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Laptops and Airport Security: Me and My Many Names


I’m a terribly inefficient traveler, but I contend that I make up for this with pure charm, age-appropriate cute, and learning people’s names.

It may come as perhaps no surprise to you that when it came time to book a flight to Ohio to see my beloved aunts, uncles, and some of my cousins, a mosaic of my favorite people on the planet, I thought nothing of booking the flight with airline miles I had acquired before I married Peter. As if getting a flight under my previous name (as opposed to my maiden name, which is the previous-previous name) would be no big deal at all to TSA agents the world over.

It’s kind of a big deal when your boarding pass doesn’t match your driver’s license. And this cannot be surmounted by cute or charm or making friends.

I presented my boarding pass, driver’s license, marriage license, and very soul to the TSA officer, as if to say, “Here’s who I am, who I was, the paper that connects the dots, and my plea for admission into the friendly skies.”

“Please step aside, ma’am.”

Right. No problem, officer. Of course, I expected this delay and I shall be so totally accommodating to the background searches that you’ll want to give me gold stars on my airport report card.

And I was. I was an exemplary traveler (if you look past the truth that exemplary travelers don’t need additional screening). I stood compliantly while they unloaded my bag, set aside my laptop and ipad, and wanded everything for traces of powders. I watched patiently as they spread my things in multiple bins, all for the world to see. I become so agreeable and patient in that scene, even feeling like it’s my civic duty to comply.

These little delays are not a problem. It’s the physical pat-down that I do not love. I am a friendly person, but I do not like to be touched by strangers. Not in that way, even by the “back of the hand across my personal areas.”

And I especially do not love standing in a stop-and-frisk position, and I do not love hearing, “Could you spread your legs a little wider, ma’am? A little wider, please. Ma’am. A little wider.” It’s mortifying and embarrassing and degrading.

(I realize that this is an example of white privilege, perhaps even some kind of reverse racial profiling on my part, this fact that I am even tempted to say, “But why do you need to do this extensive screening with me, the curly-haired writer who is so obviously not a terrorist?”

Well, Tricia, how very elite of you, I say to myself, because what about the people who are also very obviously not terrorists but don’t have the passing privilege of looking so innocent? What about their experiences of being targeted and extensively searched in ways which are far more mortifying, embarrassing, and degrading? I realize the gap in my experience here. What fertile soil for me to learn in.)

But I withstood it all, no pun intended. They finished what they must do, they cleared me for take-off, and I proceeded down the escalator, onto the train, off to my terminal, and down to my gate. At which point I thought, “Now is a good time to download that email from my editor so I can work on the copyedits on the plane. I’ll just get out my… Wait. Where is my laptop?”laptop

My laptop was back at security.

I wanted this to be someone else’s fault.  I feel like it was.  But I’m not sure.

I now know that one should approach the gate instead and ask for assistance, perhaps an escort, back to security to redeem her things. (See first sentence of this post. I am not efficient.) And so I left my gate and followed my bread crumbs through the terminal and on to the train back to security to redeem the piece of equipment that holds my professional livelihood.

Except then I learned that if you return to security to claim your most expensive belongings, but you have taken the wrong elevator, you will then have to begin the whole security process again.

This includes the whole “back of the hand around personal areas” and “Ma’am, please spread your legs a bit wider” situation. All of it. Again.

Upon this discovery there at the TSA counter, I burst into tears. Yes, I was thankful they had my computer, understanding that they would hold onto it until I passed through security again, and even compliant with the need to search my bag again. But I really couldn’t handle the physical exam again. It was too much.

When the officer said, “Ma’am, I’m not sure why you’re doing this (insert vague hand gestures toward my face), but if it’s your flight you’re worried about, we’ll make sure you don’t miss it,” I felt sorry for crying. But then I didn’t anymore because it was awful and worth crying about. Also, I read somewhere that men sweat and girls cry. So while a man would simply sweat through his shirt, a girl will break into full ugly cry in a stressful situation. I present to you myself, exhibit A.

Anyway, I finished it all, and I made it to Ohio with stories to tell. Because of course.

Fast-forward four days, when it was time to enter the TSA Gauntlet yet again.

Just as before—and now knowing the drill implicitly, I allowed lots of time, I brought my license (driver’s and marriage), and I complied like a champ. I was dreading the pat-down, but I was holding tight to my laptop so we could minimize this whole situation to just the one time through.

That’s when I met Abda, the TSA agent assigned to my hot mess. While we waited for the people on the white security phone to clear my name and social security number, Abda asked, “So what do you do in… where did you say… Denver?”

“I’m an author.”

“Oh, you’re a writer?”

(These are usually synonymous to me, except for in this moment. For some reason, I felt compelled to prove that this word-collecting gig is more than a hobby.)

I nodded, “I’m an author.”

“I’ve always wanted to write a book,” she told me with her ear to her phone while she waited on hold. Abda is Middle Eastern, and she’d like to write a romantic comedy about dating and falling in love as a Middle Eastern woman raised in cultures of the United States but with the values of her native-born parents. (She may have a great storyline here.)

(I told her as much.)

She said, “Really? You’re not yanking my…” She held up one finger as the TSA on the phone talked in her ear.

When she looked at me again, I said, “I’m not yanking your anything. I think that could be a great book.” By all means, let’s talk about this right now. How about you take my business card (which, by the way, has my previous name on it as proof that I was once whom my boarding pass claims), and let’s talk about your literary dreams while you don’t pat me down in front of God and everyone.

Somehow, that little trade worked. Either that, or someone on the other end of her white security phone said, “Eh, let her through. She’s harmless.”

(There are loops of irony in all of this, I’m sure, as Abda waved me through when she herself would never have had that privilege. I love you, Abda. I do.)

Anyway, I’m home now, busily changing my name on all airline-related accounts. Someday perhaps I shall heretofore and forever more be known by one name. It’s not likely, but a girl can dream.

Tricia Lott Williford

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