The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Friday, September 03, 2004

SMUGGLER'S BLUES: I’ve been living with this for a long time and just thinking about it makes me red with shame, but in my youth I was a mule. That’s right, a mule, a bearer of illegal substances from Europe to America. I didn’t want to be a mule; I fought against it for as long as I could, but in the end I went along with the nefarious plans of the evil cabal I had fallen in with. I know that this does not excuse my complicity with these evil people; I, like Dostoevsky’s hero Raskolnikov, could have gone to the Haymarket in St. Petersburg and kissed the good Russian earth and then gone to the police station and confessed my crime as he did, but in the end I did not; I wasn’t anywhere near the Haymarket, had no immediate plans to go there, the good Russian earth of the Haymarket has probably been paved several times over since Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment back in the 1860’s, and I don’t speak Russian. I realize now I could’ve gone to some other, preferably English-speaking, police agency, maybe in Florida or Hawaii or someplace else with nice weather all year round, and bared my soul; I could have copped a plea or offered to turn state’s evidence, but in the end I did nothing; I smuggled and I only hope that I will be forgiven for the evil deed I committed.

The smugglers’ first approach was subtle. I hadn’t been to Sicily for a few years and I was planning on returning to Catania for a few days and walk up Mount Etna again, not realizing that Etna was, at the time, erupting. In fact, everyplace I’d been on Etna on my previous trip to Sicily was now under several feet of molten lava. As I was making my plans a “friend” of my brother’s sidled up to me in his sneaky way and asked if I’d bring something back from Sicily for him. I said sure, what was it? And he just smiled and said, don’t worry about that now, guy, I just need to know that you’ll do it. I said sure thing again, not realizing what I’d just done. I should have known better, but I was a poor unsuspecting naïf then, unaware of the dark forces beginning to swirl around me.

I flew off to Sicily, hoping to avoid the influenza that darkened my first trip there, and instead found myself trapped against the fuselage by two elderly men, both of whom were hard of hearing, and who therefore spent the entire eight hour trip to Rome screeching into each other’s ears in Italian. The Italian-American sumo wrestler sitting in front of me didn’t help matters either when he decided to lean his seat back as far as it would go, crushing my knees beneath the immensity of his megaobese carcass. But other than that the trip went fairly well and it only took an hour and a half for the circulation in my legs to return to normal when I reached Rome. The flight from Rome to Catania was without incident of any kind and in the end the flying beer foam injured only three German tourists and a stewardess.

My brother picked me up at the airport and we launched that very day into a long series of sightseeing tours designed to keep my uncle, who was also visiting my brother, distracted from the main business at hand. We visited Agrigento to see the Valley of the Temples and the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, where the cream of 18th and 19th century Sicilian society, the same people that di Lampedusa writes of in his classic novel, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), do not rest in peace like the common run of people, but rather hang from the walls like freshly washed laundry. I am sure if some of these people knew how out of fashion their clothes are they’d kill themselves. We saw the great Greek theatres at Taormina and Syracuse, where I explained the workings of Greek tragedy to my uncle, and Waxey O’Connor’s Irish Pub, where I actually went to the men’s room and applied my bare backside to a toilet seat on a busy Friday night. Yes, I realize this was an act of either incredible bravery or irredeemable folly on my part, but I had to go and the rash cleared up in just three months.

Yes, I spent the days enjoying the warm Sicilian sunshine, the nights going out and eating at expensive restaurants and letting the uncle pick up the tab. But he only stayed a week; he had to return to New York; my second cousin had just had a baby and he had to go back for the christening. It was then, when there were no witnesses from back home to stay his hand, that my brother began to enmesh me in the dark and illegal world of smuggling.

The day after my uncle left my brother suggested that we go meet his girlfriend’s family and then we could go eat at a restaurant near the palazzo at the city’s center. This seemed a good idea at the time and so I agreed. The girlfriend’s family, several generations of them, in fact, all lived in one apartment building at the end of a badly lit dead end street. From the outside, the apartment building looked as though the United States Army Air Forces bombed the place during the invasion of Sicily in 1943 and nobody had bothered to fix the damage in the intervening decades. The inside, however, was rich marble and beautiful furniture, ancient Roman statuary actually made by ancient Romans, a place where Italian good taste and wads of cash had produced a masterpiece of interior design. “Why don’t they fix the outside too,” I naively asked my brother.
“Fixing the outside means the tax man will know they have money,” my brother replied. “Everyone in Italy does the same thing. The outside of the building almost always looks like crap. Some of the richest people in this country live in buildings peasants wouldn’t keep a pig in, at least from the outside.” Of course, if everyone in Italy does this then one must ask how the tax authorities are fooled by such an obvious trick, since they must be doing the same thing themselves, but at that moment the door to one of the apartments opened.

The apartment belonged to my brother’s former girlfriend; they are still on very good terms; and he wanted me to meet her family, especially her grandfather. We went out to the restaurant, where the staff regarded my request for spaghetti with the sausage on the pasta as American asininity at its very worse. They were all very nice people and the party went on into the wee hours. The food was wonderful and I stuffed myself silly. It was early in the morning of the next day that Nonno, or so he was called by everyone, leaned over to me and said, “You do something for me?” In the spirit of bonhomie I agreed. “Sure thing,” I said. “Anything you want.” The old man smiled and starting talking to my brother in Italian. I had no idea what they were talking about; my grasp of Italian vocabulary is limited to words describing food. Then the old man patted me on the back. “Good man,” he said in English. “Good man.”

As we walked back to the hotel I asked my brother what the conversation was all about. “Oh, nothing really,” my brother said. “We were talking about ways of hiding something.” “Why,” I asked. “Because we don’t want to get you into trouble.” “Why would I get into trouble,” I said. “Because you just agreed to bring two gallons of fresh olive oil with you to the States.” At that moment I felt the sidewalk giving way under my feet. Before you decide that this is a fairly hackneyed metaphor, and it is, really; I could probably come up with something a lot better if I had the time; you should know that I am not using the phrase metaphorically or as a description of some sudden change in my emotional state, but rather as a description of the effects of gravity upon my small area of the space-time continuum. In short, I fell off the sidewalk, which is what happens when you don’t look where you are going. It was not, my brother told me later, a graceful fall. Apparently I went down with all the aerodynamic grace of a side of beef chucked out a fifth story window; I pitched, I rolled, I yawed all at the same time, like a test pilot who’s pushing the outside of the envelope only to have the envelope break open and an embarrassing love letter from a woman who is not your wife fall on the floor at the feet of the woman who is your wife, and I did all of this without the benefit of an ejection seat. Upon landing, if multipoint sprawling impact with the street counts as landing, I split open the knees of a brand new pair of trousers that I hadn’t even paid for yet. I rose from the gutter bloodied and thoroughly bowed, my knees scraped raw by the impact, blood filling the hole I’d made in the street. It was the beginning of a bad few days.

The thing of it was, of course, and as you already know, I did not want to smuggle fresh olive oil, or anything else, for that matter, into the United States; I would just as soon not find out what twenty years in the big house in Leavenworth is like. I pleaded with my brother to help me find some way out of this situation, but it soon became clear that he had thrown his lot in with this vicious gang of oil smugglers and then he was as anxious as they for me to deliver my illegal cargo. So it was the greatest of trepidation that I started home, home to America, home with two gallons of fresh green olive oil concealed in the legs of the pair of trousers I had ripped and had not yet paid for.

The first part of the trip was not so bad; the movie was Miss Congeniality, and while this is not Sandra Bullock’s greatest work anything with her in it is a welcome relief, letting those of us caught up in the tense world of international olive oil smuggling to pass a couple of hours without reflecting on the dark and dangerous row we hoe. As the plane reached Newfoundland the flight attendants handed out customs declarations and pens and asked us to please fill them out. I read the document carefully, looking around casually to make sure no one noticed my intense interest in the section about not bringing foreign agricultural products into the United States. I played it cool, just in case someone was watching. Someone was watching: I noticed the guy two seats back looking around as well; that’s when I knew I was in trouble. The Feds, they’d been on to me all along, just waiting for the chance to catch a mule with olive oil in his trousers. My blood pressure skyrocketed and I began sweating profusely. I had to escape, which is not an easy thing to do from a Boeing 747 cruising along at 45,000 feet at 500 miles an hour, especially when you’re flying over the North Atlantic without a parachute. And even if I managed to solve all these problems, I still can’t swim.

Since the problems involved in escaping from my immediate circumstances proved more or less insurmountable, I had to find another way of escaping the calm, cool, but otherwise not terribly competent customs agent who’d so casually blown his cover. He probably thought he had me trapped, but those of us in international olive oil smuggling have a trick or two up our sleeves as well; it’s just that I didn’t know what any of those tricks were. So I filled out the customs declaration, perjuring myself when I reached the part about not bringing agricultural products into the United States.

The plane landed at Kennedy International Airport and my trip through a world of intimidating fear, paranoia, and formless dread began, but first I looked for a McDonald’s. There were none; you may have missed this, but I have noticed that the departures areas of international airports are packed with every fast food outlet, bookstore, coffee shop, and duty free liquor store known to humanity; the arrivals areas are devoid of economic life, the reason being, I suppose, that the people who run the airports want you to go away, get lost, vamoose, scram already, and to do all of these things immediately, if not sooner. Damn, I thought to myself. I would not be able to put off my confrontation with U. S. Customs. I marched down the halls to the baggage carousel with all the determination of a thief trying to brass his way out of a botched bank job. At the carousel I waited. I waited some more. Then I waited some more. The baggage handlers, sick sadistic fiends that they are, did not want me to get on with it, but to stay in this miserable friendless place surrounded by watchful eyes ready to pounce on the hapless olive oil smuggler.

At excruciating length my bags appeared and I picked them up; a sudden feeling of doom came over me. It occurred to me that I could have left the bags and fled for the hills and no one would ever know my guilty secret. But if I had, then the cold and ruthless men who had lured me into a life of crime would hunt me down and terminate my employment with extreme prejudice. Hung on the horns of a dilemma, I took the bags and headed for Customs.

I got on the line for American citizens and waited as the line drew ever closer to the inspector. When my turn came I marched forward, prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill in order to get my olive oil (I’d started to think of the oil in my trousers as mine, even though it would never be, in any meaningful sense) into the United States. The inspector, a cheerful young woman, welcomed me back to the United States and looked at my passport. She ran it under some kind of optical device and then handed it back to me. The tension stretched my nerves to their limit as I expected momentarily the sudden arrival of Customs agents the size of linebackers who would escort me to a back room of the airport, where they would beat the truth about my smuggling out of me. I picked up my bags and said, “Thank you.” I walked away, the sweat running down my back in marathons, staining my shirt. I headed for the exit, my muscles straining as I awaited the tackle by Treasury agents that would end my life of crime before it’d really gotten off the ground and send me to federal prison for life. I thought that I might crack under the strain and go mad then and there. I passed through the doors and a man said, “Taxi, mister?” “No,” I screamed, “don’t beat me, I confess.” “Okay, mister, you confess, but do you need a taxi? Thirty dollars into the city.” “Oh,” I said. “Okay.”


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