By Ed Staskus
It was supposed to be a ten-thousand-dollar door, but I got lucky, and got in and out for two hundred fifty dollars. I never went back. One shake down is more than enough. There weren’t that many apples on my apple tree that I could afford to give bushels of them away for nothing in return.
When I first started going to Toronto by myself in my late teens it was by Greyhound. I rode the bus to Buffalo and walked across the Peace Bridge. When I got to the Canadian side, the border police asked me where I was from and for identification. I showed them my driver’s license. They waved me through. When I went home I did the same thing. The American border police waved me through.
After I got married my wife and I often went to Canada, to Wasaga Beach, to Penetanguishene, to Nova Scotia, and finally to Prince Edward Island, which we liked and made a habit of returning to. We did, at least, until a band of towelheads went nuts and flew jetliners into the Twin Towers. We had just gotten back from PEI a few days earlier. After that, crossing borders slowly but surely became more officious. We found out soon enough we would need passports to get into Canada and back into the USA.
My wife applied for and got her passport in five weeks. I didn’t apply at first because I wasn’t sure of my citizenship status. I had never been sure, no matter how sure I sounded at the border, asserting I was an American citizen. My parents grew up in Lithuania, fled the Red Army to Germany in 1944, emigrated to Canada after the war, and finally settled in the United States in the late 1950s. They were naturalized in the mid-1960s. I knew my brother and sister were citizens, but I wasn’t certain where I stood because of my age when my parents became citizens.
We spent a few summers vacationing on the Eastern Seaboard, but when we decided Prince Edward Island was the place to be, I resolved to settle my body politic issue. Push came to shove, and I asked one of our ethnic community’s poohbahs if she knew anybody she could recommend to help me out. She gave me a tip about a friend of hers who was a lawyer. The lawyer had been in the import export business for more than 30 years and was herself an immigrant.
I made an appointment and went to her office. The lobby was sizable and almost full, full of colored people sitting and waiting their turn. Most of them looked like they were from Asia or the Indian sub-continent. The citizenship business seemed to be booming. When my number was called I was shown into the boss lawyer’s office. That was my first surprise. I had not thought I would be talking to the main man, even though he was a woman.
She was round with a round face. Her lips were dolled up. She looked at the paperwork and documentation I had brought with me and said, “I will be your helping hand.” She shot me a cherry bomb smile. “All right,” I said. I thought she would be working on my behalf going forward. I found out she was working me over.
She told me I had a problem with my citizenship and might be deported at any time. She said she wanted to get started right away. She explained the initial consultation fee was going to be $250.00 and the balance to resolve my problem was going to be $9,750.00.
“This is going to cost me ten thousand dollars?” I asked, incredulous. It was my second surprise. It was an unwelcome bombshell. Back in the day highwaymen stuck a gun in your back and hissed, “Stand and deliver, your money, or else.” Nowadays they stick a fountain pen in your back.
“Yes,” she said mildly and ushered me out. I had been in her office for five minutes. It took me fifteen minutes to drive home, where I mulled over the problem of finding ten thousand dollars. It was winter and we weren’t planning on going back to Canada until the next summer, so there was no rush on that account. But what she had said about being deported was worrisome. I had fond memories of my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario, but being uprooted was not what I wanted to happen. We had bought a house which we were renovating, and I had both full-time and part-time jobs. We had a mortgage and friends and family in town. We had a cat who would miss roaming the backyards of our neighborhood.
I went back to the law office the next month. I was introduced to an associate and escorted to a small room in the back. A table and two chairs were in the room. I sat in one of the chairs and the young associate sat in the other chair. He handed me a contract for the work they were going to be doing. I handed him the same paperwork and documentation I had shown the top dog. I started to peruse the contract. After a few minutes he looked up, cleared his throat, and said, “I don’t exactly know why you’re here. According to what I am looking at, you already are a citizen.” It was my third surprise.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“I think so, but I better doublecheck with my boss,” he said, backtracking, but the cat was out of the bag.
“All right,” I said, and as soon as I said it I wanted to be gone.
“I can’t stay,” I said white lying and standing up. “I’ve got to get to work. Let me know what you find out and in the meantime I will read this contract.” We shook hands, I gave him a cold smile, got into my car, and drove away.
The next day I drove to a post office where I knew they processed passport applications. When the line in front of me thinned out and I found myself at the counter, I said I wanted to apply for a passport. A middle-aged woman in a drab uniform walked up from the back and motioned me towards a chair and a camera. She handed me an application and told me how much applying for a passport was going to cost. It was ninety-seven dollars.
“All right, but would you look at my birth certificate and this other paper work first. I was born in Canada and I’m not sure I am actually an American citizen.” She spread everything out on the counter and looked it over. It didn’t take her long. Five minutes into it she said, “Sure, honey, you’re a citizen, no doubt about it.”
I filled out the application, got my picture taken, paid the fee, and thanked the woman for her help. I got my passport in the mail about a month and a half later. The passport had my stone-faced picture in it and was good for ten years. I could go anywhere in the world with it.
A few weeks later the associate called. He wanted to know if I had read the contract and was ready to go ahead with it. “No, I am going to pass on that.” I had thrown the contract away long since.
“That could mean a lot of problems for you,” he cautioned. “The State Department is cracking down, what with all this terrorism.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, and hung up when he kept it up.
Somebody else from the firm called me the following week. I told her goodbye the minute she started into her song and dance. After that the phone calls stopped. We went to Prince Edward Island for two weeks the following June. Except for the long lines at the border crossings, everything went off without a hitch. The Canadian border police said, “Welcome to Canada.” The American border police said, “Welcome back to the United States.”
My wife and I bumped into the poohbah at a get together a few years later. I mentioned the immigration attorney. My wife tugged on my sleeve. I told my tipster how her legal beagle had tried to pull the wool over my eyes. I told her about getting my passport with no run around. I told her ten grand was hard cash and how fortunate it was I hadn’t lost more than the consultation fee, never mind the dodge that made me cross. Most of the time the only way to beat a lawyer is to die with nothing.
“I know her well, she’s a friend, and she would never do anything like that,” the woman explained and complained. She might as well have called me a liar. “She’s nationally known for helping immigrants. She’s helped thousands of people and is one of our city’s leading citizens. Don’t say bad things about her.”
She wasn’t somebody who listened to anything I ever said, so I didn’t argue. What would have been the point? It was a swinging door, in one ear and out the other. It was her way of letting you know you didn’t matter much. After that, though, I never took anything she said at face value, just how I learned to never take what any lawyer ever says at face value.
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”