Thursday, December 09, 2010

Genital arrangement & swearing: My TSA Abuse Story

The TSA agent stepped into my personal space, pushing his face against mine as I tried to undo my belt buckle, his seething voice raising into a roar:

"You're Irish, but you speak German? WHAT THE FUCK? EXPLAIN YOURSELF"

At 6"8 he towered above me, his red veiny face pulsating with rage as he looked down on me. 

"Get into the fucking scanner"

I gingerly took a few steps forward and --- y'know what, dear reader? I'm too close to this story, and I'm sick of reading blogs where the author's emotional bias creeps into the facts, so I'm going to defer to an omniscient narrator for this post and start over.


Sully had always fancied himself as an excellent traveller. A terrible cook, a mediocre boyfriend, but an excellent traveller. A seasoned veteran of airports, delays, reschedules and lost baggage, he made a point of maintaining a cheerful disposition in the face of any adversity, because that's what excellent travellers do. He offerred chirpy pleasantries and generously broad smiles to all airport personnel, and was always quick on the draw with the passport stashed in his back-right pocket, or the boarding pass in his back-left.

Even when his spirits were low, as they were on this day, the ritual of navigating his way through an airport towards the plane was an exciting adventure, mostly because he got to condescend to all the bad travellers who weren't as capable as he was. He tutted under his breath at those who set off metal detectors with obviously metallic apparel, mentally chastised those who made a fuss of themselves for no good reason, and generally felt superior to those who found the rigors of security theatre stressful.

Being the good traveller that he was, Sully was four hours early for his afternoon flight out of O'Hare airport. After checking in his luggage, he was left with only three hours and fifty-four minutes to locate his gate, so he set off towards the security checkpoint to start on this endeavour.

The queuing lane up to passport control was long, but empty, causing the TSA operative manning the station some mirth as she watched Sully shuffle left-to-right through the ropes, doing a great deal of walking but only barely inching towards her, all the while peering at her self-consciously out of her peripheral vision. She was a middle-aged blonde who spoke with a drawl that Sully thought didn't belong in Chicago, and slumped in her chair in a fashion that reflected the sleepy atmosphere of the entire airport that morning.

As she glanced at Sully's passport, he looked ahead. There was a TSA agent about the same age and build as him strutting around, looking about to see if he could do anything. Despite the low traffic at the security checkpoint, the only open lane to go through the metal detector was backed up beyond the conveyor belt, and didn't seem to be moving at all. Just to the right, there was a longer queue of airport personnel who were going through the full-body scanners at a much quicker rate.

As he had yet to have any first-hand experience of the backscatter Xrays, Sully was disappointed to note the sign saying "Employees only" in front of it. The passport-controller must have been reading his mind, or his face:

"Okay, you're good to go. You can step to the right through the body-scanners if you want - it's an employee lane, but you'll be fine."

Sully offerred his thanks, but was cut off by the strutting, younger TSA agent who approached the desk, and slowly enunciated:

"Das ist sehr langweilig."

The passport-agent furrowed her brow at him.


Her confusion was tangible. He bopped on the spot, thoroughly enjoying himself

"Oh yeah. Sie sprechen kein Deutsch"

The words hung in the air for a moment, then she turned towards Sully with a quizzical look.

Forgetting where he was, Sully volunteered his assistance.

"He said he's bored. In German. And he's teasing you for not speaking it".

After seeing how his face had dropped, she broke out into laughter, as did the passengers around Sully.

He had stopped bopping on the spot.

"That's true, this is boring, but I didn't want the passengers to hear it!"

He chewed on his words and glared at Sully, but then let out a hearty chuckle to show that there were no hard feelings, then bopped back over towards the full body scanner.

Sully felt a little ashamed as he made his way towards the scanner. Had he got so caught up in American gregariousness that he had overstepped its bounds? His hometown was a place where people wouldn't approach one another to ask the time, let alone discomfit a stranger tasked with keeping people safe.

As he emptied his pockets into the plastic tray, he paused at his passport. Once, when flying out of Pittsburgh, a TSA agent chastised him for carrying it through the metal detector. A month later, at the same checkpoint, a TSA agent asked him for his passport as he stepped through the metal-detector. To avoid doing the wrong thing, he held up his passport at the German-speaking agent and asked if he should put it in the machine.

The response was theatrical: "You're from Ireland, but you speak German?" He stepped in close and lowered his voice so no one else would hear. "What the fuck, man!"

The two strangers chuckled, and Sully was told to keep it with him at all times.

"So what part are you from?"

"Limerick," - Sully held off for any signs of recognition "the south-west."

"No way! I'm from Tipperary" he said, struggling to render the county's name with his American mouth. Possibly reading Sully's reaction, a big smile of knowing self-parody spread across his face.

"Well, kind of. You know what I mean!"

It was Sully's turn to use the scanner, the next TSA agent in the chain beckoned and cut short the chat.

Sully's new friend patted on the arm and wished him well: "Have a good one, man". It occurred to him that he meant it.

Sully assumed the position inside the scanner. Legs spread, arms overheard, it was a freeze-frame of a jumping jack, Sully thought, or at least, that's what his years-old memory of a jumping-jack told him. Sully straightened his back, sucked in his gut, and shook his genitals into a more presentable arrangement out of sympathy for the imagined agent whose morning coffee had surely been ruined by the wretched samples of humankind being delivered to his monitor.

The operator implored Sully to hold still. The machine made a slight whirring sound. Sully was conscious of his trembling hands so he held his breath. The whirring stopped and Sully was ushered out.

He stepped forward where a male and female TSA agent were blocking access to the collection end of the conveyor belt.

"Stand over there, keep an eye on your stuff" the male TSA agent said.

Sully walked into the V-shape that the filtering-ropes were arranged into, and placed his feet over the yellow outlines on the rubber mat, turning his back on the TSA agents. He braced himself for some feeling up. Thoughts raced through his head. What in or on my body could be mistaken for a weapon? Had my new friend set me up? How long does a full-cavity search take? I only have three hours and forty minutes to make this flight.

Thirty seconds later, Sully's train of thought was disrupted by the female TSA agent.

"Uh, sir, would you like to step through and collect your stuff?"

She had removed the barrier. Of course! The delay was just the xrays being processed, Sully realized.

Sully gathered his bits and went about his day, pleased with how breezy getting through security had been, and he made a note to blog about the TSA in a positive fashion to offset the torrents of abuse they receive online.

Little did Sully realize that nobody gives a shit about his blog.

1 comment:

Tommy said...

Awesome story, and thanks for posting! Will be flying home from the US next week and intend on opting out of the back scatter machines -- not because of the injustice or yaddah yaddah, it's just that I've had enough xrays in my life and I've promised my parents grandkids :)