For the past dozen or so years, I’ve always been able to count on my time going through airport security as inspiration for that week’s column.
I know that making fun of TSA is kind of lazy, low-hanging fruit, fish-in-a-barrel comedy. But I can’t help it. Just when I think I’ve totally exhausted the wellspring of TSA-related “humorous” incidents, they step it up to the next level. I always eagerly await seeing their latest incarnation of security theater, some clever new policy tweak that they’ve implemented to make the flying experience more intrusive, unpleasant and degrading. And hilarious.
“Let’s make them take half of their clothes off!”
“Let’s confiscate their shampoo!”
“Let’s make them remove their laptops and demonstrate a working knowledge of Photoshop!”
“Let’s take pictures of their genitals!”
Comedy gold, folks.
Last month was particularly awesome. The TSA guy extracted my half-empty tube of toothpaste from my backpack and held it in front of me with a “how dare you” look on his face, as if it were a stick of dynamite. I tried to convince him that it was less than 3 ounces, he claimed it had at least 4 ounces left in it. This conversation alone was Python-worthy, I thought. I asked if I could squeeze an ounce or two into the trash can. He said no, I’d have to take it back to the other side of the security checkpoint and do that, then go through security again. For a moment I really, really considered taking the tube from him and squeezing half of it into my mouth. Not as an act of defiance, just as a practical solution to an impractical situation. I’d never squeezed half a tube of toothpaste into my mouth before, and wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t puke. Which I was totally willing to do. What informed my final decision to just let him throw the whole tube away was the realization that eating toothpaste probably would be considered a felony, and felonies are the kind of things that make you miss your connecting flight.
Still, I was in a situation where eating my own toothpaste was a felony! To me, that’s got all the elements necessary for high quality humor — absurdism, surreality, seeming exaggeration that really isn’t, tragedy and dental hygiene. Thanks, TSA. See you next month for another winning column idea.
So as I was headed through security in the New Orleans airport yesterday, I was hoping for the best. The initial agent snatched my boarding pass from me, obviously annoyed that I’d chosen to travel by air. So far, so good. He pushes the button on the “Randomizer” (see my column on the “Randomizer” from a few months ago — awesome!) and the arrow pops on screen indicating that I belong in the far left line. Not many people seemed to be going there. Oh, this is gonna be awesome. What fresh comedy hell have they cooked up for me now?
The next agent told me to hold out my palms while she wiped them with the little swab stick, the one they usually run over your bag when they pull you aside. She was very nice about it, which was a bit disappointing. I could hear the agent by the conveyor belt barking out some orders to people. Yeah, here we go.
He was saying, “You can leave your shoes on. Leave your belts on. Leave your jacket on. You’re going through a metal detector, so take everything metal or electronic out of your pockets, but you can leave everything else. You can leave your laptops in your bag.” He was smiling. He was friendly.
What the —?
He had to repeat this constantly to the confused passengers to keep them from going into disrobe/unpack/bend-over mode. His voice was loud, but devoid of the usual TSA “what we have here is a failure to communicate” tone.
Not cool, TSA. Not cool.
I went through the metal detector without incident, as did the passengers in front of me. People were smiling. I emerged on the other side in a very disoriented state: my pants weren’t falling down, I wasn’t missing one shoe, my belongings weren’t piling up at the end of a conveyor belt, nobody was yelling at me to get moving. The whole thing was actually kind of pleasant. It was freaking me out.
Back when the airlines stopped serving food, the people most affected were surely standup comedians, most of whom counted on having at least a couple of “bad airplane food” jokes in their repertoire. If TSA is planning to return to the old days of travel, back when you were not presumed to be an enemy simply because you want to go somewhere other than where you are, well, this is bound to make a lot of people happy.
But it’s bad news for me.
Barry Smith’s column appears Mondays.