Advice to Passengers

Dec 4, 2008 by

The customs officer stopped me as I was wheeling my luggage out of baggage reclaim.

Recommendation #1: Do not make eye contact with customs officials.

-Can I see your passport?

I handed it over, along with the customs declaration form. The man was stocky, thick-necked, and sporting a buzz cut.

-What’s your profession?

-Journalist. Well, writer. Novelist. Actually aspiring novelist to be precise because I haven’t yet—

-Please step over there, he said, while writing down the misspelling “aspiaring novelist’ on the form.

Recommendation #2: If possible, avoid telling a customs official that you are a writer or journalist. Above all, never say you are aspiring to anything.

After asking me if I had brought any cigarettes, alcohol, etc., he began searching one of my bags. I assumed he was looking for undeclared goods but he spent most of his time leafing through my notes and random bits of paper. It seemed an outrageous (although legal, as I later learned) invasion of my privacy but I put on a cheerful face. I had packed one of the military uniforms from my Cypriot conscription and I didn’t want to get on his bad side.

-What’s this?

He held up a glass jar inside which furry insects, or at least what looked like them, were packed in oil.

-It’s something my mom made… for strengthening hair. It’s a concoction of olive oil and fiddleheads (my mother later told me it was burdock root).

He held the jar up to the light.

-It’s what?

I repeated myself.

-What are fiddleheads?

-Green plants with curled heads. Edible. They’re good steamed.

He continued to stare at it.

-Is your dad bald?

-Not at all.

-Then what are you worried about?

-I’m not worried about anything. But, anyway, baldness comes from the mother’s side.

Recommendation #3: Do not correct customs officials unless necessary.

He didn’t answer right away.

-We may have to get this checked out, he said finally and set the jar aside. You grew up in Maine?

-Mostly.

-Where?

-Stillwater… Old Town. It’s near Bangor.

-How’d you end up there?

-My dad came to the states to study when he was 18. He eventually got a teaching position at the University of Maine in Orono.

-What does he teach?

-Sociology.

I could imagine the rigmarole he would have put me through if I’d mentioned that he teaches a class on political violence and terrorism.

-I’ve been to Orono a few times. It’s boring as shit. I went to UNH.

Life clearly was more exciting in Logan Airport, where he had the privilege of prying through arriving passengers’ belongings and life details while defending the Homeland. To be fair though, I can’t say I wouldn’t have enjoyed it myself.

He glanced at a few folded up newspaper cutouts on Sarah Palin. He may have interpreted them as fan clippings (which may have won me brownie points with him) because he asked no questions. It’s hard to say how he would have responded if I told him they were for some satires in which I had compared Sarah Palin to the Virgin Mary.

Next he retrieved a stack of cards bound by elastic.

-What are these?

-Frequent flyer cards.

-How many have you got—?

-Too many, I know. From now on I’m sticking with American Airlines.

Recommendation #4: Avoid saying things like “From now on I’m sticking with American Airlines” when two of the hijacked planes on 9/11 were American Airlines and when two of the planes also happened to depart from that very airport.

-Where did you say you worked as a journalist?

-In Cyprus. Nicosia, the capital.

-Are you Cypriot?

-Yes.

-Do you have a passport?

I’d hoped this wouldn’t come up. I’d always taken my father’s advice to never show my Cypriot passport in the U.S., not necessarily because one can’t be a national of two countries, but to avoid any hassle or trouble.

-Yes.

-Can I see it?

He didn’t seem to be at all bothered by my Cypriot citizenship. My army exit permit was also in a side pocket of the passport wallet but he never checked that. It didn’t really matter though since he’d be getting to the army uniform soon enough. In fact, the next thing he examined was my army boots. He pulled them out.

-Are these comfortable?

-No, not really.

-So why do you have them?

A number of possibilities flashed through me: “It’s my Halloween custom… It’s camouflage for duck hunting… I’m into the fetish scene.” But I knew that if he got a whiff of deception, I’d be in for it. Hence the most essential piece of advice, unless of course one is a criminal:

Recommendation #5: Do not lie to customs officers unless your lie is irrefutable.

-They’re my army boots. I had to do a three-month stint in the Cypriot National Guard.

I emphasized the mandatory nature of the conscription. I had once read online that anyone who has served in a foreign military could in certain circumstances be stripped of U.S. citizenship. Once again, he didn’t seem at all bothered. In fact, the questions he asked me in regards to my time there seemed more out of personal interest than procedural. I even seemed to have gained some respectability in his eyes. He took a brief look at my army pants, jacket and cap.

-I brought them in case I ever go hunting, I piped in, a bit too hastily perhaps. Although I suppose these are more suited for the dry tan-colored terrain of Cyprus than the dark green of Maine—

-Makes no difference. Camouflage is camouflage.

That I had served in the armed forces of another nation and was bringing my boots and fatigues to the U.S. apparently did not seem to even warrant a single question. It was my writing that concerned him.

-What’s this? he asked, pointing to a piece of paper in which a number of lobster claws that resembled the number four were sketched out.

-It’s for my website. I’m trying to put a logo together.

-Website. What for?

-I post monthly essays.

It was the start of the darkening of our relations. He apparently felt he was on the scent of something, because he started reading every note scrap he found, obviously trying to make sense of a possible Cyprus-hatched plot to attack America. This wasn’t just any old customs official. This was a Homeland Security Agent of the highest order, a Beautiful Mind of airport customs. It was entertaining enough. And what eagerness to read my work! Most publishers and agents lacked his good taste.

His demeanor and attitude grew increasingly severe the more he explored my scribbles. Apparently my writing seemed suspiciously seditious to him. He was coming across scraps of paper upon which I had been brainstorming novels and characters with phrases like “kill em off at end.” At one point he handed me a piece of paper upon which a red pen had leaked, giving it a look of violent subversion.

-What is this? I can’t read it, he said.

I could barely read the terrorist scrawl myself. It must have been about ten years old. It read:

Suspicious documents indeed...

we ingest we fornicate we expire

we eat we fuck we die

we dine we make love we pass away

such are the ways of the world

select your preference.

-I don’t know, I replied. Pseudo-poetry gibberish I wrote a decade or so ago.

My answer only seemed to intensify his distrust. His expression had hardened.

-So what work will you be doing in Maine?

-Oh, random jobs… maybe lobstering, carpentry, roadwork, anything to support my writing.

Recommendation #6: Do not tell customs officers that you do “random” jobs. It suggests vagrancy, shiftlessness, a questionable background. Pick one line of work and stick to it.

He held out a large plastic bag of ground tealeaf.

-What’s this

-Black tea from Western Kenya. Some kids were selling it on the roadside, it cost me 50 cents or something like that. I went there last year for some articles on the Archbishop of Kenya

Recommendation #7: Never volunteer information. Brief responses translate to fewer questions.

-What kind of a newspaper were you working at?

-It’s called Cyprus Mail. It’s the island’s only English-language daily.

-What did you write about? Sports?

-Sometimes tennis. But mostly just daily Cypriot news stories—an army helicopter crash or a neighbor shooting a priest in the head or a cabaret scandal, that sort of thing—as well as national politics and—

Recommendation #8: Better to say you write about sports than politics.

Were you writing any editorials?

-No, not really. Just a few on the lack of public transport in Cyprus.

I’d also written some opinion pieces on European perceptions of the U.S., which I adapted from my Fourth Night essay, The View on America, but thought it best not to mention them. Ironically, they were primarily on misperceptions of the U.S. and the self-exonerating tendency, at least in Cyprus, to project blame outwards and see an Anglo-American conspiracy at the source of all trouble. But I had my reasons. I was slowly realizing that dealing with customs officers is like running coal stoves: the less you meddle with them, the smoother the process will be.

Recommendation #9: Anything in Customs that requires elaboration and/or even the slightest amount of intellectual application is best left unsaid, even if it seems to your advantage to voice it.

He paused to enter some data in his computer and then resumed his search. He soon brought out another piece of damning evidence for me to corroborate.

-What’s this mean?

He was pointing to the word “Creed,” which I had circled, under which was written “To hell with going to publishers – let publishers come to you.”

From the moment that Cypriot conscription proved to be no concern to him up until now, I had primarily felt bemusement at the entire process. Exasperation was now taking its place.

-Look, it’s nothing more than an idea for a project. You get fed up after a while with rejection letters and with publishers when you see what’s printed every year. It’s for a novel-related project I plan to initiate through my website to raise attention to it.

I was starting to lose respect for myself for even acknowledging his questions.

-You’re not going to be starting some underground thing are you?

-No, I’m not starting an underground thing! I snapped.

The craziest thing is that he was actually serious. In his mind he saw angry newspaper editorials in Cyprus denouncing the American infidels, he saw Greek Cypriot mullahs (who must have forgotten that they were Orthodox Christians) issuing fatwas to kill Americans, he saw shiftless “aspiaring novelists” coming to the U.S. to start movements with Credos that called for god knows what underground actions against so-called “publishers.” This guy could crack the terror codes. He knew what I was up to, all right. He had surely already checked my history for any connections to Bill Ayers and other such notorious ringleaders of international evil.

The search did not last much longer. The last thing he showed me was a list of the various publishers to whom I’d sent my fiction.

-What’s this? he asked, pointing to the word “Milkweed.”

-Milkweed? It’s a publisher.

He looked again at the sheet of paper. The answer seemed to satisfy him.

-You can pack your things back up. I’ve just got to go get this checked out and I’ll be right back, he said, holding up the jar of olive oil and burdock root.

As he was walking off he turned around.

-What did you say this plant was again?

-Fiddleheads. You’re welcome to confiscate it. You’d be doing me a favor. Look at it. Would you want to rub that in your hair?

He walked off.

It was then that I realized what he had been getting at with “Milkweed.” It was the ‘weed’ that had caught his interest. He was trying to flesh out a potential terrorism / drug trafficking connection. If the mujahideen had funded terror operations with opium, then did it not logically follow that I might be funding my underground subterfuge with grass?

I have been told that Logan Airport Customs is especially strict as it does not want to find itself with another catastrophic breach of airport security. But the outlandish search I underwent also surely had something to do with eight years of Bush. The wiretapping, the surveillance, the expansion of executive power, the jingoist and xenophobic paranoia, the undisclosed seizures and internments, the abuses of detainees, the Inquisitional approach towards interrogation, all of these have left their corrosive mark. The question, now that Bush and Cheney are leaving, is how long that mark will remain. One can always get rid of rust so long as one catches it before it’s too late.

The customs officer returned after a few minutes with the jar in hand. I had already loaded my luggage back into the cart.

-I’ve got some bad news for you. I’m sorry to say you’re going to have to take this with you. Here you go.

His delivery was deadpan. I took the jar and headed for the exit. The rust hadn’t gone through all the way, after all.

Constantine Markides

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12 Comments

  1. Nick

    I like it.

  2. Julia

    Had me laughing. Airports make for great story-telling material.

  3. Jeanette

    You had me laughing out loud.

  4. This was fantastic. If getting yourself into trouble at customs brings us so much entertainment you should continue to do so. Next time, I recommend an offensive t-shirt and some halloumi. It’s the most dangerous looking cheese.
    The last time I flew into JFK the traveler in front of me baffled the custom’s officer by not being able to put his finger on the scanner because it had been neatly severed at the third joint.
    I’ve always had something about crossing customs — must be all the unpopular countries we’ve traveled through and seeing people’s cars get drilled into because they looked suspiciously foreign.
    And why do our mothers always ask us to take something with us which either looks illegal or is generally completely unpractical?

  5. Beran Djemal

    Your encounters with your essay/novel characters in purgatory (if you accept that during every journey, especially when you are somewhere in between of two destinations, it feels like it) are remarkable, it has began with Mr. Kilburn and now with this customs officer.
    As an aspiring novelist, you should be grateful, life is giving you lots of materials.
    Thank you for sharing these with us…

  6. matt

    interesting, but i think you let him get to you on purpose.
    harold ross would have hated that last line.
    much like, oh, “and suddenly Mr. Schumacher wasn’t hungry anymore.” you just don’t need that junk to get your point across.
    people are reading this at 3 in the morning?

  7. Thanks, looks like customs purgatory strikes a common chord. I’ve already received a number of emails about firsthand episodes of customs tribulations (it’s too bad some of them aren’t posted as comments). It seems the common theme is, as Alex noted, mothers giving us something illegal or completely impractical to transport. Although apparently it’s also aunts who give us such things. Here’s an excerpt from an email I just got:
    “Seems to me you got off easy! You may wish to probe the psychological depths with some therapy (Mama might help) in order to uncover the masochistic, if not downright self-destructive tendencies that would compel you to try to bring that stuff back to America. And I thought I was nuts bringing in my aunt’s dried wild oregano and some bastourma from Istanbul!! :-)”
    Dried wild oregano… Sounds like a Milkweed alert.

  8. Yes, I had similar feelings about that last sentence but I took the easy closing one-liner and went with it. You should remember that some people do have 3am cravings for junkfood…

  9. Oh, just realized my account is currently set to Greenwich time. Make that 10pm junkfood cravings…

  10. Vasia Markides

    one of my faves! (along with the virgin palin)
    Succinct, humorous and says it all.
    Well done bro! Proud of you!

  11. Erin Haney

    Its 12:30 in Vermont and I’ve just read a witty piece of work. I like your quips and had a great image of the Homeland agent after having just been through customs. Good length for late night junkfood! Cheers Constantine

  12. Matt, looking over the last sentence, I decided to take your (and Harold Ross’s) recommendation. Thanks for the advice on my advice.

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