September 19, 2010

Safety and Security in Our Nation’s Airports


Ryan Knighton is a sharp and funny writer I admire a great deal. He also has the same eye condition I do (i.e. “blindness”). We’ve become good friends over the years, Ryan and I, but there are a few things we don’t quite see eye to eye on (cheap pun only partially intended). Traveling, for one.

            Every time I talk to Ryan, it seems, he’s just come back from Australia, or Texas, or some small island off the coast of Alaska. Either that or he’s preparing to head off on a trip to Bulgaria, or Tunisia, or Constantinople. In itself, this is a good thing for me, as he always comes back from these places with an insane story to tell. In fact he’s presently working on a new book about his assorted adventures as a blind man set loose in strange places.

            Me, I don’t go in much for traveling. I don’t even like going into Manhattan. Hell, I don’t like walking that one block to the drug store, but sometimes it becomes necessary. Likewise, even though I don’t like it, every once in a while it becomes necessary for me to fly off somewhere.

            I have no problem with flying itself—just everything that surrounds the actual “flying” part of the trip. Everybody feels that way, but trying to navigate through the simple mechanics of the pre-flight process becomes all the more tricky when you can’t see. At least it does for me. But over the years, I’ve learned two very helpful tricks.

            (Ryan, being a man with pride and self-respect, prefers to avoid these things. I, on the other hand, am unburdened by annoying trifles like “self-respect,” so I grab what I can.)

            I’ll use my most recent trip as an example. Last June I had to fly from LaGuardia to Green Bay. Simple as pie. But somehow it never is.

            Trick No. 1: The moment I first tap my way into the terminal, I try to do something. Anything. I try to find the check-in line, or use one of the automatic check-in machines. I’m not very good at doing things, so my bumblings and fumblings quickly draw the attention of ever-vigilant airport personnel. This time I was looking for the end of the check-in line, and not having very much luck. There was about a fifteen-second lapse between my entering the terminal and a red cap materializing next to me, asking if I needed help. I always let him know that it might be a good idea.

            On that particular day, there was at least an hour’s wait for the check-in counter. That line went on forever. But the red cap simply took my arm and danced me to a window in front of everyone, neat as can be. Nary a one of those hundred or so poor fuckers in line said a word (at least not loud enough for me to hear). It was all for the best, believe me—you don’t want a blind guy in front of or behind you on a long line. We never know when the line’s moving, or when we’re supposed to stop.

            Trick No. 2: After handing me the boarding pass, they always offer a wheelchair to get me from the check-in counter to my gate, and I always accept that, too. For a long time I refused, insisting that I’d be just fine walking, thanks. I felt weird being pushed along in a wheelchair when I was neither elderly nor crippled. It seemed demeaning and I felt like a fraud. But I got over it. I’ll tell you—people may no longer get out of the way of a man with a white cane, but they sure as hell jump when they see a wheelchair charging at them.

            I’ve learned an awful lot about the guys who zip me along in wheelchairs—their plans to go to business school, their dreams of moving out of their parent’s house some day, what they think about pushing people through airports in wheelchairs. Apparently they all love it.

            These days (as you’re all well aware) the first stop, even before the regular security screening, is the Homeland Security checkpoint. During this last trip, a pleasant middle-aged woman was at the desk.

            “Boarding pass and photo I.D.,” she said.

            I handed over the boarding pass, then fumbled with the cane and pulled out my wallet, slipping the license out. She scrutinized it for a minute.

            “This expired in 2000,” she said.

            Instead of playing stupid, which would’ve been smart and very easy, I told the truth.

            “I know,” I told her.

            “I can’t accept expired identification.”

            “But that’s a better picture.”

            “I need to see some other I.D. Something current.”

            I sighed heavily and reached for my current non-driver’s I.D. I know everyone complains about their driver’s license photo, but even my mom winces at this picture. Not only did I have hair down to the middle of my back, but the photo left me looking quite profoundly retarded. I was also drunk when it was taken. Whenever I’m required to show the photo to some official type, they always disappear with it for a few minutes, I presume to share it with their friends in the back room.

            That’s why I keep the old I.D. around. Don’t see what the problem is, so long as all the pertinent information matches. But it apparently mattered to national security officials, so I handed it over. At least she didn’t evacuate the terminal because I tried to pull a sneaky.

            Apparently due to jurisdiction issues, the guy who pushed me from the check-in to the Homeland security desk had to return to his post, abandoning me there to sit patiently until someone else showed up to push me the rest of the way.

            The security screening is where the wheelchair becomes a great help. Before I started taking advantage of the wheelchair—this was, needless to say, in the years prior to the attacks—I had a tendency to just stroll merrily past the metal detector. Just didn’t see it there, and toddled on my way until I was grabbed.

            Well, that wouldn’t play real well these days, so I’m glad to have someone there who not only knows when to stop, but who scoots me once again to the front of the line.

            The one problem is that this is the point where I’m required to stand up out of the chair in front of a long line of clearly amazed people. I’m always tempted to exclaim something (“Mein Führer! I can valk!”)—or better still, stand for a second, then collapse into a heap.

            I generally don’t, though. There are enough things to think about, like whether or not some dullard’s going to ask to examine the cane, or some sharp’s gonna snatch my wallet out of the little plastic box before I can find it.

            Getting a blind guy through the metal detector is another operation, this time requiring two people. The kid who was pushing the wheelchair at that point usually stands behind me. He positions me at the entrance to the scanner and points me in the right direction. A security officer stands at the exit, ready to catch me. At the word, the kid gives me a shove, and the security officer grabs my arm and yanks—both of them praying I don’t set off the alarm.

            I always do, and I always need to be led off to the side for the wand treatment.

            At least that used to be the case. These days I swear they just shut off the alarm before pushing me through. My guess is they didn’t like the idea of all those other passengers marching past and staring as some blind guy in a wheelchair gets the third degree from The Man.

            It’s no fun for me, either, but at least the wheelchair gives me a convenient place to put my shoes back on when it’s all over with.

            After that, it’s smooth sailing on to the gate. For me, anyway. It wasn’t until much later that someone informed me that I was supposed to be tipping these guys.


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