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Stories

My Brush with Terrorism

Being paged at the airport can sometimes be a lucky break, until it’s a federal investigation. A bag search, substance analysis, and interrogation later, you can forget being upgraded to first class. Jerry Mahoney recalls a misunderstanding at check-in.

I’ll admit my expectations were a bit out of whack due to my previous experience with being paged at an airport. It was two years ago, and I was finally embarking on my long-anticipated vacation in London, home of all my favorite bands and hairstyles. My first trip overseas happened to coincide with the airline’s 18th birthday, so all their employees were decked out in party hats and goofy outfits, and there were balloons tied to the check-in counter, colorful balls of joy hovering over my head as the counter help asked if I had packed my own bags or had a terrorist do it for me. The entire terminal reeked of happiness that day; the envelope they slipped my boarding pass into, when opened, even played a squeaky, electronic rendition of ‘Happy Birthday.’ But even that time, I was nervous when the gate attendant called me to the boarding desk.

‘Because you’re a valued frequent flier,’ the attendant said, ‘we’re upgrading you to first class.’ It was easily the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me, and I told the woman as much, also informing her she was my new hero, having just leapt a place ahead of that guy who amputated his own arm when he was trapped under a tree. After all, legend has it first class on this airline is the transportation equivalent of getting a blowjob while smoking crack. (Neither of which, any in-flight brochure will tell you, is acceptable while on board.) Indeed, the flight was an utter joy from beginning to end, with the airline’s vast array of entertainment options, a food-on-demand policy, seats that recline so far they’re almost like flat-out beds, a hip décor that suggests Austin Powers’s plane, a well-stocked magazine rack full of saucy British tabs, and a friendly, courteous staff that dresses—and maybe this was special for their birthday, I’m not sure—in oversized bowties and novelty glasses.


* * *


So two weeks ago, when paged while waiting to board a flight to New Orleans, I was understandably kind of excited. I mean, I’m a valued frequent flier. I was on the phone with my boyfriend Drew when I heard my name over the loudspeaker, and I told him I’d call him back and hung up before he had a chance to respond.

The woman at the boarding desk seemed confused. ‘It says ‘Jenna’ here,’ she said, looking over the Xeroxed and re-Xeroxed form in front of her, on which someone had scrawled a barely legible name. ‘Not ‘Jerry.’’

Another employee poked her head in. ‘They abbreviate sometimes,’ she pointed out. I knew that ‘Jenna’ was in no way an abbreviation of ‘Jerry,’ but if there was a reclining bed-seat in it for me, I wasn’t going to complain.

‘You need to go back to the security checkpoint,’ the first attendant told me.

‘I already went through security. Can I ask why?’

‘There must be a problem with your baggage,’ she said.

A problem with my baggage? Suuuuuuure! Or: Maybe this is a trick to surprise me with a key to the Executive Lounge. I gave her an ‘I’m hip to you’ glance and sauntered toward security.

I suppose I expected someone waiting with a big smile and an oversized bowtie, but as I approached the checkpoint, no one even seemed to notice. I finally approached a guy standing behind a podium and gazing back and forth from one screening line to the other, pivoting his head rapidly as if he were watching a tennis match.

‘Uh…excuse me? I was paged?’

The man at the podium looked me over with a suspicious nod, as if thinking, Oh, yeah, paaaaaaaaged. I know how to handle this. ‘Lemme see your ID,’ he barked.

I forked over my driver’s license, and he picked up his walkie-talkie. He air-fed my name to whomever was on the other end, then repeated it—slowly—to make sure they heard it clearly. And then, he howled, ominously, ‘Code 410…

It was about this point that I finally concluded that I was definitely not being upgraded to first class.

If I’ve learned one thing from the post-Sept. 11 travel hysteria and the Patriot Act and the due-process-free Guantanamo Bay detentions, it’s that when airport security tells you to do something, it immediately becomes your top priority, outranking flying to New Orleans, exhaling, or cell mitosis. So when the man behind the podium woofed at me to, ‘Have a seat over there,’ you can believe I had a seat over there and did not make a peep for the next 10 minutes, until another guy finally came over looking for me, our latest Code 410.

The man who approached me was a federal security marshal, ranking somewhere between the people who stare at baggage X-rays trying to spot the difference between a hair dryer and a hand grenade and the camouflaged guys with the machine guns whose main job is to protect us and whose side job is to scare the shit out of us. The marshal murmured a few brief words to the man at the podium as if to ask, ‘Is that the guy?’ and then the man at the podium waved in my direction, as if to acknowledge, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy,’ and then the marshal nodded his head as if to say, ‘Oh, yeah, of course that’s the guy,’ and then he walked up to me and extended his hand.

‘Lemme see your ID.’

I handed him my driver’s license, and he stalked back over to the podium and picked up a stack of Xeroxed and re-Xeroxed forms. There were only about six or seven forms in the stack, but he flipped through them for a minute or so. He asked the podium-man for help finding what he was looking for, but podium-man shrugged, and the marshal walked back over with the entire stack and took a seat next to me. From this moment on, there was no more eye contact. He stared at his forms as if trying to intimidate them instead of me.

‘What does your bag contain?’ he asked. His voice was low, urgent, and chilling.

‘Just some clothes,’ I replied. Then, terrified that any omission could be seen as evidence of evasiveness, I added, ‘and some toiletries.’ I don’t believe I had ever used the word ‘toiletries’ before in my life.

The marshal flipped through his stack of forms again, checking each two or three times before he finally selected one, placed it atop the stack, and started writing on it. Naturally, I tried to read over his shoulder, but the form was mostly a jumble of codes and blurbs that were indecipherable to me. My name wasn’t on it, neither was my flight number or frequent-flier code or anything else I recognized. The only things I understood were a section that said, ‘Bag Contents,’ where someone had written ‘clothes’ and a section labeled ‘Bag Description,’ where someone had written ‘light-brown duffel.’ Technically, my bag was olive-colored. Between that and ‘Jenna,’ I was starting to wonder just how well organized my airport security was.

The marshal continued writing. ‘Your toothpaste tested positive for nitroglycerine,’ he deadpanned.

For all I know, after that he began to recite the Gettysburg Address. Did ‘your’ really mean my? Did ‘toothpaste’ really mean the Colgate Whitening Formula in my suitcase? Did ‘nitroglycerine’ really mean ‘nitroglycerine?’

And perhaps most importantly, did ‘positive’ really mean, ‘I hope you have a good lawyer, because you’ve just seen natural sunlight for the last time in your life?’

I kept waiting for an out, an admission that these random toothpaste tests are subject to tons of false positives, and ‘one time we thought we found botulism in some Dippity-do, and boy, did we look silly!’ But all I saw was the marshal copying down my name and address onto a form full of codes that clearly stated my green bag was brown and may or may not have indicated my name was ‘Jenna.’

‘Are you sure that’s the right form?’ I asked, hopefully.

‘It’s the only one with clothes in it,’ he said. ‘It has to be you.’ Of course—clothes. What better way to identify an airline passenger than with a suitcase containing clothes.

‘Does that form have my name anywhere on it?’

‘It’s you,’ he said. The tone of this statement made it clear I was best advised to stop talking now or end up facing interrogation in the airport dungeon. I stopped talking, and all was quiet for another minute.

‘So what do you do for a living?’ he asked, still staring at the paper, even though he had finished writing.

It seemed oddly conversational. I perked up. I actually believed for a second he was trying to put me at ease with some idle chit-chat. ‘Oh, I work in a law firm.’

‘Ever play around with explosives?’ he shot back, killing the moment. Conversation time over, I decided to play along and not get defensive.

‘No.’

‘You have any guns, anything like that?’

‘No.’

The marshal handed back my license and stood up. ‘Okay. You can go back to the gate.’ And then he started to walk away. Somehow, I didn’t trust this was the end.

‘What happens now?’

‘We’ll test your bag for anything else suspicious, then if everything’s okay, we’ll release it.’

‘Will it still make the flight?’ I checked my watch. The departure time was only a half-hour away.

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘So, will I hear anything else from you?’

‘No.’

And that was it. I quickly remembered I was supposed to call Drew back right after I was awarded my upgrade and free ice cream, but after what I’d been through, talking on the phone in earshot of countless other security officers, airport personnel, and jittery passengers about ‘nitroglycerine,’ ‘searched baggage,’ and ‘scared shitless’ would be a bad move.

I called and he answered right away. ‘Something happened,’ was all I said. Drew, of course, wanted more detail. ‘Everything’s okay,’ I assured him. ‘It was bad, but now it’s okay.’

When I arrived in New Orleans, I waited nervously at baggage claim for some closure, and I wasn’t at all surprised when my light-olive duffel failed to tumble off the conveyor belt.

And then I got paged again.

I waited at the baggage office, fearing the worst, knowing this airport had an interrogation dungeon of its own and that my nightmare was not yet over. I imagined my bag being ‘detonated’ on the runway, as a safety precaution of course, and my beloved blue hooded sweatshirt becoming just a distant memory. But it turned out my bag simply had not made it aboard my plane, that it would be arriving on the next flight, that it wasn’t reduced to a thin layer of soot in a blue-hooded, nitroglycerine-free pile of soot.

I wandered into the airport snack shop, ordered some hush puppies, and exhaled for the first time in five hours.

An hour later my light olive duffel arrived. I left the airport, hailed a cab, and my days as a suspected terrorist were over. At least, I hope so.

Because something still doesn’t feel right about all of it, as if federal agents are going to bust down my door any day with a warrant, or one night I’ll be brushing my teeth and my mouth will suddenly explode. Most likely, airport security realized they’d made a mistake, and the story is all over. Or maybe there was a mix-up, and there really is a mad toothpaste bomber flying around the country, snaring innocents like me in his web.

Or should I say ‘her’? Because ‘Jenna,’ if you’re out there, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do.