Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I’m on a business trip. I’m a nervous traveler, always checking my watch and re-checking my bag for my wallet, and my wallet for my driver license, and confirming for the tenth time that I have my boarding pass. When I’m in the security line I take off my belt and wristwatch and stash them in my bag long before I reach the x-ray and metal detector. Then I go to check my watch again and it’s not on my wrist and I freak out for a second.

The heightened security measures at airports are so obviously absurd and useless that they don’t bear mention in this—or any—blog. A few years back I did have an especially odd episode at the airport in Munich, though: I was made to leave behind the rubber tip from my gum stimulator and my toddler’s plastic-coated fork. I thought about asking the security guy if he really thought I was going to gum the pilot to death, or try to injure him with something designed for a small person with shockingly poor motor skills. But the security guy in question was carrying a machine gun and didn’t look like he had a sense of humor, and I sucked it up.

What with the economic downturn I’m a bit out of practice with business travel, and found myself this morning getting into the wrong security line at SFO—I was in at First Class instead of Coach. I had a pretty good idea where the right line was, but I held out some vain hope that if I engaged the guard she would take pity on me for being lost and would allow me in the First Class line. The trouble was, I couldn’t come up with the word “Coach” and was having trouble finishing my sentence. All I could manage was, “Excuse me, do you know where the line is for the, uh … unwashed masses?” I hoped the guard would have a sense of humor. She didn’t. She gave me a resolutely dour and humorless stare, and didn’t even answer my question.

A couple other guys were just getting into the line and overheard me, and one of them chuckled. At first I was gratified that somebody thought I was funny. But then as he said “It’s over there,” he gestured toward the coach line a little too emphatically, slicing the air with his arm as he pointed, like a referee. I realized his chuckle was actually born of the little extra pleasure I’d given him in the exclusivity of his First Class status. The physical distance between the lines is like the curtain in the airplane between First Class and Coach, separating the wheat from the chaff, and he seemed to enjoy banishing me from his line. I’ll confess I was slightly irked, but only slightly. After all, at least he did point me in the right direction.

As I started on my sad Coach-class way, the security guard finally spoke. “You have a boarding pass?” she asked. I produced it. “You can use this line,” she said. And so I found myself in the rarified elite line, right behind the First Class guy. He looked startled to see me. “They let you in the First Class line?” he blurted out, before (I suppose) realizing how petty this sounded. I told him it must be my lucky day.

That was the high point of my airport experience. From there things unraveled predictably enough. Unlike last time I flew, I did manage to remember the quart-sized Ziploc bag for my toiletries (if we American travelers carry our deodorant and toothbrushes in anything but a quart-sized Ziploc, then the terrorists have already won), but I forgot to take my laptop out of the case and was roundly chastised at the X-ray. I boarded the plane and in stashing my stuff realized I’d forgotten the cord to my headphones. The flight attendant said over the loud speaker, “After stowing your bags please step out of the aisle and let life pass you by.” No, that’s not what she said, but it’s what I heard as I smashed myself into my seat, knees around my ears because the airlines would rather have nobody to assist the crew at the Exit Row than to give these superior seats away for free.

But then I took a moment to relive my little victory at the security line. I’d really turned the tables on the established social order, hadn’t I? Part of what those First Class travelers are paying for is their separation from the likes of me, and yet—mere moments after snubbing me—this elite guy had to share a line with me. How did it happen? Perhaps the security guard, already beaten down by carrying out arbitrary procedures all day, decided her First Class passenger was just a bit too smug in directing me to my lowly place.

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