If “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step,” then surely it must end standing in front of the baggage carousel at the airport. There was something disheartening about seeing the backpack I’ve carried down dirt roads and across towns and thrown on and off countless buses, emerge from the conveyor belt to be dumped with all the other luggage—the roll-ons, the Samsonite look-alikes, the suitcases with no stories to tell. Though, to be honest, since this was a flight that originated in Guatemala, there were several cardboard boxes held together with tape and string.
Looking at my backpack come toward me on the carousel I thought it looked like it had been captured and tranquilized. Nothing left for it but evisceration, the emptying of its contents and then months in storage.
With the security situation these days, getting back into the country is a bit of a challenge. There were two lines for immigration, one for US citizens and resident aliens, the other for foreign visitors–many who seemed to have trouble deciphering the signs directing them where to go, and the shouted guidance from officials (all in English, of course). For those of us in the citizens line it was somewhat entertaining to watch the other line.
When it was my turn to approach the immigration official I tried to project an attitude of slightly bored nonchalance. But he glared at me suspiciously, waiting for me to crack and admit to who knows what. “Where are you coming from?” he asked, even though everyone in line arrived on the same plane, from Guatemala. If he thought he could trip me up with that sly question he was mistaken. More likely he knew some smart-ass answer was passing through my mind and he was waiting for me to say what I was thinking. But I simply said “Guatemala”, like it was a perfectly reasonable question.
“How long were you there?” he asked, looking right at the dated stamp in my passport. Maybe he was bad at math, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and said “Three months.”
“That’s a long time,” he said. That wasn’t exactly a question, so I figured maybe he just wanted to chat. So I said, “Not long enough…”
“Do you have a house down there?” he asked. On one hand, I thought, maybe he was genuinely interested in me, or maybe in my experiences with foreign investments. But on the other hand there was a chance he was thinking that if he threw me out of the country, at least I would have a place to go. Either way, since I don’t have a house down there I figured the answer was “No.” (I don’t necessarily think honesty is always the best policy, but when you’re not sure, it is worth a try.)
“What was the purpose of your visit?” he asked. That one stumped me. I was pretty sure he wanted a short answer, so I tentatively said “Travel…” Evidently that wasn’t one of the approved answers. He asked, “Pleasure?” Without some qualification that wasn’t a completely accurate description, but if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. “Sure,” I replied.
It seemed like we were developing a rapport, and I was about to ask him how he liked his job. But he beat me to it and asked me about mine. That is kind of a touchy subject because I am never quite sure what to say. I first said “I am a writer,” which sometimes leads people to ask more questions I have trouble answering, (“You can make a living doing that?”) so I quickly added “and a carpenter.” That is always a sure-fire conversation killer. Worked like a charm. A brief look of confusion flickered across his face. “Interesting combination”, he said, and slid my passport back to me. I felt his interest in me wane, and he beckoned to the next person in line to step up. No “Welcome back to the US.” No “Have a nice day.” Nothing. So that’s how it is, I thought, as I scurried off.
Encounters with The Man (even when it is a woman) always make me feel belligerent. The surly underachievers on the TSA crew sensed my mood and gave me a hard time. I put my laptop and shoes and shoulder bag on the belt going through the security screening, but I still triggered the metal detector. I had a paperback book in my pocket and a detector attendant told me to put it through the machine, so I laid it on the belt. I triggered the alarm yet again, and I realized I still had my iPod around my neck. So I put that in a bowl to go through the machine.
Maybe I would have passed on the third try (though I think I have enough fillings in my teeth to trigger airport metal detectors the way they are set these days) But having triggered the metal detector twice, I was evidently considered a high-risk passenger. I was asked to stand in a little roped-off area, just big enough for a single person. I saw my book and iPod come out of the machine, nowhere near each other or my other stuff. I shouted over to the girl at the machine to put my book in the bowl with my iPod.
I don’t know what part of my request she didn’t understand, but she seemed pretty confused. So I left my little confined area to demonstrate what I had in mind. Boy, did that get everyone excited! Some guy jumped in front of me, saying “Sir, please step away from the conveyor belt,” and pushed me back towards where I was supposed to be standing. I hate being called “Sir.”
I tried to simplify my instructions: “That’s my book. There’s my iPod. Please put the book with my iPod.” So she did, then put them in a basket with someone else’s laptop. “That’s not my laptop” I shouted.
By then I had a person whose job evidently was to deal with just me. “How may bags do you have sir?” he asked. I gritted my teeth and said “I have one bag, my laptop and shoes in the bin, and the iPod and the book,” pointing helpfully at each item I named.
He collected everything and said “Is this it?”
“Yep,” I said.
“OK,” he said. “Would you step over there, please?” he said, indicating a little carpet square near the wall with two footprints printed on it. I thought to myself, when the revolution comes, it will be guys like him up against the wall instead of me.
“Do you have any idea why you triggered the detector alarm?” he asked. Several snappy answers passed through my mind, but some sense of self-preservation finally kicked in and I simply said “Nope,” and gave him the slightest look and shrug which I hoped would indicate to him that if he didn’t understand how his machine worked, it really wasn’t my job to explain it to him, and at the same time not indicate to him that I questioned his professional qualifications.
As instructed, I stood with my legs apart and arms outstretched (“palms up, please”), then sat on a chair with first one leg out then the other while the TSA guy gave me the most thorough exam he possibly could have without a medical license. I had four hours until my next flight so I tried to relax and enjoy the the special attention. But just when I started to feel like the TSA guy and I were developing an intimate relationship, he turned and walked off leaving me to collect my bag and put my shoes back on. I felt cheap and used. I didn’t even know the guy’s name.
So, that was my re-entry into the United States. I wondered how the people in the other immigration line fared.
I took three flights to get home, which kindled in me some nostalgia for the chicken buses of Guatemala (the snacks are better on the buses). The third flight was on Alaskan Air which was unique in that it not only offered free bags of potato chips, but free beverages, including beer and wine. After my third glass of beer I started feeling that maybe coming home wasn’t going to be so bad.