Welcome to the 21st Century: No toothpaste, pocketknives, or snowglobes allowed. (And beware the dreaded silk scarf.) What am I talking about? TSA, of course.
I like to travel, but I hate traveling to get there.
It’s when I’m pushing a laptop, a raincoat, a pair of shoes, an iPad, an empty computer shoulder bag, a sweater, a silk scarf (“you have to take that off, too”), a ziplock baggy containing tiny bottles, a corkscrew (no blade), and a carry-on (now mostly empty) one-by-one through an x-ray machine that I find traveling to be particularly painful. And that’s not the worst of it.
Because I refuse to walk through a full-body scanner (apparently approved by “the government” and operated by people who didn’t pay attention in biology class when the teacher explained about radiation, or in history class when the teacher explained about Thalidamide, fluroscopes, and fen-phen), I’m given 5 minutes of “time-out” before my fourth amendment rights are trampled (I am not suspected of committing a crime but must submit to an intrusive search) by a useless pat-down. (If I wanted to smuggle something through TSA, I would simply pad it inside my bra. Duh.)
But no worries, folks: we are all safe. TSA has determined that I am wearing underwear (the agent runs her hands inside waistband of my jeans) and that my scarf is not a bomb –nevermind that I might use it to strangle someone (see below).
There is something starkly unAmerican (and unconstitutional) about airport “security”, and it offends me every time I submit to it for the sake of flying somewhere. Ben Franklin –who, like Albus Dumbledore, refused to get into politics– quipped, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither.” We seem to have overdrawn the national bank to pay for fleeting (and false) security. Anyone else out there notice that we are one exploding bra away from flying naked? But I digress.
Having survived unjust search (but no seizure), I gird myself to board what will probably be an over-booked, delayed flight. Unfortunately, I’m right. I didn’t pay extra for early boarding, so I get a middle seat, and there’s no room in the overhead storage compartment, so I have to check my carry-on. Growl. (I saved twelve bucks, yeah, but I ended up with a middle seat and an hour of lost sleep spent waiting for my luggage to show up. Bad math if ever there was some.)
Twenty minutes into the flight, the guy in front of me shoves his seat back into my laptop (while scowling at the woman across the aisle who has the audacity to travel with young children) and knocks my drink onto my silk scarf. I consider using my silk assault weaspon to wring his impudent neck, but decide against it: next thing you know, the FAA would ban scarves, along with neckties, tube socks, belts, bras, suspenders, shoelaces, long sleeves, long pants, and pantyhose. Everyone would have to fly in baggy tank tops and boxers (wearing flip-flops). Scary. (Now that I think about it, that sounds a lot like LAX…)
I dab my scarf with my miniscule napkin and spend the next two hours with a rude guy’s balding head in my lap. And then we circle for another hour due to fog (but, thankfully, with our seats up and tray-tables stowed). I wait forty-five minutes for my (supposedly carry-on) suitcase to be expelled from the airport’s bowels, and then stand out in the windy cold for another 45 minutes (it’s raining) waiting for a lone taxi that reeks of old smoke and, at freeway speeds, seems to be dying of advanced Parkinson’s. Did I mention I don’t like to travel?
It’s after midnight when I lug my carry-on and computer bag from the main lobby of the 4-star hotel (which I booked at a discount) to the separate tower, which requires walking outside in the rain and the dark (because I booked at a discount). I prop my suitcase against my knee (the computer bag hanging around it makes it easy to carry, but unstable) and swipe my card, and then attempt to open the wet, heavy outside door (which has been placed more than two-arms length away from the card access) before the lock reactivates. My luggage slips and my laptop threatens to crash onto the wet concrete. I let go of the door and awkwardly toss the heavy bag over my shoulder, trying to keep it from swinging off as I swipe my card and then lunge for the distant door. It takes me two more attempts, but I finally make it inside the cold, cavernous and empty tower lobby. I shake the rain off my suitcase, put the strap of my computer bag back over it, and pull the soggy mess across the polished granite floor toward the elevators, looking forward to collapsing into bed. Hah.
After spending fives minutes mucking with a bad key-access card inside the elevator (buttons won’t work until you activate them with your room key), I see no alternative but to return to the front desk (outside through the dark and the rain, prop luggage, swipe card, wrestle door open) to get a new key-card, and then return (dark and rain, prop, swipe, and wrestle) and have another go. Heavy sigh. I trudge back into the rainy night, my discount room not seeming like such a great deal anymore.
Twenty painful minutes later, I discover that the new card doesn’t work in the elevator, either. (I swear loudly, but despite what the Mythbusters say, it doesn’t make me feel any better.) It’s quite obviously not the card that’s malfunctioning. (Hey, it’s late and I’m tired.) Now extremely annoyed, I pick up my stuff, exit the inoperative elevator, and punch the “up” button, which immediately turns off because there’s already an elevator car waiting. While I try to decide if I should go back to the lobby and yell until I feel better, or schlep my suitcase up five flights of stairs (the door to the stairway is nowhere to be seen), the other elevator car arrives (empty). Hallelujah.
I dash into the second car, dragging my raincoat across the floor. My card-key works on the first try, and a few minutes later I push open the door of a lavish but musty-smelling hotel room. The clock radio is on (despite the very late hour), and much-too-loud muzak is blaring through the humid half-darkness. It’s true: I made it, but I have no desire to listen to Barry Manilow sing about it. I lean my suitcase against the wall, toss my soggy jacket over the back of the chair, grab the small boombox from the nightstand, and thumb the “off” switch (which is not as simple as it sounds: the damn thing has about a hundred buttons and all the labels are in a 4-point font). The noise stops.
I crumple onto the bed, trying to work up the energy to unpack and take a shower before passing out. It’s long past midnight when I crawl into the luxurious sheets, grateful for the black-out curtains. The room is dark, the hotel quiet, the bed comfortable. I fall blissfully asleep.
I startle awake, uncertain where I am or why there is a a terrible noise blasting through the nearly complete darkness. I stare up into the black, panic edging up inside my throat as the cobwebs of sleep wither. Fire alarm? I sniff for smoke but detect none, only the musty odor of… ah, my discount hotel room. But what is that horrendous noise?
The alarm. On the clock-radio. It’s four a.m. I can see the glowing red numbers floating in the air, the dots in the center blinking. After what seems like fifteen minutes of struggling to get the damn thing to shut off (the lamp doesn’t work because it’s turned off at a wall-switch which I cannot locate in the pitch black), I use my legs to force the granite-topped nightstand away from the wall and then follow the cord coming out of the radio to its socket, knocking the useless lamp off onto the plush carpet in the process. After a couple of failed attempts, I yank the correct plug out. Blessed silence descends.
I lie there breathing hard, chastising myself for not checking that the bloody alarm clock was off when I turned off the muzak. A couple of minutes later, I wade carefully through the precarious mix of power cords, bed sheets, and lamp parts strewn willy-nilly to open the curtains for some light. After I retrieve the pillows and reassemble the linens, I attempt to fall back asleep, wondering how difficult it would have been for the housekeepers to disable the alarm (instead of turning on the mindless music) when they turned down the bed. It takes me a while to stop fuming enough to fall back asleep.
The next morning, I take the “broken” elevator (no card-key needed to go down) to get a Starbucks before heading off to work. I plan to give the front desk an earful when I return to grab a cab. Just as I step out into the lobby, I remember a birthday card I’ve forgotten in the room. Damn, I’ll have to go back and get it. And I’ll have to wait for the other elevator car to go back up.
A tall man in a well-cut suit watches me exit the elevator and then notices my hesitation. He steps inside, but holds the door. “Forget something?” He has large feet and a British accent.
I nod, feeling embarrassed.
He smiles. “Me, too. What floor?”
I give him an indulgent look. “Five. But I think this elevator’s broken.”
He laughs, low and resonant. “It is, but no worries.” He gestures with his arm. “Step back in, and I’ll show you how to get the lift to work properly.” He raises his eyebrows and waits for me to decide.
I step back inside, feeling awkward but unable to think of what else do to. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“Would you mind holding this, please?” He hands me his coffee. Our fingers brush as I take the small cup. “It’ll only take a moment.” The scent of his aftershave, citrus mixed with something dark, caresses my nose, and I feel a distinctive twinge. His is tall and athletic-looking in his well-cut suit.
I watch him wedge his large shoe against the bottom of the panel and then press his hand against the top while lowering his elbow onto the loose door above the controls. With his left hand, he slides his room key across the barely-attached reader in the middle. The elevator door closes and the lift begins to rise.
I let out an audible breath. “Wow. How’d you figure that out?”
He blushes. “Bit of trial and error.” He taps the loose panel with his toe. “But I must admit, I’ve been here for two weeks and only figured out the Lift Hokey-Pokey a couple of days ago.”
I laugh and hand him back his coffee, thinking that a little duct tape would do nicely.
He glances over at me. “Lovely that the sun has finally come out. I was beginning to think I’d left London only to spend two bloody weeks in the pouring rain.”
I chuckle. He seems very nice. The elevator stops, and I step out at my floor and then turn back to him. “Thank you. For the lift and for the secret combination.” He has bright blue eyes.
He gives me a warm smile and a slight bow. “It was my pleasure. Enjoy your stay.”
I stand and watch the door slide shut, a bit sorry to see him go.
But he’s right, the sky is clear and blue, the day perfect. Despite my lack of sleep, the day goes well, and I head back to the hotel in the late afternoon, done with work a couple of hours earlier than I had expected and happy to have the evening free.
I run into the athletic Brit as I’m waiting for the elevator in the tower lobby. He steps out, holding the door, and then recognizes me and smiles. “What a pleasure to see you again. Did you have a good day?”
I stare at him for a moment, captivated. He’s wearing jeans and a very flattering black sweater — and seems to have rather normal-sized shoes on. My insides twist again. “Yes, thanks. And you?” I glance from his eyes to his lips and back.
“Splendid, thanks.” He doesn’t drop his gaze.
I shift my computer bag to get out my card-key, but he whips his out first and reactivates the elevator for me: wedge foot, press hand, lower elbow, slide card. He pushes the”five” button and then holds the door for me.
I smile. “Thank you. Seems you’re an expert at the Hokey-Pokey. Maybe I could get you to wait by the elevator in case I need help later?”
He laughs and gives me the electric smile. The door starts to shut, but he pulls it back and gives a fake cough. “I don’t mean to be too forward, but I was planning to take a stroll around the wharf. It would be lovely to have company. You wouldn’t care to join me?”
I grin. “I’d love to. Give me five to change, and I’ll meet you back down here.”
We spend the evening exploring the city, walking and talking –and laughing a lot. He flies home the following morning, so I don’t run into him again (but I make good use of his Hokey-Pokey, always with a smile.)
A few days later I climb into a cab, dreading the airport hassle ahead of me.
But, the driver is a mathematician from Belarus who is working on his PhD, and we spend a short thirty minutes chatting about Chaos Theory and traffic congestion. Getting through security is a pain, but the TSA agent in my line doesn’t scowl when I opt-out of the scanner, and the pat-down is prompt and short. There’s a crying baby on the plane, and turbulence over The Rockies, but my carry-on is stowed above me, and we arrive on time. Life is good. Did I mention that I like to travel?