Author’s note: I’ve always wanted to write about working at US Customs, but there’s so much stuff that this is now Part I of a two part miniseries on my experiences as a Customs Inspector. Next week’s post, which I call “Part II,” will complete the tale.
Copyright Disclaimer: most of these are not my pictures, but I’m not using them for financial gain or taking credit. I try to credit the photographers, but citing is a pain in the ass that I gave up along with lawyering, so if you want to find out who took the picture, Google it like I did.
There will be, as usual, pretty pictures to look at. Those are mine for you. Thanks.
When I graduated from college and moved back home (avoid this if you’re still in college or have a student finishing college. Moving back in with the folks after 4 years of doing whatever the hell you want is not a recipe for family peace; don’t worry, we made up eventually.), I wasn’t sure what was next for Paul. Music? Literature? Law school? I ended up, as mentioned last week, at NYU for grad school, and needed a day job. Or two, so I could get my own place and keep playing rock and roll for no money in NYC bars and clubs.
Our neighbor Mary worked for a customs broker at JFK International, about 10 minutes from my home. Our split-level was under the approach to the east-west runway; big Transatlantic jets flew only a few hundred feet over our house and it got so we could tell what kind of jet it was by how much the house shook. Customs brokers help importers through the process. Mary told us US Customs was hiring part-timers to cover for busy travel times and for full time inspectors’ vacation hours. Said they paid pretty well. And it was close to home.
At first, this seemed like a really bad idea. If you knew me during and right after college, you might think it at least amusing that I would consider a job in law enforcement. I was never a criminal, but rather a college student in a serious rock band. Enough said. But there were not many jobs that fit my needs. I tried driving a cab, waiting tables, and so forth. I’m just not a service person. Too grouchy.
So I stopped in at JFK (International Arrivals, or “IAB”) for an application. These days, presumably, you don’t just sashay into the heavily-secured customs area to apply for a gig, but this was 1982 (yes, I am nearing Social Security age). IAB, by the way was a fugly building, inside and out, mercifully replaced in 2001 by the creatively-named “Terminal 4.”
Shockingly, they hired me and two weeks later, I was back at IAB for my training. Normally, new agents are sent to Ft. Benning, Georgia (at least in 1982) for an eight week intensive training. But we part-timers got… two days in the basement of the IAB.
It was fun. They showed us hollowed-out bowling balls and prosthetic limbs that had been used to smuggle drugs. X-rays of people with dozens of heroin-filled balloons in their large intestine. Just imagine delivering that load. And scenarios, where the drugs come from, what route the couriers take, and of course, racial and ethnic profiling.
That’s right. Back then, profiling was the number one tool in the US Customs arsenal: if someone looks like a drug smuggler (whatever that is, use your imagination), or comes from a drug producing country or travels a common drug corridor (that is, the path drugs take from their source to the US), then they need to be looked at more closely. We now understand profiling to be racist, classist and offensive, but it was legal then, and it works, especially for drug smuggling. More on that next week in Part II.
I worked 6 hour shifts and in summer and during the holidays it became almost a full time job. Each week you’d get your assignment for next week and they rotated us: IAB, TWA, AMERICAN or PAN AM.
That’s right, remember Pan Am? Pan Am had a great terminal. It was called the Worldport (see featured image, above). I believe Delta uses it now, but it looked like a giant flying saucer. Please note that 2 of the 3 international carriers with their own dedicated terminals are out of business.
It was kind of fun the first few times you walked through the “do not enter” doors, and we could go anywhere in the terminal, or airport, without being bothered. The long, red and white tunnel below was how I got to work in the morning.
The old TWA terminal, designed by the seminal architect Eero Saarinen and built in 1962, was even better. It recently (after having been abandoned for 15 or so years after TWA’s demise) was re-purposed and designed as a high-end hotel. I’m sure it’s nice inside, because it was beautiful as a terminal, but they better have some serious double-panes in there. It’s in the freakin’ middle of one of the busiest airports on the planet.
Every morning (no nights for me!) we’d go to the terminal and be assigned a station, which looked like a supermarket check-out with a computer and a longer, lower belt. At one point, they switched to red and green stations, red being for passengers having something to declare and green for those who didn’t. As you might imagine, the vast majority of smugglers would opt for the green lane.
Mostly the job was boring. 99.9 percent of passengers are not smuggling, at least on purpose, so all you’d do was ask 2 or 3 questions, stamp their Customs form and passport, and send them through. It was pretty dull. If you found anything at all, it would be food. At least that served as a distraction, sometimes humorous.
One guy had ham. He was coming in from Ireland. Is the ham better in Ireland? Not sure, but you can’t bring meat (at least in 1982) from most countries, especially Ireland back then because of hoof and mouth. Now, remember that when you’re in Immigration and Customs, that ain’t America. It’s international, at least technically. I told the man he had to give up his meat. (I didn’t order him “unhand that meat,” but now I wish I had. I mean, how often in life do you have an opportunity to say that?)
He wasn’t happy as it was an expensive chunk of cured pig, so he asked, “can I eat it here?” And of course, the answer is, yes. You’re in international territory. You just can’t take it past that imaginary line. So he sat down on the floor, opened the ham, and began eating it like one might consume a sandwich. He gave up half way through, and the Agriculture Inspector took away the rest. It’s a good bet that sitting down on the floor in Homeland Security to eat a ham with your hands is a no-no these days.
One day an older Italian gentleman of hearty peasant stock came through with his family. He had many pounds of wax-covered cheeses in his luggage. It looked delicious. I found all the cheese (anyone could, it smelled like cheese from a mile away, and I mean, good cheese), giant balls and wheels of provolone and whatever else, and boy, did he think he was in trouble.
He wasn’t. Cheese from Italy is legal. But he didn’t speak English, and I spoke no Italian, and he thought I was going to take his cheese or send him back to Italy, so he tried to bribe me with like 20 bucks, tried to stuff the bill into my hand. I laughed, knowing that old Italian men thought it correct procedure to bribe border officials, and using my Charades skills, explained that he could keep the cheese and the double sawbuck. He didn’t know what that meant. We both enjoyed an international, intercultural chuckle.
So, we had ham, and cheese. Now, here’s the pretty pictures from nature for this week:
Customs inspectors aren’t so bad, even if they can order a body cavity search with only reasonable cause (it’s what it sounds like). They’re doing a tough job. Must be even harder these days with all the lunacy going on. My band, The NY Frets (get it?) that used to play around the NYC metro area was probably one of the few that had a regular Customs presence at our shows, as well as the occasional Agricultural Inspector. They were the ones who would tell people if they could keep their cheese or not. Fruit is right out. No fruit. Flies, you know. Meat? Depends on the country of origin
Another distraction was, you meet cool people in a job like that. Last week, I mentioned meeting the seminal Beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I also met and talked to a lot of other cool famous people, to be further detailed in Part Deux. You’d be amazed at how nice famous people are with the unspoken threat of a possible cavity search hanging in the air.
Next week, you’ll hear about a few fun celebrity interactions that could only happen at Customs, as well as my greatest accomplishment as a federal law enforcement official, a major drug bust using established (now illegal) law enforcement techniques.
Thanks for indulging me. Hope you’ll come back for Part II. Have a great week everybody!