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Unusual Suspects

I have never smuggled anything in my life. Why, then, do I feel an uneasy sense of guilt on approaching a customs barrier? — John Steinbeck

It was 10:30 p.m. on Friday night, and the line at the northbound border wasn’t bad. In fact, border agents were in the process of closing two inspection booths; they used their flashlights and bodies to merge cars into the remaining open lanes. A man with roses caught my eye through the windshield and raised his brows. He turned his gaze to the driver, my friend Josue, and, in a practiced gesture, proffered his flowers. Josue dismissed him with a shake of his head, but the man outside did not abandon his mission until he searched my face and deduced he could not use me as leverage.

A moment later, a woman appeared at my window. She held a long stick, off of which hung red hats made of felt with buglike antennae and the letters “CH” emblazoned in yellow on the front. “El Chapulín Colorado,” Josue explained when I asked what it meant. “He is a very famous comedian in Mexico. It means ‘the red grasshopper.’”

“There’s a Simpsons character based on him,” David said from the backseat. Because he was facing me, Josue didn’t see the new face that appeared at his window. I had watched, unconcerned, as the man in the camouflage outfit and matching helmet approached. He clutched an automatic rifle to his chest and rapped on the glass with his flashlight. Startled, Josue pressed a button to lower the window. Words were exchanged in Spanish, Josue showed the man his green card, and the next thing I knew, Josue’s door was being opened from the outside and he was getting out of the car.

“Do we get out?” I asked, but no one seemed to be listening. David’s door was also opened from the outside, and he got out, as did two other friends who’d been sitting in the back. No one came to my side of the car. I opened my door and asked again, “Am I supposed to get out?” Rather than wait for an answer, I stepped onto the pavement and joined the guys.

Four men in fatigues surrounded the vehicle, one with a golden, drug-sniffing mutt. David and Josue quietly made cracks about the doddering dog, how the mangy thing was less than regal and far from foreboding. That didn’t stop me from being nervous. Not that I thought I was going to get caught for breaking any law — there’s just something unsettling about being suspected of criminality.

I yawned, as if to signify to the inspectors that I was more bored than fearful. But they weren’t paying attention to me. Their focus was on the monstrous Chevy Tahoe. I’d heard Josue facetiously refer to his black-painted, tinted-windowed, chrome-wheeled car as the “narcomobile,” but I didn’t really know what that meant. Now it was becoming clear.

Nine hours earlier, we were pulled over for secondary inspection just after entering Mexico. The most intrusive it got was when an officer opened David’s door and peered into the backseat for a moment. Through my open window, the uniform asked Josue where we were going, and Josue answered, “CECUT” — Centro Cultural Tijuana — and we were waved through. The inspection was over in 30 seconds.

Now that the sun had been long set, I rubbed my arms for warmth against the night chill and watched as the trunk door was opened and the mongrel was made to stand on its hind legs and stretch its neck to sniff the contents. When the dog was led into the backseat, two thoughts gnawed at my brain. First, I worried the animal might get excited when it smelled evidence of Josue’s dog Chucho and that officers might mistake their dog’s enthusiasm for a potential play pal as proof that we were perps. Second, I was indignant over the fact that the military men allowed their dog up and into the car — what if I were allergic to dogs? The rest of the drive home would have been unbearable after the sniffer shed all over the interior of my ride.

As the car was being rifled through, I wondered why the gregarious Josue didn’t strike up a conversation with one of the foragers; why he didn’t mention that his new collection of photographs was being displayed in the “Cube” — the recent addition to the city’s museum. If we told them we were there to sample the town’s delicious cuisine and contribute to its art scene, I wondered, might they be more inclined to leave us alone?

After minutes of standing around, I interpreted the guards’ grunting to mean we could return to our seats. The search had delayed us at a crucial moment mid-merge, and we were now trapped between lanes of cars whose drivers were blatantly ignoring our massive SUV. Despite my imploring smiles and waves, it took ten car lengths before Josue triumphed in the glacial game of chicken and was able to move his Tahoe into the line. “I’m getting rid of this car as soon as I can,” he said.

I was about to ask why when it hit me that we’d been profiled. None of the sedans around us were being searched. I’d been pulled over before — for making an illegal U-turn or entering an intersection as the light was blushing — but never had I felt I was being picked on for looking suspicious. On the contrary, I’ve often been amazed by the disparity between my naughtiness and The Man’s assumption of my purity.

When I was 19, a San Diego police officer pulled me over for an expired registration. I’d renewed it and had received the sticker, which I had tossed into my car with the intention of applying it to my license plate at my earliest convenience.

At the time, I drove a “sunfire red pearl” Toyota Corolla. I was a young obese woman wearing a flower-print dress and brown wire-framed glasses. I apologized to the polite cop, explaining that I had the sticker in the car and just needed to find it. He shined his flashlight inside to help as I rummaged through plastic bags in the glove box and prodded my fingers between papers and a glass bottle in the console beside my seat. After a few minutes of searching, the policeman let me go but urged me to locate and affix the sticker right away. It was only when I arrived home and searched more calmly that I found not only the sticker but enough illegal substances to put me away for life.

It was then that I realized you’re not hassled if you don’t look like trouble — even if you are. There was a time I wanted to seem dangerous. I used to have a keychain that read, “I’m not as innocent as I look.” But as we made our way up I-5, it occurred to me that looking innocent is not so bad.

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