Why you should care
Because it’s all fun and games until you’re handcuffed.
T-Bone was edged up. I have no idea how he was edged up — coffee, Red Bull, pharmaceuticals, life — but he was talking a mile a minute while getting on the plane. In the mid-1990s, before everybody and their mother were entrepreneurs, we decided to be entrepreneurs. In a very vague way, 270-pound T-Bone (real name: Tony) and I, a guy who had spent time in Silicon Valley, knew enough to know that guys were getting rich trading in ideas. We had ideas too. Simple but effective stuff could make you millions, and we were aiming for being simply effective.
“Let’s sell medical supplies.” It was one of those blue-sky moments that smarter people look back on after they’re rich, and dumbasses look back on and wonder where things went wrong. Now, I’m not saying we were dumbasses, but selling beauty supplies would have been a stretch, never mind medical supplies. However, as the thinking that night went: Everybody gets sick.
So we started cold-calling folks and found a main supplier, one who got his supplies from places where they were cheap. We’d sell them to places where they were more expensive. Places like Canada. Which made especially good sense in light of the fact that Tony had never been there and I had been only once.
I was ushered into the innards of the airport, straight to an office surrounded by security glass wherein sat Tony. Who was now handcuffed to a metal bench.
Getting on the plane to Montreal, I remember being thankful that I’d have time to doze and read and that the steady stream of business wizardry coming from Tony’s mouth would stay in Tony’s mouth. But then I remembered something. I remembered the one other time I had gone to Canada. I had seen customs agents send two college girls back to the U.S. on the grounds that they could be prostitutes. The girls claimed they went to school in Seattle and were driving home, to Alaska, for summer vacation. The customs agents didn’t break, saying that without a large amount of money apiece, it could only be assumed that they were hookers and Canada had enough hookers, so, thank you, no.
The girls cried. The girls didn’t get into Canada.
“When we go through customs, let’s go in separately,” I told Tony. I didn’t want any trouble and figured we’d draw less attention going in without each other. I got through customs and stood, in Canada, waiting, concerned about the holdup.
“Excuse me, sir?” A customs agent had found me in the terminal.
“Are you with Tony?” Now, this was a tricky question. It was clear things were going south. Cut, run and do the presentation without him? Or stand firm in the belief this was a minor misunderstanding that could easily be explained?
“Yes.” I was ushered into the innards of the airport, straight to an office surrounded by security glass wherein sat Tony. Who was now handcuffed to a metal bench. The agent locked the door behind me.
”What the hell?” I hissed. “What did you do?”
Tony smiled. “Well, they started asking me questions, so I just told them we were here to see some girls. So they asked more questions, like what their names were, and I couldn’t think of any names and …” He rattled the handcuffs.
“Mr. Robinson? Could you follow me?”
In another office, I sat across from an agent.
“So, why are you here, Mr. Robinson?”
“We’ve started a company that brokers medical equipment and —”
”Why would someone bullshit about that? And why are we being detained?”
”Your friend didn’t even know the name of your company. He has no business cards. He has no supplies. He knows nothing about medical equipment.”
“He’s a great salesman. And we hadn’t agreed on a name. I named it right before this trip. It’s on the business cards that are in my bag.”
”You can call our CEO.” It was a Hail Mary. The last thing the guy we hired to be the face of the company wanted was to get a call from customs cops about our sorry asses.
But call the agent did. While I sat and listened. After 10 minutes of assurances regarding our character and work ethic, he hung up.
“You’re all bullshitters. I’m going to find out what you’re doing in our fucking country!”
And then marshaling every ounce of charm I had ever had, I sat back in my chair and smiled, almost lovingly. “What could I be doing in your country?”
“THAT’S it!” On went the cuffs, back to the office with Tony. As first dawn broke, they separated us, taking me back through the airport in handcuffs. While most would be mortified to be marched through the airport in handcuffs, I knew it was better to be walked away in cuffs than to be walked in.
When you get deported from a country like Canada as an “undesirable alien,” they just put you on a plane back to your country of origin. They don’t care WHERE it’s going. So they picked a flight headed for Detroit and walked me — still cuffed — to the front of the plane while the pilot and everyone onboard watched. Then they uncuffed me and shoved me down the aisle.
“Don’t come back.”
An entire planeful of people avoided my gaze, with the exception of one old lady who hadn’t been paying attention. “Excuse me,” I said, “but is this seat taken?”
“Oh, no. Sit down.” So I did. With a happy grin on my face.
Our business later failed, our friendship later failed, and getting back into Canada has been torture because, well, they keep records. But I was happy for smallish victories and this most certainly was one.