Just smile, then grope what you must
by Pat Gauen
"Can I borrow your phone to call my mama?"
The airport gate screener with the question had a smile from earlobe to earlobe as he cast his eyes down to the cell phone hanging from my left hip — the same phone I was supposed to put in the X-ray tray before approaching the metal detector but forgot.
Sheepishly pulling it off my belt, I asked, "How often do you use that line?"
"About a dozen times a day, sir," he replied, grinning even wider in a way that kept me at ease.
He impressed me so much that I'll bet I could still recognize him today, four or five years later, even though I'm not sure where it happened. Los Angeles International, I think.
There's no mistaking that I was part of the cattle and he was one of the drovers. But those three or four seconds of personal communication made me trust the guy, and in some sense made me feel trusted, too.
He was such a fine ambassador for the Transportation Security Administration that I'd like to think he would be its director by now, although I saw the big boss on TV a few days ago and it wasn't him.
This might not be the best time to shout it out, but I have long been a fan of the TSA. That's because I did a lot of commercial flying in the pre-TSA days, when privately employed gate guards too often seemed inefficient and indifferent to their work. Not all of them, but enough to leave me the clear impression that I was getting little, if any, protection for my inconvenience.
If given only one word to describe what seemed to set the TSA apart, I'd say "disciplined."
This brings me to the issue at hand, literally: America's crotch.
We may debate the medical concerns of the new backscatter X-rays, and whether the virtual strip-search they provide amounts to creepy thrills for some lech watching a screen beyond the door. We can argue about the necessity to manually examine the undersides of those who ding the metal detector and decline the radioactive bath.
But we cannot deny that some very bad, very shrewd people have already downed too many airplanes and desperately want to run up their score.
Sure, I've made screener grope jokes and laughed at the comedians who are having a field day. I loved the gag TSA bumper stickers making the Internet rounds, with a particular fondness for "Can't see London, Can't See France, Unless I See Your Underpants." Hey, almost every adult has a high school sophomore inside, longing to giggle.
But on the serious side, it is awfully easy to be indignant about the responsible party's answer to a challenge you do not personally have the obligation to solve.
The TSA's problem isn't about what screeners do with their hands, it's about what they do with their faces. A scowl magnifies a traveler's anxiety, a smile relieves it.
I'd trust that genial Los Angeles fellow to see or feel what he must...