The next stage was customs, which for the most part has never posed any serious problems because I usually leave my firearms and heavy drugs at home. I’m joking naturally but I am respectful of those rules, no matter how absurd they are. For example, as a non-resident citizen I am entitled to bringing in up to $100 worth of merchandise which I expect to keep in theUnited States, including my children. That is the duty-free exemption cap. $100. How generous. With a gift or two for my family, I hit the limit. Thank God there were four of us and I could literally spread the wealth, and that was what saved us. Why was I so forthright, you might ask? Well, because the only time I kind of bent the truth a little, I was nabbed. That happened some years back. It was Christmastime too. We were going over for a nice family visit and one of our gifts was a splendid piece of cured Iberian pork loin. It is a true delicacy, you can bank on that, and a pricey one too. The high quality sausage was packaged and sealed in an airtight plastic wrapping and kept in an attractive metal canister which was also sealed at the top. I can assure you that there wasn’t a way in hell any vermin could burst out and plague the country.
You used to be able to introduce airtight food in small quantities into the country without the slightest worry. Even food that wasn’t sealed. I once recall telling them that I had a small hunk of cheese for my family, wrapped in little more than a strip of loose wax paper and they gave me an approving nod, as if to say, “You shouldn’t, but what the heck. Just make sure you eat it at home.”
But those were different times. By the post 9/11 Era, there was no screwing around. The thing is, I didn’t know that. I was on a plane and was running through the customs declaration sheet, when I came to the question about food. The question was something like: do you have any food with you (like meat, fruit, vegetables)? We did. But we still said no. Clearly we were concealing the truth, but we also had reason to believe we did not need to divulge such information because, as I mentioned before, our “food” was airtight and that was always allowed, so why should we bring this to the authorities’ attention. I will tell you why: that little white sheet in front of you is a sworn declaration of the belongings you have on you as you enter the country.
I wasn’t lying, I just half-heartedly misinterpreting the question in my favor. But they were not asking for any interpretation on my part, they just wanted to know the facts. The interpreting part was up to them.
And so, there we were in the American Airlines terminal at JFK waiting for our luggage to come out when a woman the size of a linebacker emerged from the customs office and moseyed around the place to chat with a few of the passengers. I had never seen this done, not before or since. My heart started to beat like the guy’s on Midnight Express. The woman approached us, stopped to say hello and asked me for the customs card, which I handed to her without hesitation. She held a marker in her hand and used to slash a large “A” on the paper. A nice fat Hawthornian “A”. Enigmatic to say the very least. It could have stood for “All right”, “A-OK”, “Awesome travelers”, which was my hope though unlikely, but chances were it stood for something like “Absolutely nailed”.
All doubts came to light minutes later when we reached the control point and were immediately asked about the contents of our suitcases. They placed us in front of a machine so big and imposing it looked like it was originally designed to split atoms, but its true purpose in fact was to reveal the insides of any piece of luggage right down to the ingredients of the toothpaste, and in passing, emotionally bring any amateur smugglers like us to our knees. It worked.
With this gigantic device to serve as a backdrop, they casually walked up and asked us quite loudly so that everyone in the blessed baggage claim room could hear, “Do you have any food with you? Liars.” I could have sworn I heard them say that, but maybe that was conscious betraying me. This was their way of saying, “OK, we know you are lying through your teeth, but we just thought we would be a bunch of nice guys and give you another chance to reconsider your original position on this issue, because you had your chance back on the airplane and now you are screwed. Given you have just intentionally misinformed the government of theUnited States of America, we suggest to meditate your next answer very carefully, because if not, we gonna stick that luggage through Big Bertha there behind us and we gonna know just about everything there is to know about you and more!”
This brings me to my second reason for telling the truth: they somehow know when you aren’t, and it’s unnerving.
So I said the old, “oh you mean food, food? Well, if that’s what you’re trying to say, of course, but we have food here!”
“What kind of food?” The woman asked suspiciously.
Boy, you should have seen the reaction. Red lights flashed in circles, sirens blared, ropes dropped from the ceiling and masked reinforcements descended to the floor to secure the room. There is nothing like pork products to throw customs into a dizzy. They imagine have the pig population and a third of the human one to be lying dead on the streets within a week from just the mere entrance a slice of salami whose processing has gone unsupervised by American authorities.
I was thinking of gulping and saying “sorry” on TV to the entire nation for putting the nation’s future at risk, but instead I opted to save face. “What’s wrong with that? It’s allowed. It’s airtight.” And I raised my eyebrows a couple of times as if to say, “I know you know what I mean.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I guess they didn’t then. I explained.
“Oh,” they replied. “And you think that’s supposed to make everything OK?” Her rhetorical tone made replying a little unnecessary. “Don’t you know, it’s not the packaging but the processing that counts!”
If every there was a recipe for life that Forrest Gump would have approved of, that certainly was a good candidate. We got off lightly, not even a fine. Just a general show of disapproval, a slap on the wrist, some personal embarrassment for subjecting my family to that kind of experience, and a retreat with our tails well between our legs.
Since then I aaaalways put a yes in the food box, even if I’m carrying a roll of Mentos.
We had decided not to smuggle in any smoked meats this time, so the visit to the baggage claim was uneventful as we got our luggage within minutes, another milestone. I think the guy even smiled at us and everything, which could have meant anything from, “Yep, you know better than to try to pull a stunt like you did that time,” to a genuine greeting.
Once that was over with, we got into a car that was waiting for us, which took us to Greenwich. I almost always get a car service for that trip because it makes me feel rich and important, and coming to Greenwich means making the right kind of impression from the very beginning. It also meant no one in my family had to go to JFK to pick us up, and they were willing to pay a large sum to avoid the treacherous traffic of the Van Wyck Expressway (a generous name for that highway if you want my opinion). This is no complaint, mind you. I completely understand. It’s a real pain in the ass.
What the Van Wyck is really used for is to give the traveler a chance to get a good look at Queens, just in case you wanted to, and even if you didn’t. In order to obtain this offer, stop-and-go traffic is a permanent fixture of this road. I liken it to that storm on Jupiter, the one that looks like a red eye. It has been roaring for God knows how long and it doesn’t as if it will ever go away.
Then we sailed over the Whitestone Bridge, bumping along over those potholes and their familiar muffled sounds. They make you feel the hubcaps are going to come rolling off at any minute. We looked left to see the skyline ofManhattan, went Ohhh, and cruised down I-95 towardsConnecticut. Once you got down there, traffic normally improved and we darted by the towns like a countdown. The list was always the same: New Rochelle, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Harrison, Rye, Port Chester and over the river whose name I never knew until recently and into Greenwich.
The first exit is “Delavan Avenue”, in Byram, a relatively modest section of town which has come to life again over the past few years. Then “Arch Street” toRailroad Avenue, which leads to downtownGreenwich. After that, it was over to Cos Cob.
I like entering Greenwich, not because it’s Greenwich but because it’s where I grew up. Because I know its streets. Because they are familiar to me. We all need a place like that in our lives. We all have one. It’s ours and no one else’s. It’s where my childhood memories haunt. In that sense, Greenwich is just like anyplace else in the world. We got off the highway on exit 4, and took some back routes to my friend’s house. On the way, we had to stop to let Ana throw up. The drive had been a little swervy. It was nearly evening by then. The snow from the week before had made everything look that much more Christmaslike, the way you never see it in Madrid. From the highway it wasn’t as noticeable, but once at street level, the extent of the recent storm became more evident, and since the girls had seen little more than a dozen snow flakes in their lives, the sight thrilled them. Greenwich looked pretty much the same. No meteor had destroyed it; Donald Trump hadn’t planted a 30-storey monstrosity on the Avenue; the golf courses seemed unfazed by the passing of time. For the most part, that is because Cos Cob looked pretty much the same. The gas stations haven’t moved; the car wash was still there; the Cos Cob Liquor managed to be surviving; the fire house and the library behind it hadn’t aged a bit; and there was tiny Chicken Joe’s perched on the edge of the gentle Mill Pond shopping center. There were new shops, no questions about that, but the feel to it was the same. Precisely the way you like to see things in your hometown on Christmas Eve, because, as you know, nothing is supposed to change ever on that day.
My friends’ house was just off Valley Road, a classic Cos Cob street that runs along the Mianus River as it fattens up into a lake. It leads to Palmer Hill, which, in turn, cuts north and heads into the heart of the next door city of Stamford. It’s an old route and clearly was the original way to cross the river.
We arrived at their house but there was little time to break. We had a lot to do in those next few hours before dinner. The evening had arrived, it was dark, but we still had to buy a few more items before the stores closed for the day and the next day. The girls stayed and played with their son while my friends went to the shops to get a few last minute stocking goodies. CVS Pharmacy is where the old Food Mart used to be. There used to be an even older Food Mart, but that fell victim to an incredible blaze to which I was witness…out of pure chance, that is. There was word that the fire was intentional, so that they could gut out the old structure and throw up a whole new building with the help of the insurance claim. That was back in 1984. One of the biggest in the recent town history. It took the joint effort of all the fire departments 12 hours to put it out. The entire block was decimated.
CVS was there now and doing just fine. People always need drugs…and two-liter bottles of Coke. We picked up a couple of more stockings for the fireplace and some gift cards. Done and taken care of.
That night we had a wonderful honey-gazed ham and potatoes. Then I fielded a flurry of phone calls from different members of my family working hard to settle all our plans for the next two weeks in twenty minutes. The normal first-day excitement. I hung up knowing less than when I began.
Then it was early to bed. Jetlag had set in. The girls collapsed at around eight. I tried to make it till nine and pretty much did. I love falling asleep after this full day of traveling. The night was slow. The night was silent. That was the snow’s doing. Yes, the snow. The snow all over Connecticut. The snow had covered the lakes and ponds, the backyards, the churches and buildings.