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As our plane lifted off, bound for JFK in New York, I tried to settle in and relax. Initially, this was not easy to do, partly because I’m not a fan of flying but mostly because my crotch smelled like chemicals from The Swabbing Situation. Every time I moved I would get a little whiff, which meant the folks around me were getting one as well. Eventually, though, things dried out and I no longer reeked of a plutonium incident.
It was going to be a long flight, so I snatched up one of those cheap-ass earphones as soon as the flight attendant showed up with a basket of them. I plugged into the little monitor on the back of the seat in front of me (how did we ever survive without these things in the past?) and proceeded to watch a bunch of pre-recorded TV shows that one would never watch unless they are trapped on a plane. I also managed to peruse “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, a movie I hadn’t seen in ages. It’s actually a very sad story, despite its reputation as a romantic comedy. But it’s a good sad, and the music is perfect.
Nine hours later, my huckleberry friend, we landed at JFK, and the madness began anew.
Because our flight had been delayed so long, there were quite a few people on the plane who had mere seconds to catch their connecting flights. Once we were at the gate, these people went insane, grabbing bags and running and knocking people over. Walking up the gangway was like The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, with the very real possibility that you could get gored at any moment. It reminded me of staff meetings when I used to work at Verizon. Especially the mooing.
As we traipsed our way towards Customs, I happened to catch a few signs saying something along the lines of “Download this app and Customs will be a breeze!” or some such. Since we were swept up in a sea of people trying to make their connections, I didn’t have time to reflect on what those signs meant and I essentially ignored them. This will prove to be an important plot point, so make a note of it.
We turned a corner, trotted down a ramp, and suddenly found ourselves in a massively cavernous room that was bigger than my hometown. (I’ve been to JFK many times over the years, but for some reason I had never gone through Customs there, so this was a new experience.) There were, literally, thousands of people all over the place, standing in huge lines that switch-backed into eternity. It quickly became very clear that our four-hour layover might not be quite enough. I had visions of taking 17 anxiety pills with a vodka chaser.
We jostled our way to the starting point and queued up. This first section was just a funnel to get people to the automated passport scanners, which was just the beginning of the process. (After that you had to queue again in order to speak to an actual Customs agent.) It took forever just to snake along in this first bit, so I knew this was not going to be a pleasant experience. Why would it be? After all, the day had been a smorgasbord of not-good since we got up that morning.
As we moved forward only a few steps at a time, I studied the signs around me, because I was bored out of my skull. Apparently, one of two things would happen at the passport scanner. You would either be given a Customs pass that said you were good to go, or you would get a pass with an “X” on it. If you got an “X”, you had to divert to a different line.
I glanced over at the diversionary area. There was nobody over there. Okay, there were ten or so folks in the line, a single Customs agent, and a frazzled-looking cleaning lady who wasn’t quite sure why she had a feather duster in her hand. But basically, nada. I wanted to go over there, even if I had to answer a few extra questions. And I was fairly confident that I would be sent that way, considering how many times I had already been given “special treatment”, with that “this guy is shifty” sticker on my passport.
As we approached the scanner, I chanted a mantra. Please give me an X. Please give me an X. Please, oh, please.
I did not get an X.
Something inside me died. But I took a deep breath and queued up at the next line, one that twisted and turned for miles, leading toward Customs agents that were blurry, they were so far away. Three things happened at this point.
One, I suddenly realized how hot it was in this place. It was the end of June and there were 4 billion people in one room, with the collective body heat apparently overwhelming the air-conditioning system. I started sweating and, if you’ll allow me to get personal here (we’re friends, right?), my testicles descended. This is a natural phenomena with the male body, something about protecting the little swimmers in said testes, and it’s uncomfortable. I was now lugging around four carry-ons instead of two.
Two, some of the people around us began to panic, realizing how long this was going to take, and they started behaving inappropriately, trying to cut in line and cheat at the switch-backs of said line. This did not sit well with the decent folk, including myself, and we countered their gambits by blocking their moves and calling them out. Luckily, the employees monitoring the lines didn’t play either and the rogues were sent back to where they once belonged.
Three, the man directly behind us, who had an accent that was a combination of both Penny Marshall and Garry Marshall, a full-on Bronx flavor, suddenly decided that I was his best friend. He began telling me everything he possibly could about his life. Nothing was off limits. I now know more about him than I know about my own mother.
An hour and a half later, we got close enough to the Customs agents that they were no longer blurry. (I could actually see the pores on their faces.) It was right about this time when we realized that one of said agents had a very short line, just a few people at a time and sometimes no one, while the rest of us cattle were being herded towards the other agents. What the hell was up with that?
One of the ladies in front of us trotted over and got the scoop, reporting back. Apparently, that line was for the folks who had actually paid attention to the “Download this app!” signs that were plastered all over the walls leading to Customs. Said app would do everything that the passport scanners would do, assuming your phone wasn’t a brick from the 90s, and you could avoid the massive lines that we were currently experiencing. The rest of my soul died at that point.
Oh, and it gets better.
Because the room was so backed up with people, on the verge of a safety hazard, the powers that be decided that some of us should be sent over to the “X” line because ain’t nothin’ happenin’ over there. So, just as we made it to the front of the non-X line, Partner and I were told to report yonder. We ended up in the very line that I had wanted to be in two hours ago, before Penny Garry Marshall gave me a full update on the status of his colon.
And what happens with the Customs agent and my infidel passport? This conversation:
Agent: “So, Mr. Brian, did you enjoy your time in Spain?”
Me: “Sure did.”
Agent: “Good to hear. Next!”
That was it. No swabbing. I was mildly disappointed.
Next up in the funfest, we had to go through Security again. This made absolutely no sense to me. We were still in the interior of the airport, and we had already been screened in Málaga. (Swabbing!) There had been no opportunity for us to slip off and cobble together a frittata, never mind a bomb. But we were back in the humiliation saddle again.
When I walked through the body scanner, the thing practically had a heart attack, it beeped so much. How in the hell was this happening? I had changed absolutely nothing since Málaga. (Okay, my testicles were lower, but come on.) As I stepped out of the scanner, I happened to spy an image of my scan on a monitor. That thing was lit up like a Christmas tree, indicating that I needed to be checked in 47 places. The agent proceeded to do so.
They found nothing and eventually sent me on my way. I was so done with people at that point. So done.
Emerging from Security, we reviewed our boarding passes. We were now at Gate 2 in the terminal. We needed to get to Gate 55. It seemed like a bit of a stretch, but surely it wouldn’t be that bad. This was a truly delusional moment on my part. Gate 55 eventually proved to be on the other side of the planet. Those Jetson-style moving-sidewalk things? We maneuvered through at least a hundred of them, nearly killing ourselves with that abrupt stop-motion transition to non-movement, stumbling and flailing.
Thirty minutes later we got to Gate 55, covered in sweat and regret. On a whim, I checked us in on “Swarm”, a location app that I had promised a few friends back home that I would use so they could enjoy our trip vicariously. When I did so, a comment from a person who had previously checked in popped up. “Gate 55 is at the end of Hell. Don’t try to walk there. Take the shuttle bus instead.”
Shuttle bus? What shuttle bus?
Just then, a bus pulled up outside the gate windows. A door we hadn’t noticed popped open in the wall, and a herd of non-sweaty and relaxed people clamored through said door, plopping down in the seats around us. They settled in and chatted happily, unlike the two of us who were on the verge of death after the Iron Man march to this gate.
I’m assuming I ignored another important sign somewhere. It was clearly not the first time.
We boarded the plane shortly after that. Three hours later we landed in Dallas. Three minutes after that, our efficient friend Cheryl pulled up outside the terminal, popping her hatchback so we could throw our luggage in such.
As we got situated in her car, clicking seatbelts and such, Cheryl had a question: “How was your flight?”
Oh, honey. How much time do you have?
Note: I feel compelled to say that, for the most part, the people at Delta Airlines were exceedingly professional and polite. They were just following established protocols. The real issue here is how travelers get randomly flagged as security risks through no fault of their own. One would think there’s a better way to handle the situation. Just my thoughts.
Thanks for sticking with the story. Rest assured that there will be more to come, as we’re already planning our next trip to Spain…
Categories: My Life