Friday, May 13, 2011

Authority Always Wins

“It’ll be fine,” my 22-year-old daughter said, rolling her eyes at her mother’s paranoia. “They won’t go through your suitcase, and if they do, they won’t find it.”

Easy enough for her to say, one of my amazing world travelers  --  she who has never done a single “wrong” thing in her life. I felt a certain unease that she could not have understood, like I was being pressed by my drug-dealer boyfriend to cross an international border with his stash in my suitcase. In actuality she herself was also carrying, though neither of us concealed anything illicit, immoral, or dangerous to any country’s agricultural enterprises. The dried, processed foods we’d picked up in the Argentine indigenous hinterlands, however, were illegal in some South American countries, for unknown reasons. Like any good Americans told we couldn’t have something, by god, we were going to have it. In industrial-size packages, thank you very much, seeing as how we wouldn’t be back to the Southern Hemisphere for a while.

The problem was that we were making our ways back home to the States by different routes; she was headed to Brazil, land without laws, and I to Peru. Peru is extremely strict about contraband and will happily let you believe that you will be shot on sight for even thinking about something that is not allowed. When I’d landed there before, Delta flight attendants shook down passengers prior to descent for their own good, to make sure they hadn’t accidentally put any packaged peanuts in their pockets. Closed-circuit TVs all over the Lima airport ran scary looking ticker-type messages across the bottoms of their screens in all languages  --  as though news was breaking that a plane had gone down. What they warned instead was that each customs infraction would cost A MINIMUM OF 250 AMERICAN DOLLARS.

Descending into Lima this time, I was carrying, among other things, a series of connected, clear cellophane envelopes, each holding a different spice, like a parti-colored Jacob’s Ladder toy. Per infraction, I calculated that if each spice was considered a separate violation, this shebang would cost me at least $1,250. Difficult to explain, once I got back home. If caught, I might have asked customs officials, Can’t you just shoot me instead?

I landed. I started to sweat. I looked guilty as any drug dealer’s girlfriend on her way home with his stash.

All my luggage cleared customs without a hitch.

* * *

The paranoia is not my fault. I have guilt-baggage tracking all the way back to my teenage years. It was the time, kiddos. The day, the era. Having grown up in the border city of El Paso, I have a Pavlovian response to authority, greatly heightened at border crossings. (Keep in mind that Texas throws away the key for guilt by association.) When my daughters get pulled over by the police, as several have, they think, “oh shit, a ticket.” When Blue Lights tapped against our back windshields, we jumped sky-high for fear of jail time. Next move was going into survival mode: Quick! Arrange your face! Like all good prey animals, we had a keen sense for when the lions were moving past to find another shady spot, or creeping up and licking their chops. A police officer’s demeanor determined whether you 1) coolly handed over your license, 2) prepared to do some serious world-class begging, or 3) got out of the car and assumed the position without even being asked, eyes glazed like a doomed deer’s.

I am not describing some unique subset of the culture here. No young person anywhere in the 1960s through the 80s could think, No problem, I have nothing to hide. We either had something to hide, had just finished something to hide, or were on our way to partake in something that, momentarily, we would need to hide. So of course, around El Paso high schools, blockades were set up somewhat irregularly for “license checks” during lunch periods, and streets immediately surrounding were patrolled intensely the rest of the time. The purpose was not to protect us from guns or terrorism  --  ha ha, that’s funny. The purpose was strictly to bust teenagers if a police officer was so inclined. The pickings were good.

Lucky for us the pickings were good, because the size of the problem meant whether anyone actually got busted depended 100 percent on whether a cop felt like doing the paperwork. Things were different in this way, I think. A friend of mine, for example, was speeding his Camaro around the school one day when a patrol car nosed its way around from behind a hidden corner and signaled for him to pull over. This was a particularly bad time, as the friend had just sucked down a good hard hit from his bong, which just now contained water rancid enough to turn an iron stomach. In his panic, he tried stuffing the bong between the seat and console; spilled the water; got out, then remembered to exhale as the police officer was approaching; then locked his keys inside, with his wallet, while the car was still running. The weary officer took out his tools, wrestled the car door open by way of the raised window, got a thankful flash of my friend’s persuasive pearly whites, and told him to go home.

Such was life at that time, this story as common as dirt. The reader may correctly note I chose not to tell one of my own stories to illustrate. Some years back, I heard a striking wisdom about parenting:  “No matter what they say, children only aspire to be as good as their parents.”

If I did tell a story of my own here, though, it would be the one involving an exceptionally dumb drug-dealer boyfriend, a border crossing, and the Mexican police. Not that it really happened, of course.

* * *

I was considerably more relaxed leaving Peru. I carried nothing that would elicit so much as a whine from a drug-sniffing dog and, really, barring a theft of the national wealth, how much could they really care what you took out of the country, vs. brought in? Next hurdle was US Customs, 18 hours away. Imagine my surprise when, past security and boarding a flight for the US, I rounded a blind corner on the ramp  --  just a few feet from the plane’s hatch  --  to find Peruvian agents behind cheap folding banquet tables, searching carry-ons.

Taking a deep breath and leveling my gaze, I stepped up and handed over my purse. An icy, uniformed woman in rubber gloves stared me right in the eyeballs and rummaged around inside, as though conducting an exam of a far more personal nature. I began wracking my brain for what all could be in that bottomless pit of a catch-all, wondering how much it could cost me and whether I would be willing to miss my flight to argue about it.

She pulled out a slender little pack of Virginia Slims and held it on the flat of her hand. “You have cigarettes. Do you have a lighter?”

Did I have a lighter? What, I rubbed sticks together, to smoke that pack of cigarettes? Blissed out on weeks of travel, I had completely forgotten the necessity of searching for and removing all the lighters that rolled around the bottom of my purse, alongside the lint, the old candy and the lost lipstick tops.

“Um...  No?

She handed my purse back and nodded me toward the plane.