Businessman giving U.S. passportIt’s gratifying to land, get off a plane after a long arduous flight, and begin making your way back home. Those overseas flights are tiring–unless you are sufficiently filled with pharmaceuticals so that you are sound asleep before the plane leaves the runway. Still, I cannot imagine being too well rested, as 35,000 feet in the air is not a natural place to be sleeping comfortably even if you are flat on your back in business or first class.

There are people who are fast asleep for the duration of these flights, with those flimsy airline blankets pulled over their faces. Just for the record, that’s not me. I can attest to the sleep patterns of others up on high because I am plainly awake most of the time. I have, however, slowly but surely learned to sleep in spurts on these overnight flights. I sleep just enough so that whenever we arrive wherever we are going, I am able to function in some semi-rested, minimally efficient capacity.

But this essay is not about that experience. It’s about an interesting ordeal I endured twice this summer at JFK Airport, once when returning from Europe and more recently when returning from Israel.

So you deplane here in New York with your barely regulation-size carry-on bag and somehow you have this burst of energy that lets you speedily walk in a high-powered fashion through the long corridors of the airport, through passport control, baggage claim, customs, and then on your way home.

It used to be that once you skipped, hopped, and almost jumped your way to passport control, you would routinely encounter long, slow-moving lines that tried your patience and whatever limited energy you still had in you. The entry systems into the U.S. have been somewhat updated and automated. If you are not an American citizen, you have to get on a separate line where I imagine personnel are charged with discerning the nature of your desire to be in the U.S.

For residents, you can now slide your passport into electronic kiosks with the electronic gadgetry and the technological intelligence of software capable of figuring out who you are and what you are doing here.

Another option is to be a member of Global Entry. That’s a system that prescreens you and expeditiously moves you through the system so you can get on your way relatively quickly. We are not members of Global Entry, though we should be. Next time.

This summer, I inadvertently discovered an even shorter line. Coming off the plane from Poland, I placed my passport into the usual ATM-looking machine. You have to stand there until your photo is taken, with the expectation that the new photo will look something like the way you looked in your passport photo taken five or more years ago.

That wasn’t the issue. My wife gets her entry piece of paper, receipt, or whatever it is, uneventfully. Then mine emerges from the kiosk in the same way, except my receipt or entry form has a large X across the face of the document.

“An X? Do they need a new cartridge in their printer?” I’m both thinking and doubting that simultaneously. So I ask one of the officers what the X on my entry pass to the United States of America is. She doesn’t elaborate, just says that if you have an X across the face of your document, well, there is a special line for you. There is no one else on that line. That’s nice, I was thinking positively, a shorter line than even the Global Entry queue.

So I step up and give the officer my passport and my X-marked pass. He is studying the passport and then his computer screen. “Have you been in Philadelphia lately?” he asks. I assume he knows the answer to the question, which is no, I cannot remember being in Philadelphia for many years. Then he asks if I was in San Antonio, Texas, to which I offered a similar answer–I’ve never been in the state of Texas. He looks at the passport again, reaches for his stamp, and then says, “You’re OK.”

We are too tired and anxious to get home after a long flight from Warsaw to ask for an explanation–and who says they are going to offer one anyway?

This episode reminded me of a not dissimilar predicament that I thought I would have in Israel a few years ago. A person that I hired to post stories on our 5TJT.com website was just pulling them irresponsibly from everywhere and anywhere he pleased. It turns out that one of those publications was the well-written and well-respected Jerusalem Post.

A week or so later, I got an e-mail from a Tel-Aviv-based attorney informing me that he is about to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement and intellectual-property theft unless I make a payment within seven days of one million shekel–that’s about $250,000. That was a little extreme and kind of a severe penalty for a guy–my web guy–who plainly was not aware of what he was doing.

The Israel-based attorney was being tough and unwilling to believe that we were unaware that we could not reuse the material, considering us flagrant violators who would just have to pay. That is an insane amount of money for this kind of thing and I had no choice but to have my attorney fight this guy. In the meantime, he was writing to tell me that he is going to sue us in Tel-Aviv district court.

So this is going on for months, during which time I am traveling to and from Israel, and now paying closer attention to those passport-control officers at Ben Gurion Airport who scrutinize you as you enter and leave the country.

I once had a neighbor in Brooklyn who was born in Israel and years later, at the end of summer, he went back to visit family for what he thought would be a ten-day trip. Apparently he had a tax matter that was not resolved some years prior. He came back to New York after he straightened everything out–two and a half years later.

So with this Jerusalem Post issue not resolved and this predator-type lawyer refusing to let go of what I thought was little more than a frivolous case, I found myself watching the passport-control people watch me with a little more attention than usual.

The case was ultimately resolved for less than $5,000–a long way from either $250,000 or a million shekel. I was in the Jerusalem Post office two weeks ago visiting with Sam Sokol, who freelances with us here, when I was introduced to Steve Linde, the Post editor. I reminded him about the case. He said that yes, he recalled that and wanted to know if I could recall the name of the attorney. He seemed to indicate that the attorney never turned over the money to the Post. I could not recall the name at the time. So much for justice.

So we arrive at JFK less than two weeks ago on the way back from EretzYisrael. It’s about 5:00 a.m. as we all spill out of the plane and into the terminal. We are one of the first out, as our section of the plane is allowed to exit before the others (that’s nice). Once again I slide my passport into the kiosk and stand there waiting for my photo to be taken. Here comes my little slip of paper that will get me back into New York, printing once again with a big black X crisscrossing the sheet of paper.

Once again, the regular lines are growing and there are even about a dozen people on the Global Entry line. I am directed to the X line again, where it’s just my wife and me. Our lucky day.

It turns out that some arm of government is looking for someone named Larry Gordon. I don’t know what he did. It’s just not me. This time, before the officer says anything to me, I say to him, “I bet you are going to ask me whether I’ve recently been in Philadelphia or San Antonio.” I then offer that I was just through this drill two weeks ago. The officer smirks and reaches for his stamp, tells us all is OK, welcome home, and that we can be on our way.

It’s more than a little odd that you can walk across our southern border without incident while you have to go through these things right here at JFK. I know at least two people who had problems as a result of these encounters upon entering the U.S.

One of them has Australian citizenship, was in the U.S. on a visa, and went to Israel to get married. When she tried to return with her American husband, she was detained at JFK for two days before being sent back to Israel. Another person I know was carrying a bit more than $10,000 on him. He was detained and cuffed, and the money was taken away. It took months to get it back.

I’ve been traveling for decades without incident until the occurrences of the last few weeks. I carry little cash these days and have always lived in the U.S. I don’t know what the other Larry Gordon did, and I didn’t ask nor did I want to come across as being too interested. If your entry papers come out of that printer in the airport with an X across it, chances are that it’s probably not about you. But then again, you never know. v

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

 

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