Posted by: gdevi | July 8, 2008

Travel Tips for Troubled Times

One of my students told me today that she was held up at Kennedy airport last weekend for special security screening. She was livid. She vented and vented and then she said, “I can’t understand it. Why would they want to call me for special screening? I am white. I am American. They shouldn’t do that to us.” She said this quite naturally without any self-consciousness to her non-white, non-American teacher. I told her that I get pulled over all the time and that it is all part of making the nation really safe. I wasn’t kidding–my most offensive experience in getting searched happened in 2006 on my way back from Louisville, Kentucky after a conference.  It was so absurd that I wrote about it for the newspaper here. Here it is.

Travel Tips for Troubled Times. (The Express, March 1, 2006)

You know that handsome black dress that Spiegel’s and Peterman’s catalogs insist is a “must-have” for the smart traveler? Long, and loose-fitting, soft, smooth, suede-cotton blend, hides spills and stains, roomy enough to tuck your feet inside and fall asleep when your plane is delayed or cancelled? It is a great dress. Pack it with a couple of turtlenecks and you are all set to go.  Mine has gone with me to India, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Middle East.

But on a recent trip from Lock Haven to Louisville, Kentucky, this hardy, traveler’s dress turned out to be absolutely worthless. I arrived early enough at the Louisville airport for my flight back to Lock Haven after presenting a paper at the Twentieth Century Literature conference. Maybe it was the flap over the Vice shooting his hunting partner in the face. Or maybe it was the excitement over the sale of US port management to the government of Dubai. Whatever the reason, the terror-alert level at the Louisville airport was a bright orange. Every ten minutes, the PR system blared out that there was heightened security at the airport.

I got my boarding pass and walked over to the security check-in.  At the security gate, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff told me that I have been “randomly selected” for additional security screening. Step aside please, ma’am, the TSA woman told me. Wow, “selected,” I thought. Here is my chance to prove to the world that I am not carrying a bomb. Feeling grateful, I walked over with the TSA woman to a glass partitioned area.

The security screening posture, as you might know, is a combination leg-split/scare-crow form. So I split my legs and positioned them over their footprint mat, the painted feet spaced just wide enough to make the muscles on your inside thighs stretch that extra bit. I got my hands spread out at the shoulder, palm outwards.

The TSA staff talked the whole time she checked me for concealed weapons of mass destruction with the special probe that resembles a blunt sword. It beeped over the metal buttons of my jumper and the metal hooks of my bra. She pinched both the button and the hook with her hands to make sure they are not weapons. She narrated what she was doing in the manner of a friendly OB/GYN. A pity, she should have been a doctor.

“You are wearing a dress, ma’am,” she said. “I need to check your legs. I’d like you to take one step forward, bend your toe away from your body, so I can check the inside of your legs.”

My daughter takes karate lessons at the YMCA and I have seen her do this leg movement many times. Leg out, toe turned away from the body, knees slightly bent. “Keep your knees straight, ma’am” the TSA woman said. I got back in position.

The TSA woman stood behind me and inserted the blunt probe through my dress at my crotch and ran it down my leg. It felt slightly obscene. There was no bomb inside my left leg.
“Now step back, ma’am. Put your other leg out, toe away from your body,” the TSA woman ordered me.
She inserted the probe again through my dress at my crotch and ran it down my leg. Again, no bomb there.
“You’re all clear, ma’am. Now step over to Roy who will clear your baggage,” she told me.

Roy was tall and bald and he frowned as he checked for bomb residue inside my grey suit, blouse, stockings, and underclothes. He checked my toilet case and found only toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash. He spent a few minutes over my books and student papers I had taken with me to grade on the plane. He studied the cell phone charger. No bomb anywhere. “You’re all clear, ma’am,” Roy said.

What a difference it makes, I thought to myself, as I sprinted to my departure gate on a distant concourse. My body, my clothes, my books, my toiletries all read like evidence.

It turned out that I sprinted that last mile for nothing. The plane had left. “We paged you 3 times,” the United Airlines rep said. “But I was held up at the security screening!” I was in anguish. “We don’t hold planes for passengers, ma’am” the UA rep made the airlines’ position clear.
I got back home to Lock Haven one day late, after a rebooking, 2 delays, 2 missed flights, and an overnight stay in Chicago. Next time, I am driving from Lock Haven to Louisville.

But here’s my travel tip for these troubled times. Lose the skirt. Lose the dress. Wear something tight and fitting so they can prod, pinch, and pat without you losing your plane. What if it feels slightly obscene? Remember, as David Byrne said, we are all naked in the eyes of God. And on those special days when the terror-alert level is the color of paranoia, buck-naked and bare-assed is the way to go.

Lock Haven
26 February 2006

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