Monday, March 28, 2011

There's always one.

When my son and I arrived at the airport the day before spring break, we got off to a very smooth start. We had printed or boarding cards at home and the airport was surprisingly quiet.

However, we had barely even joined the line at security before a woman began to spoil things for everybody else. At first she was just being obnoxious. She pushed and shoved at every opportunity she got. She forced her way between me and my son even though we'd been talking to each other and were clearly together. She huffed loudly as she bumped her pull along carry on against my leg and whacked my sons back pack out of her way as she tried to get past him. She'd taken me by surprise and I had stepped back and let her go. But my son is 6ft tall and stubborn. He braced his legs and blocked her path.

"Is your gate about to close?" I asked, in case my son was obstructing the path of a genuinely panicked and short on time passenger.
"What?" she snapped
"What time is your flight?"
"What's it to you?"
I shrugged. "I thought you might be late."
"If you are late", she sneered "you should have left earlier."  I rolled my eyes. Just rude after all. So now as she tried to get past my son and he 'innocently' stepped in front of her each time she shoved, I let him carry on. In fact it was quite fun to watch.

The line snaked closer to the carts loaded with  trays and people began to slip out of their coats and unfasten their belts. A tall man with a long white beard and a turban  reminded everyone to take out their computers and remove their shoes. He repeated instructions like a friendly parrot and kept the line moving at a reasonable pace.

The security area was getting busy, so a new line was opened up. The unpleasant woman used the partial change in direction to force her way in front of my son. He turned to say something to her. I touched his arm, "Just let her go."

Suddenly the grumpy woman called 'Hey! You!" The turbaned officer looked up and she then began shouting questions regarding cell phones and cameras. She wanted to know if the machines were safe. The man assured her that they would cause absolutely no damage, but she still insisted she wanted to carry her items through.

"If you know I've got them, how can it make any difference?" she retorted when the officer told her that she was not allowed to do that. "Do I look like I'm carrying a bomb?"

The line behind her began to quiver with a mixture of impatience and interest. These days making a scene going through airport security does not just cause a few raised eyebrows and provoke a chorus of sighs and 'tuts'. It can lead to a full on event.  Was this middle aged woman in a frumpy brown skirt and shapeless sweater about to try something on? We watched as her drama unfolded.

I am sure we all have stories related to incidents involving people who refuse to shuffle along and obey the rules; most of us are prepared to remove clothes, open bags and let strangers pat us down because, in spite of the frustrations, the alternative inconveniences us all. "She's lucky" I whispered to my son "that this is Portland. In Washington or Frankfurt she'd already be pinned to the ground."

The woman was loud and unpleasant. The security guards were patient but firm. I found myself thinking uncharitable thoughts, hoping someone would twist her arm into a half nelson and march her away. The other half of me just hoped that she would put her camera and phone in the tray and get a move on. I wasn't in a hurry but my feet were cold and my jeans were loose. I wanted to reassemble myself and go and get something to eat.

"Do you remember that time in Schipol?" my son whispered.
"Funny." I said "I was just thinking about that."

Once, when traveling back from Europe my children and I were flying through Amsterdam.  As we approached the scanners, sirens sounded and all the people in uniform started shouting to us all to 'Freeze!"

This was unusual so we all instantly obeyed.  The security area looked like a game of Musical Statues. Everyone fell completely silent and remained ridiculously still. People stood with arms out stretched about to retrieve bags, or stayed stooped caught in time as they bent to pull off a shoe. Even young children, sensing that this was not a joke, clamped their little mouths shut and stood like shop mannequins at their rigid parents sides.

The sirens kept blaring and the staff kept shouting "Stay still. Don't move. Stay still. Don't move." Then, just as I was beginning to wonder if we were being filmed for a Candid camera style show, police, wearing helmets and body armor and wielding some very large guns, surged into the area. They stormed the barriers shouting instructions to each other as they ran. I wondered what would happen if I jumped up and down or waved my arms. I wondered, but didn't try it. This was clearly a serious thing.

After a few moments the sound of their shouts and running feet faded completely away. The machines hummed back into life. Bags trundled along on the rollers and disappeared through the rubber flaps.  People strode purposefully through the metal detectors to collect the bags on the other side. No one asked or explained what "all that" had been about. It was just one of those things.

We were not, as it happens, about to be entertained by another big security event. The guards were polite but firm. The woman gave in and flung her electronic items into a tray along with her coat.

But as my son and I sat on the metal benches to put on and retie our shoes, we glanced sideways at each other and smiled.

Grumpy old cow had been singled our for a bag search. She complained loudly as a woman ran a pair of tweezers holding what looked like a wet wipe (what ARE those things?) around every zip, pocket and seam. As we got up to leave, the officer was just beginning to empty the contents of her carry on onto the table. We could still hear her whining as we made our way to our gate.