SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 25, 2008

Hot in the Airport

 

It might well go without saying that I’m no fan of airports. They’re bad enough when you can see. If you can’t they become one of the middle circles of Hell. But a few trips back, I learned a little trick.

            Normally I’m awfully pig-headed about using the cane. I will if I have to, but I’d rather not. Depending on the circumstances, the cane can be an invaluable tool or an incredible pain in the ass. In airports, however, it works like a magic wand.

            After stepping out of the cab in front of the terminal, I whip out the cane, walk through the doors, wave it around once or twice, and suddenly find myself surrounded by customer service reps.

            This time it took about a minute. The first one reached me as I was fumbling my way along the edge of the maze that leads to the check-in counter.

            “May I be of assistance?” a woman asked.

            I paused and leaned on the cane. “Why yes,” I said. “Yes you can. I’m just trying to find the end of the line.”

            Well, that did the trick. A moment later she had whisked me past the hundreds of waiting travelers to the front of the line. None of that “waiting” shit for blindos! Normally I don’t care much for special cripple treatment, but when I’m in an airport, you bet your ass I’ll take all I can get.

            After I got my boarding pass, this same woman then walked me to the first security desk, She left me there and returned to her post near the entrance. After checking my (really frightening) photo ID, the security guard walked me the next leg of my journey through LaGuardia, and handed me off to another security guard, who walked me to the metal detector.

            Along the way she asked, “Do you need to be patted down?”

            At first I thought she was offering me a massage. Then I didn’t know what the hell she was offering me, but I didn’t like the sound of it.

            “I . . . don’t really know,” I said, and that seemed to answer her question. She did no patting.

            Instead of sending me straight through the metal detector, she walked me around front, sat me down in a chair so I could take off my shoes and empty my pockets in peace. She put my bag on the conveyor belt, and then walked me through the metal detector backwards.

            Right about that point, I noticed three things.

            1. Isn’t it just a little absurd that we all now have to take our shoes off in the airport because a single jerkass once tried to set off a homemade bomb that didn’t work? Think about that.

            2. If you’ve been to an airport lately, you know there’s a new policy in place demanding that any liquids, gels or aerosols be in containers no larger than three ounces, and that all such containers be placed in a “one-quart clear plastic ziplock bag” and removed from the rest of your luggage for separate inspection. Well, that rule doesn’t apply to blindos.

            3. By the same token, I’m getting the distinct impression that they simply shut off the metal detector whenever I pass through. If that isn’t the case, then our nation’s metal detectors are in mighty sorry shape. I’ve gone through with watches, lighters, cigarette packages, all sorts of things, and the damn thing hasn’t made a peep. Before I began using the cane, Christ, my fillings would set it off. I never once got through a security check without getting the wand treatment., But now it’s just a little too simple. My guess is the guards are trying to get me through there and away with as little hassle as possible. Who wants to be the one who’s seen frisking the blind guy?

            As I was putting my shoes back on, an old man stopped next to me and asked, “Do you have a pacemaker?”

            “Why no,” I replied. “No I don’t.”

            “Oh,” he said. “I do.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            With that, yet another security guard took my arm and walked me the rest of the way to my gate. It was all very simple and very quick. We’re warned time and again to get to the airport two or three hours before a flight. Well, from taxi to gate, It had taken me approximately ten minutes. Works like a charm, that cane.

            Once I got settled in, I began looking around at the other people waiting for the flight to O’Hare. As I did so, it started dawning on me that I had apparently booked passage on some kind of freak plane. There was a midget in an Izod shirt spouting meaningless business platitudes into his cell phone while clutching a gym bag. A middle aged couple to my left were wearing matching Heaven’s Gate jogging suits (you know—dark blue with white stripes down the side. Just the thing for a trip on a comet). They both wore white sneakers, and were both seated in wheelchairs. The rest of our fellow passengers weren’t much better.

            Two hours later, after they began boarding, I settled into my window seat near the back. Buckled myself in, got the magnifying glass out, shoved my bag under the seat and took off my hat.

            There was a man sitting in the aisle seat. The seat between us was empty. I wasn’t paying much attention, but I heard the man on the aisle say something. It was short and terse. Then someone else spoke.

            “Excuse me?”

            Still not paying attention, I kept staring out the window.

            “Excuse me?”

            I finally looked over to find an Hassidic gentleman standing in the aisle, looking at me.

            “Umm, yes?”

            He informed me that it was against Jewish law for a woman to sit between two strangers, and so was wondering if I would be willing to take the middle seat, so his wife could have the window. Apparently the guy on the aisle had turned him down.

            Granted, I’m hardly what you’d call well-versed in Jewish law, but this was one I’d never heard before. Personally, I get the impression it was something he was just making up on the spot so his wife could have the window seat.

            Nevertheless, I put my hat on, grabbed my bag, and moved to the middle seat. I’m one nice son of a bitch, I’ll tell you (besides, I wouldn’t have been able to see anything through the damn window anyway).

            Now, LaGuardia and O’Hare are two completely different worlds. In dystopian terms, if LaGuardia is reminiscent of Brazil (a little creaky, low-tech and dingy), then O’Hare is more like THX-1138 in its sterile severity. The moment I stepped off the plane the first thing I heard was a calm, reassuring woman’s voice over the p.a. announcing: “The current terror threat level is . . . orange. Because of the current security threat, we ask that you all leave—”

            Then it was cut off. Or just ended, one of the two. I looked around to see if other people had noticed, but if they did, they gave no indication. And nobody seemed to be scrambling for the exits.

            I shrugged, and began looking for my gate. Within two minutes I was completely lost.

            Of course I got lost a few days later on my way back to New York, too. I always get lost in O’Hare. It’s that kind of place. Customer service reps aren’t nearly so plentiful or on the spot at O’Hare.

            I was stuck in a desolate corner, tapping from wall to wall like some kind of crippled Bump ‘n Go toy, when a man asked me where I was trying to go.

            “I work in a shop here,” he said. “I’m on my way there now, but I can get you to your gate.”

            “That’s very nice,” I said. “Thank you . . . But I don’t want you to be late for work.”

            “Eh,” he said. “I am manager. If I am early, that is very good. If I am late, who is going to say anything? I am manager!”

            Made sense to me, so off we went.

            His name was Pedro, I learned, and he was from El Salvador. He’d moved up to Chicago twenty years ago to escape the civil war. He’d been working in that little shop in O’Hare ever since.

            Well, he got me in the general vicinity of my gate, dropped me off, and went to work. Unfortunately, he left me in a wide open spot surrounded by gates. I had no idea which one was mine, so I took a few steps until I found a post I could lean against.

            Then a chubby little man approached me.

            “Excuse me,” he said, “but what gate are you looking for?”

            I told him.

            “The flight to LaGuardia? Then you’ll want to step over here.” He led me a few steps to a chair. “You were standing in front of the gate for a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico—you wouldn’t want to end up on that.”

            “No, I sure wouldn’t,” I told him. “I mean, when I got off the plane, how would I be able to tell the difference?”

 

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