Yo Ho Ho and My Bottles of Rum

Hi PJ gang! I’m back from an adventure-filled trip to St. Croix, where I helped a friend capture and study America’s rarest lizard, and met some interesting characters along the way. You’ll hear those stories another day soon; for now, let’s talk about the TSA.

On my last morning on island, my friend took me to the Cruzan rum factory. While Cruzan was acquired by Jim Beam several years ago, it’s still operated by the same local family that has run it for generations. You can tell locals are very proud of their brand; the other rum factory on the island is Captain Morgan, which has only been operating from St. Croix for two years, and if you walk into nearly any bar, you’ll see rows upon rows of delectable Cruzan rum varieties, and perhaps one or two bottles of Captain Morgan stuck in the corner.

I had just enough time to squeeze in a factory tour before heading to the airport. At the gift shop, I was bummed that I couldn’t pick up any nice large bottles to take back, because I wasn’t checking my bags. The tour guide told me I could buy the 18-bottle variety pack of airplane bottles in different flavors, and then dump them all into my TSA-mandated clear plastic toiletries bag. Sounded clever; other people had done it!

My 18 airplane-sized bottles of rum fit neatly into my plastic bag. I hugged my friend, and prepared for the journey home. However, in the TSA line, I was stopped.

Agents informed me that the scanner told them I was selected for additional screening. My bags were hauled onto a table for examination. The agent assigned to me held up my plastic bag and said, “Too many.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Everything fits in my bag. All the bottles are the correct size. I thought I was allowed to take whatever I wanted that would fit.”

The TSA agent told me my bag was too large. That confused me as well; I told her I fly frequently, and I’ve always used that size bag, often full to the brim (I have a beauty regimen, okay!), and I’ve never been stopped or informed it was incorrect.

“You come from the big cities,” she told me. “They’re too busy to stop you, they have too many people. We have plenty of time here, so we enforce all the rules.”

Now came the reckoning. Do I ditch my cosmetics, or the rum?

Is that even a question? Of course if I had to choose, I’d take the rum (and one or two of my pricier lotions). But I wasn’t allowed to go through my bag myself, choosing which items to discard. I wasn’t permitted to touch anything. Instead, the agent took each item out individually and asked me if I wanted to keep it or throw it away. Often, she’d also stop to ask what something was. “That’s my lotion. That’s my other lotion. That’s the other other lotion. Yes, I know…” I started to wonder if she was quizzing me for security’s sake, or just because she was nosy.

Meanwhile, as she portioned out how many bottles of rum I got back for each discarded cosmetic, I noticed she was paying close attention to the labels.

“Do you have a banana flavor in there?” she asked at one point.

We were joined, intermittently, by other agents, who also eyed the bottles of rum. I was asked at least three times, “Are you traveling alone?” I understand that’s a typical security question, and I answered truthfully each time, “Yes.” However, it also reminded me that it’s one of my least favorite pick-up lines on airplanes and trains; when a guy trying to hit on me asks me if I’m traveling alone, it always creeps me out. Even if it’s meant in the most innocent way possible, it makes me feel vulnerable. That feeling came to me in the TSA line as well. I remembered that when I’m asked that question socially, by a stranger, I almost always lie and say my friend is in the bathroom or in a seat farther back.

Finally, I managed to get nearly all the rum into the portion of my bag the agents told me approximated the correct size. Only four little bottles, out of eighteen, were left on the counter. After a brief examination, my agent swapped one of those for a different flavor.

I was in the home stretch now. I just had to endure the agent poking through the contents of my carry-on bag, making conversational comments on the coffee and other souvenirs I’d bought for friends. She allegedly seemed to be enjoying it.

Finally, I was turned loose. I noticed, as I reorganized my things, that my cosmetics were swept into a trash bin under the counter for such items, but the four bottles of rum were taken to another room by a TSA agent who examined the labels with an appreciative eye.

This is certainly not the most grievous act of TSA misconduct I’ve heard. But it ranks among the most emblematic. At least it restored my childhood sense of wonder: there really are still pirates in the Caribbean.