Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


© 2008, UrbisMedia

© 2008, UrbisMedia

Bitch! That’s what I mumbled under my breath, straining not to let it out in an anger relieving shout. But I knew better; I was in a strange foreign airport, and this bitch could give me even more trouble than she was giving me now.

OK, a slight sidebar here. I know I’m not supposed to call women bitches and, in fact, I make no habit of it. I’m no hip-hop rapper; I won’t even call a “ho” a “bitch.” But this woman deserved the appellation as much as Leona Helmsley. I’ll take my chances on admonitory emails; I’m going to use it.

She took my nail clippers! Now I have surrendered countless nail clippers to security people at airports all over the world. Why? Because, I forget to put them in checked luggage. But also because security people believe that they can be used to clip the nails of an airline pilot down to the quick and then can be forced to fly into buildings. They used to take my tiny beard-grooming scissors, too, because they can be used to circumcise pilots. But this is about clippers, which have a little “blade” attached (for cleaning under the nails) which might be wielded like a saber by a terrorist.

The bitch kept repeating “cleeps,” and getting more pissed off at me until I understood what she meant and brought forth from my carry-on a nail clipper that I had bought in Hong Kong that has no offending “blade.” I explained that it had none and demonstrated it, but she kept saying “no cleeps.” She had that affect-less non-expression, that un-modulated, recorded, voice that they teach at the best torture academies. I said the clippers have been through a dozen airports without question. “No cleeps.” Bitch! I mumbled again (OK, I put an F-word participle in front of it this time.) It was almost audible this time. But I held back. This was an airport in Manaus, Brazil, well up the Amazon River and no place I wanted to experience the local interrogation techniques that combine pirañhas with standard CIA waterboarding.

I loved those “cleeps.” (see, now she has me doing it). They had such a clever design, folding flat into an orange plastic case from which they popped up to do their excellent “cleeping” when you squeezed the release button. They were cool “cleeps,” and now that Bitch has them! I hope she cuts her cuticle and bleeds to death!

I know, you’re saying they were just a pair of “cleeps” (see, now you’re doing it), and I seem to be over-reacting. But these were special clippers. And then there’s the principle of the thing. These were innocent clippers; as innocent as I am. And I was . . . violated! This was worse than when they pulled my pants down at the Sydney airport, in front of everybody, and not a single woman offered me her email address. (See DCJ Archives 36. 8, “Traveling As American,” for more details). Violated! I come from a country where . . . where . . . oh, never mind. She appropriated my “cleeps” and waved me on like some inept wannabe terrorist. Bitch!

I sat glumly in the boarding lounge, drinking from the can of Coke that the Bitch had totally missed in my carry-on. Stupid Bitch! But, as calmed myself, I began to feel some hope of redemption and revenge—Julio.

If they didn’t discover Julio in my checked luggage I would feel better about the “cleeps” incident. Not that Julio was some “illegal” trying to get smuggled into America to pick our fruit and drive us nuts with leaf blowers. My Julio is, after all, a pirañha, one of those vicious little blade-toothed wolves of the waters of the Amazon that, along with a legion of their colleagues, have a reputation for being able to pick a cow clean in a matter minutes when they are in a feeding frenzy.

Since the days of my childhood, when I was dispatched by my mother to buy some Italian cold cuts or Parmesan cheese from Mr. Dispenza’s grocery, I would stop at the pet store nearby to visit the pirañha. There, in a small aquarium in the pet store window, was a single fearsome little devil with his serrated, prognathus jaw. It was as motionless, as if pasted on the aquarium glass, its eye staring menacingly at me—until the pet store owner dropped a small chunk of meat into the water. In the blink of an eye it snatched and gulped the meat, and my toes would curl up in my PF Keds sneakers.

Julio won’t be doing any such thing. He’s dead. I purchased his desiccated and lacquered body from a woman vendor in Santarem, Brazil. He is a bit larger than my hand, and his teeth are all there in that gaping maw, and his eyes still have that stare. The thought of him and thousands of his friends answering the dinner bell as I am taking a dip along the bank of the Amazon chills my blood.

It’s against the importation rules to bring Julio into the U.S. He is, even dead, in that category of proscribed foreign products that might harbor pests, vermin and other threats to American agriculture (maybe killer bees snuck in inside dead piranhas). I don’t think he can do much harm in a permanent lacquered state of rigor mortis on a shelf in my condo. He made it over the border in a box I sandwiched between two books against the checked luggage x-ray and now quietly resides in my little museum of travel curiosities, a ghostly reminder that I finally made it to the Amazon.

It had been fifteen years since I first tried to travel up the great river but, ironically, the malaria medicine that I took back then made me too sick to go. This time I passed on the malaria meds and took my chances with a spray can of DEET. It is a magnificent river, as broad at its mouth as the distance between London and Paris, a great café au lait fluvium making a beige fan on the Atlantic. It flows more serenely than the roiling Yangtse and carries a procession logs and small islands of tropical forest debris. Where the Rio Negro intersects there is a clear delineation of black and brown water. This used to be little Julio’s “acquarium.” I justify my law-breaking with the rationalization that, eventually, Julio would have been eaten by a larger fish, or even by one of his buddies. Now he has the noble job of being an aide-memoire for my long-delayed trip to the Amazon.

Julio also helps me fantasize that it would be great if that Brazilian security Bitch happened to fall into some Amazon waters where Julio’s ex-colleagues were coming off a two-week fast.Pirañhas! Now were talking real “cleepers,” Bitch!

©2008, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.23.2008)