Your Safety, Their Punch Line

I once thought working for the Transportation Security Administration was serious business. I didn't have a clue

A couple of times each year a promotions bonanza is announced and screeners are encouraged to begin the application and interview process to become a lead screener or supervisor. Again we're supposed to believe promotions are based on merit. But the jobs seldom go to the most experienced or qualified, and never to the hardest workers. It's to the point now that nearly every screener I know to be smart and capable has given up on seeking a promotion, while the crafty and power-hungry are going for it. But how can I blame them?

The TSA, being a youth-oriented organization, is also right there on the cutting edge of hip-hop culture. This sometimes presents a problem with regard to TSA's very rigid "appearance" code, which prohibits visible tattoos, all bling-bling except tiny stud earrings (gold teeth are ignored), and visible chains. Also unacceptable is graphic pimpspeak, the favored idiom of all the recent high school graduates with whom I work, be they black, white, or Latin. Supervisors used to remind us about the TSA prohibition of obscene language on the job, but maybe they've simply capitulated. Screeners constantly sport new tattoos on their arms and necks and continue to talk nasty.

Native Spanish speakers are equally impervious to official mandate. We've received repeated written orders not to converse in Spanish on the job out of respect for monolingual co-workers -- and because MIA officials have received complaints from travelers insulted or offended by screeners who were speaking Spanish and assumed they weren't being understood. This prohibition is routinely disregarded by the vast Latin contingent at TSA Miami.

Did Sean and John (pseudonyms) assume they weren't being understood on a recent afternoon as they loudly exchanged news while standing three feet from a line of passengers?

"Yo, dog, where the fuck was you last night?" asked Sean as he inspected the bag of a young Filipino man. His partner tossed a suitcase onto the adjoining table.

"Fuck you wanna know for, dog?" John turned up his palm for a key proffered by a scared-looking, middle-age woman.

"Dog, we didn't get outta that muthafuckin place until four aclock. I didn't get home till six." With that, Sean slammed his suitcase shut, flipped the latches down, and waited for John to finish. The Filipino man stared at his luggage on the table. He seemed to be contemplating grabbing it and running.

John closed his suitcase without noticing the woman's blouse sleeve caught in the zipper. "Yo, white pants, counter," announced.

This is code for, "Check out the girl in the white pants at the ticket counter." Several times a day male screeners throughout the airport drop everything to share a 30-second gawk at a hot chick. Frequently the gawking advances to attempts to impress her by letting her move ahead of other passengers, or taking too long to inspect her suitcase, or not inspecting it, or simply neglecting the task at hand.

The girl in the white pants made her way over to our pod with her two mammoth Louis Vuitton suitcases. The men admired her pants, the women her luggage. But she was traveling with a man in priest's attire, who was also trailing two Louis Vuittons. So everyone was extra respectful. Both passengers looked nervous, but we assumed it was because they didn't speak English. (They were on their way to Caracas.)

Then the bags were run through the x-ray machine. On the screen we could clearly see the exciting variety of dildos and other battery-powered phallic implements inside each. A dildo, even with batteries, rarely makes an inspection necessary, but the sheer mass of sex toys troubled a few of the screeners, who insisted on opening the priest's bags. There were even more inside, along with porn videos and flavored lubricants, crotchless panties and G-strings. The screener, following tradition, motioned to others; most did not take the bait, but a few sidled over and snickered.

Finally the bags were cleared. Priest and girl turned to leave. The priest was perspiring heavily. He halted suddenly and exploded into a rage. "Maricones!" he sputtered. "Faggots!" He couldn't find insults bad enough. "Chinga su madre!" He crossed himself and stalked toward the passenger checkpoint.

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