The Crazy Customs Line at YYZ

The Line

Under normal circumstances, landing at Pearson and clearing customs on a Wednesday night is a breeze. Last night’s circumstances were far from normal; when I got off my plane at 9:15 p.m., this crowd was waiting to get processed by customs:

pearson airport linePhoto by Amina Moreau from stillmotion.

There were at least three or four planeloads of people held up in the hallway leading to customs. In front of them were barricades (those nylon belts on posts that would’ve been velvet ropes decades ago) and past theme were about a half-dozen police gathered in the vestibule leading to customs.

Here’s what was in front of me, taken with my camera held shakily above my head:

line in front of me

…and here’s what was behind me, with another planeload of people moving to their spot at the back of the line:

line behind me

“I’ve been flying for thirty years, and I‘ve never seen it this bad,” said one guy in line beside me.

“Could it be March Break?” asked someone else.

“Don’t think so,” replied another person. “They’d come back on the weekend, not in the middle of the week. Besides, there’s almost no kids in line.”

“What about the cops?” I asked. “Either there was a security incident, or they’re here to keep the crowd from going all Egypt on customs.”

“Maybe they’re on work to rule,” suggested yet another person. “Although I don’t remember hearing anything about customs or government workers threatening to strike.”

The Tweets

“Nothing on CP24,” I said, checking local news sites for any hint of what was causing the delay. “or any other local site. I’ll check the Twitters.”

I tweeted this:

joey tweet

I saw reports from either people stuck in line or people waiting outside for people stuck in line:

karl tweet

Joanne Acri’s tweet showed that even rock stars are not immune to bureacracy:

joanneacri tweet

The Crowd is Restless

One poor guy decided to find out for himself what was behind the delay. He left his bags and walked to the head of the line to ask the cops and customs officials why there was such a hold-up, and now he couldn’t find his bags.

“Has anyone seen my bags?” he yelled to the crowd. “I left them when I went to the front of the line to ask questions, and now I can’t figure out where I left them!”

“What do they look like?” asked a voice from the back.

“They’re black carry-on travel bags.”

“Good luck, buddy!” replied the voice and the crowd burst into laughter.

A customs official started making announcements asking us to be patient. “We’re processing as many of you as we can, but due to high volumes…”

“Bullshit!” yelled someone in the crowd.

“Do your damn job, like the rest of us!” yelled someone else.

“It’s not like you don’t know how many planes are coming in!” piped in another voice. He was right, of course, but there’s not much that the poor sap who got sent out to deliver the bad news could’ve done about it.

“He must’ve drawn the short straw,” said the guy beside me.

Breaking the Tension with the Accordion

“When you gonna break that thing out?” said a guy behind me, pointing at my accordion, which I was wearing like a backpack.

“Maybe soon,” I said. I leaned over the rail of a non-functioning moving sidewalk and waved at a nearby cop.

“Hey there! Would it be all right with you if a played a tune or two? Crowd’s getting ugly and could probably use a little distraction.”

“Sir,” said the cop, surveying the glowering faces to the left and right, “sooner is better.”

I quickly put on the accordion, yelled “Sing along if you know the words!” and played the first song about being stuck that I could think of: Should I Stay or Should I Go? by The Clash.

Dave Fleet snapped this photo…

joey in customs line on accordion

…and Rick Mason shot this video:

By the end of the song, I got a good dozen people to sing along, dozens snapping photos and a fair bit of applause at the end. I played a few more songs and at the end of You Shook Me All Night Long, they started letting people into customs.

Once past the bottleneck in the vestibule, we moved rather quickly through the snake-line line at customs, where we all got processed in a hurry. The snake-like line meant that I saw a lot of people, many of whom said “thanks”, “nice job”, “great playing” and the like.

“You should pass the hat around,” suggested someone. “You could make some big bucks tonight.”

“No, I’m doing it for the love,” I said. I wasn’t going to profit off captive people’s misery. Besides, I’d just been reading Gary Vaynerchuk’s The Thank You Economy on the plane and I agree with him one hundred percent: if you care, you win.

I still have no idea why there was such a hold-up at customs. They know when planes are landing and it’s not as if they’re new to this sort of thing. I suppose I should apply for my Nexus card so I can bypass this ridiculousness, because I don’t think this will be the last time this sort of thing happens.

In spite of the annoyance, I got to close my trip to Austin with a little rock star moment, and it’s times like this that remind me of why I carry the accordion around in the first place. It’s a device that converts music into adventure!

Press Coverage

joey accordion yyz cbc

A number of people have told me that I got some mention in the press: there’s a photo of me in the CBC’s story about the lineup, someone mentioned me on the radio, and a photo of me was shown on Breakfast Television earlier today.

I got a chuckle out of one comment to the CBC story:

If I was in a line-up like that and some bloke started playing the accordion, I don’t think he’d like where I put it.

There’s no pleasing some people.


11 replies on “The Crazy Customs Line at YYZ”

When I heard on CBC radio this morning that there was a guy in line playing the accordian I thought “How many guys in TO would be in line at Pearson with an accordian? It must be Joey.”.

It was simply a customs line until Accordion Guy shows up and starts playing, then it gets crazy 😉

Great stuff Joey! Rock on. You did good (despite what some commenters said). Of course now you’ll dream about this situation again except this time Geddy Lee comes over and breaks out his guitar and the two of you duo the entire Moving Pictures album (although I’m still wondering how you got it to sound right at the beginning of Tom Sawyer).

A friend of mine was in that line. I asked if he heard you playing. He said:

“Sure did. He helped break the tension a couple times. He was about 20 metres ahead of us and people by me were singing along even though we couldn’t see him very well.”

Nice job!

Geez – I almost wish I was in that line. I probalby would have kept my Nexus card in my pocket. Crack open a few duty free bottles and you have an instant party.

[…] It’s a crying shame that I don’t have my NEXUS pass interview until October 13th. It probably would’ve saved me a grand total of ten or so hours of waiting in line. Mind you, if I had a NEXUS pass, I ‘d have missed my opportunity to make some news at the crazy customs line back in March. […]

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