by Laurice LaZebnik
“Business class guests leaving for Pittsburgh are now boarding at Keflavik Gate 26.”
It all started as we stepped to the front of the long line waiting to board WOW Airline flight 902. I felt entitled. I had splurged on expensive seats because my husband, 88, gets feisty if his legs are cramped or a child thumps him from the row behind. I decided we deserved the extra comfort after a lifetime of work. Besides, we both hate to wait in line.
I thought the term “guests” the announcer gave to the herd of cattle waiting transport was a wry touch. The boarding agent took my husband’s documents clutched firmly in my hand and welcomed him warmly. He had mislaid and then recovered his phone three times in Denmark, left a hat on a tour boat, and misplaced his jacket and his briefcase.
“Mrs. Laurice LaZebnik,” she said after scanning my passport and boarding pass. “Yes.” I smiled. I was pleased with the formal recognition and delighted she had pronounced my name correctly.
“You have been randomly selected for a TSA security inspection.” Her tone was detached from her former cheerful warmth.
“Me?” I said and thought to myself, why pick the most innocent looking person standing in this line. Okay, so maybe I’m not so innocent, but I certainly don’t look like a subversive agitator.
“Mrs. LaZebnik, you were selected at random from our passenger list. Please go at once to the Security Service desk by gate 15.” Before I could ask, she said, “The plane will wait for you.”
My husband looked anxious, like he didn’t know if he should come with me or board the plane alone. The agent made his decision. “Sir, get on the plane.” I pulled my passport from my purse and stuffed it in my backpack, handed him the bag from the duty free shop filled with Iceland’s signature licorice flavored whiskey and chocolate covered licorice candy, and headed into the herd.
Okay, I thought. I would make the most of this inconvenience. It might be something I could write about. This was my first experience being pulled aside by airport security in over 40 years of traveling.
I hurried through the line of disinterested “guests” boarding flight WW902 at Gate 26 and snaked through the courteous but aloof crowds waiting in Concourse D. I slid by Gate 15 and stopped before security headquarters. The working desk was easily identifiable with a large red sign, but the counter was unoccupied. I was in the right place, but the security workers were somewhere else.
Two women with official looking badges eventually stepped around me, opened a swinging gate at one end of the counter, and busied themselves shuffling papers. I approached and explained my situation with the confidence I would put this inconvenient situation to bed and be back on my plane in no time. After all, I am an American and I have rights. “Will you help me so I don’t miss my plane?”
A uniformed agent had appeared on the other end of the counter holding a cell phone to her ear. One of the women to which I had been sharing my saga unsympathetically thumbed me toward the uniformed agent and went back to work shuffling papers.
I was surprised this was happening to me. Perhaps they don’t know I’m an American citizen. I moved to the agent who still had her phone to her ear and placed my ticket and passport on the counter between us. Her name tag read, “Lead Security Agent.” I waited. I could feel my eye twitching. I’m not used to being ignored and I’ve never been patient. Two police officers edged to the counter in front of me. They were leading a woman. One spoke to the lead agent.
“Excuse me,” I said to the agent from beside the officers. “My plane is boarding and I have been selected for a random security check, and I have been waiting ..”
The woman silenced me coolly with the flat of her hand and continued listening on the phone. I stood in line on one foot and then the other and waited. And waited.
The agent signaled with her finger to the woman who was now seated beside the counter. The female looked to be 25 or 30. She advanced to the counter and cowered, flanked by the uniformed officers. The Lead Security Agent explained to her in English that her VISA had expired and she had to return to Moscow. I was close enough to see the woman’s eyes glass over. I was certain she was about to cry. She responded in that high-pitched tone of a scared child. I heard her say they would not let her back inside Russia, and she could not enter any of the EU countries.
I grew interested in her plight and wondered what this diminutive brunette had done that was so bad she was barred from Russia and all of Europe. My imagination soared. Spy? Smuggler? Human trafficker? Her hair hung in uneven strings and her complexion needed sunlight. Her baggy blouse covered most of her jeans.
It occurred to me that I had left the boarding area of flight 905 at least 10 minutes ago. The jet might not be waiting for me. The purple plane was probably in the air over Iceland by now and I was being left behind in its frosty contrail.
Me, without a toothbrush. I ran my tongue over my teeth while I made Plan B. I knew I could go two days without brushing before I became totally disgusting and miserable. I had experienced that before.
But me, without money or plastic? I would have to eat out of trash bins like I had seen street people do in New York and sleep in the women’s restroom tonight. And if I were found guilty of an infraction of their law, some rule I’d skipped over reading because the print was too small, what would officers like these men do to me, an American woman? Send me to Moscow?
I identified with the young woman whimpering at the counter. She had nowhere to go. At least I could legally enter Russia and any EU country I wanted. But all I wanted to do was go home. I clutched my passport realizing how valuable a document it was, and realized how lucky I was to be a North American. I was confident I would be welcomed back into the U.S. when my security cleared, if it cleared, and it would, unless I forgot something. I waited.
The woman’s situation resolved and she was escorted from the area sobbing. I noticed she wasn’t wearing handcuffs. When I turned I saw the Lead Security Agent disappear behind a door.
“Wait.” I shouted and waved my American passport. Why was this woman treating me like I am invisible? I shouted after her. “My plane is leaving and no one is helping me!” Didn’t they know I am an American from Clark Lake, Michigan?
When I finally caught up with the two police officers, they did not smile or even take time to explain their remark. One of them answered me while he escorted the woman to who knows where. “You’re in the wrong line. You need to go to TSC security in the Customs area up the stairs.”
My response trailed in the air behind him. “But, the stewardess at the gate told me to go to the security desk by gate 15.” I expected some credit for following instructions. I looked around for assistance. People looked away and remained uninvolved.
Okay. I took deep breaths. I can do this. Where were the stairs in this crowded cattle yard? I recalled that after we had left customs on the flight from Copenhagen we walked down a staircase near the restrooms. I started running toward the signs directing passengers to the restrooms, and then bounded up the empty staircase. On the second landing I stopped a steward, an airport worker not more than 17 or 18, and explained my predicament. “Can you help me? I still may be able to make my plane.”
He listened politely and responded that I should wait while he checked with someone on the next level. My eye started twitching again. I waited. He did return and asked me to follow him back down the staircase to the Security Station by Gate 15. I didn’t argue or tell him I had already milked that cow.
The Lead Security Agent had returned to the counter, her phone on her ear. The young airport worker spoke to her. It must have been in Icelandic, because I didn’t understand a word. She set aside her phone and asked me in perfect English, “Where is your escort?”
Escort? I responded, surprised at the sound of her voice. I told her I had none.
“What is your departure gate?” She picked up her phone and motioned for me to sit in a chair, the same chair the woman deported from Moscow had occupied minutes before.
Another passenger appeared at the security station. She had soft brown skin and was dressed smartly in a suit. She looked lost. She was pacing in her high heels before the counter waiting for the attention of the Lead Security Agent. After some time a uniformed gentleman sauntered up, glanced around and motioned for her to follow. I jumped up. “Are you the escort?” He nodded and gestured for me to follow.
“Have you been chosen for a random security check too?” I asked the woman. She nodded, not wanting to lose her place behind the escort. We followed the man through the crowds, through the duty free shopping area, past the cafeteria, and up a staircase next to the restrooms. “This is why I hate to come to the U.S.” she said. “It happens every time. They need to come up with a better way of profiling terrorists. The only reason I came this time was to see my children.”
The escort signaled with his hand for us to follow him through a gate and to wait while he waited inline before a man wearing an official looking badge. He was speaking on his cell phone.
The official eventually clicked off his phone, glanced at us and said in an ingratiating tone, “This is a routine security check required by the U.S. government. We will be asking you some questions.” His tone sounded rehearsed, like he had used those same words thousands of times before, words he had memorized at a TSA workshop. The official came out from behind his desk and smiled. He wasn’t a tall man and didn’t look tough. I decided to give him an attitude break. The poor man must see hundreds of people every day and must be bored to death with his job.
“Please follow me,” he said and stopped before a black, windowless door in the wall a short distance from his desk and knocked. Now this was getting spooky. I had seen the movie before: the windowless room, the torture equipment, the unanswered screams. The agent knuckled the black door again. Silence. Again. No response. We waited and the door remained closed.
“Now I’m getting scared,” I told the alleged conspirator standing beside me. “If I scream will you try to find me?” I joked. That’s what I do when I’m nervous. Joke. She didn’t smile. “I’ll find you if you scream,” I offered. “Where are you from?”
“Originally from Pakistan.”
“I was told I was chosen at random. Do you think they chose you because of the Al Qaida/Pakistan connection?”
The woman turned to me and spoke softly. “I work for the World Health Organization. I’ve been living in London for forty years. Where are you from?”
“Clark Lake, Michigan. I’m American.”
A slight smile formed on her lips. “Do you have an active terrorist cell at Clark Lake? This may not be a random check for you either.”
The black door finally opened. A uniformed officer yawned and stared out at us. A second official, a woman stepped out from behind him. “This way,” he said and pointed to the table. Put your backpack there.” We both placed our bags on the table in the windowless room and awaited instructions.
“No, not you.” The agent pointed to my new friend, the alleged assassin. “Follow me into the next room. Take your bag with you.”
“Stand next to that wall,” the officer ordered me.” He had come to life and seemed to be enjoying his role as head interrogator. “Take off your shoes.” He slipped on blue plastic examination gloves and snapped them tight as I removed my footwear. I would follow his instructions exactly. I wondered if he had worked over the woman who could not return to Moscow.
My examiner knelt down to inspect all sides of my shoes. He rubbed a piece of fabric around the sole and the Velcro fastener and inserted the fabric into a portable computerized machine leaning against one wall. “I will now check your belt,” he announced.
“Okay.” I pulled up my sweater. He bent down and ran the fabric half way around me stopping at the small of my back. I waited for questions. He ran the fabric swab around the other way.
“Now I will check around your neck.”
“Okay.” I leaned in.
The TSA agent inserted the second and third pieces of fabric into the machine. “You can put your shoes on. I will now inspect your bag.” He pulled everything from my backpack and spread it across the table. He ran a swab across my personal items and ran his gloved hand though every pocket. “You can repack your bag.”
I said, “Okay,” and did.
I watched as he waited for the last swatch to clear the machine that would determine if I was carrying explosives. “You are clear. You can go now.”
“Go? I’m not sure I know my way back to my gate. Can someone take me so I don’t miss my plane, if it’s still there?”
The interrogator gave me a perfunctory look, like he had heard that a thousand times from other helpless guests. “Turn right when you leave that door, go down the stairs and follow the signs.”
I didn’t argue or waste time. I exited the black windowless door, galloped down the stairs and discovered a sign pointing to terminal C. I passed layover passengers biding their time drinking coffee in the largest airport cafeteria I had ever seen. I noticed an arrow on a sign pointing toward Concourse D. I cut through swarms of travelers inspecting bottles of licorice-flavored whiskey in the duty free area. I swept past lines of people waiting to board at gate 19, and others sleeping on the floor on backpack pillows near gate 22. Except for a lone agent standing behind a desk, I arrived out-of-breath to an empty gate 26.
“Has my flight left? I’m supposed to be on the flight to Pittsburgh. I have been waylaid by security.”
The woman smiled and told me the plane was waiting for me on the tarmac. She ushered me to an exit where a bus driver greeted me and told me to take a seat, any seat on the empty bus. I remember thinking the poor guy was trying to make a joke. I sat near the door so I could jump out and sprint down the pavement to catch my plane. The bus didn’t move. I waited. Presently, the lady from Pakistan stepped on the bus and took a seat across the aisle from me. She seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see her.
“Are you going to Pittsburgh too?” she said as we headed for the purple WOW aircraft. Passengers on the plane glared at me as I made my way to row 11 where a tall, purple-clad blonde stewardess was keeping my husband entertained.
“Where have you been?” he said. “The plane has been waiting for you. What happened? I was worried I would never see you again.” I fastened my seatbelt.
I unbuckled the belt when we were aloft to find my fellow Islamic radical. She was seated near the back of the plane next to a man who looked to be her husband. A smile broke on her face when she saw me. She held out both hands and clasped mine. “We made it!”
“Your wife is a brave woman, “ I told the man. “I didn’t hear her scream even once.”