“Business class guests leaving for Pittsburgh are now boarding at Keflavik Gate 26.”
It all started as we stepped to the front of the long line waiting to board WOW Airline flight 902. I felt entitled. I had splurged on expensive seats because my husband, 87, gets feisty if his legs are cramped or a child thumps him from the row behind. Besides, we both hate to wait in line. I thought the term “guests” they gave to the herd of cattle waiting transport was a nice touch.
The boarding agent took my husband’s documents from my hand and welcomed him warmly. He had misplaced and recovered his phone three times in Denmark, left a hat on a tour boat, and misplaced his jacket and his briefcase.
“Laurice LaZebnik,” she said after scanning my passport and boarding pass. I was pleased with the formal recognition and surprised she had pronounced my name correctly. “Yes.” I smiled.
“You have been randomly selected for a TSA security inspection,” she said in a tone detached from her former cheerful warmth.
“Me?” I said and thought to myself, why pick the most innocent looking person standing in this line. Okay, so maybe I’m not so innocent, but I certainly don’t look like a subversive agitator.
“Laurice, you were selected at random from our passenger list. Please go at once to the Security Service desk by gate 15.” Before I could ask, she said, “The plane will wait for you.”
My husband looked worried and didn’t know if he should come with me or board the plane. The agent made his decision. “Sir, get on the plane.” I handed him the bag from the duty free shop filled with Iceland’s signature licorice flavored whiskey and chocolate covered licorice candy, and headed into the herd.
Okay, I thought. I would make the most of this inconvenience. It might be something I could write about. This was the first time I had been pulled aside by the TSA in over 40 years of traveling.
I hurried through the line of disinterested “guests” boarding flight WW902 at Gate 26 and snaked through the courteous but aloof crowds waiting in Concourse D. I slid by Gate 15 and stopped before security headquarters. The working desk was easily identifiable. On the wall above it was a large red sign, but the counter was unoccupied. I was in the right place, but the security workers were not.
Two women with official looking name tags stepped around me, opened a swinging gate at one end of the counter, and busied themselves shuffling papers. I approached and explained my situation with the confidence I would put this inconvenient situation to bed and be back on my plane in no time. “Will you help me?”
A uniformed agent had appeared on the other end of the counter holding a cell phone to her ear. One of the two women to which I had been sharing my saga unsympathetically thumbed me toward the uniformed agent and went back to work shuffling.
I moved to where the agent still had her phone to her ear. My foot tapped unconsciously. I was afraid I would miss my plane and still surprised this was happening to me, an American citizen. I’m not used to being ignored and I’ve never been a patient woman. Two police officers edged to the counter in front of me and spoke to the agent. Her phone remained at her ear. The title on her nametag read, “Lead Security Agent.”
“Excuse me,” I said to her from beside the officers. “My plane is boarding and I have been selected for a random security check, and …”
The woman silenced me coolly with the flat of her hand and continued listening on the phone. I stood in line on one foot and then the other and waited. And waited.
The agent signaled with her finger to a woman now seated along the wall to advance to the counter. The woman looked to be 25 or 30 and stood flanked by the officers. The Lead Security Agent explained to her in English that her VISA had expired and she had to return to Moscow. I was close enough to see her eyes glass over. I thought she would cry. She responded in that high-pitched voice of a child who is scared that they would not let her back inside that country. She said she could not enter any of the EU countries either.
I grew interested in her plight and forgot about my own urgency for the moment. I wondered what this diminutive brunette had done that was so bad she was barred from Russia and all of Europe. My imagination soared. Spy? Smuggler? Human trafficker? Her hair hung in uneven strings, her complexion needed sunlight, and I don’t recall if she was wearing jeans. She did wear pants of some sort.
I remembered then that my plane was probably taking off and leaving me in its contrail. Me, without money or plastic. Me, without even a toothbrush. I ran my tongue over my teeth while I made my backup plan. I could make it two days without brushing before I would become totally miserable. I would sleep in the women’s restroom tonight if I had to. But if I were caught for some infraction of their law, what would officers like these men do to me, an American citizen?
The woman was now sobbing. At least I found a silver lining to my story. I could legally enter Russia and any EU country I wanted. I clutched my passport realizing how valuable a document it was, and realized how lucky I was to be an American. I was sure I would be welcomed back into the U.S. when my security cleared, if it cleared, and I was confident it would. I waited.
The woman’s situation resolved and she was escorted from the area sobbing. I noticed she wasn’t wearing handcuffs. When I turned I saw the Lead Security Agent disappear behind a door.
“Wait.” I shouted. “My plane is boarding and no one is helping me!” I didn’t like being ignored. I am an American, after all. Didn’t they know that? The police officer did not smile or take much time to explain when I ran to catch up with them. He answered on the move.
“You’re in the wrong line. You need to go to TSC security in the Customs area up the stairs.” My response trailed behind him in the air. “But, the stewardess at the gate told me to go to the one by gate 15.” I deserved some help for following instructions. I looked around for assistance. People remained uninvolved.
Okay. I can do this. I recalled that after we left customs on the flight from Copenhagen we walked down a staircase near the restrooms. So I followed signs to the restrooms, and then bounded up the empty staircase. On the second landing I stopped a boy, an airport worker not more than 17 or 18, and explained my predicament. “Can you help me? My plane is boarding. They will leave without me.”
He listened politely and responded that I should wait while he checked with someone on the next level. He came back and asked me to follow him back down the staircase to the Security Station by Gate 15.
The Lead Security Agent was back behind the counter and was still listening to someone on her cell. The young airport worker spoke to her. I think it was in Icelandic, because I didn’t understand a word. She set aside her phone and asked me in perfect English, “Where is your escort?”
I responded that I had none.
“What is your departure gate?” She picked up her phone and motioned for me to sit in a chair, the same chair the woman deported from Moscow had occupied minutes before.
Another woman appeared at the security station. She had soft brown skin, was dressed smartly in a suit with heels and was pacing. She looked lost. After some time a uniformed gentleman sauntered up, glanced around and motioned for her to follow him. I jumped up. “Are you the escort?” He nodded and motioned for me to follow.
“Have you been chosen for a random security check too?” I asked the woman. She nodded.
We followed the gentleman through the crowds, through the duty free shopping area, past the cafeteria, and up a staircase. “This is why I hate to come to the U.S.” she said. “It happens every time. The only reason I came this time was to see my children.”
The gentleman motioned us to follow him through a gate and had us wait while he stood before a man wearing an official looking badge who was speaking on his cell phone. We all waited.
The official put down his phone, looked up at us, and in an ingratiating tone said, “This is a routine security check required by the U.S. government. We will be asking you some questions.” His tone sounded rehearsed, like he had used those same words thousands of times before, words he had memorized form some TSA workshop he’d attended. The official came out from behind his desk and smiled. He wasn’t a tall man and didn’t look tough. I decided to give him an attitude break. The poor man must see hundreds of people every day and must be bored to death with his job.
“Please follow me.” He stopped before a black, windowless door in the wall a short distance from his desk. This was spooky. I had seen this movie before: the windowless room, the torture equipment, the unanswered screams. He knocked. Silence. He knocked again. No response. We waited. The door remained closed.
“Now I’m getting scared,” I told my fellow conspirator standing beside me. “If I scream will you try to find me?” I joked. That’s what I do when I’m nervous. Joke. She didn’t smile. “I’ll find you if you scream,” I offered. “Where are you from?”
“Originally from Pakistan.”
“I was told I was chosen at random. Do you think they chose you because of the Al Qaeda/Pakistan connection?”
The woman turned to me and spoke softly. “There’s got to be a better way of profiling terrorists than this. I work for the World Health Organization. And I’ve been living in London for years. Where are you from?”
“Clark Lake, Michigan. I’m American.”
A slight smile formed on her lips. “Do you have many terrorists living at Clark Lake? This may not be a random check for you either.”
The black door opened. A uniformed officer who looked like he had been awakened from a nap stared out at us. A second official, a woman stepped behind him. “This way.” He pointed to the table. Put your backpack there.” We both placed our bags on the table in the windowless room and awaited instructions.
“No, not you.” The woman pointed to my new friend, the alleged assassin. “Follow me into the next room. Take your bag.”
“Stand next to that wall,” the officer ordered me.” He had come to life and seemed to be enjoying his role as head interrogator. “Take off your shoes.” He slipped on blue plastic examination gloves and snapped them tight as I removed my footwear, following his instructions exactly. I wondered if he had worked over the woman who could not return to Moscow.
My examiner knelt down to inspect all sides of my shoes. He rubbed a piece of fabric around the sole and the Velcro fastener and inserted the fabric into a computerized machine standing against one wall. “I will now check your belt,” he said.
“Okay.” I pulled up my sweater. He bent down and ran the fabric half way around me stopping at the small of my back. I waited for questions. He ran the fabric swab around the other way.
“Now I will check around your neck.”
“Okay.” I leaned in.
The TSA agent inserted the second and third pieces of fabric into the machine. “You can put your shoes on. I will now inspect your bag.” He pulled everything from my backpack and spread it across the table. He ran a swab across my personal items and ran his gloved hand though every pocket. “You can repack your bag.”
I said, “Okay,” and did.
I watched as he waited for the last swatch to clear the machine that would determine if I was carrying explosives. “You are clear. You can go now.”
“Go? I’m not sure I know my way back to my gate. Can someone take me so I don’t miss my plane, if it’s still there?”
The interrogator gave me a perfunctory look, like he had heard that before a thousand times from other helpless guests. “Turn right when you leave that door, go down the stairs and follow the signs.”
I didn’t argue or waste time. I exited the black windowless door, galloped down the stairs and discovered a sign pointing to terminal C. I passed layover passengers biding their time drinking coffee in the largest cafeteria I had ever seen. I noticed an arrow on a sign pointing toward Concourse D. I cut around swarms of travelers inspecting bottles of licorice-flavored whiskey in the duty free area. I swept past lines of people waiting to board at gate 19, and others sleeping on the floor on backpack pillows near gate 22. Except for a lone agent standing behind a desk, I arrived out-of-breath to an empty gate 26.
“Has my flight left? I’m supposed to be on the flight to Pittsburgh. I have been waylaid by security.”
The woman smiled and told me the plane was waiting for me on the tarmac. She ushered me to an exit where a bus driver greeted me and told me to take a seat, any seat on the empty bus. I think that was supposed to be a joke. I sat near the door so I could jump out and run to catch my plane. I waited. Presently, the lady from Pakistan stepped on the bus and sat across the aisle from me. She seemed as surprised to see me as I was her.
“Are you going to Pittsburgh too?” she said as we headed for the purple WOW aircraft. Passengers on the plane glared at me suspiciously as I made my way to row 11 where a tall, purple-clad blonde stewardess was keeping my husband entertained.
“Where have you been? The plane has been waiting for you. What happened? I was worried I would never see you again.” I fastened my seat belt.
I unbuckled it when we were aloft to find my fellow Islamic radical. She was seated near the back of the plane next to a man who looked to be her husband. A smile broke on her face when she saw me. She held out both hands and clasped mine. “We made it!”
“Your wife is a brave woman, “ I told the man. “I didn’t hear her scream even once.”