By Mark E. Smith
So, my colleague, Jeff, and I are making our way through Detroit’s Metropolitan airport’s passenger security checkpoint. Jeff is a good guy to travel with because he’s ultra-responsible – great company to have on business trips when you’re visiting providers and giving a talk at an event like we just finished.
Luckily, because I use a power wheelchair, we’re being ushered ahead of all of the people in the security line. Jeff grabs my briefcase and carry-on bag from where they’ve been hanging on the back of my wheelchair, and I shoot off through a security gate, directed by a Transportation Security Administration officer – a TSA agent, as they’re commonly called. I look over and see Jeff start loading our gear into the bins on the X-ray conveyor belt.
“Right this way, sir,” the TSA agent on the other side of the gate says, leading me to a spot that I know well – they’re the same at every airport – where they’ll search me and my wheelchair by hand.
“Have you been through this before, sir?” the agent asks, putting on rubber gloves.
“Many times,” I say, holding my arms out for a pat-down, looking like a well-dressed guy in a wheelchair being arrested.
“Do you have any sensitive spots?” he asks.
I pause before answering, carefully considering my exact words.
See, I once told a TSA agent that my only sensitive spot was my crotch, thinking that I was being funny. However, that particular TSA agent didn’t share my humor – and threatened not to let me through security, so I’ve learned to keep my off-handed comments to myself.
“No – no sensitive spots,” I say.
The agent pats me down – arms, torso, legs – then grabs three cookie-sized white swatches of cloth, and wipes down my wheelchair, my shoes, and the palms of my hands with them. I know what the swatches are for from having been wiped-down many times – they pick up any residue of chemicals, and when scanned by a machine, they tell the agent whether there are any traces of chemicals or explosives on you.
I’m distracted by a guy wearing a waist-length, dark-brown fur coat, carrying a shiny-aluminum briefcase, and I’m reminded of the crazy characters who I only seem to see in airports.
I turn back to the TSA agent and watch as he puts one of my swatches in the reader, and it buzzes a sound I’ve never heard. He looks at the machine, then me, then the machine again. Then he walks toward me.
“Sir, I’m gonna need to check your palms again,” he says, holding a new swatch.
I nod. I know something is up with the buzzer and this second swatch check of my palms, so I’m just playing it cool.
“No problem,” I say.
The TSA agent wipes my palms, walks over to another machine, and runs the test. That machine, too, buzzes.
What could be on my hands that’s setting off the alarm, I wonder, looking at my hands.
“Sir, please don’t move while I get my supervisor,” the TSA agent says to me.
Jeff strolls up, struggling to carry both sets of our bags, hanging mine back on my wheelchair.
“Dude, my hands are setting off the chemical residue alarm,” I whisper to Jeff, and he just stares at me like here we go….
The TSA agent returns with his supervisor, and the supervisor asks, “Are you two traveling together?”
“Yep, he’s with me,” I reply, glancing at Jeff.
“Have you handled any chemicals this morning, sir?” the supervisor asks me.
“Just soap, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, breath spray, and a muffin,” I reply, trying to think if I’ve overlooked anything.
“No, none of that would do it,” the supervisor replies.
“What about hand sanitizer?” the TSA agent adds.
“I haven’t used any, but Jeff, here, is addicted to it,” I reply, pointing at Jeff. “I’m not kidding, Jeff bathes in it. During our whole trip, every time I look, he’s putting the stuff on his hands.”
“That could be it,” the TSA agent says. “Have you guys shook hands or anything this morning?”
“No, but we’ve been handling the same bags,” I reply. “…Maybe you should check Jeff’s hands.”
Jeff turns his eyes down at me like, Mark, shut up!, but doesn’t say a word.
“Oh no,” the TSA agent says with a nervous chuckle. “We don’t want to make this situation any worse than it is.”
Worse than it is? That doesn’t sound good.
“No, really, check Jeff’s hands – I’m curious to know what’s on them,” I say.
“Sir, we’d best not,” the TSA agent says.
The supervisor looks Jeff and me up and down. “You guys should probably just go catch your plane,” he says, looking around as if no one else should hear what he’s said. “The machine reads to a 10-billionth, so I’m sure it’s just picking up the hand sanitizer.”
“Well, thanks for your help,” I say, and Jeff and I turn and get out of there as fast as we can.
“Great move,” Jeff says as we head down the corridor. “Check his hands! – what are you, crazy, trying to get us in more trouble?”
“Well, you’re the one addicted to hand sanitizer, so I just wanted to see if the buzzer went off for you, too,” I replied. “There’s nothing on my hands, so it has to be your hand sanitizer rubbing off on me….”
“Remind me never to go through security with you again,” Jeff says as we head toward our gate.