Welcome back for Part Deux. If you’ve had enough of my experience as a Customs Inspector, you’re probably not alone. Please note that: a) this will be the last Customs-related post, and; b) I saved the best stuff for last. And it is too long but I need to get it all in. Or out.
It’s important to recall that these were simpler, pre-9/11 times. I was 23. A child, really, still pretty impressionable and frankly, with little real-world experience. Which begs the question, why? And how? Why would the U.S. Government, needing to cover for peak travel times and inspector sick-days or vacations, hire me?
More importantly, why would they give us only 2 weeks training instead of the usual 2 months at Ft. Benning, Georgia? And why, oh why would they, after those 2 weeks, give me and the other misfits (retirees, housewives, bad poets, wannabe police officers who couldn’t pass the NYPD exam) a badge that said “U.S. Customs Inspector, Dept. of the Treasury?” The same badge as all the other inspectors. Your guess is as good as mine.
Customs inspectors are Peace Officers, which means (back then at least), that you could own and carry a handgun. Yep, little Paulie, the guy in the rock band studying poetry, could just go right out and get a gun, and you know, keep it in the glove compartment.
I didn’t, of course, but it was fun knowing I could. I also could get out of trouble. This rarely came up as I try to obey local ordinances, but one time, out in Sag Harbor, Fred and I were visiting Steve and the family, and there wasn’t room for us to sleep in the house, so we pitched our tent on the beach at the end of the street, on the bay side.
We soon found out that the Bay Constable lived right across the little inlet from the beach. Early the next day, I heard a car door shut, and footsteps on gravel, and looked out to see a shiny pair of black boots. “Come on out, son,” he said, and so I did, and so did Fred. The Constable had seen our little tent across the inlet over his morning coffee.
Thinking quickly, I said, “sorry, officer. We didn’t intend anything illegal. I’m on the job.” Magic words, “on the job,” that’s what they had told me to say. The Constable, a large man in a grey uniform, looked at me dubiously and asked, “where’s your shield, son” (maybe I reminded him of his son?) and I said, it’s in the car. Showed the badge. Ticket ripped up. “Don’t be camping here again, Officer.” Wink-wink. “Oh don’t worry, Constable. Thanks again.” Jab-jab. That was a fun one.
The other fun thing was celebrities coming through. Let’s face it, seeing celebrities is fun (even if you’re a celebrity), but coming through Immigration and Customs, well that changes the dynamic. You’re the Law. They can’t ignore you and they have to be nice. Hee hee. Here are a few of my favorites.
One time, at IAB, I was working on the floor. Who should I run into but Grace Jones! Superstar 1982 Grace Jones! Actually, she came up to me. I said hi, stamped her through and she says, Darling do you know Paloma Picasso? I say, well, not “know know,” but I do know what she looks like, so Grace says, Paloma is in Immigration and could I get her right through Customs and tell her Grace was in the car?
What could I say? Of course, Ms. Jones! That’s a real celebrity, who feels entitled to send a federal law enforcement official on a personal errand. Anyway, Ms. Picasso came through not long after, and was very grateful for my assistance. Darling. I don’t remember what she did for a living, but if your dad is Pablo Picasso, you get through customs quickly.
Sometimes, the fun happened on another inspector’s counter. The rule at the time was that you could bring in thousands of dollars of goods without a tariff. Officially it was 500 bucks, but Customs did an analysis and found that unless there was 10,000 dollars’ worth of goods from abroad, the tariff charged didn’t justify the processing, so unofficially, if you had 10K or less, you’re good. But the passengers didn’t know this. You still needed to declare anything you bought over $500.
It’s important to get the right inspector, even if you’re a celebrity. The band Kajagoogoo (Lord knows why they were ever popular) came through and one of them got on a green line (nothing to declare). He picked the wrong line.
I hated that band. I was in a REAL, 60’s and 70’s-influenced rock band. But they didn’t pick me, no. They picked the African-American agent at the next counter. A 50-ish, substantial woman with straightened hair, giant gold hoop earrings, huge eyeglasses, long fingernails, and what today we call a copious booty, you know? We all thought she was a blast, but she didn’t take shit from no one, especially entitled, pampered rock stars.
Dude didn’t declare anything in his 5 bags. Nothing. And she didn’t like his attitude, so you know what? She opened and went through EVERY PIECE OF LUGGAGE. Everything. Took out all his socks. She found a few grand in jewelry. That tariff would normally be waved, but if you don’t declare? Even if you don’t go over the limit? Penalty! Tariff+fine! And best of all, the passenger is responsible for re-packing the bags. Kaja was there for a couple of hours. We all had a good laugh at that one.
Best celeb moment: at Pan Am one day, I look up and here’s one of my absolute guitar heroes, Rick Derringer. “Back in the USA” from Edgar Winter’s White Trash album? Give me a freakin’ break. Well, I look down because he’s all of 5 feet tall. Nothing to declare but still needs to get his guitars at oversize baggage.
So I abandon my post (this is very important) and escort him to oversize. In the ensuing 40 minutes it took for the damn guitars to come down, I talked with Rick. What a great guy! He even gave me a contact for a music agent. Of course, I’ll never know if he was really that nice (I hear he is) or if it was just the implied threat of a body-cavity search that made him so chatty with a 23 year old inspector/fan.
The last memory I will share is one of the most vivid memories of my life. One day, a man comes to my counter at IAB. He’s in a nice suit. He has 3 items: a briefcase, a garment bag, and a small suitcase. He’s from Pakistan. He’s travelling Air France from Karachi through Paris. He fits a classic profile pattern, only part of it racial (and illegal today).
Profiling. It works. Pakistan, Golden Triangle, Karachi is the source of most of the heroin in the world (at least back then). This guy says he’s a lawyer, here for business. Now, they had just instated a rule that if you think there is any reason to look further at a passenger, at least check one bag. It was lazy, but most people don’t smuggle. That being said, if someone comes from Pakistan through Paris, you’d better show on the form that you checked one bag.
Most of the time, you check the briefcase, the one he took on the plane. For whatever reason, I pointed at the garment bag. I was bored, probably.
He put the bag up. It was heavier than expected. I opened it. A rain coat and two suits. The guy kept offering me his brief case to look at, holding it out over the garment bag. I told him to get out of my way. I felt the coat. It was thick. I put my hand in the pocket. It was empty. There was something between the pocket and the outside of the coat, like a very thick lining. Too thick. People from India and Pakistan often bring in spices for their relatives in plastic bags flattened in the luggage. It’s legal. But why would someone sew the spices…. in the lining… of an overcoat? Correct! They wouldn’t.
So, while the guy took out a comb and started combing his hair, I kept my hands on his bag, and reached with my foot to hit the switch. Green was for an Agriculture Inspector. I hit that one a lot. Red was for… I didn’t know but they said it was for anything else. I had never hit that one.
Within 3 seconds of that red light going on, my counter was descended upon by four plainclothes DEA officers with semi-automatic weapons. I had never seen these men before and to this day have no idea where they came from.
They whisked me and the passenger and all of his luggage into a small room off the floor. This all took about 12 seconds. The other passengers didn’t have time to notice. The Airport Head of Customs came in. Old Irish guy. Actually pinched my face and patted me on the cheek like I was his grandkid. Told me if I needed anything (full time status was implied), just say so. We opened it all up. One bag burst and heroin, brown heroin, blew up in to the air in a cloud. He had 12 pounds of pure heroin from Pakistan. $12,000,000 worth. Biggest passenger bust of the year.
I got the rest of the day off (I needed it; I was shaking from the tension of the experience), and then, the next week, I got another day off, and they took me and a couple of other inspectors to the World Trade Center, way up there like 100 floors up, to the Regional Director of the Treasury Department’s office, what a view, and he gave us each a nice certificate (what we call an “Attaboy” in the federal service) and a hearty handshake, and it was back to the airport. I hope that guy wasn’t still up in that building 18 years later.
I was offered a full time position immediately, but passed. Law school loomed. My part time colleagues were jealous and thought I was an idiot for turning down their dream job. Maybe I should have taken it? All that overtime and a pension? I would have risen to the top. I could have been the next Area Director! I could have had an office with a view, in the WTC! Oh… wait.
So what have we learned here? Never regret a past choice, because even if it seems good at the time, you could also have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’ve also learned that boring government jobs are not always boring, and that 1982 was a simpler time where a long-haired young man could simply walk into Customs at JFK and ask for a job.
Sorry to go on so long, but if I did a Part III, there would be hell to pay. So I got it all in. Now, back to my next novel, “An Honorable Death,” which should be done before 2021, God willing. Have a great week everybody!