I knew it would be warm once I got to Louisiana, but as I left for the airport, Oregon demanded that I bring a heavy jacket, a heavy jacket which I knew I was going to hate carrying around once I arrived at my destination. It was only 28 degrees. Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, New Orleans taunted me with that same 28 degree temperature, only this time in Celsius. I was definitely looking forward to extending my summer after winter weather had already started settling in at home.
My fear here—as that is what I’ve come to write about—had less to do with taking my first flight in 24 years of life, and much more to do with navigating an airport for the first time in a post-9/11 world. I had, of course, heard all of the TSA horror stories: aggressive pat downs on children; the embarrassed bladder cancer survivor whose urostomy bag was ruptured during a search, causing him to become soiled with his own urine; and the young woman who dared to ask questions about the pat down just to be handcuffed to a chair, have her plane ticket ripped up, and then be escorted out of the airport by a dozen cops and half a dozen TSA agents. It—the TSA, that is—is an organization which has developed a reputation for being sordid beyond its few short years.
I waited in the cold, dark, Oregon morning for the train that would take me to the airport. About 50 minutes until sunrise. As much as I love Oregon, I struggle this time of year. The limited sun, limited further by the near-constant cloud cover, cannot be augmented by the yellow glow of a fluorescent bulb. I pace to keep warm—a trick you learn if you spend any amount of time waiting for trains this time of year.
Getting through security, while one of my major concerns, was not the only one. Just navigating the airport in general produced its own anxiety. Logically, my internal dialog should have gone something like this:
Hey, it’s an international airport, right? So they’re sure to get plenty of international arrivals, of which, at least a handful won’t speak any English. Given that, the airport has to be so simple to navigate that even an ignoramus could figure it out. There’s absolutely nothing I need to worry about.
I didn’t have that pep talk with myself, though. Plus, my experience with public transit showed that no matter how easy it looked on paper, there were always plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, usually through some fault of your own. Would I have issues at the ticket counter? Get lost in the airport? Get stopped by security? What would be the magic reason I missed my flight and got completely screwed over?
Bonus question: Which books had I checked out from the library that would land me on the terrorist watch list? Certainly the one about plant-based poisons would do the trick. (Did you know that raw asparagus is poisonous? Not deathly so, but it will give you a nasty rash.) As a gardener, I do have to know my plants. But I digress.
Hopping off the train and entering the airport—hooray for front door service—I was immediately confronted with a melange of ticket counters for the various airlines which serviced this airport. I didn’t know it at the time, but by the end of my trip, I would be glad that PDX was my originating airport. The large, bright signs hanging above the counters were easy enough to decode. I walked forward, not a short distance, until I saw the sign for Southwest. The line, at this hour, was non-existent.
Call me obsessive—I certainly do—because I certainly can’t get back any of the countless hours I spent researching online just to allay my fears. I studied maps of the airport to learn where the ticket counters were, where security was, where the bathrooms were, where concourse C was, where my gate was, and where all the restaurants were. I even studied the studied the menus for all of the restaurants so that I wouldn’t have to waste any time after I’d arrived—time which I might desperately need after I’d gotten through security. I studied, on multiple occasions, the TSA’s list of disallowed items, and the procedures for packing liquids: any three-ounce or smaller containers that could comfortably fit within a quart-sized plastic baggie. Did that include unmarked containers? Certainly, anyone could empty a travel-sized shampoo bottle and add any liquid they wanted to it, so having an unmarked bottle seemed irrelevant. I Googled for the answers before I committed to buying my Dr. Bronners all-in-one soap in “bulk”—the only way to get it in a three-ounce or smaller bottle. Yes, unmarked bottles were fine.
After researching the allowable dimensions for a carry-on, and measuring my framed backpack, it was too close to the maximum for comfort. I didn’t want to deal with checking a bag, especially with stories about straps being ripped off by careless workers or conveyor belts. I opted for a smaller backpack.
The whole ticket counter process was a cakewalk (unfortunately, not a literal cakewalk, as there was no free cake at the end). If there was ever a morning rush on a Wednesday, I had missed it. They asked for my name, handed me boarding passes, and then pointed me toward concourse C.
Next up: security.
I waited in a line of about five people. The first agent took my boarding passes and my passport, looked them over, looked me over, and then did the unthinkable: he asked me how I was doing! Was chitchat standard procedure for TSA? No, this was surely a rouse. They were watching for hesitation, signs of anxiety, or some incriminating response! Of course, that’s an exaggeration of the thoughts going through my head, but I’m still not sure if he was just being friendly, or if it was actually part of the screening. An introvert myself, and not having prepared for any meaningful interaction with a TSA agent, I was concerned that my Asperger’s-like “um, yeah, um, I’m doing okay” would get me flagged for additional screening. Apparently they’re used to dealing with anxiety-ridden people with no social skills (i.e. writers), as my response didn’t earn me an enhanced pat down.
My only complaint about PDX is that they didn’t have any noticeable signage to remind one about everything that needed to be removed/unpacked before going through security. If someone was explaining it verbally, I missed that as well. It was at this point that I was glad to have done an obscene amount of reading up on getting through airport security as painlessly as possible, as a recited from memory what stayed with me, and what went through security separately. Off came the shoes, the belt, the jacket. Out came my netbook and my baggie full of toiletries. And just as I was about to pass through the metal detector, I realized I’d forgotten to empty my pants pockets (note to self: move all non-essential items from pockets to carry-on before you have to go through security again). A friendly TSA agent saw me heading back toward the conveyor, and instinctively handed me a small bowl to put my phone, keys, and other assorted items in.
Why are they being so friendly? Aren’t they paid to be assholes?
I made it through the metal detectors without a hiccup. There were no body scanners or pat-downs, to my surprise (I thought both had become synonymous with airport security at this point in the game). I even almost walked off without the little bowl containing my phone and keys, and another friendly agent brought it to me.
Seriously, what is wrong with you people? You’re not supposed to be friendly!
Only after I got through security did I realize that I had forgotten to remove my wallet, with its metal snaps, from my back pocket. It took me until just now, writing this essay, to realize that my glasses are quite metal as well—though, I would have been too blind to make it through security without them. How much metal does a metal-wearing schmuck have to wear in an airport to get the TSA to give a flying fu—er, um, “care”?
I don’t know if I was more relieved that security was so lax and pain-free, or concerned that this is what they were calling “tight security.” I’ll go with relief, for the record. It’s pretty much assumed that airport security is a joke that is told only for perception management anyway. Don’t worry. The terrorists can’t win. The TSA will protect us.
All in all, it took about five to ten minutes to get my boarding passes printed and make it through security. I had even arrived the recommended two hours before my flight, not realizing how outlandish that recommendation actually was.
Confirm gate location: check.
Stuff my face with food: check.
Nothing to do but sit and wait. Though I did, while I waited, have a waxing and waning fear that for some reason I needed to re-confirm my flight once I got to the gate, and that I was actually going to get left behind on account of some technicality, even that fear soon passed.
As an anti-climatic conclusion to this whole story, my flight left on time, arrived on time, and experienced no problems along the way (other than slight turbulence toward the end of the flight which the pilot was overly-apologetic about, as if he could have done something about it). The only nagging thought which remained, after I boarded the aircraft, was “Do I really want to have a window seat? Would I rather not know how near or far from the ground we are?” Turns out that I quite enjoyed seeing the beautiful and varied landscape below.
First flight: success.
Of course, my flight home was an adventure all of its own. Apparently man boobs will set off a body scanner. I suppose mine could be considered weapons-grade. But who knew?
Or maybe MSY security just really wanted to feel up this hot piece of meat. We may never know.
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