I’m appalled at how much I hate cops. Virile young ones whose muscles ripple as they swagger, flaccid old ones with jiggling bellies, even well-intentioned ones at my car window, faces simpering with those how’re-ya-doin’-today-Ma’am smiles. And the official gear of uniformed authority makes me nauseous—the badges, the belts, the visors, the guns, the holsters. I’m sixty-two and well educated, the daughter of a law-abiding lawyer and a pearl wearing homemaker. I’m disappointed in myself. I should be over it.
Last week I had a blowout on South Carolina Highway 101. It sounded like a gunshot and I swerved to the side of the road across from the O’Neal Baptist Church. A young, spit and polished Greenville County Sheriff’s Deputy pulled up behind me, leapt out of his vehicle, and hustled over to my window. My reflection glittered in his mirrored sunglasses. My skin crawled.
But on an August day in 1990, I gripped a well-worn Hartmann carry-on bag, wore a white T-shirt, short denim skirt, and an L.L. Bean backpack. I trotted down the jet way toward U.S. Customs in the International Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport, relieved that it was almost empty. Most passengers off our jam-packed 747 from Paris had gone to baggage claim. I prided myself on how efficient I’d been, packing for a month in Europe and checking no baggage. In and out in a flash, I thought. Then I spotted them.
Two U.S. customs officers flanked a pillar in the mammoth hall; legs spread wide apart, hands clasped in front of their crotches. I was returning home, and at forty-two, was elated to have performed Mendelssohn’s Op. 49 Piano Trio with German string players at the Gastheig in Munich.
I chose a green-lighted aisle and moved toward its conveyor. A hefty customs officer with fluffy blond-haired forearms blocked my path. His partner was tall, skinny, and black. Both appeared to be about thirty and the hefty guy barked orders, “This way, Miss. Follow me.”
The other officer exhaled on my neck as we tromped through the gargantuan hall to the farthest aisle, then grabbed my carry-on bag, plopped it down and shot his spindly forearm at me. “Give me the backpack.”
A third officer took my passport, pivoted on his heel, and took off. “Wait, where...?” My stomach lurched. I knew I should have my passport with me in transit.
A fourth officer, with a bigger badge, stepped behind the counter and unzipped my bag and dumped the contents onto a dirty plastic tray. He poked around; glanced at the officers on either side of me. “Start with this stuff, open the cosmetics.” He removed a small razor knife from a leather sheath on his belt. “I’ll get the clothes.”
“Wait, what are you doing?” I was bewildered, felt anger boiling up.
He barked at the hairy-armed guy, “Get Morton.”
“Yes sir.” He darted into a closed door and returned in an instant with a mound of woman. She was stuffed like sausage into her U.S. Customs uniform, white shirt starched stiff as construction paper and creases as sharp as steak knives in her navy blue trousers. The patent-leather visor of her hat was as shiny as my childhood Mary Janes and covered most of her wide forehead. I spotted a rubber glove protruding from her breast pocket and broke out in a cold sweat. It had been more than twenty years, but I hadn’t forgotten.
The ’64 Chevy van was rusty but presentable because it was black and there wasn’t much contrast between the rust and the faded paint. My friend Rob’s dad owned florist shops and used the van for deliveries, but didn’t need it on this particular Saturday, so Rob had offered to drive the four of us to Canada. Kids we’d known in high school were having a grasser in Ontario, somewhere near Sarnia, and we were primed to cut loose.
Grassers were outdoor parties held in the grass of open fields. Guys set up kegs and barbecue grills and hooked up speakers to blast rock n’ roll. We all chipped in a couple bucks for the beer and chips, brought whatever we wanted to grill, and pot, if we had any. This Saturday we didn’t have any. We spread our blankets on the ground, slurped the froth off our Stroh’s and settled in, figuring we’d see old friends and share exploits of our college freshman year.
Sam, Rick, Rob, and I were ready to rip before starting our summer jobs the following Monday and I recall that “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday, who could hang a name on you…” was blaring in the breeze. My parents were watching my baby girl for the night, were thrilled with my stellar grades and, stepping out of character, told me to go have some fun. They were even getting used to my single motherhood.
I didn’t recognize the guy who approached us with the weed and he didn’t look like a student from any of the Birmingham-Bloomfield area high schools. In 1967, most guys I knew had long hair, but they were clean. This guy was oily, with a dirt-ringed neck, filthy jeans, and foul body odor. He was bold, smacked his ass down on the big gold M on our Michigan blanket and leaned in too close. I was uneasy from the start.
“Hey, want a dime bag? I’ve got some amazing…”
I shook my head; I wasn’t in the mood, and knew I’d be dropped off at my parents’ house. “Nah, I’m good with the beer.”
Rob spoke up, “Wanna sell a couple joints? Don’t want a whole bag, gotta drive back over the border.”
The oily guy shook his head, “Shit, man, what a pussy. People take stuff back and forth all the time.”
Rob was cool. “Yeah, Canucks don’t care but the U.S. guys do. They’re cracking down now, it’s summer, kids are out. Can’t risk it, man. Wanna sell some or not?”
The stranger sprung up off the blanket, “Fuck no, I’ll do better.” He was right, scores of kids were arriving and he’d have no trouble selling all he had.
It got dark, music got louder, people danced, paired off, and some took blankets farther into the field. Rob and I were friends; he was devastated over a recent breakup and I listened, slapping mosquitoes off my arms and neck. We were exhausted after finals week, had a couple beers, and dropped off; dead sound asleep in the midst of the crowd. I woke up an hour later. No Rob. I waited another hour. No Rob.
Rick and Sam showed up without the girls they’d met earlier and hoisted our cooler. We headed back to the van and found Rob sprawled out, snoring in the back seat and I started bitching. “God, you just took off and didn’t come back for hours. What the hell?” Then I smelled it—the unmistakable odor.
“That sleaze ball found me and I bought a joint…must have fallen asleep.”
“Shit. I have to get back. My parents will call out the National Guard.”
Sam drove toward the border and I sat up front with him. We left Rob in the back, still drowsy, bare feet in Rick’s lap. I dozed, and the next thing I remember is blinding white light shining through my window and a fist pounding the glass. An array of circular red lights flashed in front of the van. We had arrived at the border crossing.
Sam had decided to go home through the Detroit Windsor Tunnel instead of across the Blue Water Bridge, the way we’d gone over, and there was no lineup at U.S. Customs on the Detroit side of the tunnel. Empty lanes were strange for a Saturday night, when crowds of Detroiters went to Windsor for dinner or to strip joints. The lineup was usually eight or ten cars deep at each booth, but oddly, our van was the only vehicle in sight.
“Pull over there and park it.” Sam maneuvered fast and clicked off the ignition.
“Everybody out. Nice and slow.”
I fumbled on the floor, “My shoes...”
“You don’t need shoes where you’re going.”
The side door of the van slid open. “Out. Now.”
Customs Officer Morton gaped at me, and I noticed orange makeup around the rim of her white collar. The airport aisle where we stood had been closed and my aqua nightgown, a khaki skirt, bras, panties, and the ivory silk blouse, my only purchase of the trip, were spread down the length of the rubber counter. Morton and another officer were fingering garment hems and slitting them open at random with razor knives. He slashed the seams of the ivory blouse and it tore like toilet paper. I poked my thumbs through the loops of my jean skirt to steady my hands.
The third officer took a tongue depressor and scooped out the jar of Pond’s Cold Cream, landing a blob on his belt buckle. “What’s this for?” Before I could answer he tossed the jar aside, ripped open tiny travel packages of Bayer Aspirin and dropped them, wrappers and all, into a bucket of sludge marked “U.S. Customs.” He unscrewed the cap on a bottle of Revlon Touch N’ Glow and emptied the creamy liquid into the bucket. Toothbrush, lipstick, and two hair bands tossed into the muck. “Cosmetics and toiletries, clear,” he barked. “What about the clothing?”
He scowled, “Where are you employed?”
“I’m self-employed. I’m a classical pianist and piano teacher.” Edgy, I rambled on. “I have my own studio and…”
“What was the name of your hotel in Paris?”
“I didn’t stay in a hotel. I stayed with a friend, in his apartment. Then we went to a chamber music conference in Munich…”
“Are you married?”
“What does that have to do with…”
“I asked you a question regarding this investigation. Are. You. Married?”
“I’d like to make a phone call.”
“That’s priceless.” He turned to Morton, “She’s been watching TV, wants to make a phone call.” His eyes narrowed, “We have Federal authority. Federal authority supercedes all authority. You’re not entitled to any phone calls.”
I sucked in a deep breath and scanned the chaotic scene. Customs was teeming with passengers from two international flights, most jockeying for position in the shortest lines, trying to beat the rush hour traffic outside the terminal.
The three officers surrounding me were aggravated. The skinny one held out my passport, which had miraculously appeared, but thought again. “Shouldn’t she be patted down? Morton’s right here. Been waiting all this time.” The guy with the biggest badge scratched his sweaty neck. “Nah. It’s crazy in here. We’re behind. Let her go.”
“What about my clothes? They’re ruined. How can you…”
The officer snatched a pad from under the counter, ripped off a sheet and scribbled. “Make a claim if you want. You’re free to go.”
I clamped my mouth shut and folded the shredded ivory silk tunic. I zipped my bags, dammed up my anger, made a beeline for the double doors and felt a tap on my shoulder. The skinny black officer was following me.
“Do you understand what happened, Miss?” I glared at my feet, livid, afraid of what I’d say if I spoke.
“You fit a profile, Miss, a government profile. Attractive female, traveling alone, checks no bags.”
“Drug mule, Miss. You fit the profile.”
Four burly guys with sleeves rolled tight on their biceps and badges clipped on their belts burst out of the U.S. Customs building and surrounded Rob’s dad’s van. Two of them carried flat tool kits, flipped the latches and slapped them open on the pavement. A bald guy growled orders. “Start inside the van. Get the door panels off.”
“It’s a Chevy. Set screws are blocked…”
“Then saw them off, but get inside the doors.” He turned his attention to us. “All of you. Inside. Now.” Rob tried to walk next to me, but the officer blocked him. “Single file, Buddy.”
Beige plastic chairs were scattered across speckled linoleum and stale cigarette smoke blanketed the room. Cheap wood paneling covered the walls, except in one corner, where a stained, orange curtain hung over a doorway.
“Mona here yet?”
“She even working tonight?”
“Gotta be. Or she’s gotta get a sub. Need a woman here on Friday and Saturday nights.”
A voice boomed through a closed door. “Keep your pants up. I’ll be right out.”
I’d never seen a woman like Mona. In her mid-forties and over six feet tall, she weighed about two-forty and had crimson hair with an inch of gray roots at the center part. She grabbed her cap off a chair and yanked the visor down tight.
“Well, well. What do we have here?” Her eyes rolled up and down my body before she turned and lumbered over to a desk. She opened the bottom drawer, grabbed a pair of ivory rubber gloves and sneered. “You got any dope, honey? ‘Cause now’s the time to give it up if you do.”
“I don’t have any dope and my friends don’t either.” I was immature, didn’t know when to shut up, and kept blabbing. “Some guy was selling weed but we didn’t buy any, and we wouldn’t be dumb enough to bring it back through here if we did.” I shivered with terror in the stuffy room. I’d heard stories about what Customs officers did to people suspected of bringing dope across the U.S. border.
“Yeah, right. If I had a dollar for every one of you hippies that told that story I wouldn’t be working in this joint. You think we don’t know about the orgies over there on the weekends?” She held the orange curtain aside for me.
“Be my guest.”
Mona yanked the drape shut behind her and stepped in with me, but she shifted her weight, turned, and the drape slid open about a foot. Two uniformed officers stood outside smirking, and didn’t avert their eyes when I looked straight at them as Mona spoke said, “Get your clothes off and hand them to me, one piece at a time. Nice and slow.”
Once I was naked, Mona tossed my clothes out to the officers and got down to business. She braced my chin in one of her palms, fingers digging into my cheeks to immobilize my head, and jammed the index finger of her free hand up each nostril, high as she could stick it. “Nice and clean,” she grinned, “but then nobody’s dumb enough to stick stuff up their nose these days.” Ears next. She stuck a finger in one and rotated it; same job on the second. “Yawn big for me, open up.” She ran two fingers around my gums and I tasted my own earwax before she grabbed a tongue depressor and pushed hard on my tongue until I gagged. “Now we’ll see what’s what.”
She grabbed my shoulders, turned me around. “Arms up, elbows above your head. C’mon, grab them and bend over.”
Tears flooded my face. “Why? What are you…?”
"Do I need to get one of those guys in here?” I froze. “You resisting me, Missy?”
I bent over and she dug in, whirled one finger around and around my anus, came up empty and ordered me to stand up and face her. Sobbing and snuffling, I obeyed as two or three fingers jabbed into my vagina, prying up, up, and farther up, until I yelped. Mona yanked her hand out.
"Nothing. Not a goddamn thing.” She peeled off the gloves, tugged the curtain aside and tossed them toward a trash basket. She grabbed my tangled clothing from an officer and thrust it at me. I was breathless, jerked the curtain shut, blocked the view of the two uniforms, and struggled into my clothes.
I stepped out of the cubicle, gazed through a smudged picture window, and saw that the van was dismantled. The unhinged doors lay on the pavement, the stripped interior trim panels beside them. Rob, Rick, and Sam sat on a bench, pale and speechless, and I slouched over and sat between them. I wiped my nose and chin with my hand, saw blood, and realized I’d bitten through my lower lip. Rob started to speak, but I held my flat hand up like a stop sign. He looked at me with wet eyes.
None of us said a word all the way home.
After more than four decades to gain perspective, the abuse I endured by U.S.Customs officials still seems unprovoked and undeserved. In both incidents, I appeared when the Customs areas were almost empty. When the Detroit terminal was suddenly flooded with other passengers, officials let me go. Although I fit the 1990 government profile for a drug mule, “single woman, traveling alone, checks no baggage,” Paris to Detroit was not a drug highway then, nor has it ever been one. I assert that trained law enforcement professionals would have known the difference between a young drug mule (most are under thirty years of age) and a bedraggled, middle-aged piano teacher in Reeboks and crumpled white athletic socks lugging a backpack full of Beethoven Sonatas.
It can certainly be said that in 1969, longhaired teenagers in vans were suspected of anything law enforcement officers could conjure up, and, animosity between rebellious teenagers and law enforcement personnel was growing across the United States. But marijuana was carried into Canada, to be smoked at grassers Canadian authorities knew about and considered harmless. There were no gangs or drug cartels, just kids smoking weed, listening to rock ‘n roll outdoors and going home to the Detroit suburbs in their parents’ cars.
I come to one conclusion about the cops’ motivation in both situations: They were bored.
In 1990, when I stepped through the double doors at Detroit Metro and out of U.S. Customs jurisdiction, I saw Dad waiting, his smile beaming, and I didn’t tell him what had just happened. I knew then, just as I do now, that Dad, who’d been an Army officer and a prosecutor at Nuremburg, believed in law enforcement, that he trusted designated enforcers and respected their authority. I talked about the thrill of my Mendelssohn performance and blocked out the horror of what had almost happened to me, again. Dad didn’t know much about Mendelssohn, or chamber music, but he was spellbound as I raved about the velvet tone and dazzling finger dexterity of the German cellist.
In 1969, I didn’t tell my parents about the incident at the U.S. border because they had no idea I’d left the country. I probably said we were going to the movies and out to eat, which was the story I usually told. They weren’t hip parents and couldn’t imagine that I was part of the reality of change that was occurring in our country in the late 1960s. Mother often pointed her manicured finger at the TV, spouted harsh judgments about demonstrations and “longhairs,” and both Mother and Dad preached about the imminent danger of large gatherings of college kids. I was queasy with shame after the brutal body cavity search and could never have risked confiding in them.
In 1969 and in 1990, when I was detained and searched by U.S. Customs, now U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the searches were legal. CBP may search travelers and their belongings at the American border without probable cause or a warrant, under the “border search exception.” The “border search exception” is a doctrine of United States criminal law that exempts searches of travelers and their property from Fourth Amendment warrant requirements. Part of it reads: CBP may conduct “routine” searches without any level of suspicion, while “non-routine” searches must be supported by “reasonable suspicion.” The officer present when a traveler is detained determines reasonable suspicion. Searches of a traveler’s property, including luggage, briefcases, wallets, and other containers are “routine,” while searches of a traveler’s body, including strip, body cavity, and involuntary x-ray searches, are considered “non-routine.”
What they did to me was legal then and it is legal now.
On some level, I’m still afraid of uniformed authority and when confronted, my mature rationality is overruled by visceral bias. A close friend recently asked, “Don’t you get it, that all cops aren’t bad?” Of course I do, but when I face a uniform, I become anemic and vulnerable. The abuse I endured as a well-scrubbed student, who happened to be in a van with longhaired males, is tattooed on my psyche. I believe I’m over it, and don’t think about it for decades, but when I do, the old terror splashes up like emotional acid. I’m nineteen again, and my long braids are brushing the floor as I bend over for a matron behind an orange curtain.
The South Carolina sheriff’s deputy was bulky, squeaky clean, and yes, stuffed into his uniform. He approached my Prius and tapped two fingers to the edge of his flat brimmed hat. “Need some help, Ma’am? Be happy to change that tire for you.”
“Thanks, but there’s a truck coming. I was on my way to the dealer anyway, so I called them.” The truck from Stevens Towing arrived a moment later and the deputy stayed and helped the driver change my tire. It took less than five minutes. The tow truck pulled away and left the deputy standing in the sunshine, arms dangling from his beefy shoulders.
“Go on and start her up Ma’am. Just want to make sure you get on your way safely.”
Leslie Tucker, a Detroit escapee, lives on the side of a South Carolina mountain and refuses to divulge its exact location. She is an avid hiker and zip liner, a dedicated yogi, an ACBL Life Master in sanctioned bridge, and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. She holds degrees in music and business. Her work has appeared in the 2010 Press 53 Awards Anthology, The Tarnished Anthology, So to Speak—A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Fiction Fix, and Shenandoah Magazine. She recently won first prize for Creative Nonfiction in the 2012 Press 53 Open Awards Contest, and her work will be featured in the upcoming anthology.
Q: The scene of the strip search and others are vivid and disturbing. What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: I was equally surprised, and horrified that more than forty years after the incident mental images of the strip search retained such clarity.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: The best writing advice I’ve ever received was: Just go ahead. Tell the truth. I’m trying to meet that challenge.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Barbara Kingsolver’s compelling narrative voices in The Poisonwood Bible inspire me each time I go back to it. Ann Patchett’s ability to weave individual plot sequences and seemingly unrelated characters together gets me fired up, most recently in State of Wonder. As a transplanted northerner, I particularly admire two Carolina writers, Charles Frazier, for his haunting story, Nightwoods, and Ron Rash, for unexpected plot twists in The Cove.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: My writing space is in my home and affords me a view of wooded mountain terrain, a deciduous feast for the eyes.