Empty Pockets

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I was trudging through the security line at the airport one recent morning when a TSA representative started her patter. The TSA patter is familiar to all who have been on a plane in the last several years (a demographic which somehow never includes whoever is directly in front of me in the line). A TSA person who is not actively engaged in the screening/molestation process stands near the line and recites the TSA catechism to those trundling through it. “Remember to take the plastic bag containing your liquids out of your baggage.” “Remember to take off your shoes, jackets, and belts.” “Remember to suck in your gut when we take the naked pictures of you.” And so forth.

This TSA agent went through the usual litany, and then started to get specific. “Folks,” she said, “remember to take everything out of your pockets. Everything! Wallets, keys, phones, iPods, coins, tickets, passports, Chapstick” — and then I realized she was just naming things that fit in pockets. It wasn’t enough to tell us to remove everything from our pockets: she needed to actually list every thing that might be in them.

“– gum, candy, scraps of paper, good-luck charms, small stones –”

I’m guessing she got tired of having conversations like this:

TSA LADY: Be sure to take everything out of your pockets.
PASSENGER: Everything?
TSA LADY: Yes, absolutely everything.
PASSENGER: Our pockets need to be completely empty?
TSA LADY: That’s right.
PASSENGER: Even my wallet?
TSA LADY: Yes. Everything.
PASSENGER: What about these Tic Tacs?
TSA LADY: Yes. Take everything out of your pockets.
PASSENGER: Can I leave my cigarette lighter in my pocket?
TSA LADY: Is it a thing?
PASSENGER: It is a thing, yes.
TSA LADY: Then you need to take it out. There must be no things in your pockets at all.

And then the person went through the scanner and had to get patted down because there were still things in his pocket. This probably happened frequently, and the TSA lady grew weary of it. So now she preemptively lists every specific thing that a person might conceivably have in his or her pockets, in case the term “everything” doesn’t get the message across.

“– receipts, business cards, wadded-up Kleenex, fliers that someone handed you, tiny folkloric creatures such as imps and fairies, loose gravel, vials of serum or elixirs –”

Until recently, you didn’t have to take everything out of your pockets, just things made of metal. It wasn’t till they added the nude porno x-ray scanner naked cancer machines that you had to start emptying them altogether. The new machines, which were selected because they take longer and are less effective while also being more intrusive and humiliating, register any foreign objects in your pockets, or that you have hidden in your fat folds or orifices. And since those objects could theoretically be something capable of taking down an airliner — a bottle of water, for example, or a tube of toothpaste — the TSA needs to have a look at them.

“– handkerchiefs, paper clips, rubber bands, lipstick, napkins, cursed artifacts such as monkey’s paws, little paper flags from Hershey’s Kisses, mints, golf balls, arcade tokens, dryer sheets –”

I was reminded of this situation a few days later, when United Airlines canceled my return flight and rerouted me through Chicago instead of Denver. This was done preemptively, 16 hours before my flight was supposed to leave, because Denver had gotten a lot of snow and I guess they were pretty sure all incoming flights the next morning were going to be canceled, because airlines are so good at predicting things. Of course, I didn’t know any of this yet. All I’d gotten was a notification from United that my itinerary was now completely different and much worse than the one I’d paid for, and they don’t tell you in the notification WHY things have changed, because that’s none of your business. It doesn’t matter why. You’re not going to convince them to un-change it. Providing you with details, just for the sake of information, would only give you false hope that you had any control over it.

But I did want to see if there was a better alternative to the one they’d given me, which included a five-hour layover in Chicago that was going to make me miss the Oscars telecast and prevent me from writing the post-Oscars article I’d been assigned by one of my freelance outlets. So I called United Airlines, and the automated system told me that the expected wait time was approximately nine minutes, probably because a lot of other customers were also calling to complain about ruined Oscar plans and thwarted freelance assignments.

During this nine minutes, I listened to a recorded loop of a smug man reciting United Airlines propaganda. “Did you know that United Airlines was the first airline to reduce carbon emissions through the use of blah blah?” “United Airlines offers more direct flights from Blah Blah to Blah Blah than any other blah blah.” Just as with the airport security line, I was a captive audience. I had no choice but to listen.

(“– bookmarks, jewelry, seashells, claim checks, laser pointers, pieces of string, library cards –“)

I didn’t mind the TSA lady. But the recording was irritating because it was all about how wonderful United Airlines is, and the reason I was on the phone with United Airlines was to discuss how they had completely screwed up my life.

“United Airlines is proud to be a co-sponsor of a charitable blah blah that helps blah blah throughout the world. Please continue to hold so we can explain why we suck and you hate us. In the meantime, did you know that United Airlines is the single greatest corporation in the history of commerce? It’s true. Please continue to hold, allowing your resentment to seethe and your anger to metastasize into full-fledged rage. In the meantime, have you considered naming United Airlines a beneficiary in your will?”

The whole experience was a sobering reminder that when you fly, you need to abandon all hope of having any control whatsoever over any aspect of your journey, and also that you need to take most things out of your pockets.

“– rubber gloves, sunflower seeds, asthma inhalers, 100-calorie packs of tiny cookies, cigarettes, cigars, baggies of loose tobacco, bullet casings, buttons, shopping lists, spare aces for doing card tricks, carpet samples, marbles –”

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This edition of Snide Remarks is sponsored by “Rewind This!”, a new documentary about the rise of home video and the cultural impact of VHS tapes. The film premieres at the South By Southwest Film Festival this week. Sponsor had no editorial control over this column, and the author alone is responsible for its content.

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