"Your mother is ashamed of the day she vomited you from her womb," chirped the smiling stranger in front of me, as he attempted to stab me in the face with his driver’s license.
"I said 'good morning!'" Ah. This happens a lot. Working with the TSA, I have learned to read all the subtle mannerisms of people. From microexpressions to body language, from fidgets to flirts, I was given a crash course in learning how to listen to what someone says, and translate it into what they really mean. It turns out, I'm pretty good at it, and I have refined my talents beyond the brief seminars the agency provides. It has now become so second nature to me that a routine salutation from a passenger is indistinguishable from a declaration of outright contempt.
"Sir, I will need to see your ticket, too."
"Oh, yes. Of course." He produced from his jacket a creased ticket folder. I never understood how they get so creased. The the ticket folder was new and clean 10 minutes ago at the check-in counter, and now a journey of 532 steps later, it appears world-weary. It is fitting. Every fixture of this airport is world-weary. I looked at his ticket: SCHULTZ/ROBERTM. I smile. He's heading to Newark, and you cannot spell Newark without ‘W’. I made a scribble on his ticket, which isn't my signature, to signify that I knew that he wasn't a terrorist, which I didn't, to maintain the pretense that it even matters to me, which it doesn't. In theory, I am supposed to be looking for fake boarding passes, and known terrorists. I should be familiar with what flights are running out of the airport, as well as the watch list, and be on the lookout for people that shouldn’t be here, or who are on flights that do not exist. I am your first, last and only line of defense against infiltration by unarmed terrorists who do not know how to use Google.
At some point, I stopped caring about that. What matters to me is ‘W’. I checked his name and destination for altogether different reasons: I am attempting to play the alphabet game with passenger names and destinations. His destination has given me a ‘W,’ a respectable letter, but I am frustrated by what might have been. Had SCHULTZ/ROBERTM been several places further back in line, I could have grabbed the ‘W’ from the people ahead of him, had a shot at a convenient YASMIN/MAXINEC, and then exploited him for his precious ‘Z’. As it was, he was useless to me. I briefly considered whether it would violate my rules to conjure up some vital TSA regulation demanding that he go through the line again. But, given enough time, I was sure a 'Z' would present itself, and time is something I will never fall short of.
I handed him back his ticket folder and ID. He told me to burn in hell, boiled for eternity in my own excrement, by way of a simple "thank you." At some point, I stopped caring about that, too.
I won’t pretend that I signed up honestly believing that I would catch terrorists. Still, I had hoped. I would dream that, with my careful study of outgoing flights, watch lists and my own uncanny talent for microexpressions, I would spot a terrorist, and I would call him out. I would protect America from him, and my friends and family and countrymen would praise me, and I would have their respect for the rest of my life.
We all grow up, and our dreams change. After my first few years, and all the passengers and meetings and shifts that went with them, I began to dream that I would discover the terrorist, but I would wave him right on through. He, too, would be a master of microexpressions, and he would know that I know. We would share a brief moment of mutual, yet silent, respect. He would board his flight, and later, as he and his 114 fellow passengers claimed their places in history, I would consider the scores just a little bit evened. But as the rivers of passengers to their innumerable flights passed, the time continued to pass with them, and one day, I simply stopped dreaming.
Mary came over. She is my supervisor. The word is unfortunate. It implies that she watches from above; in reality, she is an angry dwarf of a woman, and she glares spitefully from underfoot. She is the person you talk to when you want to complain about your TSA experience. Frankly, I am puzzled when people demand to speak to my supervisor. I spend the better part of my day avoiding the ordeal. If I am rude, it is simply because I am dispassionate. If Mary is rude, it is because when she goes to bed every night, she records a tally of the number of days she has ruined. If she does not meet her quota by the end of the month -- and this quota goes up every year -- then the next day she comes in eager to make up the difference on the staff.
"Go watch the screens. I am not convinced that you are literate enough to read tickets." Unlike with most people, what Mary says and what I hear are identical. No translation between the social pleasantries and raw humanity is necessary. She is one of the few people nasty enough to say precisely what she means, precisely the way she means it.
I trudged off without reply. I have learned anything I do or say can and will be used against me at my next performance review. In April, my request for a $0.35/hour pay increase was denied due to "wanton and excessive use of adverbs." And so, I accepted that my alphabet game was lost, and I punched in the keycode to the locked security office -- the digits on the pad well-worn by now -- and took my place behind the screen. In an ordinary workplace, where employees still had the desire, or even the capacity, for laughter, they might call this room "the gentleman's club," or otherwise make light of the fact that we can literally see underneath passenger clothing. And I must admit, I was just a little excited when I heard about it.
The reality was, as it always is, disappointing. I remember my first shift on the screens, trying to find stimulation in the gray humanoid shapes on a screen, decorated by the contents of their pockets. It was, as it always is, futile. The humiliations of this job have explored the development of the human spirit in reverse, starting by insulting our most recent develops and inching its way towards the most basic demands of all mammalian life. It began by stripping me of social standing and pride; then, my ambition. In time, I learned that the angry alpha-male tone I was required to take with passengers was designed to break the delicate nuances of human social interaction, robbing me of any ability to communicate with them.
As the humiliations of my career piled on, I simply learned to live as a man in his own mind, and went from a social animal to a creature of solitude. And inside my own head, I found sanctuary. This scanner was the agency’s response, and with it, they found away to take away my last bastion of humanity. In my first month with the scanner, I saw as I walked into the office a gorgeous masterpiece of a woman, who invited the world around her to tour the entire visible spectrum from her red hair to her purple-accented heels. My heart raced, and I waited expectantly in my seat before the screen. And moments later, there she was: colorless and bland, her brilliant accessories reduced to nothing more than dim interruptions of a crude, woman-shaped amoeba.
I took a long, introspective stroll through the ruins of my psyche, and I discovered that my most basic desires had been cauterized. I had inherited from my billions of years of ancestors the desire to have sex – but the dull form on the screen finally robbed me of my birthright. My years in this purgatory had at last rendered me an emotional eunuch.
But that had been years earlier, and the humiliations piled on yet higher and deeper. Now that same TSA officer was in that same chair, watching that same screen, but the room now contained none of that painful false hope. I eyed the amoeba. It was male, I decided, but he had been poorly endowed. He had reflective paint on his chest. It said "fuck you." Ahh -- defiance. The fresh blood in TSA would take the bait. They would go out, make a scene, and throw him in holding for a couple hours. And, when the hours had passed, he would book a new flight.
That flight would board, and he would be on it. It would land, and he would get off in his new city. He would tell his friends in that city about his experience, and it would excite them for perhaps a week, and for that week he would feel well-endowed. After that, he would move on and, eventually, forget. He would meet a wonderful girl, who did not mind the little things, and they would fall in love, and they would fight, and they would make up, and they would get married, and they would have children. Those children would be loved, and their father would tell them lots of stories. None of them would be about airports.
But the TSA officer would still be here. And he would be here the next day. And the day after. Hundreds of such days would pass, and when those were gone, thousands more would follow. And each day would bring another young man, another brazen defiance of authority, another encounter, and another return to the crushing monotony of the screening room, but somewhere, lost in one of those days would be the novelty of fighting.
In all my inspections and observations, I have learned that once the days are passed, they are passed forever. I cannot go back into them and find what I have misplaced. So I do the only thing I can: I share my world with you, passenger. When you pass through our hallowed metal detector, I make it my mission to help you understand this momentary pitstop in purgatory that you make on your journey from one interesting place to another. I can only hope that you savor its pointlessness, its numbness, and can make as much of it as I have.