All this early-to-bed-early-to-rise stuff took its toll. My circadian rhythms were shot to hell, and I began to shudder and tremble as the workweek wore on. By the weekend, I wanted to sleep for 48 hours straight, just to get right, but my body had grown used to the unnatural schedule, and I lived in a murky, twilight consciousness, a sort of perennial battle fatigue, where I was awake but not really present. My state of being had adapted by developing its own self-analgesic miasma, a veil of blunted alertness mingled with a not-unpleasant confusion. In short, I knew I could survive the three-month contract, but only if nobody paid much attention to me. And in fact, it worked out fine. Nobody paid much attention to me.
But there had to be better way. Thus, the SENTRI card.
I am amazed that more people don’t have a SENTRI: only 6 percent do. Of course, if everyone had one, it would become as worthless for crossing expeditiously as the U.S. passport is for native-born Americans.
Introduced at the Otay Mesa border station in 1995, SENTRI is a boon to tension-free border crossing, whether on foot or by vehicle. A SENTRI line opened in San Ysidro in 2002; there might be four people waiting, while thousands stood for hours in the regular line. Standing in line is called en cola. (Cola means “tail,” the line being representative of a long, sweeping tail. In fact, those who cut in line are frequently greeted with shouts and jibes of “¡Cola! ¡Cola!” to embarrass the cutter into retreat. Yet some cutters can be insistent; when one elderly American pointed out to another older American that the first American had just cut in front of him, the retort was a loud and threatening, “Fuck you!” The line and its concomitant waiting do not engender love, peace, and happiness.)
In 2011, I applied for a SENTRI pass. The cards were offered for free, if the applicant qualified.
I stopped by the newly opened San Ysidro SENTRI office at the end of the trolley line and talked to the nice bilingual woman at the window. She gave me the basic info sheet and told me I had to register online. (I’ve since found out that you can get things done at the office, in terms of registration specifics, but it takes longer.) I paid online with a credit card — if you don’t have a credit card you can use one of those refillable debit cards that are all the rage for money laundering — an initial $25 fee. Done. I had to wait for two weeks while my registration was reviewed.
Two weeks later I checked the website. I was approved for an interview with Customs and Border Protection (CPB). I had to present evidence of my residence, employment, and citizenship, and I had to book the interview...online. A series of calendars showed available interview times, but the San Ysidro location was not among the places listed. What? They’d told me I could book a date for an interview at the San Ysidro office. In La Mesa, the first opening was in December 2011. (Baby, I gotta get to work; I can’t wait until December. I’ll go nuts if I have to wait in that line every day of the week until December.)
The list of other offices where I could book an appointment included Yuma, Arizona, and Laredo, Texas. I spent two hours in line to cross the border, then went again to the San Ysidro office, where the nice woman explained that, although their office was not yet online, she could book me an appointment there for four weeks hence. There was nothing sooner. I had to take it. Mentally, I’d become like a fighter in the ring, hanging in until the bell rings or everything goes black; meaning, I endured all manner of bureaucratic boondoggle until I obtained my card. (Later that week, on the Mexican side, a fellow in a bar told me that, even after I paid all the fees, I could be rejected for the SENTRI with no reimbursement. I could be out 125 bucks. This news — inaccurate, as it turned out — was so depressing I had another pint.)
Finally, my appointment date rolled around. I gave myself a six-hour headstart to cross: I had to ensure that I would be at the San Ysidro SENTRI office on time. I slouched around Chula Vista for a while, slurping excessive amounts of coffee and worrying. (By the way, there are no public restrooms at the San Ysidro office, so be prepared to run down to McDonald’s and spend a quarter if you gotta go, and woe is you if you miss your call-out on the appointment.)
I arrived at the San Ysidro office 15 minutes prior to my appointed time. The waiting room was painfully full. Visions of DMVs and doctors’ offices filled my head. (I’d once waited six hours in a doctor’s office to have my little finger X-rayed for a chip fracture. The line, the office, it’s all about wait.)
But once my name was called, the process lifted off like a space-shuttle launch, ponderously at first, then accelerating, gaining the necessary velocity to knock me into SENTRI card orbit.
A uniformed agent asked me a few questions. I probably spent ten minutes with him. I showed him my evidences of address (rent receipts), employment (pay stubs), and citizenship (US passport). He wanted to know if I had ever been arrested. Nope. Married? Nope. He especially focused on whether I had ever had any run-ins with the law involving drugs. Nope. Transporting human traffic (i.e. smuggling in illegal aliens)? Nope.
Then he sent me over to a nice woman who took my fingerprints digitally and took a digital ID photo with a cheesy Logitech camera (one of those gray balls with a lens in it connected to a USB port on a computer). I was then directed outside, where another nice woman in a uniform walked me and two other inductees through a series of locked gates and doors into the original old Customs Building, a WPA-constructed relic from the Great Depression that, despite its obvious inadequacy for today’s border crossings, still emanates a nostalgic stateliness, with its red-tiled roof and Spanish-federalist facade. We were shown to a window, where we paid what remained to be paid on our fees — in my case, $97 and some-odd cents. Then we went back to the San Ysidro SENTRI office, where they returned the paperwork I’d left with my interviewing officer. I was told I would get my SENTRI card in the mail, in five to ten days.