a part of, my resolve to come home is unflinching. I have status there. I cannot be kept out. I will not be kept out. Not for long, anyway.

*The documentary is a collaboration between my boss, Brian David Johnson, and James Carrott, a cultural historian and steampunk. It’s great. I highly recommend seeing it. It digs deep into the steampunk ethos, and actually asks some of the tougher questions about the movement, like what the fuck is up with fetishizing a period of history defined by imperialism and constraint. (Nisi Shawl and China Mieville have some very choice words on that topic. The film is worth it just to listen to them.)

2 thoughts on “The way out is through: on being stranded in America”

  1. Ugh, what a giant clusterf*** of an experience to have to go through 🙁

    I have a cousin and some friends who live in the L.A. area if you need anything else, although it sounds like you are set as far as that goes. I can probably do very little up here in Seattle, but if there is anything, you can get in touch with me on facebook, twitter, or e-mail. I’ll be prayin for you and sending positive vibes your way so that you can get home as soon as possible!

  2. I’m surprised the Canadian consulate hasn’t been more helpful, but I guess the lack of other ID is the crucial point. I lost my passport in Australia on a flight between Adelaide and Melbourne (in the seat pocket — doh! — but strangely Virgin couldn’t find it until 3 YEARS later when they mailed it back to me). It was during an Australian national holiday, nowhere was open where I could even get passport photos, and nowhere was open the day before since it was Sunday. I had to wait 3 days just to get the photos done. The consulate was just a small office, but the woman there was tremendously helpful. I was fortunate to be staying with a friend who could vouch for my identity, and fortunately I had my driver’s license and OHIP card (old style without the photo). First she wanted me to fly to Canberra to visit the main consulate office. Being a student at the time, that really wasn’t an option, since I would have had to fly back to Melbourne to use my existing ticket to Sydney, stay a few days at the hostel on the beach, then home to Toronto. Fortunately she made a few calls and thought she could handle everything over the phone to Canberra, which she did. I got a temporary visa, and flew home a few days later.

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