My Brush With Homeland Security

We successfully smuggled natural toothpaste, but the tahini sauce was another story

My wife and I are toothpaste smugglers. Recently, for example, we took a vacation in Miami; most of our preparations involved the toothpaste. Should we bring a tube and face possible confiscation by Homeland Security, or borrow some from our hosts (our friends Steve and Ivonne)?

My problems all started when I read this sentence in the Whole Earth Catalog in 1978: "There may be enough sugar in toothpaste to give you cavities." This infuriated me, and I never used Crest or Colgate again. Instead I buy my dentifrice at a natural food store (most recently a fabulous-tasting cream called Powersmile). But due to gel-like explosives, if you bring such a tube onto a plane in carry-on luggage, it will be impounded. This happened to me once in San Francisco, and it broke my heart. I'd just spent five dollars on a tube of Nature's Gate, which the Homeland Security officer smilingly threw in the garbage. (In San Francisco, even the Homeland Security workers smile.)

At this point, the regulations allow 3.4 ounces of toothpaste, but it must be in a special little traveling tube. Natural toothpaste makers do not produce such tubes. I called my friend Steve.

"Do you have any hippie-dippy toothpaste?" I inquired. He looked around his condo and found none.

Should I mail myself the toothpaste? No, it was already too late.

"We'll have to check one of the bags," I told Violet.

But when we reached the check-in counter of Delta Airlines, we discovered that checking a bag costs $25. The toothpaste inside was only worth $3.70. So my wife and I made a fateful decision: to smuggle toothpaste. Though the Powersmile was in an exterior pocket, Violet didn't reposition it; she feared some undercover Homeland Security agent might spy her hiding the contraband deeper in the suitcase.

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We reached Security, which was strangely deserted at 9:37 on a Wednesday morning. The Homeland Security officers, in their deep blue police-like outfits, were joking together. Violet loaded her maroon suitcase on the conveyor belt, and we both put on our "innocent faces." The bag passed through the x-ray undetected!

"Wow, they didn't catch the …" I whispered.

My wife shushed me. Shrewdly, I switched to French "… pâte des dents."

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Meanwhile, one of my gray plastic trays had been shuttled onto a ramp closer to the x-ray machine. An officer frowningly informed me, "You have a cream in here." (In New York City, even Homeland Security workers frown.)

"A cream?" I echoed. A moment later, she held up a plastic container of tahini.

I enjoy bread, butter and tahini—often after a meal. These three items were in the bag of food I was carrying for the plane ride. Apparently tahini, a Middle Eastern paste made of sesame seeds, had triggered the bomb-detector. (Can food also be racially profiled?) "But you can eat it now, then come through Security again," the guard helpfully offered.

"Where do I go?" I asked.

"I'll show you," she explained.

Though I usually don't eat breakfast, I agreed. After consulting my wife—we were an hour early for the plane—I followed the sympathetic guard to a frosted-glass door, and suddenly was standing in an empty hallway of JFK Airport, clutching a bulging plastic bag. I found a forlorn couch and began slathering tahini on my whole-wheat bread, then adding butter, while aimlessly listening to Muzak. (I used much more tahini than usual, so as not to waste this precious commodity.) When my breakfast was done, I returned to Security—there was still no line—and spoke to the initial document-checker, whom I'd met 20 minutes before. I showed him my boarding pass, but I'd forgotten my passport.

"I can't let you through without ID," the gatekeeper genially remarked. Would I be dragged to some makeshift prison in the bowels of JFK, all because I'd chosen to eat my tahini?

Luckily I could see Violet on the other side of the Security station. "My wife has my passport; can you ask her?" I desperately demanded. The guard nodded, and soon I possessed my Federal validation.

After removing my shoes, I set my plastic bag on the conveyor belt and explained to the Homeland Security officers how to use tahini, so they wouldn't discard it. "If you've ever had a falafel, there's tahini sauce on the chickpea balls," I informed them. "It makes an excellent salad dressing. Just look up 'tahini salad dressing' on the Internet. 'Tahini' is spelled 't-a-h-i-n-i.'"

I passed through the x-ray machine and picked up my bag. It was untouched; the tahini was inside. I looked around at the Homeland Security guards. The shift had changed! The woman who'd smuggled me into the hallway was gone. The new shift, apparently, had different standards of bomb detection. To them, tahini was benign.

I tied my shoelaces, whispering to my wife. We'd outfoxed the American government twice in one day! Violet and I smiled like delirious jewel thieves.

Tags: memoirs