December 10, 2003


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Move over, Mata Hari


It's official, O Best Beloved. Your friendly correspondent has edged into the ranks of international terrorism.

It all started out innocently enough, while I was engaged in a rare episode of benevolence, even. But soon I found myself in the throes of government-induced indignation, refusing to be a good little sheeple. Ah. I'm getting ahead of myself. Take my hand and we'll make the journey, step by goofy step, together, striding forth as a respectable citizen only to wind up skulking about as an enemy of the state.

Those of you familiar with the archives of this column know that I used to travel quite a bit for my employer. Though a general tightening of belts throughout the business world has curtailed my nomadic lifestyle in recent months, at one time I was on the road as much as one-fourth of any given year. My colleagues gradually realized that I possess a high boredom threshold and that I hold the hours spent in the airport lounge, away from e-mails and telephone calls and fax machines, to be about as close to idiot bliss as can be achieved on this planet. Consequently, I became a sort of utility infielder for my department, the substitute sent on other folks' trips if their kids got sick or their basements flooded. A suitcase packed for a generic business trip always sat in my guest-room closet, awaiting only a bottle of water or the latest Tom Clancy novel before I schlepped it to the waiting cab, and I was ready for a journey to some dismal destination that involved three plane changes and a thirty-mile jaunt in the courtesy van of some Bates Motel on the lip of the Hellmouth.

And thus it came about, just three weeks ago, that I agreed to conduct a workshop in marketing in Binghamton, New York, for our director of communications, whose father was hospitalized. She handed me a computer diskette, a couple pages of notes, and the book from which she'd cribbed most of the statistics for her opening speech. I spent a satisfying forty minutes on the Internet locating a ticket that cost approximately one-third the price of her non-refundable fare, called the hotel to reserve a non-smoking room, and took the afternoon off to read up on the latest craze in marketing techniques.

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, not a week passes without some subtle shift in what airline passengers are (and are not) allowed to do. Among other things, this dynamic situation ensures that the illiterate minimum-wage Neanderthals stationed at airport security checkpoints are at least one press release behind the latest change in policy. If one reads in the Thursday travel section of USA Today, for example, that fingernail clippers are once again permissible carry-on accoutrements for passengers, you may be able, on Friday, to fly from Pittsburgh to Elmira, with fingernail clippers in your pocket. Your counterpart traveling from Elmira to Pittsburgh, on the same airline, will not only be forced to give up his fingernail clippers before he boards the airplane but will also probably have to hand his shoes over for a manual search. The sensitivity levels of the metal detectors are never uniform, so that the reading glasses that pass through the gates in El Paso with not so much as a blip will set off claxons and flashing lights in Dayton. No matter how careful you are to pre-screen your possessions, it's only a matter of time before you set off some damned alarm someplace.

And alas, this particular morning, as I set off for Binghamton, I had not been careful. In my last-minute preparations, I had left out a very important step in my preflight checklist: the handbag check.

My handbag is fairly large, containing almost enough gear to get me through an overnight trip with no additional preparation, including a sturdy pocket knife with a 2-inch locking blade that I use to open boxes, cut hanging threads, invade child-resistant containers, pry caps off bottles, and otherwise ease my sojourn through the world. When I travel, I normally consign it to my checked luggage, but at home, it's in an outside zipped compartment of my handbag where I can find it by touch in the dark.

It wasn't until the TSA agent running the X-ray machine fished my purse off the conveyor belt that I remembered: Since I was making this trip with only my carry-on luggage, I hadn't seen my "cue" to strip down my handbag — the Ziploc bag in my garment bag into which I toss all my controversially sharp objects so they're easy to locate when I arrive at my destination.

"Is this yours?" the agent asked. He was actually a fairly bright-looking kid, about 22, wearing rubber gloves and a blond buzz cut and looking just a little embarrassed about having to stop a woman who looked like his grandmother.

We went off to a side table, and he told me that the machine had highlighted an object with a blade; did I know where it might be? I was a little flustered, and pretty annoyed at my carelessness, because I knew that my knife was going to go into a big bin of similar items, never to be seen again, and that it was going to cost me at least 35 bucks and a lost afternoon at the mall to replace it.

"In the zippered pocket," I told him. Whereupon he reached into another zippered pocket, the one where I keep my marking pen and flashlight, and after a few moments' poking around with an index finger, he pulled out a tiny, inch-long knock-off of a Swiss army knife containing a tiny blade, a screwdriver, a useless pair of scissors, and a detachable pair of tweezers. The entire object, end-to-end, was only about half the length of the object that had been imaged in the X-ray machine, and maybe one-quarter as wide.

"Here we are, ma'am," he sighed in relief, holding the offending object in the palm of his hand. A little voice whispered in my ear, Omigawd, he found the wrong one. I blinked and stammered, "I'm so sorry about that. I completely forgot about it." Which was the truth. "Do you suppose," I continued, "I could keep the tweezers?" He agreed, and held the knife out so that I could remove the tweezers from their slot in the knife's top and drop them into my pocket first-aid kit.

I could tell he was really relieved that he was able to cut the little old lady some slack and, having found the offending object, could allow her some dignity. I suspect his daddy taught him to address all his elders as "ma'am" and "sir" dating from the first word he spoke. "You have a good trip, ma'am," he told me, and if he'd been wearing a hat, he'd have touched the brim. He pushed my handbag back over to me so that I could make sure nothing non-threatening had been disturbed in any way, I zipped up the pocket, and we smiled sweetly at each other. As I picked up my suitcase and shouldered my handbag, the little voice chuckled, That was close. Followed immediately by an awed, Now we're really in trouble.

Because there I was, on the far side of the security checkpoint, carrying a clandestine object that I didn't want to surrender, and probably couldn't surrender at this point without causing a massive security incident. When a passenger is found carrying any object that should have been confiscated at the checkpoint, the entire airport concourse shuts down. Everybody who has already gone through security is rounded up and run through the checkpoint again, planes are held — or even recalled to the gate — and emptied, and sometimes the cops bring search dogs in. And the checkers, having demonstrated their fallibility, go into overdrive and start getting testy about mechanical pencils and hairpins. Nobody's flight takes off on schedule, and the offending passenger usually ends up being questioned intently for several hours by some idiot supervisor who's watched too many bad spy movies.

As a good citizen, of course, I was obliged to turn myself in anyhow. After all, if I had accidentally gotten a lethal weapon onto the concourse, anyone with nefarious intentions and a little bit of guile could have smuggled multiple box cutters, an Uzi, and four pounds of plastic explosive in under his kafiyyeh. It was my civic duty to come clean. However, as one of my trenchmates here in The Last Ditch once observed, our little bunker is populated largely by the failures of the public-school system. The truth was, I didn't give a rat's ass about good citizenship or what some hypothetical Arab gentleman was packing. I cared only about getting to Binghamton on the 8:40 connection from Detroit, and if that meant perpetrating multiple felonies, tough. Getting to Binghamton is hard enough without adding several hours of needless drama to the process. I proceeded down the concourse to my departure gate.

Upon arrival in Detroit, I changed concourses, leaving the huge sanitary A Concourse for a tiny B Concourse outcropping that was accessible through a series of tunnels whose walls contained a light-and-music projection extravaganza representing sunrise to sunset followed by the gathering and clearing of a violent rainstorm. (Really. The colossal absurdity of such a scheme of décor is matched only by the impossibility of describing it in twenty words or less.) Before the concourse change, I put on my poker face and asked a functionary behind an information desk what exactly was involved in changing concourses: Did I need to go through security again? Was there any place to get a decent meal once I left the A Concourse (decent, in this context, meaning non-fast food served on a real plate)? How long should I allow for the walk from Gate A to Gate B? The latter questions were window-dressing to hide the first, with the entire sequence intended to portray me as a slightly bewildered traveler trying to cope with unfamiliar terrain.

Despite the assurances of the info munchkin (or perhaps because of them; I'm never sure that their answers are grounded in reality), I even considered leaving the secure area in search of a mailing envelope and a Federal Express drop-off at the airport hotel accessible from the A Concourse. After consideration, I decided against it. I couldn't be sure I would find the supplies I needed to pull off that particular sleight-of-hand, since hotel gift shops tend to carry (or not) weird and unpredictable items; there were no stationers' supply shops on the concourse; and the hotel business center might or might not have been open on a Friday evening after 5:00. If I was able to get the knife safely into the safety of the FedEx system, well and good. If not, I was back where I'd started before I got caught, except I no longer had a decoy knife or an inept Boy Scout assured of finding it. I threw myself into the stormy tunnel, and three faux day-and-night cycles and one all-too-real Super Veggie Bagelburger later, I boarded my plane.

By the time I reached Binghamton, I was amazed at how relaxed I felt. Bearing forbidden items on my person, I had escaped detection by mechanical devices, psychological profiles, the presumed hazards of snoopy fellow passengers or zealous airline employees watching for guilty behavior or furtive activity, and just general bad luck, such as fumbling for my wallet and dumping the entire contents of my handbag onto the floor of the fast-food emporium. I had carried off a real criminal act, replete with threats of federal penalties, without a twitch.

The awful thing about the entire episode is that, at the outset, I was doing something that wasn't illegal, immoral, or even unusual three years ago. I watched as June Cleaver morphed into Richard Kimble inside my head. How's that for having your rights and your perceptions eroded through the influence of Polite Totalitarianism?

So now you know the truth, and I admit I'm unrepentant to the core. Except for the bagelburger, which I still repent of in odd moments. Furthermore, now that I've made a dry run, I'll consider going for a real felony. Maybe threatening to overthrow the government? No, wait, I think I've already done that a couple of times in these pages. I guess I'll have to do something really menacing, like tampering with the lavatory smoke detectors or conspiring to harm an endangered species. On the other hand, men of free will are about the most endangered species I can think of, and all that's left to do is stick a fork (or a pocket knife?) in them. They're almost done — no conspiracy required.

© 2003 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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