Vigilant, Effective, EfficientOnce again I found myself in trouble at the Los Angeles International Airport, and once again it was (arguably) my own damn fault. Last Thursday I flew Southwest to Providence, Rhode Island to testify in court on behalf of my dad, who was in the midst of a textbook “frivolous lawsuit”. I detest being late in general, and even more so when it comes to flying. I am the guy that gets to the airport at least two hours in advance. My adventure began almost as soon as I got out of my friend‘s car.

It is not even remotely illegal to wear sunglasses in an airport.

I was told by the Southwest skycaps at the curbside check-in that my flight was canceled. “What?! Why?!” I exclaimed. I was told by the first skycap that it was because of inclement weather in Rhode Island. He directed me to his superior, who told me that it was because of a mechanical problem with the plane. (Much later in the day I would be told that the flight was canceled because there simply weren’t enough people wanting to fly from LA to Providence that day to justify sending an entire plane on the route.) She took my luggage and got me on the next flight, due to leave for Phoenix in three hours.


Quite a bummer. Now instead of what I guessed would be an hour and a half of wandering the terminal I would be faced with two and a half hours of airport life. If you add to that the fact that I usually manage to grab about three hours of sleep the nights before I fly — the better to go unconscious as soon as the plane is in the air — you can understand why I’d be grumpy. I humped my golf clubs and suitcase to the TSA‘s first line of defense: The X-Ray Machine That Could Scan an Elephant. The boys manning this monstrosity were kind and quick. They did forget to tell me that they had finished bombarding my bags with radiation, so I had to stand there and wait for about ten minutes until they remembered I was there. But I can forgive that. There was nobody else in the area waiting to have bags scanned, so they may have just thought I was pleasantly fascinated by staring at them.

(According to their website the slogan of the TSA is “Vigilant, Effective, Efficient”. I almost thought it was supposed to be a joke. Those are maybe the three words in the English language that I would least associate with the TSA.)

This is where the fun begins. When I got to the airport it was 11 o’clock in the morning. I was wearing sunglasses. It is pretty damn sunny in LA most mornings at 11 o’clock. My rapt attention to the bag-scanning process and my overall grumpiness caused me to forget that I was wearing my sunglasses inside the airport. As far as I know, however, this is not even remotely illegal. It may not be chic or cool, but there are probably more people in LA that wear their sunglasses indoors than any other city on the planet, so it wasn’t exactly outrageous for me to not remove them. Unencumbered by my luggage, I sauntered towards the monolithic stairs leading to the “real” security line. This part annoys me.

You have a flight of stairs. At the top of this flight of stairs there is a security officer who confirms that the security officer at the bottom of the stairs has confirmed that you have a photo ID (link 1, link 2) and a boarding pass. It is physically impossible to get to the top of these stairs without having first been at the bottom of these stairs. There is nobody magically jumping into the middle of the stairs that could have avoided the security officer at the bottom of the stairs. I am forced to assume that the redundancy is in place because the top-of-the-stairs security officers have decided that the bottom-of-the-stairs security staff is untrustworthy or vice versa. And do I really need to get into a rant about how each and every one of the 9/11 hijackers had a valid photo ID and boarding pass? Unless both the top-of-the-stairs and the bottom-of-the-stairs security officers have photographic memories and have memorized the names of all potential terrorists I can’t imagine what the point is of being so fanatical about the whole double confirmation of boarding passes, because all they do it look at your ID and boarding pass.

There were actually four security officers at the bottom of the stairs. “Real” security officers are probably insulted that we use the term to refer to TSA employees, and I sympathize with them. On staff this day were four Latino women — girls, really, not one of them was older than 20 or taller than 5’2″ — who barely spoke English. Now, understand, that even when I am in a bad mood I am still one of the most cheerful men you’re ever likely to meet. That goes triple if you work in a terribly unsatisfying job like checking boarding passes and identification when you just know that bitch at the top of the stairs is going to double-check your work every time. I have worked in crap jobs and I always try to be pleasant. “Good morning,” I smiled at Alisha, handing her my California driver’s license and printed-from-the-internet-but-ridiculously-easily-forged (link 1, link 2, link 3, link 4, link 5, link 6, link 7) Southwest boarding pass.

She smiled at me, checked that the name on my license matched the name on my boarding pass, and used a yellow hi-liter to mark the boarding pass with what looked exactly like a one-inch line. (Do I need to tell you that they sell yellow hi-liters in just about every single store in America?) As she handed “my papers” back to me, she paused. She looked me in the eyes. She smiled. And then she said, “I can’t see your eyes.”

I raised my hand to my face to remove my sunglasses and stopped. She wasn’t smiling because she was nice. She was smiling because she was suffering from False Authority Syndrome! The poor child. In the most disarming, rational, peaceful, and kind voice at my command, I said, “You don’t need to see my eyes.”

“You have to remove your sunglasses, sir.”

“No, actually, I don’t.”

“I can’t let you past here with your sunglasses on.”

“Yes, you can.”

At this point she became obviously frustrated and confused. She looked at me as if I was a freshly-shaved Osama bin Laden in a sports coat and khakis. She became stern. “Take them off, please.”

“There’s no law that says I can’t wear my sunglasses in the airport. ma’am”

“Yes, there is. It’s a rule.”

“It’s not a rule.”

“It is. I can’t let you pass.”

“Yes, you can.”

She took my boarding pass and used her yellow hi-liter to turn the line into an X. An X of shame and potential threat. She called to the top-of-the-stairs officer, “Threat alert!”

No, I’m not kidding. Then she let me go up the stairs. At this point I expected to get into an argument with the top-of-the-stairs woman. I didn’t care. I had two hours to kill and I wasn’t in the mood to be pushed around by the TSA. But surprisingly LeVonda did nothing even remotely antagonistic. In fact she let me get into the extra short special security line! This was a bonus! Instead of standing in the “general” line with the hundreds of non-sunglasses wearing rubes, I got to get into the fast lane!

The fast lane was occupied by a mother and her three children, a very, very tall black man, and a guy that looked like the most average, generic businessman possible. I didn’t feel like any of them could in any way be as much of a threat as I was, but I guess you can’t judge a book by its cover. We merrily zipped through the metal detector and had our carry-on bags x-rayed.

The carry-on bag x-ray is my favorite part of flying and has been since long before 9/11. I haven’t gotten on an airplane without a pocket knife since I was a Boy Scout. If my plane goes down, dammit, I will not be stranded on a desert island without any way of cracking into a coconut! Ever since 9/11 I’ve carried at least two, and sometimes three, back-up pocket knives. I’ve flown about thirty times since then, and only one time was one of my knives confiscated. For this flight I had two, and they both went undetected.

But now a wrinkle! I wasn’t allowed to get my bags. A tremendously grumpy guy grabbed my bag, my laptop, my jacket, and my shoes and gave me the double-ultra shakedown. He went through every pocket of my briefcase. He went through my jacket. He looked in my shoes. (He did not, I should note, ask me to remove my sunglasses.) He never smiled. He was a serious TSA. There was a uniformed LAPD officer standing nearby as well, but he looked like he just enjoyed standing there and flexing and wasn’t very interested in all of the potential threats to national security that were being given the what-for by the TSA.

The TSA double-security checker was not about to let me get past him. He knew I was a bad guy. I had a water bottle. I wasn’t hiding it or anything, I just honestly forgot that liquids are dangerous nowadays. He held it in front of my face like it was a Nazi membership card that he’d found in my blazer. “You know you can’t have this, right?”

I almost — almost — said something snarky about how it was cool that he didn’t care about my Swiss Army knife or my Leatherman tool. Instead my reply was, “Oh, yeah, right. Sorry about that.” I reached for the water bottle, saying, “I’ll just chug that now.”

You would have thought I pulled an UZI out of my ass at this point. He literally jumped backwards and told me, “Don’t come any closer!”

I laughed. I did. I couldn’t help it. It was absurd. I looked at the LAPD officer and said, “Is he serious?” The policeman looked at me as if he was very sorry and trying to not laugh himself. He walked a little bit closer towards us but said nothing.

“Dude. It’s water. I’ll drink it right now.”

“I can’t let you do that. You have to throw it away.”

“What? Why? I’m going to drink it. I’ll drink the whole thing. Right now. Right in front of you.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s against the law.”

“What law?”

“You can’t drink in the security area at the airport.”

Now this is where I got mad. “There is no law that says I can’t drink water in the security area of the airport!” I looked at the cop, “Is there?” The cop said, “I have no jurisdiction where you are. You’re not on LA property.”

This seemed pretty silly to me. What the hell was he doing there if he wasn’t allowed to do anything? But whatever. He was a cool cop and I didn’t have any beef with him. I looked back at the TSA guy and said, “Show me the law.”

He stared bolts of fire into my skull and said, “I don’t have to show it to you. It’s the law.”

“Uh.”

Yes, I really did say, “Uh.”

“There’s no law, man,” I said.

He said — and I swear I am not making any of this up — “It’s an SSI and I am not required to show it to you.”

“What is an SSI? Are you kidding? This is America. You can’t enforce a law without showing it to me. I never voted on any law about drinking water in the security area of the airport. There is no such law.” I really, really wanted to ask him if SSI stood for Super Secret Information, but I forgot.

“I can’t let you drink this water.”

“Fine. Throw it away. I don’t care. It’s an unopened bottle of water that I am willing to drink right in front of you. But whatever.”

“I can’t throw it away. You have to throw it away.”

I picked up my bags and walked away.

For quite some time I noticed that the person who I assumed to be the top TSA guy was following me around Brookstone. I had a tail! I had a pretty good time making him think I was trying to “lose him” for a little while. Then my girlfriend called and I forgot about him and he was gone.

Good times.

(The jury returned a unanimous decision in my dad’s favor, by the way.)

November 2, 2006 Update:

I have gotten quite a few angry responses to this post recently. I’d like to note a few things about this experience:

  • The Southwest terminal was surprisingly slow that day. My actions did not cause any trouble for anyone other than the TSA.
  • I hate long lines at the airport just as much as you do. If at any point I felt like I was going to be creating a bottleneck I was prepared to just “drop it”. If you read what I wrote carefully you’ll understand that I was shuffled to a separate queue.
  • Matching my face to the image on my driver’s license accomplishes nothing.
  • Please note that I said that I was told that my flight from LAX to PVD was canceled because there weren’t enough people for the flight. I don’t claim to know anything about airline routes.
  • Several comments have noted that there are no direct LAX-PVD flights on Southwest. My original flight was, in fact, supposed to include a stop in Phoenix. I apologize if I was not clear on that point in my post.