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.



South by Southwest Travel Diary, Entry 6:

Started the day with a stacked pork enchilada at Iron Cactus

stacked pork enchilada

…which has a very nice rooftop patio, and yesterday’s weather was perfect for it.

iron cactus rooftop

I then went to the convention center, where I helped out a little at the Windows Phone booth. I noticed that the Kinect lounge was quiet and neglected, so I fired up Dance Central and got the crowd going.

windows phone booth

My efforts did not go unnoticed…

kinect tweet

Even better, an unexpected treat. My friends Kate Melville and David Halls are here for their first SxSW! They decided to come at the last minute in order to look for backing for their film Twenty Questions. So far, things seem to be going well; while the Canadian film industry has been responding to them with excuses for why it can’t be done, the Americans have been looking for reasons why it can.

kate and twenty questions

I caught Jane McGonigal’s presentation on how games can make for better people and a better world. I’ll post my notes from it later.

reality is broken

Best poster of the conference:

i like boobies

And yes, I do like ‘em too.

You couldn’t miss these posters for tomorrow’s Internet Explorer 9 launch event – it features Yeasayer, The Head and the Heart and Fences. If you’re not familiar with YeaSayer, check out the video for their best-known track at the moment, Ambling Alp.


Later that evening, I ended up at The HighBall (Austin’s big cocktail lounge / bowling alley, straight out of Mad Men) for the Fandango / Alamo Drafthouse Cinema party…

the highball

…which featured Karaoke Apocalypse, a karaoke competition where singers are backed by a live band:

karaoke apocalypse

I made it into the finals with an accordion-backed rendition of the Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated…

joey at fandango party

Three finalists were picked, and I was one of them. For my finals number, I did AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and in the end, we were ranked by audience applause. I won second place!

The first place prize was a year’s worth of movie tickets courtesy of Fandango. As much as I would’ve liked this prize, they’re no go to me in Canada. So I’ll have to make do with the second-place prize:


…and iPad! The original version, not the 2.0 (I don’t mind, free cool tech is still free cool tech), 16GB wifi model. Not bad for eight minutes’ work!


Daylight Saving Time 2011

Penguin sneaking up on a sleeping polar bear with a pair of cymbals

This morning at 2 a.m., it became 3 a.m..  Daylight Saving Time starts today and runs until Sunday, November 6th. As is tradition on this blog, I’m posting what I consider to be the official photo of Daylight Saving Time.

Combined with the South by Southwest conference, which I’m attending as I write this, this “spring forward” business is a bit rough.


South by Southwest Travel Diary, Part 5: Guilty Pleasures

guilty pleasures

The Chuggin’ Monkey is an Austin 6th Street institution. I was introduced to it during my first South by Southwest conference back in 2008. During non-SxSW times, it’s a cheesy college bar specializing in inexpensive cocktails of the sort that are shot glasses of liquor “depth-charged” into larger glasses containing even more liquor. During SxSW times, it’s the same thing; it’s just that SxSW attendees displace the college students.

Austin fun trivia fact: An Austin local by the name of Brad Womack owns the Chuggin’ Monkey. Brad is better known for being the namesake bachelor from the 2007 season of the reality TV series The Bachelor.

I was walking down sixth street with my developer evangelist counterparts for the US, Abby and Kyle, when we heard some raucous music blaring from the Chuggin’ Monkey’s front windows. The Chuggin’ Monkey’s stage is right by the front windows, so it was easy for us to walk up and get a better look at who was playing. When Kyle and I discovered that it was an all-girl band wearing snug firefighter outfits, we decided that perhaps it would be a good idea to go inside and check out the show.

Here’s a taste of what we caught:

We soon found out that the band’s name was Guilty Pleasures, and they’re a fun-to-watch cover band. Among their covers were Bad Reputation, No Sleep Till Brooklyn, Call Me and Summer of ‘69 (which they dedicated to me after finding out I was Canadian).

Fun lifehack: Want to get an all-girl band who like to project a bi-curious image to interact with you? Bring an accordion, get their attention and lick it. Works every time.

I tweeted that I was watching Guilty Pleasures play. In response, Brittney Gilbert, whom I know only online, tweeted back, saying that she knows Kat, the vocalist. A quick “Hey, Kat! Brittney Gilbert says hi!” confirmed that. Kat said hi back, and I tweeted that back to Brittney.

For their second-to-last number, Kat wandered offstage and took a perch on the bar, not far from where I was. They started into the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, which I know how to play (dirt simple: the basic chords are Em – C – B). I simply walked up to Kat, played those chords, and she let me solo for the better part of a minute, putting her vocal mike up to my accordion grill.

I know the Great Law of the Internet is “pics or it didn’t happen”. Luckily, Abby got some great shots:

with the band 1

with the band 2

Playing with the band

with the band 4

And that, folks, is why I tend to take the accordion out as much as possible. It’s a device for converting music into adventure!


South by Southwest Travel Diary, Entry 4: At the Staats House

The Microsoft travel system found the nearest available hotel to South by Southwest for me – the Fairfield Marriott Suites on I-35 South –  is a good six miles away from the Austin Convention Centre and probably not even reachable on foot. Still, it’s a place to stay, which is hard to come by during this conference.

staats house

Thankfully, my friend from my Crazy Go Nuts University Days, Jodi Brown, is renting a house just off 11th Street, a shade over a mile from the convention – a longish walk and a quick cab ride away. It belongs to one Peter Staats, photographer, and it’s both awesome and rather unusual. She and her friends have taken the rooms in the house, but the coolest room (in my opinion) was left available: the “Quonset hut” in the backyard. It’s now my “hotel away from hotel”, and it’s featured in the video tour of the Staats house, shown above.


South by Southwest Travel Diary, Entry 3: Austin’s Phallic Hotel

It’s a landmark, and I can’t but comment on the sign’s shape. (NSFW: Gordon Ramsay-esque mentions of male genitalia.)


South by Southwest Travel Diary, Entry 2: Allen’s Boots

Allen's Boots neon signI arrived in Austin on Wednesday afternoon and caught up with my friends Lee Dale, Matt Rintoul and Gabe Mansour of the Accordion City-based web/app design firm Say Yeah. Lee had his heart set on getting some cowboy boots, so we made tracks for what considered to Allen’s Boots in South Congress, which boasts an amazing collection of western clothing. In the video above, Lee is looking around for boots and hats, and as you might expect, some mild hilarity ensued.

Here’s just one of the aisles at Allen’s, which has a very nice collection of big-ass belt buckles, hats, shirts, bolo ties and of course, boots:

Boot aisle at Allen's Boots, featuring a big neon "Tony Lama" sign

If you’re in Austin for South by Southwest and are looking for a break, you might just want to grab a cab from the convention center and check out Allen’s. It’s surrounded by a number of neat places worth visiting as well.

Cowboy boots at Allen's