Kindred Spirit in Flight

I have a whole routine down in the TSA Pre-Check line, to move things as smoothly as possible. Before I even make it up to the security counter, I’ve taken everything out of my pockets. My watch, wallet, keys, earphones—they all go into my jacket’s zip-up pocket. Except for my ID. That has to stay out. Also, my phone, because my boarding pass is on it. I come up to the counter, I hand over my ID, scan my boarding pass, zip on through.

Now the ID and cell phone go into my inside pocket, and then my jacket, roller bag, and laptop plop right onto the conveyor belt. I feed them into the X-ray machine, then stand in line, metal-free, waiting for my moment to step through the metal detector. I know which shoes to wear and which not to, which ones will set off the metal detector and which won’t. Usually it works.

Sometimes there’s a glitch. Sometimes I get “randomly screened” for the whole-body X-ray. I get it. I’m flying while brown. I’m used to it. I’m just glad to get through it quickly. The line usually moves fast. My personal best time ever from the moment I left my apartment to the moment I arrived at the gate was 30 minutes, with less than 2 of them spent at security. I can’t complain.

This particular morning is surprisingly busy. Never thought there would be so many at the airport at 5 a.m. Then again, it is a Saturday, so I guess a lot of people are traveling for the weekend—or, like me, traveling for a much-needed 2-week vacation after months of working, including the past 16 days in a row without a day off.

The line up to the security checkpoint takes slightly longer than usual, but I’ve got my routine down. I’m wearing a hat today—my Indiana Jones fedora that I always wear on hiking trips—and as an added step, I even make sure to take it off before scanning my boarding pass, so the TSA agent can see that my photo ID and I are a match.

I’m zipping through. My laptop bag, roller bag, and jacket are on the conveyor belt. I’m in line for the metal detector. I have plenty of time before my flight, but I’d love to make it through early.

I may have a routine down, but the lady in front of me clearly does not.

She steps through the metal detector and sets it off. They ask her to step back. She has a metal necklace on. I chuckle to myself, slightly annoyed. Rookie move, lady.

She takes the necklace off and passes through. Usually, at this point, I’d be sent over to the full-body X-ray, but maybe they’re feeling generous today—or just trying to keep the line moving. She turns back to me, and mouths, “Sorry!” I give her a resigned but friendly smile. It is what it is.

Again the metal detector beeps. Is there anything in your pockets, ma’am? On her left wrist is a metal bracelet. Total newbie. There’s always somebody in the Pre-Check line that doesn’t get how it works.

She struggles to take off the bracelet and hands it to the TSA agent. I glance at the almost nonexistent line at the full-body X-ray—the electronic strip-search booth—and feel the line growing behind me for this metal detector. Surely she’s headed there now.

The agent gives her another mulligan and asks her to pass through the metal detector again. Wow.

It goes off again.

She rolls up her sleeve. On the same wrist, the same damn wrist where her bracelet was, she has another giant metal bracelet. My annoyance has grown somewhat. Okay, seriously, lady, have you ever even flown?

She’s finally sent to the booth. I give her the slightest nod as she sheepishly passes in front of me. I triumphantly step through the metal detector. Let me show you how it’s done, lady.

The damn thing beeps. Great. The metal detector is in a crabby mood today. Maybe it doesn’t like my hat.

“Sir, please step over there.” No mulligans for me. Straight to the e-strip search, right behind my newfound travel companion with all the jewelry.

I’m used to this. I always tell myself that, hey, these guys are going to be down here and I’m the one up in the air. I never give the TSA a hard time. Be good, be nice, be professional. They’re doing their job and they don’t know me other than my face. Just get through and be good. Don’t be trouble and they won’t give you trouble.

The lady turns back to me, “They’re not giving you three chances, are they?” I smile. Of course not, I think.

“It’s because I’m a white woman,” she says. “It’s such bullshit.”

I smile and slightly nod at my new friend. I don’t say anything. She passes through the booth, and then so do I, my metal-free status officially validated.

We never see each other again, but I’m happy to have met her today. Those last few words, those words of acknowledgement, have made the whole experience worthwhile and have made her my kindred spirit in flight today.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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