Me and the TSA, we get along fine. I have a strange desire to make their days happier—they usually look angry, but I imagine that’s what serious jobs do to someone’s face—coupled with the desire to be such an innocuous happy person that they will not search my luggage and deem empty water bottle or roast beef sandwich dangerous or take away the nail clippers I forgot to take out. I also want them to not pat me down; physical contact between strangers is icky. Moreover, by the time I reach airport security checkpoints, I’ve adopted what I call my travel mojo. In order to avoid Type-A-induced stress I try to be what my former roommate would call “chill.” I submit myself to the travel fates, obeying airport authorities like a passive cow just trying to get to pasture.
This was my mindset when I approached the security checkpoint at Southwest Florida International Airport last week. I took off my shoes, slid my purse into a plastic tub, and approach the metal detector unarmed. I peered at it—one of the big cylindrical ones—until the agent on the other side waved me through. It was an annoyed wave, a tired wave, a bored wave. I obeyed her taciturn gestures, avoiding annoying chatter, and stepped in. I put my feet on the painted footprints on the floor and raised my arms above my head like the picture on the detector’s wall told me to do. She waved me out seconds later, still silent.
I started to walk away, but the guard ahead of me, a young man maybe my age, closed a rope, blocking my way out. I’d never seen anyone do that before. Usually they hold up a hand to slow a person down or they say something like, “Come this way. I’m going to touch most of the parts of your body for security purposes.”
I raised my eyebrows as politely as I could, looking at the closed the rope with the obvious question in my face. His answering bland face of professionalism was marred slightly by what I would have called a smirk on someone who wasn’t a TSA agent. He was short, mostly clean-shaven, and reminded me of someone I might see sitting stag at a bar, making eye contact with any girl wearing a skirt.
Behind me the tall woman with the bright eyes was glancing over my body scan. Nothing showed on the screen, but the silent uniform was still holding the rope closed, staring at me. He looked at me like I had put my hand on his shoulder, like I’d asked if he had a moment to talk, so I tried to think of what to say—“Will you let me out?” “Should I go back through the scanner?”—when the tall guard behind us spoke.
I looked back at the rope blocking my exit, then at the man still holding it closed. He smiled at me before calling to his partner. “Are you sure? Maybe we should keep her here a bit longer.”
I stiffened. I wanted my shoes back on so I wasn’t standing there in my polka dot socks. I wished he really was the man I pictured him to be sitting alone on a bar stool making eyes at single women because then I could have rolled my eyes at him and continued on my way to the bathroom. I wouldn’t have had to stand there in the first place. I wouldn’t have sent friendly signals his way. I wouldn’t have “encouraged” him.
I didn’t even hear the weak joke he made as he opened the rope wide enough to let me slip past him. It was subtle. He was wearing a uniform. I was trying to be “chill.” He let me pass and I let it go.