Indignities in American MinorBy Jose A. Carillo
This is much too unglamorous to admit, and my wife Leonor actually blanched when she read the first draft of this essay. But I told her firmly that it was a story I had to write once and for all as a cautionary tale for our times. Four years before September 11, 2001, while lined up at Los Angeles Customs for my flight back to Manila, U.S. agents had made me strip down to my underwear. It was not a particularly chilly autumn day in the West Coast, and America then was still the carefree blonde in a two-piece, traipsing barefoot on Long Beach, singing an innocent little ditty about freedom and clueless of the horrible outrage that was to befall her four years later. But even with the good heating at the airport I found myself shivering. I simply could not take the frisking and the progressive nakedness with grace and equanimity.
What a shame, I thought, to be put in the same class as the terrorists, mobsters, drug lords, and potbellied politicians who routinely deserved such searches! There I was, clothesless and listless in the City of the Angels, trying with some delicacy to shield with my hands as much of my crotch from the prying eyes that were all over me. But no matter how sophisticated I tried to look and how impeccable the English I used in my protestations, I was a practically naked alien under a host countryâs sufferance, and short of begging, at that moment there wasnât really much I could do to change that fact.
The female agent also asked me to take off my shoes. She did it in probably much the same way that a fellow agent did it to a Filipino senator who, I read in the news just now, went through the same body search recently in San Francisco. I did not refuse nor even make a squeak, however. One reason was that I wasnât a senator but a nobody. I would never know the pleasure of breezing through Customs without anybody laying as much as a hand on me, even if it was obvious that I carried contraband or a ton of plastic bomb on my belly. But what really took out much of the sting from the indignity was that I was not the only one targeted. And looking back, I realize now that it actually might have been my fault to be zeroed in along with the six who were behind me in the queue.
Aside from wearing my old spring windbreaker that I regularly used for Decembers back home in Manila, I had the bad sense to hand-carry all the way from the East Coast a bulky, heavily padded green winter jacket lined with Teflon. I am actually of the lean sort, but I must have looked like a drug runner laden with cocaine whenever my bulk showed on their surveillance monitors. In any case, they asked me and the six others to step aside: a sixtyish woman in a wheelchair, an Oriental-looking gentleman in a very respectable-looking dark gray suit, and four or five Filipinos with their trademark huge shoulder bags and mountainous backpacks.
The agents led us to a nearby inspection room, and in no time they had efficiently dismantled the wheelchair into a neat pile of tubes and nuts and bolts. They cautiously jiggled and peered inside each tube, but found nothing explosive or incendiary. Then the young, portly female agent, who looked every inch of Filipino parentage, frisked the old woman in the wheelchair, ever politely asking and helping her disengage the strap of her bra. Again there was nothing, not even a little vial of cocaine nor a lipstick case of crack for the effort. Then finally it was my turn. She started frisking me. In the best English that I could muster, I asked her: âWhy have you chosen me for this? Do I look like a criminal?â And she replied in the best and most dispassionate Tagalog that she could muster: âTrabaho lang po. Natiyempuhan lang kayo.â
(âJust doing my job, sir. You just happened to be it.â) Finding nothing on me, of course, she said: âSori sir. Pasensiya na kayo.â
(âIâm sorry for this. My apologies for doing it.â) She asked me to put my clothes back on, then waved the dignified-looking man to come forward.
As he started to strip, the man tried his best to look nonchalant about the whole thing, but I noticed that his brow began to sweat and twitch a little. I suddenly had the inkling that the agents would not be disappointed this time. True enough, when the man took off his sando and was down to his briefs, there came into view several thick bundles of U.S. currency, securely bound with masking tape to the front, back, and sides of his torso. There must have several hundred thousands of dollars of the notes on him. âIâm sorry, sir,â the agent said with barely suppressed distaste, âyou have attempted to take out currency beyond the $10,000-limit without declaring it, a violation of U.S. law.â She then asked all six of us to go, and began reading the man his Miranda rights.
I may make light of the tough security measures that the U.S. now imposes on citizens and foreigners alike passing through its ports, but I do not really wish to trivialize what September 11 has done to the nation that we once knew as the Land of Milk and Honey. The fact is that September 11 has changed most of Americaâs icons and rules. And make no mistake about it now, because I say this in all practical seriousness: If you are going to San Francisco or LA or New York or Chicago, it will no longer be enough to wear flowers on your hair or make a âPeace!â sign with your fingers. You better be in your best form and best behavior. Give your paunch and toenails a good trim and donât forget to wear clean socks. Have a nice haircut, and consider shaving off your prized mustache or goatee. Donât bank on charm and diplomatic immunity. And remember, practice your English and watch your temper. Nothing will better qualify you for being asked to step aside the Customs queue in LA or San Francisco to be grilled or stripped than an atrocious or non-existent English or, much worse, a flare-up of a monumental ego.
Sadly and forever, as the old refrain goes, everything is different now in America because of September 11. (2003)This essay, which first appeared in my English-usage column in
The Manila Times and subsequently formed part of my book
English Plain and Simple, is part of a collection of my personal essays from mid-2002 to date. I'll be running one of them in the Forum every Wednesday starting October 26, 2016.