Our Lady of the Dolphins has got dem ol’ travelin’ blues:
6:10 a.m., Tuesday two days ago, LaGuardia Airport. A long line of what appeared to be roughly a thousand people was snaking down a hall past newsstands and shops. Chaos and an hour wait to get through security. A woman in an airport security uniform patrolled on the left, curtly instructing us to move to the right. A cleaning crew on the right barked, “Coming through, move please!” We stood nervously wherever we wouldn’t be yelled at. No one tried to help us, to calm the fears of those about to miss their flights. There was a lot of yelling–“I need your ID open and faced forward! No, you must put that in the bin!” After 45 minutes I got to the first security checkpoint, where I was directed to stand aside for extra clearance. I walked to the rubber matt, stood spread eagled in the Leonardo position, arms out, legs out, as a sleepy stranger ran a wand around my body and patted me for bombs. “Now I know how a cow feels in a cattle pen,” I said. I told her how carelessly we’d been treated. She was surprised. No one told her there were a lot of people waiting in line.
Yes. I’m sure that this was the first time that someone has made the incredibly droll remark about being treated like cattle. In fact, everytime someone uses that line, Peggy should get a royalty payment. And a lot of people waiting in line at LaGuardia? When did that start happening?
I gave the speech that night, and returned the next morning to the West Palm Beach airport for the flight home. Here, at 9:30 a.m., it was worse. Again roughly a thousand people, again all of them being yelled at by airport and TSA personnel. Get your computers out. Shoes off. Jackets off. Miss, Miss, I told you, line four. No, line four. So much yelling and tension, and all the travelers in slump-shouldered resignation and fear. The fingers of the man in front of me were fluttered with anxiety as he grabbed at his back pocket for his wallet so the woman who checks ID would not snap at him or make him miss his flight.
This was East Germany in 1960. It was the dictatorship of the clerks, and the clerks were not in a good mood.
After a half hour in line I get to the first security point.
“Linfah,” says the young woman who checked my ID.
“Linfah.” She points quickly and takes the next person’s ID.
“I’m so sorry, I don’t understand.”
Now she points impatiently. How stupid could I be?
Line Five. Oh. OK.
Stupid southerners and their lack of proper e-nun-ci-a-tion skills.
I am almost always picked for extra screening. I must be on a list of middle aged Irish-American women terrorists. I know a message is being sent: We don’t do ethnic profiling in America. But that is not, I suspect, the message anyone receives. The message people receive is: This is all nonsense. What they think is: This is all kabuki. We’re being harassed and delayed so politicians can feel good. The security personnel themselves seem to know it’s nonsense: they’re always bored and distracted as they go through my clothing, my stockings, my computer, my earrings. They don’t treat me like a terror possibility, they treat me like a sad hunk of meat.
Personally I’m more concerned with sitting next to a crazy woman than a terrorist on a long flight, so if they are keeping an eye out for the Pegster…
Speaking of sitting next to a crazy woman, Peggy has her stranger-well-met-affirmation moment:
I boarded my plane. Settled in, took out my notebook, wrote my notes. I turned to the man next to me. “Did you have a bad time with security?”
His eyebrows went up and he shook his head. “It’s terrible,” he said, in an English accent. He and his fiancÃ© had come for a few days to southern Florida, they’d had hassles coming and going. He said, with wonder, that he was a smoker, that he always carried a keepsake, a gold cigarette lighter. Before he’d left for Florida he’d emptied it so it wouldn’t light, and he showed it to the security people at the airport. They told him he couldn’t take it on the flight. He asked them to send it to him, they said they couldn’t, he’d have to go back to the ticket area and give it to them. But then he’d miss his flight. “It’s your problem,” they said. He wound up giving the lighter to an airline clerk. “An $800 lighter! Empty!” He didn’t know if he’d ever see it again. He said, “It’s hard when”–and he put out his hands and shook them–“you’re already a bit of nervous about flying!”
Two drinks please, for the the DT-twins in row twelve…
So we’re all talking about port security this week, and the debate over the Bush administration decision to allow United Arab Emirates company to manage six ports in the United States. That debate is turning bitter, and I wonder if the backlash against President Bush isn’t partly due to the fact that everyone in America has witnessed or has been a victim of the incompetence of the airport security system. Why would people assume the government knows what it’s doing when it makes decisions about the ports? It doesn’t know what it’s doing at the airports.
Hey, we’d settle for the government knowing what the hell it’s doing in Iraq, but to work off Peggy’s theme: When cattle fly…