I fill out my customs card and make my way through the rope maze and wait. A heavy-set oval-jawed lady behind glass waves me up and I hand her my passport and papers.
Slouching in her chair picking lint and frizzy bits of hair off of her navy blue sweater vest, she scans me and my proof of existence. Her name tag says Henry.
Where you going? LA. Why? Business. What kind of business? I’m going to meet with our consultants. What do you do? I raise money for a social agency, Hope Mission. Where are you staying? Fuller Seminary’s Guest Centre.
Are you carrying any fruit, alcohol, or tobacco? I have a cigar in my shoulder bag. Can I see it? Yes.
I pull it out and hand it to her. She studies it through the sealed baggy I had stuck it in last night, and reads its red collar. Is it Cuban? Yes it’s Cuban. Are you sure? Yes. It’s a Romeo y Juliet, Churchill. You’re sure? Yes I’m sure. Okay, follow me.
She takes my passport and ticket and the cigar, stands up, and asks me to follow her. She is much taller than I thought. I follow her sizable frame, and her leather belt with holster, down a short hallway. We stop, she moves a red card from one wall hanger to another. We enter a bright florescent-lit room and she instructs me to place my bags against a wall and the shows me into a holding room. The room has vinyl covered benches at its perimeter. On each wall are posters warning of firearm and contraband smuggling.
I look through one of the openings into the lit room. She has placed the cigar and my papers on a counter. Behind the counter a young bald man types notes into a computer screen.
In my anteroom, I wait with an Arab couple. They are sitting against the back wall. Nearby is a dark-skinned man wearing a red shirt, and his blond girlfriend. In a moment a young Moslem woman wearing a light brown hijab is shown in. She sits at the entrance without concealing her frustration.
I look at the clock, assess my position in turn and think about how I’m going to explain missing the plane to LA and our two days of meetings to my boss and our consultants.
In ten minutes, we are all still there glancing at each other and out the openings. Then I hear my name. An agent with a gray brush-cut asks me for my drivers license–if I have one. I move toward the door, but he sticks his hand through the centre opening and and I retreat and pass it through. Is this your current address? Yes, it’s my current address. In a minute he calls me to the counter.
A form with my name and address and an ink stamp I can’t read is partly under the cigar and my papers. I’m asked my phone number and asked to sign the paper. I do and he stamps my passport. Admit: Homeland Security and Border Protection.
The agent in dark blue uniform and gray brush-cut tells me they aren’t going to penalize me. I resist asking what the penalty would be. Instead they’ll be confiscating my cigar, because, as I might know, the USA has an embargo against Cuba. The Obama overtures to Cuba run through my mind but I stay silent.
He volunteers that they’ll be taking my cigar, Fedex-ing it to Chicago, where it will be destroyed. I apologize for the trouble. He says, no problem and that I can follow him. I get my bags and we go back down the short hallway. He takes my red card and moves it back and ushers me out toward the baggage conveyor.
I fly to LA.