“When we were kids,” I began telling Mr. Mack, “my mom and her best friend, Helen, used to take me, my sister, Ginn, and Helen’s daughter, Marlene, on a girls’ shopping day in Detroit. It was a summer ritual: we went every year to buy clothes for the upcoming school year. In spite of being strict Mennonites, both my mother, Hazel, and Helen loved to break the rules. Certain rules. From a very early age, Hazel and Helen had been grooming us girls in the fine art of smuggling goods across the border without having to pay duty on our purchases.”
One of our first lessons had been to routinely wear old, worn clothes to Detroit to be discarded in the street waste baskets after leaving the store wearing our new clothes. Several other tips included:
- When smuggling new shoes, we put the heels of the shoes in our arm pits or hooked them into the sides of our bras under our clothes. The shoe then hung down against the rib cage and was held in place by our arms hanging down, pressed against our sides;
- Several new tops could be hidden by layering one on top of the other, as long as the lower tops were tucked in and out of sight. This technique only worked with light weight, cotton tops. Sweaters, for example, couldn’t be layered without becoming obviously bulky and thus, risked drawing the guards’ suspicions;
- Multiple panties could be worn at the same time without attracting attention, but only two bras could be layered, especially if they were padded.
- A second pair of new shoes could be purchased, but they had to be worn back to Canada and must not look like new shoes. We learned to check on the inside & outside of the shoes for any store markings and/or price tags not previously removed at the time of purchase. Then we walked up and down the sidewalks dragging our feet on the cement so the soles became scuffed;
- Arriving back at the Customs Inspection station at the Canadian border, our mothers told us to stay calm. “Don’t draw any attention to yourselves. Just stay behind us, don’t look around, stay quiet and follow us. We’ll do the talking.”
The first time we accompanied our mothers on the shopping trip, we young girls were terrified by the concept of clearing Customs with our hidden purchases, but our first successful attempt simply set the bar for our next trip. Over the course of the years, and many annual shopping trips, our secret purchases were never discovered.
When I finished telling Mr. Mack the story of my shopping trip in Detroit today, I gaily announced that once again, I had successfully smuggled my new purchases back into Canada. Expectantly, I waited for laughter but instead, an awkward silence filled the room. Unperturbed, I asked if he was feeling okay. “Are you having chest pain, Mr. Mack?”
“Miss Tiessen,” he replied gravely, “I work for Canada Border Services.”