Two Nights in a Moroccan Jail

Posted 11/22/2016

I’m not entirely sure this piece will ever see the light of day, will even surface as a blog; it certainly will not be like one of my more upbeat and happy-go-lucky pieces that regularly feature here and in the East Hampton Star. I’m just going to write it just the same, even if no one ever gets to see it.

         It was 1999. I was working in advertising, as I had been for 31 years at that point, and would continue in the business for another 13. The years don’t much matter—it was a great career, and like all careers, filled with drama, ups, downs, firings, bonuses and…JAIL TIME!

         The best perks for me, anyway, as a copywriter, and, well, excu-u-u-u-se me! creative  director, is that you get to travel to exotic locales to shoot the commercials. Procter & Gamble, that consumer products giant, likes to have their agencies shoot their commercials out of the United States to avoid paying residuals to the models. In Europe, in South Africa, in Morocco, even in Toronto! models are just paid for the day—albeit a hefty fee, but not the tens of thousands they can make on residuals as US laws dictate.

         For ten grand, you can get a great girl. I say girl, not in a demeaning way—even female modeling agents call them ‘girls’-- OK, a great woman, as I always did cast women in my commercials for (Oil of) Olay, a mid-range line of moisturizers, body washes, soaps and assorted other forays into facial arenas that ultimately flopped. I worked on every aspect of the Olay business. I wrote the headlines for the print ads, wrote the scripts for the TV commercials, chose the models, hired the directors to shoot the spots, and had input with hair and makeup (known as the glam squad). I was also involved in the editing and the music choices  and, most interesting of all, I got to travel all over the world to supervise the production.

         That’s how I got to Morocco around Memorial Day of 1999. It was a two-week shoot and Morocco was chosen because the director, the famous photographer and filmmaker, Albert Watson--him of the great rock and roll photographs for Rolling Stone magazine covers—owned a house in Marrakesh which was also part of the location we would be shooting at.

         He’s cool, that Watson. Actually, it was his savvy wife who runs his business and reps the glam squad and with even more connections to the production. P & G paying fortunes for location costs (at their home) in addition to his exhorbitant directorial fee, but in those crazy pre-millenial years of lots of money for production for brands that are doing well…well, the Moroccan sky was the limit.

         OK. Enough backstory. I think, if eyeballs are still on this and if I still continue to go on, people may want to get to the jail part. But I’m trying to turn this into a gripping “page-turner” if one can call it that on a device.

         So, a bunch of us agency people and clients show up in Marrakesh for pre-production and other location scouting (besides the Watson house). If it sounds like the movie business, it is actually much more extravagant. Budgets in that year, 1999, before 9/11, long before the Great Recession, were enormous! Movies can’t spend what advertisers spent then—a two-day shoot with a few days of pre-production, ran  into the millions! Including the bonus of a few of us, the director, me, the art director and the agency producer, spending a few days in Paris prior to it all to cast our girls…er, women, and they had to be flown over, too. First. Class.

         The shoot also takes us to a town called Essaouira. A lovely, picturesque dot of a town on the Moroccan coast. There were beach scenes in one of the commercials. Since all this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime excursion (a place I would not choose to go on my own dime), I invite my partner, now husband, David, to come along.

         He’s bored (as I am) with the technicalities of the shoot—the lighting that takes forever to set up. Also the product shots, a real snooze, like watching paint grow or grass dry (I like to mix my metaphors just for the sake of keeping my readers on their toes). So, he (David) shops the interesting little shops that line the coast. It was far more interesting than the souks of Marrakesh, from the week before  with all the anxious cab drivers in their cream-colored diesel  Mercedes Benzes—old, noisy and the drivers practically throw you to the ground to secure a fare. They pull you in from the stalls that sell robes and silks and spices and, oddly, beautiful pots with pigments of color in powder form. Pigments to be used, mixed with water, to create paint. I’m also an ‘artiste’. I am also a shopper. I also love color, so I bought dozens of those lovely pots of vibrant hues—fuschia to turquoise, gold and scarlet. (They feature further into the story. Be patient! Jail is coming.)

         The colors were electrifying! God knows how I would pack these pots—then again, nothing seemed particularly suspicious in 1999.  You didn’t have to take off your shoes before security, you could carry a liter of water, you could bring in whatever you please. Probably even a gun.

         Except…hashish.

         (OK, now we’re finally and actually getting somewhere.)

         One of the shops in Essaouira sold some interesting and unusual stuff. In particular, a set of henna tattoo designs, stamped on small pieces of parchment. They looked like ancient hieroglyphics, 18 of them in all, each 2” x 2” square, all mounted and framed. I thought: a really cool souvenir of the trip!

         The owner of the shop asked, casually, if I was interested in hashish. Why not? When in Rome…and when in the outskirts of Marrakesh, and me, a bit of a stoner and an ex-tobacco lover, thought hash seemed the great hybrid of the two. I bought the tattoo memento and along with a 50-cent piece size of hashish.

         “And I give you gift with purchase!" the shopkeeper exclaimed. “You like?” It was a rubber bracelet. I didn’t like, but took it anyway—it was a practice all these shops entertained: a cheap gift as a thank you.

         (Just as some sort of reference, back to the beauty business of Olay and what we were doing there, it was Estee Lauder herself that inaugurated that gift with purchase idea. Olay, incidentally, a wannabe Lauder, this just as a curious aside…)

          I don’t remember what either of those two items cost, but I can tell you the ultimate price I paid for the drug.

         Shoot ends. Leaving. Our last night in Morocco, we spend in the ultra-fab Mammounia Hotel, art deco for days and where, as we packed to leave the next morning, I wondered what to do with my now quarter-sized piece of the happy, happy hash.

         I was wearing a pair of Prada loafers (yes, I’m pretentious as well as an idiot) with a Velcro closure. I thought I could tuck it tightly between the Velcro, but nah. I just stuck the chunk in my jeans pocket. And away we go!

         There was a short flight to Casablanca before our oceanic flight to NYC. All cool. But  then, in Casablanca’s airport, on the security line, my wrapped tattoo souvenir was opened as it sailed along the conveyor belt. I do get frisked. And…BAM! Alarms go off, whistles are blown, as the hash, like a small brown bomb in my pocket, is discovered and all airport hell breaks loose. My co-workers, past security, look back in horror as I am whisked off to a curtained area and cavities (my asshole, primarily) are searched. David, who was behind me in the line stands by, in shock. I am pulled and pushed down to somewhere below. A holding cell. David, is told, I find out later, to board the plane immediately. But he doesn’t. Homophobia may have played a small role in their insisting he board the plane.

         I keep muttering, even as they lock the cell: “what is happening here? What gonna happen next?” incoherent and blind with fear. Down a passageway we dashed, me shoved. I could have tried to make a run for it (impossible). We pass a window and I see our luggage, David’s and mine, strewn alongside where the plane was just taking off. Everything inside was now exposed on the tarmac, including the odd and   perhaps indictful? pots of color pigments. All opened and all dazzling in the sun, spilling over onto our shorts and jeans, bathing suits and dop kits.

         They kept pushing and rushing me through more doors until we reached a door that was barred. A cell, in fact. A small, rusting cell I was thrown and locked into.

         My fears subsided some as the airport police left me alone. I gathered my thoughts, my most prominent thought was that we were actually pumping millions into the economy by shooting there, hiring local crews, creating jobs. I can’t really be thought of as some hardened criminal for a measly chunk of dope. (Dope. Appropriate. Me.)

         But, unbeknownst to me as I stood—there was nowhere to sit in the ten by ten room--David and one of the account executives on the shoot just ahead of me past the conveyor belt, were both contacting the American Embassy for help.

         Meanwhile, an hour or so later, or it might have just been minutes, I was set free from that cell and escorted back up to the outside world, this time in handuffs, and shoved into the back of a van.

         “Where are you taking me? What is going to happen to me?” I repeated, like a four-year old.

         “You fine. No worries!” This was still another new guard who sat opposite a smiling driver, dark-skinned and dark-haired and only fairly menacing looking (and actually quite handsome, just the same). They just kept smiling. They were the first to say: “no worries! “no problems!”

         Yeah.

         Right.

         Fear floods back in as I am led into a separate structure, a City Hall-like exterior, although small, with few steps at the entrance. Inside, it’s like the 1940s. Metal desks and drawers, an old typewriter, spikes for holding yellow pieces of paper. A gooseneck lamp, the conical shade dusty and dented.

         Someone behind a desk asks for my passport. Amazingly, I still had it on me, inside a jacket pocket. With shaking and cuffed hands, I maneuvered getting it out and placed it in on his desk. What else could I do?

         This man, with a khaki cap and camo uniform, more sinister looking (and still handsome) than any of the other guys I had come across since this nightmare began, looked at it, looked up at me, and then placed it in a top drawer of the desk that squeaked as he opened it. There was nothing else in that drawer, just my sad, slim passport.

         As he closed the drawer to more squeaks I wondered: will I ever see this passport ever again?

         It was all so low-tech. Not a computer in sight. Rotary phones. It was 1999, before cell phones became really big. I didn’t have one, the shoot had a couple we could borrow as needed in emergencies. In that dank, dark room, with its nicotine-stained walls, and a few other men at other desks, reading a newspaper, smoking and sometimes, glaring at me, I felt like I had really stepped into another century just months before an even newer century was about to begin.

         My step-father was ill with pancreatic cancer. A bad diagnosis; the fact that he was still alive after two years with the illness, was a miracle. But he was reed-thin, bone-white and practically home-bound. I kept thinking about him and how close to death he was as they led me down, still in handcuffs, to a larger cell with a (handsome) guard positioned outside. The cell was filled with a handful of men. It  was a Saturday, late morning, the start of the Memorial Day Weekend, but not in Morocco and certainly no holiday for me.

         There were holes in the concrete floor. Small, round holes—toilets they were, with a concrete sink on the wall above. A small amount of beige toilet tissue, thin as paper, sat on the edge of the sink. There were scattered prayer rugs, small and scratchy, meant for not only praying, but for sleeping as some guys were already snoring on some of them. Each rug, not 2” thick, without a pillow in sight.

         It was dark, too. No windows, but the fluorescent light, that occasionally crackled and blinked in the room adjacent to the cell, brought in a  hostile blue glow. A guard sat with his back to us in a wooden chair   as he scanned a sheet of paper that seemed to hold our names and nationalities and offenses.

         Some of the men were still drunk from the night before. Some were locked in over some domestic disturbance—your basic wife-beating. Though it was locked, guarded and disgusting, none of us inside were really guilty of anything more than minor nuisances. An overnight in a lock-up to teach a lesson to an aggressive husband, or a man who smashed a beer bottle over someone’s head in a bar in a blackout. And then there’s me, with my puny piece of hash and nothing more! Still, images of “Midnight Express” jumped around in my brain. For the boozers and the beaters, overnight. For me, I envisioned decades.

         Hours pass. I hover in a dark, dirty corner, head in my hands, trying to figure out how I could get out, how could I get to see my beloved step-father again before he died, and it hit me: If I could ever get to talk to the right person, I could explain I was smuggling in the hash to help with my father’s cancer. That might elicit sympathy—I just had to wait for someone to tell my tale to.

         More hours pass. It is late afternoon. The guard gets a call and after he hangs up, he unlocks the cell and I am led out, handcuffed once more. We go up stairs, back stairs, to the great and still sunny outdoors and there is David! with a shopping bag for me.

         “We’ve been in touch with the Embassy and they’ve retained a lawyer for you. You’re to meet with him,”-- and he threw out a name I seemed to have blocked out—“at 9 AM tomorrow,” David said, serious as a heart attack, as the guard stood there, glaring.

         “Where? How?” I asked.

         “He’s coming to see you here.”

         “Hokay. Fini,’ the guard said and he takes the shopping bag and we head back to the cell. The guard inspects the contents –no file, no gun, just a tuna fish sandwich, two packs of Marlboro Lights (I stopped smoking years ago—did he consider the smokes as bribery loot?)  my medication for cholesterol, two Ambien sleeping pills and a liter of water. Nothing suspicious, I was handed my goods, handcuffs removed, and locked back in.

         I opened the cigarettes first and six other guys came towards me when they heard the crinkling of the cellophane. I offered them each one—no matches! The guard saw us crowded together and asked one of us to come closer. He struck a match and lit the one cigarette that we were all to light ours from. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, trust us with the a book of matches. What could we light up in that cell but ourselves?

         They were not interested in the food as they peered into the shopping bag at my feet. They just wanted more cigarettes. I wasn’t hungry, either, I thought as I smoked . Bam! That cigarette made me feel light-headed and dizzy—this is OK! a lawyer! the Embassy! a meeting, maybe all this direness isn’t really so dire!

         But as night fell, 10:15 on my watch, which, surprisingly, they had not taken away.  I ate half the sandwich, drank the water, I got further frightened again. Why couldn’t the lawyer come today? (It was a Saturday.) But if he’s coming on a Sunday, though, it’s a special, important trip. My mind wandered between not worrying at all and the thought of being locked in there forever.

         I took both Ambien tablets and laid down on the floor. Morning came in a minute, interspersed with locks opening and women wailing—the women’s cell was across the way past the guard, or maybe I was dreaming all that. Nope. Come morning, there were more men in the cell and some others were gone. And I did notice women across the way in what had been an empty cell the day before.

         My meeting was to be at 9AM. It was 8:45. I brushed off my rumpled clothes, my lightweight jacket and jeans, soiled and with a cluster of tuna fish salad stuck like glue at the knee. I rinsed my face in the cold water at the basin. I drank from it, too, the liter gone—must have been the inmates  who finished that off along with the cigarettes

         I was released, re-handcuffed, and led up a different staircase to a large room of cubicles, mostly empty of people, but there, hands folded on a desk sat my guy. I was pleased he was, as I am,  Jewish—Greenbaum? was that his name? He shook my hand as I sat. “Thanks for coming,” I said.

         There wasn’t much in the way of conversation. It took all of less than ten minutes. He said there’s to be a fine to be paid and David has already taken care of that at an ATM. “And a short trial—just a formality where you hand over the fine and a report is filed and sealed. (I breathed a small sigh of relief there) and you’re free.”

         “Great! That’s fantastic, Can I leave now?”

         “No,” he said. “You have to stay one more night. Court does not convene on a Sunday. The hearing is tomorrow morning.”

         Crestfallen. Again. But there was no way around it. One more night. As he rose, he handed me a shopping bag. “David wanted you to have this.”

         It looked like egg salad this time. Two sandwiches on baguettes. Haute cuisine, in a place that only handed out, yes, stale bread and water. There was water also in the bag. Pills. Cigarettes. The guard grabbed the bag and took me back down.

         Greenbaum called after me: “Trial is at ten. The guys here will show you where. Clean up!” he said and laughed. It was a cruel joke, but I think he meant it to cheer me up. Somehow, it did not. I was dreading another night, now a Sunday night, back to the darkness and doom.

         Back in, bag searched, cuffs off, new men gathered. I was done with the cigarettes and tossed the two packs towards then, like bird seed to pigeons, they flew towards them.

         Somehow, I wasn’t quite convinced I would be free. Everyone said: “no worries’ “no problems” and here I am, there I still was, locked in a cell. I don’t often cry, but I sat down and silently sobbed. My father, my glorious and wonderful mentor of a father.  And I’ll never see him again.

         Some guy handed me a tissue, a small pack of Kleenex, in fact, unopened, unwrapped in its familiar blue and white package of ten. “For you,” he said. “You take. You keep.”

         I looked up at him. He had such a kind face. “I no need. You need,” he said.

         I felt better. And, in time, a few more men gathered around. It was prayer time. I imitated their movements on the rugs but could only mouth a beat behind all they were saying. Prayer, even for me in a foreign language couldn’t hurt the situation. That over, more cigarettes. I didn’t want one, but somehow, for quite a bit of time, we were bonding. Some spoke English and, like the guards and the police, as they sensed my panic, said: “no worries. You American. You will get better treatment.”

         One guy with the best English, pulled out a card. “Call me when you get out. We’ll drink!”

         For thirty minutes or more, about eight of us formed some kind of inexplicable, and even comforting, connection. And for the first time in 36 hours, I felt something extraordinary. Without many words, we bonded with smiles and handshakes and pats on the back. We were good men accused of minor crimes. We were all in the same boat of a stinking cell. We were actually smiling at each other and where we had found ourselves. We shared the egg salad and the water, most of them insisting I have most of it. Something spiritual was definitely going on. In the gloom, the darkness, in the multi-cultural, multi-racial collection of us, we were one. And for those precious 30 minutes, I felt everything would be just fine.

         Of course, it would.

         And it was, quickly enough as the next morning came and went in a blur. In a sun-filled courtroom, me and a bunch of other “outlaws” were led to a judge for a speech in two languages. Then, to a cashier. Done. Over. The lawyer hands me his card: Isaiah Greenbaum. How could I have forgotten a name like Isaiah?

         David had met me at the courthouse and we left in a rented Avis car. It was not yet noon. I still couldn’t believe it was over.

         “I have a room at the Casablanca Hilton. We will have to check out  by one o’clock.”

         I showered and changed—David had packed us back up again and called the airlines and arranged for the next available flight to Kennedy. Turns out, it was not until the next morning, a Tuesday, Memorial Day a memory by then. We called the front desk and said we would be staying one more night.

         In a grateful haze, we drove at dinnertime to an outdoor restaurant—don’t ask me the name; I was in a whirlwind of memory—the treatment, the shits in a hole, the bonding, the best 30 minutes, the overnight hours, the wailing women…

         I had two quick glasses of red wine as David laid out what he had been planning as the ‘story’. I was numb, and a little high. I was a puppy dog, ears alert. I could not quite speak.

         “This is what we’ll tell the folks who witnessed your being taken away when you get back to the agency,” he began. “You know, the account exec and the art director and all of them just past us at security that looked back at us, dumbfounded, as the hash was found and the whistles were blowing.” He took a deep breath and a sip of his drink. “They all kind of know, the shoppers, anyway, how all the shopkeepers give you a gift if you buy something. Your gift, unbeknownst to you, was a chunk of hashish taped behind the tattoo frame. You never opened it, you left it packed for travel, and it was at the conveyor belt when a guard opened it that the hash was found. You had no idea. And, remember? A lot of those co-workers of yours noticed the unwrapped package. It’s your perfect way out of this mess. You had no idea there was hashish attached.” (Which, of course, it wasn’t.)

         He took a big swig of his vodka soda and leaned back in his chair.

         I was suddenly famished and devoured the steak and fries in front of me, nodding more and more vigorously as the brilliance of his plan sunk in. Innocent! Unaware! Punished just the same. And released. And reprieved. And so grateful to have David. Level-headed. A sane, steady guy, with an even temper and a calm demeanor when confronted with disaster.

         On the way back to the hotel, I actually fell asleep. It was a dead sleep, a sleep of relief. It was a sleep that I hoped would blot out the last two days and two nights in a Moroccan jail. But I dreamed of the guy who gave me his card and suggested we have a drink before we leave town.

         David, after I told him about the guy, didn’t think it was a good idea to meet him. From here on in, I listen to whatever David says.

         I remember writing on the plane ride home all of the details of the BIG event that did turn out to be a small event, well, from the perspective of 17 years.

         My father died in August of that year, 1999. I never told him about what had happened. He asked how was Morocco. I said: I don’t think I’ll ever go back. And I never did.

         The commercials, in the end, were lackluster. With a demo, the P & G signature for what they believe is success, a demo being a comparison of their superior products versus the competition’s inferior ones. And, even worse, a spot for a sub-line called Pro-Vital—a line for women over 50. There is nothing even remotely sexy about a 50-year old applying a face cream. Close-up on camera. And, in the end, the line flopped. No women over 50 want to see women over 50 other than in commercials for AARP or Centrum Siler, or Sally Field, shilling Boniva--“one pill a month” for calcium deficiency.

         Olay users are older women. “My grandmother used that!” was a common refrain we often heard in focus groups, behind two-way mirrors, from women in their 20s and 30s. Granddaughters.

         Olay tried a teenage line. It failed.

         Olay tried cosmetics. Not to be.

         And then, facial hair removal. Off the shelves in less than six months.

         They did have a hit with a line called Regenerist which positioned itself against cosmetic surgery. A success! But an outright lie. As if a cream could work like a knife. And that women bought it!

         I say all this back stuff, Olay and the agency, also failing now: Saatchi & Saatchi, just as some denouement. Some break in the action, even as the action ended.

         As it happened, my co-workers at the time on that trip (long-gone; some quit, some fired, like me) seemed to believe the ‘gift’ story. Or maybe not. In time, Olay started to go the way of other 1950s brands. Brands like Bromo Seltzer or Geritol, Sominex, or, in a more relevant fashion, Helena Rubinstein, are memories versus viable, modern, desirable products.

         I am soon to be 70 years old.

         No longer in advertising. No longer employed.

         What is a life if not a collection of experiences—good, bad, frightening, surprising, and, ultimately, well, for me, anyway, filled with some drama that feels ENORMOUS and then, recedes, as if it were nothing. Or next to nothing. Even something as devastating as jail time in Morocco—and don’t ask about when the toilet paper ran out and was not replaced.

         It all fades. Gratefully, it all does fade.

         And—now that you got to here, go back to the very first paragraph. And ignore it.