A journey to the heart of America

August 29, 2011

I don’t need to tell you the news from the south has not been good.

After a steady stream of stories about the double-dip recession looming in the United States, my friend, Eric, and I decided to do some deep research and go straight into the heart of the beast ourselves. We would travel to America and see how our southern cousins were handling this impending economic crisis.

As far as research projects go, this one promised to be epic.

Our mission hit a snag about 10 metres onto American soil, when we ran into a hard-case border guard who looked like an overweight Tommy Lee Jones. Our cover story – that we were headed to Chicago to see a couple baseball games – wasn’t passing mustard with him.

“What will I find if I had a little look around in your trunk?” he asked.

That’s an awfully personal question, I thought. Shouldn’t he have to buy me a drink first?

“Uh, our bags, I guess,” I said, eventually.

“What else?”

Did he want a list? I thought about everything – the half-empty jug of engine coolant, the dirty gym socks, the broken kayak paddle, the stack of yellowed newspapers, the spare tire. In the wrong hands, these could be just the tools to terrorize the good people of America.

“Uh, golf shoes?” I said.

“Just the shoes? What about clubs?”

I was clearly dealing with a highly-trained security expert. He could tell we weren’t just two ordinary Canadian hosers in search of cheap American lager and fatty foods. No, we were obviously a high-level threat to the United States of America and everyone he cared about.

If our threat level had a colour it would definitely be amber — no, worse: red plaid. He probably had the White House on the hotline as we spoke. I swear I heard the sound of F-16s scrambling in our direction.

The guard left long pauses after every answer, like he was searching for holes in my story. Was he reading my mind? I tried to think good, clean patriotic thoughts, like going to church on Sunday and helping little old ladies across the street while waving the American flag and keeping Mexicans from stealing manufacturing jobs.

I forced a smile. But the border guard was having none of it. He smelled our fear.

“Pop the trunk,” he said, finally. I watched through the rearview mirror as he rummaged through our bags like a dog after a buried treat. The whole time, I’m thinking – I really shouldn’t have packed those zoo animal-themed boxers in my bag. I bet al-Qaida didn’t make those kind of amateur mistakes.

Finally, finding nothing, he let us go. Five hours later, we arrived at our destination and immediately got to work. Eric, a bartender, helpfully suggested we go to the places where America’s economic despair would be most on display — the bar.

“We’ll hit every last one of those pubs if we have to,” I declared.

Strangely, the Americans we met seemed oblivious to their impending doom. How could they watch college football and eat triple-decker hamburgers when their country crumbled? And then, mid-mission, our cover was blown by a young lady who asked where we were from.

“Canada? There’s nothing to do up there but go fishing,” she scoffed.

Turns out, her conclusion was based on a trip she once took as a girl to some obscure corner of Manitoba where her family went, well, fishing. I almost replied, ‘Well, at least our fish can find jobs,’ but I decided against it.

Our research wasn’t going as planned. Perhaps there is no recession coming. But just to be sure, we visited 12 more bars. We discovered nothing of any use, except that America is a land of cheap, cheap beer.

On our way home, we hit three pay tolls in the span of five minutes. We had learned nothing, except this: if the American economy does tank again, the only people safe will be those in the toll-booth industry.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears every third Saturday. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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