After Bill dropped me off at the International Terminal in San Francisco, I made my way to the security lines. I had already printed my boarding pass. I had plenty of time — three and a half hours before the flight.
I had packed everything for my five week South American trip in a carry-on and a personal bag. They weighed, approximately, two tons. The lines weren’t long; soon, I was removing my shoes and getting ready to go through the X-ray machines.
The body scan was the first problem. The Security officer stopped me — I could tell she was rechecking the screen — then asked me to go through it again. I did, and this time she brought over another Security officer. He asked, “Do you have anything in your pockets?”
Had I forgotten something? I patted myself down — my pockets felt empty.
The officer put on a fresh pair of gloves. He asked me questions that reminded me of what young people are expected to ask a love interest before going to second base. “I’m going to touch your front pockets.” (OK.) “I’m going to touch the front of your shirt.” (OK.) “I’m going to touch your behind and pat your legs down.” (Okey-dokey.) As he did so, I looked at their screen — the scanner had highlighted my right front shirt pocket, both front pockets of my jeans, and my right back pocket.
They were empty.
He removed his gloves and put on yet another pair of gloves. “I’m going to swab you.”
(Insert joke here about questions re: love interests…)
He opened a fresh kit and swabbed my hands, front and back, then the front of my jeans then slipped it into the machine that detects traces of materials used for making bombs. This part was easy. I waited for the machine to beep “Clean” — and I was good to go.
By this time my two bags and the multiple bins with my Macbook, iPad, shoes, phone, belt and whatnot had been stopped while going through the machine. The Security officer — a tall Latina with a severe expression — had her hand in the air. She asked the line, “Who does this bag belong to?”
I pointed at my bag and she nodded Yes. I said it was mine.
She grimaced and said, “We need to have a loooong talk.”
I thought, “Jesus…” What had I overlooked?
My mind ran through the past events of being stopped: the pearl-handled pocket knife my father had given me when I was nine that I had forgotten to take out of my pocket. This was years ago. (They kindly let me go back, buy a padded envelope and mail the knife back to myself.) Had I left a corkscrew? That had happened twice before.
She could see the look of distress on my face. She said, “Get yourself together, and then meet me over here.” I put on my belt, but my shoes — a pair of hiking sneakers that don’t slip on easily — were taking a long time.
I heard her ask someone, “Is this your bag?” I looked up — she had snagged another one. She said to him, “We need to have a loooong talk.” Apparently, this was her ‘We’ve Got A Problem’ Line.
Another Security officer told me to ‘move it’ because I was delaying everyone. I put the last of my things into a single bin, picked up my luggage and walked to the metal seating area to finish putting myself back together. I was close enough to hear the Latina giving the man the What For because he had brought an essentially empty bag through security. I didn’t even know that would be a mistake, though I realized — as she described the oddity of it — why it would raise red flags.
By the time I was ready, she had dismissed the other guy and returned to her station. Had she forgotten me? I picked up my carry-on, put my personal bag on my shoulder and looked at the back of her head, then looked on toward my destination.
I considered the implications… and then made a decision.
I started walking away. I felt myself tense as I waited for her to yell “Stop!”
I’m sure I had the guiltiest look on my face. I turned my head so I could hear the sounds of Security if they were running toward me. So far, so good.
I kept walking…
I stopped at a Mexican restaurant and ordered a quesadilla. I listened to the loud speakers, waiting for the announcement: “Would the middle-aged guy who slipped away from Security please report back?” or maybe “Would the nervous traveler who needed a really looooong Talking To please return to Security…?”
But there was nothing.
A few hours later I boarded the plane and settled into my seat. Medellin, Colombia — here I come!
What had been in my bag? What had triggered the need to get lectured by Security?
I will never know.