Dan Morey - Non-Fiction
The TSA Follies
by Dan Morey
All flights from Erie, Pennsylvania depart from the clumsily titled Erie International Airport Tom Ridge Field. Not only does this name fail to roll (or even crawl) off the tongue, but it is also misleading, as Erie International Airport Tom Ridge Field doesn’t offer a single international flight—not even to Canada, which lies a whopping fifty miles to the north.
What Erie International Airport Tom Ridge Field does provide is a total of three commercial routes to the very national cities of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, all in the sort of minuscule aircraft once used by Charles Lindbergh to deliver mail.
Small airports do, however, have their advantages. Thanks to easy accessibility and non-existent lines, it’s possible to check in for flights at Erie International as late as two minutes before takeoff, which is about when Mother and I showed up for the first leg of our European adventure.
As we approached the desolate security barricade, a TSA agent, exhibiting an expression of bored stupefaction normally associated with catalepsy, rose from his stool and motioned us forward. Mother breezed through the metal detector, while I fumbled with my shoes.
“Don’t worry about those,” said the agent.
He was a youngish fellow—overweight, but not offensively so.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
I retied, fed my carry-on into the X-ray machine, and entered the detector. A shrill beep rang out.
“Empty your pockets and do it again,” said the agent.
“I don’t have anything in my pockets.”
“Do it again.”
I did, and the detector beeped. “Stand here,” he said, pulling out his security wand.
“Hurry up, Daniel,” said Mother from beyond the barrier, as if I were intentionally drawing things out for my own perverse amusement.
I assumed the position, and the agent waved his wand over any potentially bomb-filled crevices. When he reached my ankles he stopped short.
“You didn’t take off your shoes,” he said.
“You told me not to.”
“I didn’t mean those kind of shoes. Everybody knows you have to take off those kind of shoes.”
“Don’t argue,” said Mother.
She was right. Since 9/11, airport security personnel (formerly a few notches below bicycle cops in the hierarchy of law enforcement) have taken on an alarming degree of autonomy. In Miami, I’d seen a wheelchair-bound octogenarian rolled into an inspection chamber for trying to slip by with a pair of tweezers. Presumably the captain was in danger of having his eyebrows plucked.
“Okay,” I said to the agent. “What do you want me to do?”
“Go back through without the shoes.”
I removed my footwear and attempted the detector a third time. The silence was glorious.
“Thank God,” said Mother.
“Not so fast,” said the agent. “You have to put those shoes through the X-ray.”
I went back—the very portrait of obedience—and placed my shoes on the conveyor. The agent ambled over and switched on the belt, which moved roughly an inch before suffering a mechanical infarction. He jiggled the controls. Nothing happened. The final boarding call for our flight crackled over the loudspeaker.
“We have to go,” said Mother.
“For God’s sake,” I said. “Keep the shoes. I have another pair.”
I stormed through the portal and the metal detector emitted the foulest blurt I’d ever heard.
“Whoa,” said the agent. “Back it up.”
“But I just went through ten seconds ago! It didn’t beep!”
“Please remain calm, sir.”
This “sir” business was troubling. I’ve noticed that the sudden deployment of formal address in low-level security types usually foreshadows a fascist act of some sort.
“I’m perfectly calm,” I assured him. “I just want to know what’s going on.”
“Might be a machine malfunction,” he said. “I’ll have to remove you for additional screening.”
“Yes, sir. To the holding cubicle. We’re at that stage in the protocol.”
He picked up his phone and started to dial.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “There must be something—”
Just as I was about to offer him a substantial bribe, the X-ray conveyor jolted back to life.
“Jesus,” he said. “That thing is gonna give me a goddamn heart attack one of these days.”
“The plane. Is. Leaving,” said Mother.
“Hey, your shoes are okay!” said the agent in a jolly tone, as my oxfords tumbled through. “But we still need to screen you.”
“Couldn’t I try the detector again?”
“Can’t allow that, sir—protocol.”
“Please. There’s only one flight to Philly today. If we miss it, our whole trip is ruined. I’m not out to hijack a plane. I just want to take my poor, tired, overworked mother on the Grand Tour. Look at her. She endured fifty years of thankless labor, and all she ever wanted in return was for someone to take her to Europe. It’s not too late. We can still make this happen.”
He glanced at Mother, who had put on her most downtrodden face, and reflected for a moment.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll give you one more chance. But if it beeps, we’re screening you.”
I entered the detector slowly, with my eyes closed, whispering a prayer to Mercury, Roman god of expedient travel. Miraculously, there was no beep. The agent, already reaching for his newspaper, waved me through with an indifferent flick of the wrist.