I continue to surprise myself. Not necessarily in good ways. I’m known in my family for an even temper, patience and deliberation. My wife, kids, mother in-law — they’re the ones who get the occasional anxiety attack. Me? I’m immune from those. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. When I get too comfortable in that belief, something comes along to smack me out of it.
Today, that wake-up call came at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office in the International Terminal at Charlotte Douglas Airport.
There’s a reason they have the Preferred line at the airport right next to the Global Entry kiosk. They want you to work your way up from Coach to Preferred and then from Preferred to Global Entry and the proximity is a form of advertising. This works. As much as I travel, I eventually got tired of watching people breeze through the Global Entry line with no waiting, no removal of liquids and gels, shoes and belt intact. I shot jealous green glares at them from my position in the Preferred queue, while simultaneously trying to keep my pants from falling down around my knees. When I just couldn’t take it any longer, I sent in the $100 fee and made my appointment.
Other than waiting in line, I really don’t mind the TSA checkpoints. I have the routine down. By the time I get to the bins, I already have all my metal stashed, belt off, shoes off, laptop out, liquids & gels out. I stack it all in exactly three bins and then help the person behind me. I know some of the TSA agents by name. Many of them remember that I can’t hold my left arm high over my head because of the broken shoulder some years ago. If anyone belongs in the “trusted traveler” program, it’s me. This interview for the Global Entry program should be a breeze. Other than making sure I gathered my birth certificate and passport well in advance, I didn’t bother to prepare at all. It simply didn’t occur to me that there was anything whatsoever I needed to worry about. Until I watched the video.
Sitting outside the CBP interview office, a helpful video loop explained the program, described the application process and then showed a person checking in through a kiosk. I was a bit amused at the staged scene because they showed the longest serpentine line I’ve ever seen at the checkpoint in the background and one VERY happy traveler at the Global Entry kiosk in the foreground. Then as the narrator explained the biometrics I realized I’d need to be fingerprinted.
This brought another chuckle as I remembered my on-boarding process at Bank of America back in ’93. I got a call at my desk one day saying I needed to come down to the security office because of a problem with my fingerprints.
“Let me guess. You are missing an image for the left pinky finger?”
“Yes, that’s right. How did you know? Do you not have that finger?”
“Actually, no I don’t. Do you still need me to come down?”
“Yeah, we do need to verify it in person.”
So 15 minutes later I showed the guy my hand and 15 seconds after that I was on my way back to my desk. No problem. Flash forward 20 years and I’ve learned my lesson, all I need to do is show the guy my hand and make sure he enters whatever notation is required so I don’t get stopped at the kiosk every time.
Hmmm… What if he asks how that happened? Normally I tell people I was making a rocket and it turns out there’s a fine line between a rocket and a bomb. Oh shit! I can’t really say “bomb” in the airport, let alone in the CBP office. This is where they take you after you say bomb in the airport. So what do I tell the guy? I guess I just say a rocket exploded. Yeah, that’s it.
Wait a minute… real bombers have injuries like this, right? Like Dennis Hopper’s character in Speed. Shit! I bet I look like a bomber. What if he sees my hand? He’s gonna finger print it, of course he’s going to see my hand. SHIT!
I’ll just say it was a lawnmower accident. No, that won’t work. Look at those scars. No blade could do that. Fire? No. Dog bite? No teeth marks. What blows up that isn’t dangerous? Nothing stupid. “Blows up” == “Dangerous.” What the FUCK. What do I do?
OK, I’m gonna go. Screw the $100. I don’t need it and I can just wait in line like everyone else at TSA. Shit! They already have my details. I’ve checked in. If I leave, they’ll know something’s wrong. They know where to find me. I’ll never fly again. I’ll get fired. SHIT!
I gotta stay. But if he thinks I’m a bomber, I’m fucked. I wonder if they’re gonna Patriot Act me. They tossed the Constitution out the window with that thing. They can hold me without bail or a lawyer. In Cuba. Forever.
“Yes?” By this time I’m sweating profusely and can’t look the guy in the eye.
“I’ll need your passport and appointment confirmation letter.”
I proffer the requested documents, hoping he won’t notice my hands shaking.
“Wait here.” It isn’t a question.
He withdraws to the CBP inner sanctum, leaving me alone with the accursed video and the torture of my inner dialog. After a moment I realize my hands are flapping. I almost never have visible tics. I sit on them. This brings some relief until I realize I am now rocking. My heart is pounding. I’m certain I’m going to have a heart attack. The phone buzzes and I jump out of my seat. Facebook notification. The banality of it strikes me as funny and I start to laugh. Just as suddenly, I stop. I look around to make sure I’m alone. I am.
Then I sit down and start to play Sudoku on the phone to distract myself. But the game grid makes no sense. I have forgotten how to play. I put the phone away. I pull it back out thinking it’ll be good cover and give my hands something to do, even if I’m just punching buttons. The grid quickly turns red with incorrect moves. I don’t care.
Then I realize you aren’t supposed to use your phone in the CBP area. I put it away. But I suppose that means they don’t want you to talk on the phone, listen on headphones, or take photos. Games should be OK. Well, silent ones. I pull the phone out. But when I went to court for that traffic ticket they didn’t want to even see phones. I put it away. Is the volume down? I pull the phone back out and verify the volume is off. Oh, right. Just got that silent notification. Put the phone away. Hands flapping. Pull the phone back out.
SHIT! They must have this lobby under surveillance and I’m practically practicing “quick draw” with my phone. Shit! What if they think I am practicing quick draw? I conjure up a visual image of myself from across the room pulling the phone out and putting it away over and over. Yup. Looks like a gun. I put the phone away and start scanning along the top of the walls for cameras. Nothing visible. There’s a spot on the wall. Could that be a camera? Well, if it is, staring right at it won’t help. I quickly shift my gaze to my boots.
“Huh?” Oh, that’s not obvious. Distracted much?
“Come with me.”
He does ask about my finger. “I was making a rocket and it went off in my hand. I was real young. I don’t play with explosives anymore.” Really? You HAD to say “explosives?” It’s Gitmo now, for sure. He asks about my international destinations over the last 5 years. I draw an almost complete blank.
“I just got back from the UK. I was in…ummm.. Berlin. I went toooooo….ummm… Barcelona. Oh. That must have been over 5 years ago, though.”
He interrupts. “The Netherlands?”
“Oh, shit! Yeah. Just last month. First week of December. We had this seminar… Oh, excuse me. I didn’t mean to say ‘shit.’ I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK. Anywhere else?”
I rack my brain. All I can think of is Mexico. We went there when I was about 4. For a day. So my father could buy drugs. SHIT! I can’t mention that. And it’s more than 5 years ago. I can actually hear the second hand on my watch tick. It is deafeningly loud.
“Oh, right. Calgary last month. No, the month before that. Well, recently. Oh, and I was in Toronto once. No, twice. No…”
He mercifully interrupts me. “What is it you do?”
“Computer security. CBP is one of my customers.” OH SHIT! Did I just say that? What if he thinks I’m trying to get favorable treatment? Or that I’ve got some kind of back door? Why the fuck have I got no filters all of a sudden? Is there some sort of truth-gas in the seating lobby? Is that why they make you sit there for a while while they “process your paperwork?” Getting paranoid. Ratchet it down. Ratchet it down. Deep breaths. Not too obvious.
Deep breaths. 2…3…4…
Deep breaths. 5…6…7…
I manage to make it through the rest of the interview. My heart still feels like it is going to explode right out of my chest. How can the officer not hear it beating? I’m half expecting to stroke out in the interview room but thinking it would be a relief. At least it would explain my behavior. When he asks if I want the demo, all I want is to get the hell out. But I know I won’t be able to navigate the machine on my own the first time so I try to lock it down and I ask for the demo. What is it they say? Feel the fear and do it anyway? In for a penny, in for…
“Huh?” Oh, shit. The demo. Right.
Over the next 5 minutes, I age 10 years. When he finally shows me to the door, it is all I can do to keep from breaking into a run. There’s a restroom at the end of the hall. I duck in, burst into an empty stall and dry heave for 5 minutes. I politely decline the offer of medical assistance when the janitor asks. “Bad steak biscuit,” I explain. All those years of fast food finally paid off. Finally, I regain my composure, mop the sweat off my face and clean up a bit before heading back out to the main terminal.
Now, at this point you’d think I would just leave, but I’m still shaking and know I won’t be able to drive. Sitting around around doing nothing for a while doesn’t seem like a good option. The check-in line is completely empty, except for the lone TSA officer hoping I’m flying somewhere today just so he’ll have someone to talk to. Then I get an idea. I approach the TSA officer.
“Hi! Usually I’m in a hurry coming through here but today I had some extra time and wanted to say thanks for your service. I know most of what you hear is complaints but I fly a lot and it really is amazing how many people you move through here. You folks do a great job.”
The officer is surprised and beams a wide grin. “Thank you so much, sir! It’s nice of you to say so.”
I shake his hand and move on. I think I made his day. Near the elevators I spot a pair of officers directing the lone passenger toward the check-in line. They get the same speech. More hand shaking ensues. I’m starting to feel like myself again. Further down the terminal I spot a Charlotte police officer, an airport security guard and someone else who could be either. I walk up and thank them for their service. Nobody wants to shake hands. Tipping an imaginary hat, I move on. Over my shoulder I hear a mic keyed.
“Control, you got eyes on my location? Caucasian. Late forties. Medium height. Stocky build. Black hair, mustache, goatee, black leather jacket, black boots blue jeans…”
Seriously? Stopping to thank the officers at the airport is suspicious? Sucks to be you but don’t take it out on me, OK? So much for feeling like myself again. Heart pounding. Adrenaline surging. What is it they say? No good deed goes unpunished? I suppose if I run, they really will chase me down and detain me. I force myself to buy a Diet Coke at the news stand like there’s nothing wrong.
Getting paranoid. Ratchet it down. Ratchet it down. Deep breaths. Keep walking.
Deep breaths. 2…3…4…
Deep breaths. 5…6…7…
Abandoning any plans to thank any more officers, I duck out the nearest door and hop the shuttle to the parking deck. I officially apologize to the parking maintenance folks for the mess. Apparently I was only renting that Diet Coke. I sat in the car until I was able to play a game of Sudoku again, then left.
I’m glad that’s over. The only consolation is that I’m immune from panic attacks for a while. At least, that’s what I tell myself.