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Your Safety, Their Punch Line

Not long ago a red-white-and-blue flyer appeared on the bulletin board in my work area at Miami International Airport. I'm a baggage screener for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). No doubt the flyer was posted to boost our morale, which desperately needs boosting, or maybe just to reinforce our self-righteousness, which was already insufferable.

The text seemed to be printed from an Internet site. It claimed that the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein had been prophesied 1200 years ago in the Muslim Koran, or Quran -- and the revelation was found in "Quran 9:11!"

"For it is written that a son of Arabia would awaken a fearsome eagle," the passage began. "The wrath of the eagle would be felt throughout the lands of Allah." But finally the eagle "cleansed the lands of Allah, and there was peace."

I checked with two Quran scholars who noted that the holy book contains no mention of eagles (or of any bird like an eagle) or "the lands of Allah." Besides, Quran passages aren't identified the way Biblical passages are, so Quran 9:11 doesn't exist. But that's not the point. The patriots at the TSA know we've got a job to do. We're on a mission from God to kick some Allah-lovin' ass. Who says we're supposed to know anything about the lands we're cleansing?

By now, two years after starting this job, I finally get it: The TSA is a five-billion-dollar-a-year, post-9/11 illusion of public safety. Maybe that's not all bad. Sometimes the illusion of safety can be as good as the real thing, especially when the public feels it's being cared for. And I have no doubt that the nation's airports, crawling with some 50,000 screeners, are more secure than before 2001. Yet even 50,000 or 60,000 screeners is considered far short of the number needed for the TSA to protect air travelers properly. (TSA's budget was hacked from seven billion dollars last year to five billion this year.) Meanwhile other high-risk sites and industries (chemical, rail, cargo) remain dauntingly vulnerable to terrorism. But the really big money is going to the endangered homeland of Iraq, where TSA's annual budget would last less than a month.

I know from my own experience that the TSA's Miami operation is stretched thin, and even with scores of us working overtime, we don't cover every hole in airport security. We don't have a comprehensive evacuation strategy, either, in the event of an actual threat. A committee of TSA employees developed a plan many months ago, but it has never been implemented.

Among the security gaps we can't close: We inspect luggage but we don't load it onto planes, so ramp workers, airplane cleaners, and other contractors -- many of whom earn less than ten dollars per hour and may or may not have cleared security checks -- have innumerable opportunities to tamper with everything from suitcases to the airliners themselves.

Evaluations at airports nationwide by TSA's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, have found TSA screeners no more or less effective than privately employed screeners, and that most of us lack even minimal training in at least one aspect of our daily tasks. Locally, though, the TSA has been a godsend. At MIA approximately $50 million in TSA wages keep hundreds of poorly educated, unskilled members of Miami-Dade County's uniquely Third World, blue-collar workforce off unemployment and Medicaid. And although some airports in the United States are now planning to contract private screening companies to replace the TSA, our bosses have assured us that Miami's isn't among those.

Unfortunately almost everything our bosses tell us turns out to be either wholly or partially false. They haven't told us, for example, that the TSA recently extended indefinitely its November 2004 deadline for airports to decide on privatization, so now we're apparently at the mercy of the Miami-Dade aviation department's decision-makers (former aviation department director Angela Gittens wanted to keep the TSA screeners, but she was forced out and a replacement hasn't been installed).

In fact we're almost never told anything about the upper echelons of TSA management, but this past November 24 screeners did hear in official stage whispers (literally) that assistant federal security director Alex Miranda, TSA's second-in-command in Miami, had been put on "administrative leave," no reason given, and that if we discussed this in any way with anyone, we would be suspended without pay.

The administrative leave became a firing two days later when, as expected, the nightly news got hold of it. But the timing of the scandal is curious. Most TSA employees had long been aware of intimations and outright accusations of sexual misconduct against Miranda. True to TSA form, at least one of his accusers, manager Alex Carter, lost his job after he complained, and many of us had known for months about Carter's federal sexual harassment lawsuit against Miranda. I couldn't figure out why his boss, federal security director (FSD) Richard Thomas, kept Miranda on, especially given that the lawsuit was scheduled to go to a potentially sleaze-slinging jury trial early next year. I also found it hypocritical that we were constantly urged to report any instance of sexual harassment, for which the government declares zero tolerance. Now, despite TSA's obsession with presenting an unblemished face to the public, the alleged sexual misconduct in the FSD's office is impossible to keep secret.

Internal mistakes and misjudgments in day-to-day operations are even harder to root out, since the rare fool employee who might criticize, even constructively, is immediately dispatched. From the TSA's earliest days, screeners have complained of ongoing breaches of security at their workplaces, the result of improper inspection procedures. I know of several instances, both here and at other airports, in which the employees responsible for violations were never corrected or reprimanded. But the whistleblowers -- who committed the unpardonable sin of not just telling the truth, but of telling the truth about bosses or co-workers -- were fired. Some have also asserted that in the weeks leading up to their dismissals, their personnel files suddenly began bristling with fabricated documentation of inappropriate or illegal activities.

Repressing criticism might be a way of streamlining operations, but it conceals security problems that sooner or later, one way or another, will be revealed. Even the greenest screener at MIA knows that an alert terrorist would have little trouble slipping past a checkpoint. And passing through deadly objects? Child's play. That's partly because humans err, but also because TSA rewards those who can look efficient and do nothing, all the while punishing honesty and diligence, which can complicate things. I have to keep reminding myself: TSA management is motivated by priorities that have nothing to do with our job performance. As long as everything looks good and runs smoothly, the airlines will stay in business and we'll be employed. What I have observed over the past two years is a big fat corrupt bureaucracy wallowing in cronyism and coverups -- a self-protection racket mercilessly maintained by a tight-knit cabal of managers.

Miranda's fall is the latest of several sex-related firings and forced resignations at TSA Miami. Gone is the manager caught giving a screener a blowjob on the job, as is the manager who spent much of her workday stalking her ex-boyfriend. Another manager, a much more powerful man facing an ever-growing stack of sexual harassment complaints against him, will probably survive the current upheaval. These complaints, which are not lawsuits, have been filed with TSA's understaffed Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. Since the OCR is overwhelmed by huge numbers of discrimination and harassment complaints, very few cases are ever addressed or resolved. But aggrieved TSA employees really have nowhere else to go unless they can pay, at minimum, the $150 filing fee in federal court. Unions cannot advocate on our behalf, and most of the labor laws protecting federal workers don't apply to us because Congress didn't want its newborn TSA to turn into another regulation-bound bureaucracy.

Teeming with sexual intrigue and power plays, TSA is more dating service than disciplined "security administration." So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised this past week to hear a manager cryptically refer to some "investigation" of TSA employees who've allegedly been offering money to airline employees in exchange for "sexual favors," or of the departure of two more top managers, Paul Diener and William Morrison, owing to allegations of sexual harassment. (See "Korten," page 19 this issue.)

One day early on, just before the Iraq war began, I arrived at work to find a guy on the morning crew holding up a book with Saddam Hussein's face all over the cover. The screener had discovered the book as he searched the opened suitcase before him. The title was something like The Life of a Dictator.

"Should I let this fly?" the crew-cut kid wondered. Work around him came to a halt.

"Dog, it's not gonna blow up," someone said.

"Uh, guess not."

Another screener concluded, "It shouldn't be a problem."

I was amazed to see everyone taking the possible "threat" seriously, or at least appearing oblivious to its absurdity. But that's because back then I was still dedicated. I believed we were doing our part in the War on Terror. I took screening seriously, so maybe, I was thinking, ignorance is excusable if it's accompanied by dedication.

I had no clue. That screener today wouldn't exert the effort even to glance at any book not containing pornographic pictures -- although, I've since realized, there are zealots who would have praised him and put the book-bearing passenger's name on any of several watch lists maintained by airlines, TSA, and other federal agencies. The young screener, like those of us who once harbored some curiosity and desire to learn, has been repeatedly discouraged from showing initiative, or even interest, in his job.

We were touted as the highly trained, better-paid alternatives to the old privately employed airport screeners who, in the wake of September 11, were found seriously wanting. Some even had criminal histories. The TSA's chosen ones, on the other hand -- well, hadn't we just passed computerized psychological and reading-comprehension tests, background checks, and weeks of explosives-detection training? We felt damn fortunate to have landed a job with good benefits in a jobless economic recovery, and excited to be in on the ground floor of a brand-new agency where -- our superiors kept reminding us -- opportunities for professional advancement were almost unlimited.

And so we thought we were da bomb. Of course, we couldn't say the word "bomb," but we were it anyway. We were arrogant, pretentious, and paid less than our counterparts in Customs and the Border Patrol, who were not impressed with us at all. They could see how wide the net had been cast by recruiters rushing to meet congressional deadlines for hiring and deploying the airport security force demanded by devastated airlines. And indeed a large number of our new managers and supervisors (including Alex Miranda, formerly a fifteen-year executive with American Airlines) were transfers from the private companies and airlines that had given airport security a bad name in the past. Far from tossing the flotsam caught in the net and keeping the treasure, TSA management did just the opposite, time after time.

During the TSA's first hectic year, a couple of private firms won bids to conduct most of the recruiting and training. Highly paid contractors were sent to various cities to live for weeks at a time in luxury hotels. The people who trained my class of some 500 were very smart but had no idea what it might be like to do the job. Some contractors later told Congress and the media they were given the answers to the tests that would certify them to instruct TSA employees. In some cases, they said, they weren't even trained on the machines they were teaching TSA employees to use. I have no problem believing that. The multiple-choice tests we had to take in order to pass our courses were laughably easy, and the teachers told us (in so many words) both the questions and the answers beforehand.

The TSA honchos in Washington say one top priority is improving screener training. This year hundreds of millions of dollars have been budgeted for that purpose. We now must complete a series of online "courses" that consist mostly of reading materials. But at MIA, when it comes to real-life training on the agency's collection of million-dollar explosives-detection machines, suddenly we're back in cronyland. Our bosses tell us with straight faces that training opportunities are based on seniority. Every day, though, I see evidence that this is untrue. It's difficult to know just what the vaunted opportunities are based on, other than managers' whims. If one of your immediate superiors likes you and you're good at flirting (when appropriate), it's an enormous advantage and can mean even more valuable protection against reprimands for not doing your job. (Avoiding work takes up most of the energy left over from the elaborate sexual games and mating rituals.)

TSA's baggage-inspection routine varies by airport. At MIA some x-ray machines have been installed in the ground-level ramp areas, where planes are loaded with luggage and cargo, while others have been placed among the baggage-claim carousels. Luggage routed to those sites, usually for connecting flights, is inspected out of sight of travelers. It's a different procedure upstairs in the concourses, where I'm usually assigned. Several work areas, or pods, are set up near airline ticket counters. Most of these include x-ray machines. After checking in, passengers or skycaps bring checked bags to be screened in the nearest TSA pod. Usually the passengers stand outside the roped-off pod and watch as their bags are inspected.

In baggage pods, our task is to make sure checked luggage doesn't contain explosives. When we started, we were told our job was to find things that could explode or ignite. If we found illegal drugs or other contraband, sure, we would want to report it, but that wasn't our job. Now, we were recently told, we'll receive cash bonuses from $250 to around $1000 if we find contraband. This was after a screener found about two tablespoons of marijuana in a bag, resulting in the arrest of the passenger.

When it created TSA, Congress also decreed that 100 percent of checked baggage on passenger flights must be inspected either by x-ray or manually. Anywhere from 500 to 2000 bags per day pass through my pod alone. At any time we may have five to twenty screeners on duty.

If the x-ray machine sees something containing material that might have explosive or combustible properties, we must find that item and determine whether it's safe to fly. Checkpoint x-ray machines for carryon luggage are programmed to look for dangerous objects, such as guns and knives, in addition to explosives. Every once in a while, something on the x-ray screen will look dangerous and -- if it's not a test object or image we regularly receive to keep us alert -- may prompt evacuation of a concourse. Large-scale evacuations caused by dangerous items getting through checkpoints, or because of screeners' fear that a dangerous item might have gotten through, have occurred several times since I've been at MIA. Calling them evacuations, however, doesn't mean they were orderly. The worst incident I've heard about -- it happened on a different shift -- was a mess by all accounts. After an x-ray revealed a suspicious object, TSA management ordered the evacuation of the concourse. While passengers were haphazardly herded into areas the TSA hoped were safe, some screeners in the vicinity literally ran from the airport and went home; many more just milled about aimlessly for the rest of their shift. Other than being told not to abandon our posts and go home, we haven't received any instructions in how to handle the next emergency.

Inspecting baggage can be an ordeal of the damned. In most work areas the bag must be lifted onto a table, which has resulted in large numbers of workers' compensation claims in Miami. The TSA has the highest rate of workers' comp claims of any federal agency, and MIA has the highest rate within TSA. Yet we've never been sent to some room for twenty minutes or so to watch demonstrations of proper lifting techniques. We get to watch a tape after we're injured, but not before.

We've encountered everything, including the kitchen sink, inside our bags: frozen rats, live crabs clawing their way out of newspaper wrapping, live and dead chickens plopped whole into suitcases, rotten food and stinking cheese, vibrating dildos, crystal chandeliers, engine parts, televisions. Passengers have called screeners every name from nigger to sorry-ass bitch to ten-dollar-an-hour motherfucker. So maybe we can be forgiven for some of the attitude that might crop up.

I'm less familiar with passenger checkpoint operations since I work in baggage, but the talk is the same from both sides of the metal detectors. Checkpoint screeners may be better supervised (or more closely watched) because they have more contact with the public, but so many supervisors and managers are either incompetent or literally in bed with their favorite screeners that the same situations always arise throughout MIA.

The story of the overweight undercover inspector who scared the screeners at one checkpoint is still repeated, each time in more graphic detail. The latest version I've heard has the inspector -- one of the testers periodically sent down from the General Accounting Office in Washington -- getting through the checkpoint with a gun deposited inside a body cavity (earlier and probably more accurate accounts had the gun positioned between her legs, very near her crotch).

If passengers going through checkpoints set off the walk-through metal detector, they'll usually be subjected to "wanding" with a hand-held metal detector. This routine is unpleasant for passengers but can be worse for shy or lazy screeners who are loath to follow orders, which are to probe assertively intimate areas where contraband and arms are most likely to be stashed. That's what happened when the overweight inspector was wanded, cleared, and then revealed her true mission. The way the tale ends: "They just didn't get the wand up high enough because her legs were so fat." The reluctant screener had to attend retraining classes.

Knowing how assiduously many TSA screeners avoid working at all, it's safe to assume other dangerous items have passed onto planes undetected. The fat lady incident is only a symptom of the morale-sapping (and security-compromising) virus that by now has infected every TSA screening station at the airport.

One screener describes her checkpoint: "There's a group who's always standing around talking or going on breaks whenever it's their time to [do certain tasks]. So a few screeners end up doing everything. Whenever we complain to supervisors, they say, öOh yeah, I'll have to talk to him or her.' But then nothing changes. Shit, big surprise -- the worst ones are the favorites of the supervisors and managers. Nobody complains anymore -- we just have to accept it."

I've heard some screeners boast of purposely making mistakes on tasks they hate so they'll be taken off those jobs. Instead of ordering them to shape up, their superiors generally let them go back to standing around. A few months ago at one of our periodic Town Hall meetings, I was surprised to hear an offhand remark by FSD Richard Thomas (who must be praised for holding Town Hall meetings in the first place, even though everyone is too scared to tell him anything of substance). Thomas said Washington had authorized him to hire additional screeners but that he really needs to fill even more positions -- "to take into account the sick and the lazy."

Because TSA employees have been warned not to speak to the news media -- locally some screeners have been fired for responding to a TV reporter's questions -- I'm not using my real name or the real names of most TSA employees mentioned in this story. I've left out or changed revealing personal and work-related details. I've also left out anything the government has termed "SSI," or Sensitive Security Information.

The only screener whose name I haven't changed is Theo Karantsalis. He appeared in Joan Fleischman's column in the Miami Herald when he sued the TSA earlier this year; he's also been the subject of unrelated articles in New Times and in MS Focus magazine. His bosses at the TSA don't know what to do with him, though he's being pushed out, step by step, because he's way off the chain. But many screeners believe Karantsalis has done us, and TSA, a favor by nipping at the heels of our secretive, punitive management.

Karantsalis, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service agent who now is a TSA checkpoint supervisor, was one of about two dozen Miami employees flown to Washington, D.C., a year ago for a lavish awards banquet to celebrate TSA's second birthday. The agency spent almost half a million dollars on food, decorations, awards plaques, and lodging for 600 honored employees and family members from across the nation.

Beaming in his uniform, Karantsalis was photographed with his award at the banquet. This snapshot appeared in two Miami newspapers. Within two months, he was a pariah at TSA. Karantsalis had been reporting to work at 4:30 a.m. but asked his bosses to permit him to start his shift three hours later. Because of vision problems related to multiple sclerosis (from which he suffers but doesn't appear to), he can't drive a car and had been having trouble bicycling to the airport in the early-morning darkness, when bus service is virtually nonexistent.

His request was denied, appealed, and denied again. In early March 2004, Karantsalis (who's also a law librarian) filed a pro se lawsuit in federal court, alleging that TSA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. His managers not only refused to back down, they initiated disciplinary "counseling" (a prelude to firing) three days after he filed his lawsuit. The grounds for counseling: "Unauthorized appearance in a TSA uniform." Karantsalis had sent his TSA awards ceremony photograph to friends via the Internet.

The counseling prompted him to sue again, charging retaliation. About a month later his shift was changed and he withdrew the lawsuits. He wasn't fired, but his superiors thought it prudent to recruit a colleague to eavesdrop on his phone conversations and generally spy on him. The co-worker later reported the following threatening behavior in a memo: "I became aware of Theo instructing the screeners on the Privacy Act and the Freedom of Information Act. He encouraged them to request their files from Washington. The insinuation ... was that they could never trust what was being put into their files."

More bad stuff: "Theo has a habit of engaging passengers in conversation, especially if he recognizes them as being important people. He compliments them and ultimately attempts to gain information from them."

We found a different sort of memo posted on our pod bulletin board just days before that November 2003 awards ceremony. It had to do with another checkpoint supervisor. "Ronald Gould's son was killed this past week [in Iraq] when the military helicopter in which he was being transported crashed," stated the memo from then-acting FSD Alex Miranda. We were welcome to donate hours of annual leave or cash to Gould "in this time of special need."

A few weeks later, after money had been collected and almost two weeks' worth of leave pledged, Karantsalis was arranging a memorial to be held at the police department in Miami Springs, where both Gould and Karantsalis lived. Gould had been on leave from work and no one knew exactly where he was, so Karantsalis called the U.S. Southern Command to verify the sketchy information he had about the young soldier. To his shock, no branch of the military could find any trace of anyone who might be a son of Ronald Gould. And when the names of the soldiers who died in the helicopter crash were published, none of them was the alleged son.

We received no further memos, but Gould continued to be unreachable and finally mailed a letter of resignation to FSD Thomas in April 2004, five months later. All that time he was still on the TSA payroll, incommunicado. When Karantsalis tried to find out what had been done with the cash and leave donations, he was accused of being disrespectful toward a fallen U.S. patriot. The FSD's office denied there had been any donations or even that the initial memo existed. So Karantsalis wrote to his congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and sought copies of the memo and other relevant records via the Freedom of Information Act.

Diaz-Balart's office contacted Thomas's office and reportedly was told that Karantsalis was blowing everything out of proportion and that no one really knew what had happened to Gould's putative son. Records later obtained by Karantsalis showed that $52 in cash had been collected and been locked in an administrative office desk until April 2004. (As of a few months ago there was no indication that any of the cash had been returned.) No donated annual leave, according to Thomas's office, was charged to any employee. Yet one screener who maintains that two hours were deducted from her leave disputes this; when she asked a manager for her hours back, she got a vague promise that when the manager learns what's going on, he'll tell her. Many screeners continue to believe Gould's son was killed in Iraq and that Gould is still on leave.

TSA apparently considers almost everything it does to be "sensitive," even if it's widely known. Take the case of Andrew Washington. In June 2003, TSA screeners Washington and Edwin Reyes, who worked on the ramp at MIA, had been caught on videotape stealing CDs and perfume from suitcases they were supposed to be inspecting. Later they were indicted on conspiracy charges by a federal grand jury. Reyes pleaded guilty, telling prosecutors that he and Washington had committed additional, pettier offenses of which scores of other MIA screeners also were guilty to some degree -- taking food out of luggage and sharing it with other screeners, passing around pornographic photos, stealing little things that caught their fancy. They also allegedly slapped green "TSA MIA CLEARED" stickers on luggage without inspecting it -- in itself grounds for termination.

Reyes received probation for his help, but Washington defiantly opted for a jury trial. Two days into the proceedings, U.S. District Court Judge Adalberto Jordan allowed Washington's court-appointed lawyer to call an expert witness to testify about the methods TSA uses to screen for explosives. The prosecution reaction was surprising: Rather than risk the escape of sensitive information, they announced, the government would drop all charges. Washington walked out of the courtroom free and clear.

But all that sensitive stuff? There's no secret about the basic means of explosives detection. Even the TSA Website describes the ETDs (explosives trace detectors) and EDSs (explosives detection systems) we use. The government's real problem in this case was TSA mismanagement.

Prosecutors had a flimsy case against Washington because TSA officials purportedly delayed and bungled a sting operation that should have been taken over by the FBI from the first day TSA learned of a possible theft ring. People on the scene told me that about three weeks before the arrests, a few screeners found the nerve to report that not just two but seven or eight of their co-workers had been stealing from suitcases for months.

The songbirds were told to carry on as usual and to ignore the plundering. TSA officials dallied for weeks while passengers continued to be ripped off. Finally the Miami-Dade Police Department airport detail came up with videotape of the ramp workers, and on June 23 officers swooped in. But why only two arrests? There are conflicting claims over just how much on-screen evidence implicates the rest of the alleged ring. One fact, though, is clear: The two arrestees are black, and at least one other member of the "ring" who was fired is black. The screeners who seem to have escaped punishment are all white Hispanics.

It's hard to figure how many screeners at MIA have actually been caught with diamond-studded watches or gold chains stuffed into their shirts or pants. Many times the screener will be fired but not arrested. "The TSA people usually tell us they prefer to handle it administratively," says one Miami-Dade police officer stationed at the airport.

Just as this current holiday season started, for example, two screeners at different MIA checkpoints were caught with cash and an expensive corkscrew lifted from passengers. Neither was arrested. I know of at least two expensive watches grabbed right under passengers' noses at checkpoints. In both cases the watches were found in the screeners' possession but the jewelry was returned to its owners and the screeners walked. One of the few arrests was that of checkpoint screener Frederick Johnson, who is black. He was taken to jail a few days before Christmas last year. A traveler accused him of swiping $1300 from her purse while he was searching it. Police found $2000 on him, but prosecutors ended up dropping theft charges.

It's anyone's guess how many objects have disappeared from checked baggage when passengers aren't present to watch it being searched. At the time Johnson was nabbed, when most MIA screeners had been on the job for a year or longer, TSA still hadn't completed background checks on thousands of us. (County court documents show that Johnson didn't have a criminal record, at least not until his arrest.) Complaints and embarrassing revelations had been mounting since the agency's inception, and in June 2003 the two officials in Washington overseeing TSA background checks both resigned.

Then WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) broke the news that a convicted pedophile and a child molester were working as TSA screeners, their background checks incomplete. They were quickly fired, and later more felons were discovered. Now we hear that all the MIA background checks are really completed -- but our original ranks have been decimated by firings and attrition, and checks on hundreds of new hires have just begun. I know of one (white) screener who has a seventeen-year-old felony on his record but who was recently promoted. Another (black) screener was dismissed because of a recent drug-possession conviction. At the same time, a surprising number of screeners have been booted because of mistaken identity or clerical errors. A former NYPD officer, for example, was found to have a long rap sheet -- except it belonged to someone else with the same name. He has told friends he intends to sue for back pay and damages, but he's not returning to work at the TSA, even though he could.

Screeners earn between $30,000 and $60,000, depending on job level and overtime -- not bad considering the only qualifications, besides no unacceptable felonies, are U.S. citizenship, a high school diploma, ability to read fifth-grade English, and a credit rating not irreparably ruined. We had to take a psychological test, seemingly the standard type used by many prospective employers, but so transparent that a sociopath could look like a saint. We responded to such questions as "Yes or No: It's okay to occasionally steal supplies from my employer" and "Sometimes I get so angry I want to hurt other people." Obviously the screener who punched out his supervisor two years ago and the supervisor who punched out a screener a year ago lied on that question.

I don't think anyone at TSA read the initial job applications we filed electronically. Past experience and special abilities are seemingly ignored. I know several bilingual or trilingual people old enough to have had experience as professional managers who were told they didn't qualify for supervisory jobs and who continue to be passed over for promotion. Other screeners, who happen to be good-looking men in their twenties, are suddenly promoted from their entry-level jobs to positions as supervisors or administrative assistants. These types of promotions are never explained other than "he deserves it."

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.

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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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