My Customs Story

I read a few financial newsletters. One of my favorites is The Daily Dirtnap, by Jared Dillian. He’s mainly a sentiment and charts guy, big on ETFs over individual stocks, leans conservative politically but doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and writes about his six cats, with pictures sometimes. He’s also a Progressive House DJ with a decent following on Soundcloud and is finishing up an MFA. Earlier this week he wrote about coming back into the U.S. from a recent trip to the Caymans, and the weird reception he and his tattoos got from the Customs agent in Charlotte. He told readers to send him Customs stories, so I sent him mine.

I went to Jamaica one time, for the week between Christmas and New Years when 1979 turned into 1980. I was 19 years old. I flew into Ocho Rios from New Orleans, where I was going to undergrad, and met my family late in the evening at a beautiful villa in the hills above the harbor. My father and his newish wife had brought my two younger sisters in from Memphis, along with my high school girlfriend, and I had brought a cedarwood box filled with hash and quaaludes because, well, it was 1979 and I was 19 years old.

The next morning after breakfast I announced to the group that I was going for a run and took off jogging through the treelined streets of the neighborhood. Soon a young fellow approached, riding a moped, and as we passed one another he looked back at me and I turned to look back at him and we both made the sign of smoking a spleef, with the fingers of one hand pressed to our lips. He smiled as he turned the moped around and within moments we’d arranged for him to meet me in a half hour in the maid’s quarters back at the villa, where I was staying separate from the rest of the family in the main house.

My girlfriend Phyllis was propped on the bed reading when I came in from my run, followed soon by Tony and a quarter pound of some of the kindest blue Jamaican bud you’d ever want to see. I didn’t have quite as much cash on me as Tony wanted for the weed but he agreed to accept a Mushroom Records t-shirt from New Orleans and a pair of striped tube socks to seal the deal. Looking back, I wish I had that t-shirt and those socks today but the memory of that week in Jamaica – with Phyllis and the family, and the meat pies and jerk chicken, and the rum and the reggae, the sex and the sunshine – totally worth trading away the socks and the t-shirt.

At the end of the week we all piled into a van for the hour-plus ride to the airport, which turned into almost 2 hours with the torrential downpour and time waiting as a road crew worked to clear some trees that had blown over to block the road leading out of the hills. Phyllis and I quietly ate the last two quaaludes and were thus unfazed by any worries over missing our flight to Houston, where she and the fam would connect back to Memphis and I would go on to New Orleans and a new semester at school.

As we stood in line before checking in with Jamaican customs to leave, my father gave me a stern look and said, “you better not be bringing anything back with you.” He was no fool but he’d long since given up hope trying to make me walk the straight and narrow and I reassured him, “don’t worry, Dad.” I did, in fact, have more than half of that quarter pound of Jamaican weed stuffed in the crotch of my underwear, with a joint rolled in the breast pocket of my shirt for after deplaning in Houston before the flight to New Orleans. I was not worried in the least though, my cool and calm demeanor no doubt the byproduct of a week eating ‘ludes and smoking pot and being as relaxed and chilled out as I’d ever been in my life.

So, we get to Houston and we are all in line as our bags are coming off the conveyor belt prior to interacting with the fine folks at US Customs and Immigration. My father was in front, followed by the girls, with me bringing up the rear. They were sweating a bit with a tight connection to Memphis, while I had a two hour layover. A customs agent made a perfunctory inspection of all of our bags, pausing at mine and holding up the small travel bong Phyllis and I’d been smoking through all week, which I’d thoughtlessly tossed atop all of the stuff in my suitcase. “What’s this?” he said, sniffing it. “That’s a flower vase,” I told him confidently.

I saw terror in Phyllis’ eyes and my younger sister, who was 11, started to cry. My father said, “good luck; call me,” as he led them all out the door and down the hallway to make their plane.

The customs guy called over a supervisor and after conferring a moment they zipped up my bag and said, “come with us, please.” I protested. “That’s just a used pipe, I’m not smuggling any drugs!”

“Marijuana resin is contraband,” the supervisor said as we entered a room, where they shut the door, placed my bag on a table, and told me to sit down. They rummaged through everything, taking quite an interest in the cedarwood box, which was by now empty but still had a tiny bit of quaalude dust and a few flakes of hash in it. “Come on guys, I was just in Jamaica for a week. So I smoked some pot there and was stupid to not leave my bong. I told you, I’m not smuggling any drugs.”

“Stand up,” the supervisor said. He spun me around to face the wall, placing my hands there above my head while moving my feet back a bit and spreading them for the pat-down. First pass clean. “Take off your boots.” Which I did, and he turned each one over, raising the heel to his ear, tapping to see if maybe they were hollow and holding the prize he was sure he’d find. He put me up against the wall again for another pat-down and this time he found the joint in the pocket of my shirt.

“OK, so I brought one joint home with me to smoke on my layover. I am not smuggling any drugs!”

The two of them stepped out of the room, returning soon enough to announce, “we are fining you for possession of contraband. How much cash do you have?” I thought to myself WTF? as I pulled out my wallet and showed them the $50 or $60 in cash I had, along with a check my father had given me (made out to the school) for the next semester’s books. They took the cash and kept the check, the bong, and the cedarwood box, wrote me no paperwork whatsoever, and told me to pack up my stuff and get out of there.

I still had almost an hour before my flight so I went outside and found a little grassy hillside, where I set down my bag and myself, pulled the weed out of my undershorts, and twisted up the doobie I so needed at that moment. I smiled to myself and felt vindicated in the knowledge, belief perhaps, delusion, even, that no customs agent was going to go feeling around my balls for a bag of weed.

Looking back, of course, it was random dumb luck that that particular customs guy didn’t go feeling around my balls to find that bag of weed. Knowing how things are today, had I flown into Houston with a bong in my bag anytime in the last 20 years, I’d have undoubtedly been stripped and cavity searched. But it was 1980 then, and I was 19.

Before I got on the plane to New Orleans I did call my dad to let him know I’d need a new check for books.

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