Tales of the Ferlinghetti

First, some shameless self-promotion: if you like the blog (or someone else’s for that matter), please share it or direct your friends and loved ones here. It’s the only way they’ll find it.  Tell them I try to keep it light, include some pictures and also keep it short enough to read through on your average bathroom break.  Tell them I’ll be nice to them if they tell me they know you.

Now, back to our show!

Did I mention I was a U.S. Customs Inspector?  True story.

Right after college, I was was studying writing at NYU part time in the evening and needed a part time job.  My parents’ neighbor worked for a customs broker at JFK, which was near where I lived.  Brokers represent importers and help get large shipments through customs.  She told my mom that Customs and Immigration sometimes hired part-time people for busy seasons and to cover for other inspectors on vacation or sick leave and it might be a good part-time situation for me.

Okay, so I’m 22, living in New York (Long Island, to be precise), studying poetry in Greenwich Village and playing in a rock band.  And now I’m going to be a… Customs Inspector?  Bust people for drugs and stuff?!  Well, I thought this was hilarious, just the idea of it, so I applied.  I got the job.  Best of all, as a part-timer, there would be no 8-week training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, which the full-time agents had to complete upon hiring.

They did, however, take us into the bowels (pun intended) of the International Arrivals Building to train on basic protocol and procedure (including racial and national profiling), and showed us some cool stuff, like a bowling ball that had been hollowed out to smuggle drugs, and a fake leg that had been filled with heroin, and an X-ray of some guy’s intestines packed full of condoms full of coke.  How did he get caught, you ask?  He couldn’t hold it in.  Ew.

Not the one they showed us, but… ewww! Don’t try this at home.  Photo copyright CBS News

Well, it was a pretty good part-time job for a part-time student, and I did in fact arrest people for smuggling drugs, twice.  One was 12 pounds of heroin from Pakistan.  The guy was a lawyer who had the drugs sewn into the linings of a coat and two jackets in his garment bag.  How’d I catch him?  Random luck and… racial profiling! Biggest passenger drug bust of the year at JFK.  Good times!

What brought this up?  Well, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is 100 this week. 100!  Honestly, I didn’t know he was still around. Kiki and I visited his bookstore last year, City Lights Books in San Francisco during a visit. It’s a very cool, old-school bookstore and we walked around looking at stuff and not once did I have any impression that Mr. Ferlinghetti was still with us and in fact goes to the ol’ bookstore quite often.

Even when I recently heard they were celebrating his 100th birthday, I figured it was like when we celebrate most 100th birthdays – in honor of someone who died but would be 100 on that given day.  Well, not Larry!  He’s still getting along quite well and looks fantastic!  He’s having a glass of wine, and releasing a new book this year.  My hero!

What does this have to do with customs?  Well, one of the fun things about being a Customs agent is that the rich and famous come through the same way as everyone else.  That’s right. So we got to meet and talk to a lot of interesting people.

I met Grace Jones and Paloma Picasso (they were travelling together, you know, and Grace asked me if I knew Paloma and I said yes, but not personally, and she said Paloma was in Immigration but could I help her get through quickly when she got done with Immigration and I said, of course, Ms. Jones, no problem!  And she said call me Grace and I said, okay Grace…)  But I digress.

One time I had a really long chat with one of my guitar heroes, Rick Derringer, while he waited for his guitars at oversize baggage.  He was real nice and everything, although it did later occur to me that this niceness could be attributed, in part, to the fact that this 22 year old whippersnapper could order a body cavity search on him.  Ouch!

Let’s see, there was Dave Edmunds, Larry Carlton, Cage a Goo Goo, David Prowse, who would tell anyone who would listen that he was Darth Vader, and that James Earl Jones was just the voice.  Of course, when they took off Vader’s helmet, that was yet another actor in there.  Poor Dave never got his due.

So, that’s what was under that Darth Vader costume? Who knew? Photo credit: Pintarest

There are many stories, some forgotten, but one of my favorites was this time when a tall, thin, bearded guy with one of those Russian commie hats came to my line dragging what appeared to be a duffle bag with a portable painting easel folded on top, and he handed me his passport.

At this time, I’m studying poetry with Galway Kinnell, a Pulitzer prize winner, and reading lots of poetry.  (Note: if you’re not familiar with Galway Kinnell, do yourself a favor and pick up one of his collections of poems.  He was brilliant.)  I open the passport, and it says, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”

Well, just shut my mouth.  I didn’t know what he looked like, but here’s this Bohemian-looking guy with an easel, wearing a navy peacoat (probably government issue, as he was in the Navy as a “submarine chaser” – no that’s not a dirty term – during WWII), and one of those old commie hats, so I figure it’s a pretty good bet this is THE Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  So I say, “THE Lawrence Ferlinghetti?”

Yes, that commie hat! (No offense, commies!) Photo copyright The New York Times Company

Mr. Ferlinghetti looks at me warily.  He’s a Beat Poet, for godsakes and here is this representative of the federal government, a duly sworn-in Peace Officer (I took the same oath as the President and was legally entitled to carry a concealed weapon, although I never did), wearing a badge. I’m the establishment he’s fighting against.

Yes, that peacoat! Or maybe. It’s possible. You can have 40 year old peacoat right? Wait, is this a peacoat? Oh nevermind. This picture is all over the internet, so no credit but someone took it, evidently. Not me, because even an old geezer like me was not yet born here.

And yet… he’s in his 60’s, and I’m a 23 year-old kid-cop who knows who Lawrence Ferlinghetti is, which I guess he found unusual.  He thinks maybe I’m goofing on him, until I tell him I’m studying with Kinnell at NYU and how excited I am to meet him.  I think I still have the Customs from he signed for me someplace.

Happy 100th to the Bard of the Bay!


MEDICAL ADVANCES: Deborah Norville, a TV personality, underwent treatment for a thyroid tumor that was discovered because a viewer noticed it on TV.  So I think, wait a minute, what if I have a cancerous thyroid tumor and no one notices because I’m not on TV all the time, close up?  That’s not fair!  Everyone should be on TV, for health reasons, am I right?  Why do those people get special treatment?

(Note: Ms. Norville is fine and we wish her a speedy recovery and good health)

CLIMATE CHANGE:  Poop. That’s right, poop. As if rising sea levels isn’t enough to worry about, they’re finding that as the ice melts up on Denali in Alaska, a famous mountain and the tallest in Alaska that has been climbed by thousands of people and guides, it is exposing the then-properly-disposed of feces of previous hikers.  They thought it was fine because this stuff was literally permanent. Permafrost, ya’ know.  Well, not perma much.  So now, the guides are instructed to collect any de-frosted poop they come upon and carry it off the mountain.

Double EEEEWWWWWW!  Mountain guiding used to be such a good job.

No poetry in Smoking in Bed, but there is one mention of feces.  Yes, that’s what it says, feces,. It’s kind of funny how it’s in there but I won’t say anything more.  You need to read the thing. Really.  I mean that.

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