Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Chocolate Bust

This is the strange story of my September 1993 arrest at Kennedy Airport.  I wrote it down immediately afterwards so as not to forget the least detail, and later used it for a chapter in my novel Peppercorn Cafe.

Chapter 22
The Chocolate Bust

When Pierre and I boarded the plane I was carrying a little something more than my bag of necessities for the flight.  All summer long I had been smoking the wonderful Moroccan chocolate (hashish) that is so scarce in the United States, and was living in a culture where they roll joints next to granny and neither thinks anything of it.  My Spanish friends initially broached the idea of my bringing some back with me, saying that they smuggled small amounts every time they flew to America, and that they had never encountered the slightest problem in so doing.   So, recollecting that in my eight or ten times through Kennedy Airport I had never seen a dog, and reasoning that they were used only to search the baggage, which we passengers don’t see for several hours, I wrapped three bars of hash in plastic and stuffed them into my left shoe.  I was not in the least bit nervous during the flight, nor in casually disembarking the aircraft; then I came around the corner to enter customs and saw the beautiful little orange retriever about forty feet away in the lobby, whereupon my stomach collapsed.  My immediate impulse was to go back onto the plane and try to ditch my stash, but in an instant I thought that perhaps the dog was trained solely for marijuana, which has a much stronger aroma than hashish, and decided to remain cool and try and go through.  There were two officers there, and one unleashed K-9 and clapped his hands, saying:  “Find it!  Find it!”
I was about fiftieth in line; the dog went up and back sniffing at everyone’s feet, and when he reached my shoes sat down and looked up at me.  They sent him through again with the same result.  One of the policemen gently pulled me out of line by my elbow, at which point I started to defecate.  “Do you speak English?” he asked, but I was walking awkwardly with my legs squeezed together, totally concentrated on controlling my wastes, and could say nothing.  “Do you speak English?” he repeated. 
I had at last succeeded in not soiling myself, and very calmly replied:  “Yes, I’m an American.”
“Where are you coming from?”
“I was in Spain all summer.”
“Did you smoke any marijuana or hashish while you were there?”
“Yes I did.”
“Did you bring anything back with you?”
I hesitated, then nodded my head and answered:  “There’s some hash in my shoe.”
“Very good,” he replied.  “The best thing you can do for yourself is to cooperate fully.  Just wait here a moment.”
They finished checking the rest of the passengers on my flight, then the other officer took me to customs, where I was expedited, and then on to to get my backpack from the baggage conveyor.  While we were waiting for it to start coming in, I said:  “Look, I know I’ve done a stupid thing.  I just wasn’t thinking.  I’ve spent all summer in a culture where it is regarded as no different than smoking cigarettes.  Yesterday I was at these incredible fiestas in Lekeitio with about forty friends, who gave it to me as a going away gift.  (That was a lie, I had paid for it.)  I don’t need to make money, and my only intention was to share it with my friends.”
“Listen,” he replied.  “I look at you and know you’re not a drug smuggler, and that you brought it for personal use.  You’ve cooperated perfectly so far, and though what ultimately happens is out of my hands, I can say what I think.”
“Please do, because I need all the help I can get.”
My backpack arrived, which I was directed to take to a nearby table and open.  A customs official came out and went through it.  “There’s nothing in there, but I do also have this,” I explained, pulling out my money wallet and producing the hash pipe that was wrapped in plastic and hidden therein.  “It was a gift from a girlfriend and I wanted to keep it.” That was another lie, but the girlfriend card always plays well.  He gave my things a very cursory search, when I realized that I probably should have put everything in the fuming bag of socks and underwear that he gagged on when opening, and wherein he was not about to plunge his hands.
From there I was brought to an interrogation room, where I was told to empty the contents of my pockets onto the table.  By now there were the two officers who had pulled me from line and two customs officials coming in and out.  All four were pleasant and treating me with respect, and I began hoping that I might somehow be able to get off light.  I did as instructed, then was handcuffed and told to sit down.  The cuffs were very tight on my wrists, so I humbly asked that they be loosened, and was obliged almost apologetically.
One of the men started filling out a report, and asked me questions concerning my height, weight, date of birth and eye color.  Then they wanted to know what I did.  I was still euphoric from my long and wonderful holiday, so I told one more time the well-rehearsed story that had gotten red carpets rolled out for me all through Spain.  “I’m a writer.”
“Who do you write for?”
“No one, I’m a novelist.  I’ve written eight books for which I have three agents.  I’ve been away two and a half months and may already have contracts, which is what I came back to find out.”
“How do you support yourself?”
“I’ve painted houses, and sometimes work as a waiter.”
“Just whatever you can get?”
Following that I was uncuffed for a strip search.  The man who instructed me how to undress was wearing a cross, and I remember feeling very glad that I was about to expose the one hanging beneath my shirt.  Naked but for that I spread my cheeks (knowing they were quite smeared with the other chocolate) then turned around and lifted my privates.  Then I dressed, was recuffed, and sat back down.
Shortly thereafter the officer that had first caught me came in and read me the Miranda rights.  When he asked if I wished to give up the right to have an attorney present during questioning, I replied:  “I don’t know.  What am I facing?”
“Well, you’ve committed a felony, and could have to serve time.”
“A felony?”
“That’s right:  hashish is a felony, and marijuana is not.”
“But they’re the same thing,” I remarked incredulously.
“I know, but I didn’t write the law,” he answered.
“Look,” I said, picking up one of my three bars of chocolate.  “This is not very much hash.  Yesterday with my friends at the fiestas of Lekeitio, this is gone in just a few hours.  I told you I’d cooperate fully, and I have nothing to hide.  If we can work this out here I’ll tell you whatever you want to know, but if I’m facing a serious problem I have a good friend in New Haven who’s an excellent attorney, and I would rather consult with him first than to say something that will implicate me in the future.”
“I don’t decide what happens to you; the detectives who do are on their way, and we’ll have to speak with them first.  It also depends on the weight of the hashish.  Over twenty five grams is intent to distribute; under twenty five is considered for personal use.”
When I wasn’t talking I was praying might and main to God help me out of the situation, and to continue putting the right words in my mouth.  So far all was proceeding as well as it could for me, but I still hadn’t seen the detectives who controlled my fate, and was waiting to read their faces.  I had been there over an hour when they finally arrived.  There were three, and my first impression was that they looked mean, and that my little joy ride was about to come to an abrupt and bumpy end.  They scrutinized me without saying a word, then went into a huddle over the table with two of the officers and discussed me in whispers.  Then they all stepped back, and one of the detectives looked down at me and said:  “So you’re a writer?”
“Yes I am.”
“What’s your most famous novel?”
“Lorenzo’s Fat Head.”  They all started laughing, and I couldn’t help but to giggle along, and to start feeling better about my prospects.  “Look,” I continued, “I can’t explain it, but when I smoke marijuana I get very creative and inspired.  I’m a very peaceful man, and all I do is walk around writing my stories and novels.  I don’t drive a car, so I’m not even a risk in that way.”  They smiled at me, and asked me nothing else, but went back into the hall leaving me to wait.  There were now seven men involved with my case wandering in and out of the room.  At one point there was just me with one of the customs officials, an older man who was grumbling about the paperwork, and the younger officer who had caught me and read me my rights.  During a lull I thought of something that might be a good idea to say.  “Can I ask you a silly, totally irrelevant question?” I asked the officer.
He gave me a puzzled look, and replied:  “What’s that?”
“Are you following the baseball?  I’ve been away all summer and haven’t seen the standings once.”
“Who’s your team?”
Boston.”  I immediately regretted uttering the name of the city as it left my tongue, being New York’s arch rival.
“That’s my team!” he answered.   Of all the cops to ask, I managed to pick the Irishman from Boston.  After updating me on the Red Sox, he ran through the four divisions with me.
I was most pleased with his positive response, and decided to pursue it.  “Have there been any no-hitters, or anything else extraordinary?”
“Jim Abbott of the Yankees threw a no-hitter three days ago!”
“Really?  The one-handed pitcher?  How cool; he’s a class act, and no one deserves it more.  Hey, what about Joe Montana?” I continued.  “How’s he looking?”
The older man who was filling out reports suddenly put down his pen, turned to me and excitedly said that he had looked great in winning his first game, then reeled off some of the statistics he had compiled.
“And how’s Clinton’s approval rating?”
The younger officer pointed his thumb to the floor and responded:  “Down.  The reforms he needs to enact are going to take five years to work, but the congress is fighting him at every step, and doesn’t want to give them a chance to take effect.”
He went out for a few minutes, then came back in and said:  “Listen, they’re off making a few phone calls right now, and I think you might get lucky and be going home tonight.  I’m not promising anything, but cross your fingers.”
“I’m not going to cross my fingers, I’m going to kiss my cross,” I blurted.
He gave me a wry smile and returned to the discussion in the hall.  I couldn’t pick up much of what was being said, but I did overhear one say:  “Let’s just put a scare in him and send him home.”  And after that I kept hearing:  “Twenty five grams...twenty five grams...twenty five grams....”  That made me a little nervous as I knew I had bought over thirty, but I held out hope not only because I knew it had been cut by eye and not weighed on a precise scale, but also because they were dealing so reasonably with me that even if it was a little over I thought they might adjust the result in my favor.  I’ll never know for certain which was the truth, but the lead detective came back and said to one of the others:  “I’m writing down twenty three point four grams, and go throw the hash pipe in the garbage; paraphernalia is another set of paperwork we don’t need to deal with.”
He started filling out a summons and I wanted to leap for joy.  I knew that I was being released on a written promise to appear.  “This is a summons,” he said while he wrote.  “Have you ever received one before?”
“Yeah, about twelve years ago.”
“For what?” he inquired, looking up.
“Shoplifting.  I was a stupid teenager, now I’m a stupid adult.”  And now that everything appeared to be settled, I decided to come clean with a full confession.  “I also got busted in New Haven last December for misdemeanor possession.  My lawyer friend made a deal with the state and got the charges tossed.”
He just shook his head and chuckled.  “Well, you have to appear in court in Queens on the thirteenth of next month.  Just make sure you go, because if you don’t and you ever get in trouble in New York again, the computer will explode when your name gets punched in.”
“What should I expect to happen to me?” I asked.
“You’ll have to pay a small fine, that’s all,” he replied.
“I should be prepared to pay it that day, no?”
“That would be a good idea.”
“How much money should I plan to bring?”
“Five dollars.”
I was surprised at hearing so small a figure, and responded:  “One, two, three, four five,” counting with my fingers, “or are you speaking slang for five hundred?”
“No, five dollars,” he replied.  “You’re in New York City pal!”
They gave me the summons and directions to the Kew Gardens courthouse from the E train.  Then I said:  “Hey, whatever happened to David Lee Roth?”  He’s the famous rock star who had been arrested there that spring for buying a ten dollar bag of weed in Washington Square Park.
“I was the one!” he excitedly replied.  “That was my sting operation, and I wrote out his summons!”
“What, do you like David Lee Roth?” the older man still filling out paperwork asked.
“Not really,” I replied.  “I think he’s kind of repulsive.”   And their smiles told me that I had given yet another approved response.
They told me I could put my things back in my pockets, and that after they returned with my passport and ticket, which they had to photocopy, I was free to leave.  I got myself and my bags ready to go, and was waiting outside the interrogation room, when one of the detectives said to me:  “You’re just going to nickel and dime us to death, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?” I answered, sincerely puzzled.
“You broke their balls in New Haven with a few joints in December, and now you’re breaking ours by coming in with under twenty five grams.  I hope we gave you something good to write about.”
“I’ll tell you, I got a helluva a short story out of them,” (‘The Stinky Bomber’, which is indeed another story, and a funny one too), “but you’ve all been too good to me, and I could never treat you that way.”
They told me my passport and ticket would be returned in five minutes, but when fifteen went by and they still hadn’t come back, the same detective said:  “What is taking them so long?  I know you must want to leave, so I’ll go get them for you.”  He went off and returned momentarily and sent me on my way.  I gave him my heartfelt thanks then went and phoned a friend in Washington Heights, who invited me to stay the night with he and his wife.  I almost ran out of the building, and experienced exhilaration when clearing the exit that I can’t begin to describe.  I was absolutely wired with adrenaline, and all I wanted to do was to take a puff.  I couldn’t begin to consider buying on the streets, and so resigned myself to a smokeless night.  On my way to the subway I met a young guy who was about to begin a year-long journey through Europe and Africa that would end in Brazil.  While standing on the platform I told him what had just happened to me.  I was lamenting my lack of anything to smoke when I put my hand in my pocket from the cold, where I discovered the little rock of chocolate nestled in the lint.  An hour later my friend and I enjoyed it in the solitude of his uptown apartment, and I went to sleep on the floor filled with ecstasy and thankful prayers.
So now, friends and strangers, you know what I did not; and should you decide to forsake this warning and take the risk, at least learn from me how to act when Fido reveals what you’re keeping secret.