It began in the parking lot. The jittery, heart beating faster, shallow breathing, nauseating anxiety crept in. Darting in and out of the endless rows, scanning up and down hoping to discover the one empty space before the other forty cars beat me to it. Three failed attempts and then success. But the victory celebration was brief. For the next challenge waited like a coyote ready to pounce.
The line snaked around the corner, past the men’s room, and the tiny overcrowded Starbucks, spilling into the concourse. A small melee ensued as fellow travelers struggled to discern the battle lines between the line, the exit, and the way to the restroom. In these circumstances it’s important to keep your head up, feet moving, like a running back on fourth and one. I locked in on the “All Travelers This Way” sign and kept churning forward. A quick nod to the blue clad gatekeeper, signaled that I am a veteran of these line wars, and that words need not be spoken.
The hustle of entering the line slowed as I found my spot between the outstretched nylon bands that demarcated chaos from civilization. Phones popped out of pockets as my heart rate slowed. This is the part where you wait.
The waiting ended at a toll booth of sorts. “ID please.” the stoic faced young TSA worker said, glancing up briefly to match the driver’s license mug shot with the bleary eyed traveler before him. “Have a nice flight. Join the line to the right.” he murmured as I shuffled off to the next little battle.
I joined a line of disoriented, partially disrobed people as we stood next to a moving counter filled with gray trays. As we waited, another captain of travel, part ambassador of government oversight, part pedestrian traffic cop, belted out commands like a prison guard to a band of newly arrived inmates. “Computers and electronics out! No liquids! Shoes off! Belts off! Nothing in the pockets! Everything in the trays!” he bellowed. He was angry, in the way that a man high on power, sure of his dominion, and utterly filled with contempt for his station usually presents himself.
Something in me wanted to fight back, to rail against the injustice and ridiculousness of his power hungry tirade at our expense. But the ten signs viewable in every direction made the dire consequences clear. “No abusive language. No violence of any kind.” it read. “Punishable by a fine of up to $13,910.” Why $13,910? Why not $13,000 or $100,000? Somewhere in that number is a story of other bureaucrats, on their own paper lined power trip. It didn’t matter. Unless I wanted to buy a car for the federal government I needed to keep my mouth shut and take the abuse like a good citizen of the Empire.
I obeyed. As I slipped my shoes off I muttered, “Thanks Richard Reid.” Then I pulled off my belt and held on to my pants to keep things respectable. I organized my bags, and electronics and wardrobe in the dirty grey bin, shoved it dutifully onto the little conveyor belt and headed to the body scanning station.
This wait was brief. “Step forward please.” the next stormtrooper barked. The disdain for himself, his job, and me were palpable. “Feet on the marks, spread ‘em, hands up over your head.” he said. I complied, the magic scanner whirred and I was relieved of the rest of my privacy as my naked form was analyzed by minimally trained workers in a closeted room somewhere nearby. I stepped out of the little time machine scanner booth. “You are good.” the stormtrooper quipped.
I shuffled through another mosh pit of partially dressed fellow humans and waited for my possessions to be cleared of terrorist or criminal threat. I stared at the exit of the little belt, waiting for my bags to emerge. I hoped they would make it past the little checkpoint where the good bags go straight and the naughty ones go right. Success! All three bins popped out, finishing their journey as they slammed into the bins in front of me.
I grab everything and made my way to a stainless steel table like you might find in a morgue. Awkwardly I fed my belt through the loops and slip on my sneakers as a lady beside me gets dressed in public. I grab my phone and check for my wallet. All is right in the world again as I make a beeline for gate B-5.
This might be the weirdest place in the world. Part prison, part bus station, part gateway to the world. We suffer the indignation of government searches, mind numbing waiting in lines, and contempt of fellow humans for the opportunity to rocket to far away places through the clouds. The suffering is worth it – usually. For this is a place where adventure begins, and a wide world is somehow at our fingertips. It’s a strange world we live in. Today I’m grateful for the privilege of going to a new city to do interesting things. My pulse is slower now as I settle in my uncomfortable seat. New Orleans awaits.