"Sir, you have been chosen for a random security check. Would you, please, step over there."
The tall well dressed gentleman, armed by one of the incomprehensible but officially looking badges you see in the airports, pointed at the direction of a nook behind the check-in counter.
"Er..", I bleated sheepishly, making a vague gesture in the direction of the backs of my family members, already disappearing down the steps to board the Jumbo that was priming for take-off. Which take-off was supposed to take place in something like thirty minutes. But of course, under the kind, albeit unyielding, stare of the gentleman, I have stepped as prescribed. Being of a swarthy Mediterranean appearance, further encumbered by a big all-revealing schnozzle, I am used to being randomly selected for security checks, so in a way it was really no skin off that schnozzle.
The entrance to the nook was guarded by a table and a chair occupied by a person whose appearance hinted at Pakistani or similar origins, who kindly asked me to surrender my passport and the boarding pass, adding them to the bottom of an already sizable stack of similar documents. Aside of this stack, the table held a folder of forms, vaguely reminiscent of accounting, and a few pens. Another gentleman of Pakistani origins hovered near the table, somehow adding to the slightly puzzling ambiance of the whole setup.
After being relieved of the passport, I have entered the enclosure and sat down at the first available chair, immediately starting to survey the group that has already gathered there. To my surprise, all of the specimen selected for the random security check and sitting in the enclosure, looked absolutely the opposite of that ominous "young male of swarthy Mediterranean appearance" image: mostly blond WASPish males and females with a few kids (!) of the same un-terrorist exterior. This notice, however, was abandoned when, with a slight start, I have discovered that the only person totally answering the above mentioned ominous image, a young Arab gentleman, was seated next to my own seat (which I have, of course, chosen randomly). Not only was he young, swarthy and Mediterranean, but his unshaven face, unkempt hair and sullen looks clearly indicated (to me, that is) that he must be the real cause of that "random" security check. Very soon, I said to myself, an anti-terrorist squad will rush in and clap irons on the culprit's appendages, removing the blighter from the innocent population.
Upon further reflection, though, this line of thought was slightly marred by a realization that I myself, with my exterior, my unkempt hair and clothes, my unshaven mug (after about ten hours spent on the way to London), could easily be a target of the security brouhaha. That is, aside of my age, I said to myself, swatting dead the whole ridiculous idea. All this while busily (but inconspicuously, of course) watching the terrorist bastard with a corner of my left (myopic) eye. Just in case where he decides to sneak a hand into his shirt where, no doubt, the switch of his explosive belt is located. Or a gun. Or... whatever.
Meanwhile the activities in the enclosure continued, albeit in a tortuously slow pace, so familiar to any frequent flier. A few new arrivals were added to our population of inmates. The Pakistani-looking gentleman at the table was busy reading the passports and scribbling something in his papers. This intrigued me in a way, since with the abundance of information about each of us already lodged in the computers it was hard to imagine any need for writing down anything whatsoever.
But then I have concentrated on the second Pakistani-looking gentleman. He was still hovering in the vicinity, murmuring something inaudible into his walkie-talkie when, as the habit of all walkie-talkies, it erupted from time to time in a cacophony of unintelligible noises. Every few minutes he approached the table and, after a brief consultation with the scribbler, picked up and looked at a passport or two.
After a few minutes, however, this routine was interrupted. The hoverer, after another consultation with his walkie-talkie, took one of the passports and entered the nook. In an unhurried stride he approached the terrorist at my side and handed him the document. "You may proceed to the plane, sir", was his verdict. Of course I, who has already foreseen a completely different outcome, have been stunned.
After this inexplicable folly, the activities started to pick up. A few happy inmates where handed their passports and directed to the plane. Yet some others were escorted in a different direction by another badged airport employee. Eventually my turn came too. Carrying my passport and boarding pass, the official guided me to a door, courteously opening it for me. Behind the door was a windowless room lighted by merciless glare of fluorescent lights and lined on three sides by long tables, covered by what looked like scattered contents of the bags, obviously belonging to the passengers standing inside the open rectangle. The external side of the rectangle was populated by a motley crew of badged officials busily handling various items on the table.
I was guided to the only gentleman that wasn't busy at the moment and, without being asked, put my hefty backpack on the table. The first sentence, uttered by the gentleman, was completely unintelligible to me (aside of the word "security"), and I've swiftly realized that with my ears blocked by the flight to London and with my general inability of coping with cockney, my chances of successfully communicating with the gentleman are nil. The next communication from the man only exacerbated the issue. "Blah blah blah.... blah blah blah... zipper" was the request. Since the gentleman issuing the request wasn't looking at my eyes at the time, but rather in the direction somewhere at or below my midriff and since I have visited a restroom not a long time ago, I have naturally assumed that I have left that part of my clothing unattended after my use of the restroom. After a quick check, however, I have established that my pants are zippered and an uncomfortable moment of silence ensued.
After about half a minute of pregnant silence, the gentleman raised his eyes at looked at me directly. "Blah blah blah... blah blah blah... your bag", he stated somewhat impatiently. "Oh, you want me to unzip my bag!", cried I, resumed my breathing again and started unzipping the countless pockets of my backpack. The security gentleman looked somewhat mollified by my obvious diligence.
When all the zippers (of my backpack) were undone, the man's hands went into a veritable storm of activity. In a few moments the contents of my bag, filled with all kinds of photographic paraphernalia, were scattered on the table, and the torrent of the gentleman's activity came to a sudden end. Instead, he started to pick up a single object at a time and examine it in an exceedingly slow fashion and with utmost attention and care. After viewing each object from every possible angle and gently fondling some (no doubt more suspicious) bits of it, he put it, somewhat regretfully, as if still suspecting something, aside.
After a few uneventful minutes of this activity he, finally, came upon something that caused his eyes shine. "Blah blah blah... blah blah blah... not safety matches", he proudly declared, showing me a matchbook that I picked up in some hotel a year or two ago, and, as many a smoker will do, squirreled away in my bag for a rainy day. The matchbook went into a trash can near the wall and the unhurried contemplation of the contents of my bag resumed. Surreptitious glance at my watch told me that the plane should take off in a minute or two...
After a few more minutes a back door that I haven't noticed before opened, and a man in a flight uniform stepped in. "Ladies and gentlemen", he announced loudly, not addressing any specific person in the room particularly, "I appreciate the importance and the value of training our security personnel as much as anyone, but let's not forget that our goal here is to let our planes to fly after all, and that we are late as it is".
My checker and his colleagues in training looked at a man lounging in a corner of the room and, upon receiving some signal, started to wrap up the procedure. My checker gave me a glance of some regret, conveying a feeling that a few more moments would have revealed my true terrorist nature. I have returned a look of pure innocence, artfully mixed with total understanding of his hurt feelings, and helped him to stuff my belongings back into the bad. We didn't part as best friends, I regret to say. The time simply wasn't sufficient for that.
I, with other randomly selected training objects, have entered the plane and was followed on the way to my seat by suspicious stares of the long seated and impatient passengers. Among which was that Arab terrorist, of course, seating next to an Arab lady (his wife? bride? sister?), mostly covered by the traditional Muslim garb.
In another twenty minutes we were in the air, and after ten hours or so of a totally uneventful flight landed in foggy and cold San Francisco. Where I eventually got to light my first cigarette after about 24 hours of abstinence...
According to The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams:
AIRD OF SLEAT (n. archaic): Ancient Scottish curse placed from afar on the stretch of land now occupied by Heathrow Airport.
17 July 2010
"Sir, you have been chosen for a random security check. Would you, please, step over there."