Behind Bulletproof Glass

By Ed Staskus

   I should have known better when I told the young woman on the other side of the Walgreen’s bulletproof drive-thru window that I needed the kind of 19 rapid test that would get my wife and me into Canada and she said blithely, “For sure, this is it.” She was a trained pharmacy technician, but made up her harebrained reply, assuring me all was well even though she didn’t know what she was talking about. We found out three days later trying to cross the border at Houlton, Maine into Woodstock, New Brunswick.

   Getting a straight answer from the young can sometimes be like trying to give fish a bath. They often have a quippy answer for everything. Their answers are in earnest no matter what they’re asked and no matter their wealth or lack of knowledge. Whenever they are fazed by anything they say, “Oh, whatever.” 

   They say whatever they want when they are behind bulletproof glass.

   My wife and I were going to Prince Edward Island, where we didn’t go the summer before because of the 19. Canada closed itself up tight as a clam in March of that year and didn’t reopen for Americans until early August of this year. Once we heard the opening was going ahead, we got in touch with the folks who operate Coastline Cottages in the town of North Rustico on PEI and let them know we were coming on August 21st and staying for three weeks.

   The cottages are on a hillside, on land that has been in the Doyle family going on two hundred years. A park road cut through their farm when it was built in the 1970s, but unlike other landowners they didn’t sell their remaining acreage to the state, so it sits snug inside the National Park. There are several homes on the bluff side of the eponymous Doyle’s Cove, some old and some brand new. In one way or another every one of them houses a homegrown north shore family, except for Kelly Doyle, who has lived on the cove the longest and lives alone.

   It takes two and half days to drive from Lakewood, Ohio to Prince Edward Island. At least it did every other year we had driven to the island. This year it took us six and half days.

   When we got to the Canadian border the black uniform in the booth asked for our passports. We forked them over to the tall trim guard, forearms tattooed, a Beretta 9mm on his hip. He was young and just old enough to be on this side of Gen Z. He looked our documents over and asked where we were from and where we were going.

   “Cleveland, Ohio,” I said. Although we live in Lakewood, an inner ring suburb, we always tell red tape we live in Cleveland. No one has heard of Lakewood. Everybody has heard of Cleveland, for good or bad. At least nobody calls it “The Mistake on the Lake” anymore. 

   I almost preferred the insult. “It keeps the riff raff rich away,” I explained to my wife. “There is no need for Cleveland to become the next new thing. They will just use up all the air and water and our real estate taxes will go ballistic. On top of that, we would end up knee deep in smarmy techies with their cheery solutions to all the world’s problems.”

   We handed our ArriveCAN documents over. We handed our virus inoculation cards over. We had both gotten Moderna shots. We handed our virus tests over, proving we had both tested negative.

   “You are cutting it close,” the border guard sniffed, shuffling everything in his hands like a deck of cards. I was hoping he wouldn’t turn a Joker up.

   The negative test had to be presented at the border within 72 hours of taking it. We were there with an hour to spare, although it would have been two hours if we hadn’t had to wait in line in our car for an hour. We had driven a thousand miles. It was tiresome but waiting in an idling car wasn’t any more skin off our noses.

   It started to smell bad when a second border guard stepped into the booth and the two guards put their heads together.

   “The antigen tests you took aren’t accepted in Canada,” the Joker said. “It has to be a molecular test. You can go ahead, since you’re from Canada, but your wife has to go back.”

   I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and have dual citizenship, although I only carry an American passport. I couldn’t tell if he was being serious, so I asked him to repeat what he said. He repeated what he said and gave us a turn-around document to return to the USA when I told him I wasn’t ready to abandon my wife.

   We went back the way we had come, just like two of the six cars ahead of us, although we had to wait in line at the American crossing for an hour. Once we returned to Maine, we found out we could get the molecular test, but it would be a week-or more before we got the results. Nobody we talked to, not even the Gods of Google, was any help. A friendly truck driver mentioned New Hampshire was faster, only taking a day or two.

   The truck driver was stout, bowlegged, wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, a two-or-three-day growth of beard on his face, with a small shaggy dog to keep him company on the road. He wasn’t a Gen Z man. It was hard to tell what generation he belonged to, other than the changeless working-class generation.

   We drove six hours the wrong way to Campton, New Hampshire and checked into the Colonel Spencer Inn. It was Saturday night. We got on-line and made test appointments for noon at a CVS in Manchester, an hour away. We streamed “Castle of Sand” on our laptop. It was a 1970s Japanese crime thriller movie and kept us up past our bedtime.

   Over breakfast the next morning our innkeeper told us to go early since the traffic leaving New Hampshire for home on Sunday mornings was heavy. We gave ourselves an hour and a half to drive the 55 miles and barely made it. Luckily, we hadn’t made appointments for an hour later. We never would have made it. The traffic on I-93 going south was a snarl of stop and go by the time we started north back to Campton.

   We got our test tubes and swabs and stuck the swabs up our noses. I spilled some of the liquid in my tube and asked the Gen Z pharmacy technician behind the bulletproof glass if I should start over with a new kit.

   “You’re fine, it doesn’t matter,” she said. She couldn’t have been more wrong, which we discovered in the next few future days.

   Gen Z is self-centered and self-sacrificing both at the same time. “My goals are to travel the world and become the founder of an organization to help people.” They want to stand out. “Our generation is on the rise. We aren’t just Millennials.” They say they are the new dawn of a new age. “We are an unprecedented group of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

   Welcome to the future, just don’t take the future’s word for it.

   We spent the night at the Colonel Spencer. It was built in 1764, a year after the end of the French and Indian War. During the war the British, allied with American colonists, weaponized smallpox, trading infected blankets to Indians. The virus inflicts disfiguring scars, blindness, and death.

   “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion, use every stratagem in our power to reduce them,” the British commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst wrote to his subordinates.

   The results were what the continent’s newest immigrants from the Old World expected.

   “They burned with the heat of the pox, and they died to feed the monster. And so, the village was deserted, and never again would the Indians live on that spot,” is how one of the natives described the deadly epidemic.

   We had dinner at Panorama Six82, not far from our inn. The hostess seated us outside on the patio which looked out over a valley and a series of cascading White Mountain hilltops. The sun went down behind one of them and we finished our dessert in the dark.

   Our server was a middle-aged man from Colombia wearing jeans, a Panorama Six82 signature shirt, and a Sonoma-style straw hat. He went back to the homeland every year to visit relatives.

    “They always want money, so I don’t bring too much of it,” Fernando said. “It’s not as dangerous as most Americans think it is. I avoid some neighborhoods, sure, and I avoid riding in cabs. The rebels are in the hills, not the cities, and besides, they don’t do much anymore. The Venezuelans are a problem, all of them leaving their god-forsaken country. But they do a lot of the dirty work for us these days.”

   We drove back to Houlton on I-95. The speed limit north of Bangor is 75 MPH. I set the cruise to 85 MPH and kept my eyes peeled for moose. The fleabags lumber onto the roadway, sometimes standing astride one lane or another. Hitting a moose is a bad idea. A full-grown bull moose stands six to seven feet tall and tips the scales at 1500 pounds. It isn’t certain that the collision will kill the beast, but it will kill your car, and maybe you. They do most of their roaming around after nightfall. We made sure we got to our motel before dusk.

   In the morning my wife was winding down a business meeting on Zoom when there was a knock on our door. It was the housekeeper. She wore a black uniform and black hair pulled back in a bun. She was young. She was part of the Z crowd.

   “We’ll be out in about a half-hour,” I said.

   “Can I replace the towels and empty the trash?”

   “Sure.”

   “Weren’t you here a few days ago?”

   “Yes,” I said, and told her about trying and failing to get across the border and our search for a fast 19 test.

   It turned out the explanation for the motel being sold-out was because of the same problem. Every other person lodging there had been turned around for one reason or another.

   “You should go to the Katahdin Valley Medical Center,” she said. “A friend of mine went there, they did the test, she got it back the next day, and went to Nova Scotia.”

   “Thanks,” I said. We packed and followed Apple Maps to the medical center. The receptionist didn’t know anything about a fast molecular test. She sent us to Jesse, the man upstairs, who was the man in charge.

   “We test on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays,” he said. “It takes about a week to get the results back from the lab.” It was Tuesday. We were already three days late. I started looking over my shoulder for Chevy Chase.

   “Not the next day?”

   “No.”

   We left Houlton and drove to Presque Isle, had lunch, messed around, my wife went running on the town’s all-purpose trail, and we drove to the Caribou Inn in the next town north. While the receptionist checked her computer for our reservation, we heard a wolf whistle through the open door of the office behind the front desk. A minute later we heard it again.

   “That’s just Ducky,” the receptionist said. “She belongs to the manager.”

   “Does she do that often, whistle, I mean?” I asked.

   “Whenever she sees a pretty girl.”

   Another wolf whistle came my wife’s way.

   I must have looked cross, because the receptionist said, “Ducky is a parrot.”

   Ducky was a parrot in a tall white cage just inside the door of the office. Her plumage was green with some red and yellow mixed in. She was a saucy character.

   “She’s twenty years old,” the receptionist said.

   “How long has she been here?”

   “Twenty years.”

   Ducky was spending all her Gen Z years locked up at the Caribou Inn, where flocks came and went. The only lasting relationship she had was with Betty, the hotel’s manager, and the bird’s keeper.

   “I didn’t know parrots lived that long.”

   “They can live to be seventy, eighty years old,” Betty said.

   “Ducky wolf whistles women?”

    “And men. We thought she was a he until she started laying eggs not long ago.”

   The parrot was going to outlive most of us, the 19 or no 19. They sometimes play dead in response to threats. They can also look dead when they are asleep. But if a parrot is lying still and not breathing, looking lifeless, you can assume it is dead.

   We had a non-smoking room, although every hallway that led to our room was lined with smoking rooms. The hallways smelled sad and stale. We were settling in with a bottle of wine and a movie when we got a phone call. It was the lab in New Hampshire that was doing our 19 molecular tests. They had good news and bad news. My wife tested negative, but my test was discarded. 

   “There wasn’t enough liquid in the test vial to maintain the sample,” the lab technician said. “Did you happen to spill some of it?”

   I didn’t bother trying to explain. I got on-line and filled out another ArriveCAN form. When we got to the border my wife had no problem. The only problem I had wasn’t make or break, since they couldn’t deny me entry, test or no test. A health officer gave me a self-test kit and told me to make sure I performed it within four days. She was in her early 30s. I had no reason to be skeptical. She was just out of Gen Z range. I should have been leery since she was wrong. She wasn’t as far out of the field of friendly fire as I thought.

   Four days later, when I went on-line and followed the directions for the self-test, the Indian-looking Indian-sounding woman on the other side of screen was nonplussed when I apologized for waiting to the last minute.

   “I don’t understand.” she said. “You are four days early. You are supposed to test after eight days of self-quarantine.”

   When I started to spell out what had happened, she wasn’t in the mood, and said she would schedule Purolator to pick my test up the next day. Purolator sent me an e-mail saying they would pick up between nine and noon. The truck pulled up just before five. I was grilling dogs and corn on the front deck. The next day I got an e-mail informing me my test came back negative. I had been tested four times in ten days and was finally officially virus-free.

   No matter the generation, Prince Edward Island was the only place and people who got it right. When we arrived late Wednesday afternoon and crossed the nine-mile-long bridge to the province, we waited in one of the many lines edging towards checkpoints. It didn’t take long. A young woman took our vitals while an older man in a spacesuit swabbed our noses.

   “If we don’t call you within two hours you tested negative,” he said.

   We drove to the Coastline Cottages. “Welcome to Canada,” our hosts said. “You made it.” 

   No one from Health PEI called us. We unpacked, watching the day get dark over the Atlantic Ocean, and fell into bed. I drifted off thanking God somebody on our part of the planet knew what the 19 score was, not some mumbo jumbo they dreamed up because they neglected to check the scoreboard.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Theatre PEI

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