I’m on my way to San Antonio, and I’m standing in the security line at the airport, waiting my turn to deposit my belt, shoes, jacket, wallet and change, laptop and carry-on bag in the plastic bins for x-ray, and then to follow through x-ray myself. This is air travel in 21st century America: herded, x-rayed, checked, peered at, prodded and eventually you get to your destination.
I’m thinking about the first time I flew on an airplane – it was 1959, and I was flying to spend a week with my grandmother. I had to dress up, Sunday best, because that’s what you did in the glamour days of flying. The stewardesses wore white gloves; even coach had linen napkins.
I notice a TSA agent standing in front of the x-ray scanners. He’s counting down the line. I look around; no one else notices, too intent on preparing for the security ordeal.
I realize what he’s doing. Every eleventh person is being marked for the full pat-down and examination of carry-on bags. I watch him do this with two rows of us lining up. It’s completely random; whoever is the eleventh person in the line is being selected for the full security treatment.
He’s counting the people in line close to me now, and No. 11 is directly in front of me. It’s a little girl, about six years old. I can actually see the expression on his face change from neutral to almost open dismay. The girl is with her family. She’s holding on to a stuffed Mickey Mouse and has a pink Cinderella backpack. I heard them talking; they’re heading for a family vacation at Disney World.
This No. 11 is likely to become panicked and be reduced to tears. Her parents and siblings will be upset and then outraged. A family vacation is likely to get ruined before it begins.
The agent, a young man, looks at me standing behind the little girl. I nod, and his expression changes again, to relief. In that simple wordless exchange, he knew that I had seen him counting, and he knew that I was saying take me instead of the little girl.
It’s a small moment in a process repeated millions of times a day. No one has seen this tacit agreement between the two of us.
I realize that the TSA agent and I may have written a poem together.
It is a poem about chance – about an event that is both random and methodical, about two people who come together for a brief flash of a moment, who both know they will come away changed.
It is a poem of understanding, an agreement to do something that will substitute a good thing for a potentially bad thing. A child will be spared the agony of a random security search. The agent is doing what he has to do so the TSA and the federal government won’t be accused of profiling. We both understand, too, that searching a six-year-old girl will make no one’s airline flight more secure.
And it’s a poem of meaning, something that goes deeper than words could convey.
I go through the full pat-down and body scan. My carry-on bags are thoroughly checked. I have to turn my laptop on. The agent himself conducts the check. At the end of it, I hear a whispered “thank you.”
I nod again and get my things put back together, and then go to my gate, thinking that I find poetry at work in the most unexpected places.
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