Anxiety at the Gates

Why did I go to work for the TSA? To try to connect with my father? To soothe various concerns as a new father myself? Was I researching a book? Having a midlife crisis? All of the above?

Edward Schwarzschild is the author of the novel Responsible Men and the story...

 

1.

It was my first shift of Transportation Security Officer on-the-job training at Albany International Airport’s only checkpoint and I was told to shadow Steven, a fast-talking, big-bellied former car-salesman. We started our rotation at “divestiture,” the Transportation Security Administration’s term for the place where you surrender your belongings. I rehearsed the script about emptying all pockets, putting laptops in their own bins, and removing shoes, jackets, and belts. After fifteen minutes of that, it was onto the next task. We moved from bag search to the walk-through metal detector to document checker to exit to the scanner, then back around to divestiture. Steven pattered advice my way as we circled the checkpoint. “Carry extra gloves in your back pocket,” he said. “Make sure they’re not too tight. And remember, you’re in charge. This is your house.”

It didn’t feel like my house, which I’d left at 4 a.m., tiptoeing out so as not to wake my wife and three-year-old son. And despite my brand new, titanium blue uniform, complete with patches, epaulets, and a shiny nametag, I didn’t feel in charge at all. While I listened to Steven, I scanned the checkpoint for my fellow TSOs-in-training. Eight of us had just spent two weeks downstairs in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless classroom together. In our civilian clothes, we’d listened to lectures, learned how to read x-ray images, practiced pat-downs, and passed various tests. I caught sight of one of my classmates: Nina, a bubbly, former schoolteacher. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she worked the walk-through metal detector. She didn’t look in charge either, but the crisp new uniform leant her an undeniable aura of authority. She gave me the thumbs-up and I returned the favor, remembering my pre-dawn drive to the airport. A slow cover of “Feeling Good” had been playing on the radio as I pulled into the employee lot: It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life. I’d walked toward the terminal with the music still buzzing in my ears. Red lights glowed out on the tarmac. Under the layers of asphalt and concrete, there was marshland. Along the chain link fences, cattails still grew tall, rustling in the wind. They were stiff from the cold and I listened to them brush like bamboo against the fence, an odd but soothing windchime.

Steven thumped a hand down on my shoulder. “Come on, man,” he said. “Focused attention please!” The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small carry-on. I struggled to recall the SOP for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets, and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to Create Calm and demonstrate Command Presence, but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me and I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie. I was grateful that Steven was there to help me out. Clearly, it would take a little longer to establish authority.

Just a few rotations later, Steven and I were at the scanner when a familiar voice shouted, “This guy is an impostor!”

I looked up and saw Gene, a friend and retired UAlbany professor, about to enter the scanner. He was old enough to keep his brown loafers on. I was already nervous enough. I feared I was now moments away from being fired.

But I was the only one who flinched. I helped Gene through and quietly told him we’d talk another time. I watched him reunite with his wheelchair-bound wife—she’d been sent through the metal detector instead of the scanner. I heard her ask him the obvious question: “What’s Ed doing here?”

Again Gene spoke at full volume, as if the checkpoint were his lecture hall, though I knew his wife had perfectly good hearing. “He’s researching a novel!” Gene shouted.

The supervisor did not rush over to apprehend me. Steven was unfazed. “Is that grandpa a friend of yours?” he asked.

“He’s a sweet guy,” I said. I expected him to ask for more details, but he was already focusing on the next passenger. Still, for the rest of the shift, and for many shifts to come, those stubborn questions stayed with me: What am I doing here? Am I an impostor? Am I researching a novel?

2.

When I sent in my application to work for the TSA, my father was on the brink of eighty and I was struggling to communicate with him. Too often, when I talked about him with my own son, I told stories about my childhood that were laced with resentment. I emphasized how many chores and rules there were around the house, how my father was often on the road (he was a traveling textile salesman), how he had a talent for finding flaws in whatever I happened to be doing, from setting the table to stacking the firewood to filling the water pitcher.

My father never went to college. He went to work for his father after high school and, aside from a brief stint in the Air Force Reserves, he worked in his father’s business for almost his entire life. Those two Schwarzschild men shared a dank, basement office for decades and then, after my grandfather died, my father had that office all to himself for a few decades more. In other words, he was a grinder. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him truly relax. If pressed, I’d say the closest he ever got was when he was in the basement of our house, in the workroom he shared with the furnace and the hot water heater. He could sit in there for hours, painstakingly assembling and painting model airplanes.

He loved to fly. When he’d signed up for the Air Force Reserves, he’d hoped to become a pilot, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. He became a paratrooper instead.

Whenever he flew on a commercial flight, he’d bring home one of the plastic emergency cards as a souvenir. He kept them in folders he could clip into three-ring binders. He encouraged his family and friends to help him enlarge his collection if they happened to be traveling. Over the years, I brought him dozens; they made him, for a moment, smile with approval. After decades of collecting, he had a shelf or two of binders, all of them filled with brightly colored illustrations of emergency exits, seat belts, and inflatable slides gently delivering passengers from planes to open water. Many of the airlines no longer exist. If you’d like to see the entire collection, along with the model airplanes, they now sit on display at the Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum in Horsham, Pennsylvania.

Which is all a way to say that maybe if I worked a grinding airport job for a while, I’d come to understand my father better, and resent him less, before it was too late. At the same time, sometimes I thought applying for a job with the TSA was evidence of a mid-life crisis. I was closing in on fifty, my son was three, and I’d been working as an English professor for seventeen years. Every day offered evidence of how little control I had over the world around me. Call it the mid-life crisis of an authority-seeker. Instead of speeding around recklessly in a shiny red sports car, I’d take an entry-level, rule-bound job, work the 5-9 a.m. shift, and learn how to divest tired travelers of their plastic water bottles. Then I’d race over to the university and bring a whole new perspective to my classes in contemporary literature and fiction writing.

The fact that I’d become a father myself also drew me to the job. What does it mean to be a parent during the “War on Terror”? I felt as haunted by the collective tragedy of 9/11 as anyone, but I was also haunted by the ways daily living in the United States had changed from 9/12 forward. I bristled at the bunkering of public buildings (like the state capitol buildings a few blocks away from my house), the pervasiveness of surveillance and searches, the sudden expansion of airport checkpoints. When I used to fly home to Philadelphia from St. Louis or San Francisco or elsewhere, my father would be there at the gate, waiting to embrace me, eager to hear details about the flight. When it was time to leave again, he’d walk me to the gate and wait with me, waving farewell as I boarded the plane. My students were growing up in a very different world, as was my son. These days only those with tickets can be with us as we board and deplane. Our farewells and reunions usually take place in the shadow of a checkpoint.

3.

Day after day, shift after shift, I kept trying to feel in charge at the checkpoint. I found that, in some ways, my time as a writer and professor provided good training for most duties of a Transportation Security Officer. Years of grading papers meant I could check documents at a good clip. Thanks to a specialization in film studies, I’d spent a good deal of time examining images on screen, searching for unusual, hidden, crucial details—fine practice for working the x-ray machine. And my first teaching position, right out of graduate school, took me to a small Southern women’s college, where I learned a certain genteel politeness—politeness that served me well as I searched through bags while harried passengers stood by, scowling and impatient.

No part of my teaching experience, however, prepared me to perform pat-downs.

Back at that Southern women’s college, I’d learned that the only really acceptable form of student/faculty physical contact was a high-five. On rare occasions, there were fist bumps, but these risked the perception of violence. Now, every morning, as part of my job, I was supposed to run my hands up and down the legs, torsos, and arms of my fellow citizens. I was supposed to do this in such a way that no one would feel groped.

My fellow rookies and I practiced on each other first, patting each other down multiple times. There was nervous, lighthearted banter about touching junk and how much worse it would be in North Korea and why the men finished practicing before the women did. Our cheerful instructors offered guidance. They said the procedure was clinical. Exert the same pressure you use to spread peanut butter on a sandwich. Say clearly what you’re going to do and then do it. We’d grow numb to it before long, they assured us.

As we practiced, a few lines from Bob Dylan’s “George Jackson” kept running through my mind: Sometimes I think this whole world/Is one big prison yard/Some of us are prisoners/The rest of us are guards.

How could I put my hands on someone else like this?

And yet, was there a better way to keep our airplanes safe?

Whitman’s “A Song for Occupations” offered this: Neither a servant nor master I…I will be even with you and you shall be even with me.

But how could I perform pat-downs in such a way that they’d foster both security and compassion?

I remembered Newjack, Ted Conover’s book about the year he worked as a Corrections Officer in Sing Sing. Day after day, he’d had to do much more than the TSA’s standard pat-down and he voiced his worries about the consequences of his actions:

“Leave it at the gate,” you hear time and again in corrections. Leave all the stress and bullshit at work; don’t bring it home to your family. This was good in theory. In reality, though, I was like my friend who had worked the pumps at a service station: Even after she got home and took a shower, you could still smell the gasoline on her hands. Prison got into your skin, or under it. If you stayed long enough, some of it probably seeped into your soul.

I didn’t think I’d be able to work a year at the checkpoint, but I wanted to stay at the job long enough to understand more fully what had drawn me to it. I hoped my soul—as well as the souls of all the passengers I encountered—wouldn’t be stained. I knew airport checkpoints were disturbing, dehumanizing, and frightening places for many people. And these days, more than ever, it becomes almost impossible to pass through an airport without thinking about how many people are detained on their way. How many have their property confiscated. How many leave feeling violated. How many are forced to leave and forbidden to return. But, back then, I tried to reassure myself: Albany’s checkpoint was a bright, airy, high-ceilinged space. I hadn’t witnessed any inappropriate behavior. Technically, as TSOs, we weren’t even allowed to detain people—that was police work.

My professorial intellectualizing didn’t help much the first time I had to shadow a TSO named Lance, a hard-working bodybuilder so thick with muscle he had to walk through the scanner sideways. He showed devotion to all the rules, held at least one other security job, and went to night school. When he wasn’t working or studying, he was watching cop shows, preparing himself for the latest threats. In other words, he was a true believer with big aspirations in the security field. Only a fool would have tried to get in his way. When he watched me perform a pat-down, I flubbed my lines and forgot to check the passenger’s feet. Lance was not impressed. “That being-nice stuff,” he said, “you have to let that go.”

The next time I was paired with Lance, he focused harder on my pat-down technique. Again, he was not impressed. “Have you been practicing your verbiage at home?” he asked.

“Not really.”

“It’s a yes or no question,” he said.

I felt like a student woefully unprepared for class. “No,” I admitted.

He shook his freshly shaved head and went over to speak to the supervisor. When he returned, he led me off to the side of the checkpoint and told me to practice a pat-down on him. A few of the other officers and officers-in-training glanced our way. I noticed a few passengers watching too.

“Do the whole script,” Lance said.

“Can you see your belongings,” I began, “or would you like me to bring them over here?”

“You need to enunciate better,” Lance said.

“I’m going to use my hands to pat down the clothed areas of your body. I’ll use the backs of my hands on the sensitive areas, the buttocks and the zipper line. I’ll be clearing your collar and your waistline with two fingers. And I’ll be clearing each inner thigh, sliding up until I reach resistance.”

“Say it like you mean it,” Lance said. “You need to do pat-downs like they mean what they’re supposed to mean. Every pat-down is done to make sure the person in front of you is not a risk, right?”

I nodded and went on, nervous, wondering if my job was on the line. “Do you have any internal or external medical devices? Do you have any painful or tender areas on your body? Do you have absolutely everything out of your pockets?”

“This is your house,” Lance said, echoing one of Steven’s opening lines.

“A private screening is available if you’d prefer. You can request one at any time.”

“Go ahead,” he told me.

So I did what I said I was going to do and, as was the case with every pat-down, eventually I was on the dull brown airport carpet, on my knees. I cleared Lance’s big feet, his legs, and I went up until I met resistance.

“That’s better,” Lance said. “Remember, if you’re not doing a pat-down properly, then you’re doing it improperly, and isn’t your whole Mr. Nice Guy thing about not doing anything improper?”

When I stood up, the rest of the checkpoint was still humming along as usual. Was I being hazed? Humbled? Embarrassed? Schooled?

All of the above, of course.

Later in the shift, while we were working the bag search position, a young woman lost the backing to her earring. She seemed willing to let it go, but I knelt on the carpet again and managed to find it, a small speck of silver amid the brown strands studded with dust.

The woman beamed at us as she reattached the earring. “My day is going to be much better now,” she said.

That pleased me, and it pleased me even more when Lance, smiling, looked my way and said, “You got a hawkeye or something?”

Just forever seeking the approval of my father, or father-figure of the moment, I could have said.

Security. Homeland. Fatherland. Maybe my motivations for seeking a job with the TSA were simpler than I thought.

That night, at home, while my family slept, I made sure to study my verbiage.

4.

If this were a tabloid exposé or a steamy roman a clef, you might expect to hear tales of corrupt, inept, mean-spirited TSOs screwing in family restrooms, smuggling drugs, stealing laptops, and tormenting the elderly, all while failing one critical Homeland Security test after another.

I’ve read those stories. I’ve spent time on websites like Taking Sense Away, where a former TSO not only wrote about the failings of the system at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, but also periodically published e-mails from other TSOs around the country eager to share their own critiques of the system. I closely follow coverage of the TSA in the news and it seems clear that far too many officers abuse their power. Toddlers are patted down. Cancer survivors are forced to remove their prosthetic breasts. The list goes on.

I have no desire to be an apologist. Also, I held the job during Obama’s presidency. The job and the way airport work is done seem likely to keep changing drastically as Trump continues to make appointments and sign executive orders. Who can say at this point what sorts of orders TSA employees might be compelled to carry out in the months and years to come?

A mantra I heard throughout my training helped me understand my time on the job: If you’ve been to one airport, you’ve been to one airport. While I can’t speak to what happens at other airports or what might happen in the future, I can tell you what I experienced and observed during my time at Albany International. It’s not a particularly sexy or edgy reveal. I saw a diverse group of men and women of all ages who sought TSA employment because it offered a combination that seems scarce these days: entry-level positions with real health benefits, job security, and the possibility of career development. For all its supposed faults, the TSA is an opportunity for thousands of people who want to help keep their finances and/or nation secure. I watched Steven and Lance and Nina work hard every day. Some were more skeptical about the mission than others, some were more crass in their conduct than others, but everyone I saw performed the job they’d been trained to do as best they could.

I’ve held other entry-level jobs over the course of my life: kennel cleaner, dishwasher, waiter, gardener, gravedigger, office temp, lab assistant. Working as a TSO-in-training was as challenging as any other work I’ve done, including writing and teaching. At the checkpoint, we were often urged to practice focused attention, hour after hour, shift after shift, and it could get exhausting. We rotated from station to station, repeating our scripts, studying documents and images, searching bags, and we were supposed to perform each task as if our lives and the lives of everyone around us were continuously at stake.

In my best moments at the checkpoint, however, I came to feel that security done right could be downright peaceful, even uplifting, a way to rise above our world of constant distractions. In this context, it’s revealing that the TSA lingo for passengers is actually PAX. The PAX passed by, pulling their rolling bags, poking at their devices, chatting with other PAX and non-PAX in distant locations, and there was an odd, pulsating beauty to it all. Peace, PAX. We’re all PAX of the world, just a swirl of souls. We pass through airports to lift off and land, like so many drops of water, bound for our time in the clouds. We’re carried aloft for miles and then we descend back to the earth’s surface. The world spins and we spin upon it; it is, like almost everything else, beyond our control. The tickets can say whatever they say. Everyone knows the person who arrives is not the same person who departed. Whoever we are, we won’t be for long.

5.

The application process to join the TSA was complicated and lengthy, involving forms, tests, physicals, and months of waiting; the resignation process was surprisingly swift.

After I’d been on the job for a few months, a group of people started leafleting the checkpoint, encouraging PAX to opt out of the pat-downs. The story drew local media coverage, and when I read the article in the Albany Times-Union, I noticed it had been written by a friend of mine. He could’ve easily seen me while reporting, and then I would have become part of the story. And if it wasn’t that friend, it would eventually be a student of mine, or a parent from my son’s school, or someone else. Gene’s day-one moment of recognition hadn’t attracted anyone’s attention, but I probably wouldn’t be so lucky next time. I didn’t want to become the story, at least not until I figured out for myself what the story was.

So, the day after I read the Times-Union article, at the end of my shift I went downstairs to the HR office, right across from the windowless classroom where I’d been trained. I told the woman behind the desk that I wanted to talk about resigning. She asked if working afternoons instead of mornings would help. She said if I was interested, it might be possible to take some time away and get re-instated later. Her kindness caught me off guard. I considered changing my mind. Then I told her I’d made my decision. She handed me a pen and a blank sheet of paper so I could write a short resignation letter.

“Do I need to say anything in particular?” I asked.

“Just that you’ve decided to resign. Also include the date, your name, and social security number.”

While I wrote a sentence or two, she prepared a few forms for me to sign. She asked for my DHS ID and told me to drop my uniforms off within forty-eight hours.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“We’re used to turnover,” she said. Then she told one of her assistants to escort me out to my car. I wondered if I was making a mistake. The assistant didn’t talk to me as we walked and he stopped at the employee lot gate to wait for me. Alone in my car, I took a long look at my TSA ID and parking pass. Then, when I pulled out of the lot, I lowered my window and surrendered the pass and ID to the unsmiling assistant.

From the airport, I headed south on the thruway toward the university and parked in the faculty/staff lot. I grabbed my backpack, which was stuffed with books and a change of clothes. On the way to the Humanities building, my uniform hidden beneath my winter coat, I walked among crowds of students, thinking, again, of my father. Instead of going to college, he’d covered his own father’s territory, hawking textiles his whole life. Over the years, I’d come to believe that his obsession with rules and his inability to relax stemmed from the ways that job compelled him to serve others. His salary was completely determined by the commissions he made on each sale. In other words, as he travelled the northeast corridor, lugging sample cases from office to office, his success depended upon pleasing and winning over one boss after another. I sometimes simplified it this way: Serving as a paratrooper in the Air Force Reserves compacted his body; working as a salesman shrank his soul.

I climbed the three flights of stairs to my office. I needed to prepare for class. I needed another cup of coffee. It was a relief to be down to one job again.

Before I changed out of my uniform for the last time, I wondered again what it would be like to work as a TSO year after year, to remain in the TSA while my wife and I continued to raise our son. Would my soul shrink or expand? Would I come home from work most days feeling powerful or powerless? Could my work at the checkpoint be just as significant to me as my work on the page, or in the classroom?

When I think about those questions now, in these early months of Trump’s presidency, I’m even less certain of the answers. It’s so easy to slip into despair about the seeming ineffectiveness of—and opposition to—writing and the arts under the current administration.

But Trump wasn’t on my radar back then. I carried my questions into my office with me. I closed the door and started to change out of my uniform. As I traded the titanium blue TSA shirt for an English professor’s simple white button-down, I thought about something that happened a few days before I resigned.

I was working the document checking station, reaching for the next person’s ID and boarding pass, when I found myself face-to-face with another former university colleague. Judith and I had never been close, but we’d worked together and, when she retired, it so happened that I wound up moving into her office. We’d chatted a few times about whether or not she wanted the two pink wingchairs she’d left behind. We’d also bumped into each other once at the local food co-op. “Well, you better get on back to my office,” she’d joked. But at the checkpoint, she didn’t really see me. My face was still my face. My last name was printed on the silver nametag pinned to my chest, and there aren’t too many Schwarzschilds in Albany. I looked at her and wished her a nice trip when I returned her documents. She stepped away, oblivious, because from where she stood, I fit in. The checkpoint was my house and I was guarding the gates of Pax Americana. I was not an impostor.

Sure, I was slightly hurt she didn’t recognize me. But, more than that, I felt strangely proud.

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