This post is about two things: sneaking something forbidden through the U.S. Customs, and getting rid of things. Such is life: we accumulate things we want and get rid of things we don't want. Which isn't always easy. As we shall see, both endeavors involve a grinder.
Sneaking through Customs
Sneaking through Customs
Sneaking something through customs has always been a bit of an adventure and a trial for international travelers, and New York, a frequent destination, is the site of many such incidents. When I went to Europe in the early 1950s, bringing back a forbidden volume of Henry Miller, whose works were available in Paris, was a common undertaking. Hearing of my planned trip, a college friend asked me to bring him a copy of Tropic of Cancer, which of course I did. Arriving by ship, I disembarked properly dressed in a (seedy) jacket and tie, and had no trouble sneaking my illicit item through customs. (Later I got my own copy of Tropic of Cancer, read it, and found it hilarious. That’s right: not pornographic, just flat-out hilarious, as Miller recounts his sexual escapades in Paris over a period of years.)
In 1963 I went again to Europe and returned with no illicit import concealed. Once again, dressed properly in a jacket and tie, I had no trouble with customs. But the inspector who whizzed me through gestured toward a young man nearby, showed me a closed switchblade knife, and said, “Those two Columbia College kids got caught. Dirty books and a switchblade knife! I get nervous even looking at a switchblade.” I had to agree about the switchblade: it wasn’t a necessity for a college education. As for the “dirty books,” he was probably referring to Miller’s output, which was still taboo, and in that regard I was in silent disagreement. One of the kids was sitting nearby, his back against a wall, while his buddy was being lectured inside by the inspector’s superior. The one I saw, who looked sheepishly chagrinned and annoyed, was in shirt sleeves and jeans with a ragged jacket – just the kind of kid that I would search, were I an American customs inspector. I almost went over to say to him, “For God’s sake, if you’re going to sneak in some Henry Miller, as I did once, don’t dress casual like a college kid. Dress like I did: jacket and tie, neat, tidy, and bourgeois as they come.”
The U.S. Customs in those days seemed to be a stronghold of puritanism, viewing imports from a moral point of view in accordance with the laws of the time, even after much of the nation had relaxed into easygoing tolerance. Three works that originally could not get legally past U.S. Customs had acquired legendary fame and were passionately desired by all rebels of a literary bent: Joyce’s Ulysses (quite legal by my time), Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. How book-mad Americans had lusted for this forbidden triad!
Joyce’s Ulysses had seemingly blazed the way toward acceptance. Published in Paris in 1922, it was banned as obscene until Random House, possessing the rights to publish it in the U.S., decided in 1933 to bring a test case challenging the law and informed the Customs Service in advance. When the anticipated copy arrived at the port of New York, the local official in charge at first declined to seize it, saying that “everybody brings that in.” He and his superior were finally persuaded to seize it, so the case could go to court. An assistant district attorney assigned to the case pronounced it a “literary masterpiece” but, under the law, obscene.
The U.S. District Court in New York then brought suit against the book, rather than the author, declaring it obscene and therefore subject to seizure and destruction, while Random House argued that it was not obscene but protected under the First Amendment. The U.S. argued specifically that the work contained sexual titillation, especially Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and “unparlorlike” language; that it was blasphemous, especially regarding the Catholic Church; and that it expressed coarse thoughts and desires that were usually repressed. Random House’s attorney stressed the work’s artistic integrity and moral seriousness, and called it a classic work of literature. In his historic ruling Judge John M. Woolsey decided that Ulysses was not pornographic, and added that if sex was on the mind of many characters in the book, the locale was Celtic and the season, spring. As a result, Random House immediately began publishing the book, which at last was legally available in the U.S. It remained banned in Great Britain until 1936, and if Ireland never officially banned it, it was never available there for decades.
By the time I reached college, Ulysses was an accepted but challenging classic; no need to sneak it past customs. But Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, likewise first published in France (ah, those naughty Gauls!), had a much longer wait for legality – from 1934 until 1964. A clandestine publication of the book in New York in 1940 cost the publisher three years in prison. When Grove Press got the rights from Miller and published it here in 1961, it provoked over 60 obscenity lawsuits in more than 21 states. The resulting court opinions varied; a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice pronounced it “a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity” – an opinion that must have inspired many an adventurous reader to seek the book out. Finally, in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled state court rulings that found the work obscene.
And that third in the triad of forbidden books, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Published privately in Italy in 1928, and then in France and Australia in 1929, it was taboo here until 1959, when Grove Press (yes, them again) published it, and a U.S. Court of Appeals judge famously established the principle of “redeeming social or literary value” as a defense against the charge of obscenity.
Today it isn’t literary masterpieces that the U.S. Customs confiscates, but food, narcotics, weapons, and anything deemed hazardous. Food? If, arriving on an international flight, you try to bring fruit or vegetables into the U.S., customs will seize them. Why? Because they may contain insects, viruses, or disease. What then happens to the confiscated items? The food is taken to a grinding room in the terminal and eliminated. And if, being fibrous, an item resists the grinders, it is delivered to an incinerator. Also into the incinerator go narcotics and counterfeit foods like fake Viagra. There will always be customs officers, vigilantly guarding our health and morals, and there will always be those who try to sneak stuff in.
Good Riddance Day
I had never heard of it till recently. It seems that between 12:00 noon and 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, December 27, some hundred people flocked to Times Square to “shred it and forget it” – to destroy unwanted objects associated with embarrassing and painful memories from 2016, so as to clear the way for a happier and more prosperous 2017. This new event was inspired by a Latin American tradition in which New Year’s revelers stuff dolls with objects representing bad memories and then set the dolls on fire.
On this occasion a year ago, people deposited scraps of paper associated with bad memories in a shredder bin for subsequent shredding. Another participant shed empty containers of prescription pills that harbored bad memories of sickness and misery, and a man brought a laptop whose slow load times had frustrated him for years. Since the laptop was too thick to go safely into a paper shredder, he pounded it with a mallet, and when the host of the event decided that he hadn’t done enough, she took the mallet and smashed the laptop to smithereens. Other items deposited included a woman’s memories of an ex-girlfriend, and someone else’s photo of Donald Trump. All this before a camera-wielding crowd of onlookers.
And this year? “He did me dirty,” said a mother of six from the Bronx, who with her four adult daughters as witnesses, scrawled her spouse’s name on a piece of paper and tossed it into the shredder, while onlookers cheered. Many others did the same, ridding themselves of an ex. A woman from Harlem brought a push-cart full of old personal records to shred, explaining, “I’m here to shred my whole life. I need a fresh start for 2017.” Anti-Trump shredders were numerous, though a tourist from Liverpool shredded “American negativity,” saying, “You guys need to give him a fair chance.” Another participant deposited computer parts on the ground and smashed them with a hammer, computers seeming to rival the president-elect as candidates for riddance. A woman wrote “stress” on a scrap of paper and stuck it in the shredder. A bankruptcy survivor contributed a shoulder bag full of medical bills and bank statements. And a woman who had flown all the way from San Francisco shredded the hairpiece she had worn after undergoing chemotherapy. After the hour-long event all participants departed feeling lighter, relieved, ready for a new start.
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My poems: For my short poem “I Crackle” and a stunning photo of me, go here. For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Maybe something more on diversity in the city.
© 2016 Clifford Browder