Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I'm the guy with the apple over his face

Preparing for a recent flight out of Bradley, in Windsor Locks, I was treated to the updated homeland security scan.

Obviously we are not terrorists, nor did we want any on board. So we followed orders.

My family was first directed through a "sniffer," a machine that puffs air at you to detect traces of explosives. No big deal.

Then we had to stand with our arms extended, palms up, while personnel went over us with sensitive metal detectors. It detected the wire embedded in my sternum during heart valve repair surgery, and, of course, the zipper on my pants.

The security guy declined an offer to view my sternum scar, which I would have happily shown him. I did have to turn my belt buckle and pants over, to make sure, I'm not sure what for.

Again, no problem. Seemed like standard stuff.

Then, I was in front of a counter, behind which stood a woman, who had all of my personal items: my key ring and pill case, my wallet, my cell phone, pens, change, and a few other odds and ends.

The woman started to chat with me, as if to pass the time pleasantly. That's a pill case. What kind of pills? she asked. Prescription pills from home that I use to quell my claustrophobia inside airliners, I said. Alprazolam. Xanax.

In a hushed voice she said she knew someone who got hooked on Ambien. "So sad," she said. I declined to explain to her that Ambien and Xanax are not similar or similarly used. What was going on?

It began to dawn on me that she was interviewing me, looking for signs of something. Maybe I seemed nervous, or not nervous enough.

Then we came to my wallet, which she opened without concern. She leafed through some family photos, my insurance card, and an ancient press card I'd never bothered to remove. "Oh, you work at a newspaper," she said. How nice!

Used to, I replied.

Then she pulled out a pack of assorted do-it-yourself business cards, including a version containing a Magritte painting of a man's face obscured by an apple. "Is this you?" she asked, laughing.


Then she pulled out a battery powered, credit card-sized magnifying glass that I had stuck in there and never used. This was what they suspected was a calculator. What's wrong with a calculator? Not sure.

Having answered that question, she gave my possessions back to me and we flew to Chicago on an Embraer jet.

No one I've spoken to has ever had his or her wallet opened and explored. Maybe she was new and extra zealous? I don't think so. Maybe she wanted to see my reaction to her pawing through my most personnel papers, doctor's numbers, bank statements from ATMs, a card of assorted passwords.

She crammed the looking glass thing back in the wallet and we were on our way, but the whole business left me with an uneasy feeling that would not lift. We were told that our family had been chosen at random for special attention.

Which is the dumbest, least effective way to catch would-be terrorists. Perhaps the random checks are intended to be a deterrent. That doesn't seem to make sense either.

The trip back to Bradley was uneventful.

But I still can't shake that feeling.

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