I wrote the following piece after the experience I had at SFO (San Francisco International Airport) on September 19th getting ready to fly to Europe….
I pop on my clown nose as the security guard starts to pass his electronic metal detector over my body in slow methodical progressions. He does not see the nose right away but there are chuckles coming from his coworkers at the other posts of the International departure checkpoint. The fuzzy electronic beeper goes into a bit of a frenzy around my right pants pocket and the security man, a young Philippine face gazes up to me, stands back in surprise and then smiles before diving back into his task, discovering the perpetrator, the metallic handle to the zipper on the pocket. The fuzz tones increase breaking into orgasmic explosion as the scanner kisses the metal tab. Satisfied, the worker abandons his instrument for a brief pat down that includes my shoes, where he carefully checks the area above my foot’s arch, pushing into the leather looking for a hidden cavity.
My interior debate about whether to clown the checkpoint or not started about an hour earlier as I did my chi gung stretch ritual on the sun drenched rooftop of the parking structure, a deserted moonscape of clean curved cement. Not one to flaunt a clown nose in public unless the situation demands it, I did not doubt that 911 terrorism tensions would demand release. My hesitation concerned the reactions of military might, rumored to be standing by all checkpoints. It was mostly on impulse that I pulled out the clown nose as I assumed the position for the man with the magic wand.
When the security man is satisfied that my foot is not harboring any miniature explosive devices, he dismisses me from my standing search position, I put my felt hat back on only to have it pop off as if there were hidden springs in it. A cluster of laughter grows with a repeat of the hat manipulation. The security crew, all of whom seem to be of some Asian Islander persuasion, are fully enjoying the moment, commenting to each other in patterned dialect. The armed national guardsmen in full camouflage gear watch the scene without a scratch of a smile. They maintain composure as they survey the overall scene, I could be a distraction for something more sinister, I imagine they suppose.
With the respect for security that the post-911 world requests, I appreciate their dedication to the job. I attempt to make eye contact with several, as I reason a little bit of chuckle wouldn’t hurt them. Not a chance -they look right through me. My antics cause their leader to swagger some steps in my direction, and cast a few thinly veiled suspicions my way, before changing the direction of his parade amongst the four lanes of security, which seems to be a deserted, mostly abandoned highway.
Reassembling my carry-on becomes something of a clown routine as I try to repack my bag, socks and feather pillow keep falling out as I try to stuff the laptop back in. The woman in uniform opposite me watches with more than a hint of a smile. She asks me if I have a ukulele in the (other) case. She knows! She knows what kind of instrument case it is I realize. We engage in a surrealistic conversation about ukes and such. Turns out she is from Samoa and plays herself, telling me that she has a Kamaka uke, had a Martin too, but that it got stolen. I ask her if they play the ukulele in Samoa, “of course” she replies. I feel blessed to be having such an exchange with this woman in her fifties, her hair dyed black, her body squeezed into the navy blue blazer with her employer’s logo insignia pretending to provide sustenance.
Walking away towards the gate, it is only at the ‘More News and More’ when I dig into my pocket for change and find none, that I realize that I have forgotten my metallic pocket items back at security; mainly two small harmonicas- one the tiny four holed, one octave Yamaha and a slightly larger Hohner ‘Puck’. So back to the security I go. Exercising caution as I approach the cordoned off area, I choose to ask the men with guns as to the appropriate method of walking up to the checkpoints. Indeed a good call as they are very precise in their directedness making sure that I stay out of the cordoned area and head to a security podium on the outer edge.
The supervisor of the screeners and checkers is very friendly and immediately knows what I want, as she offers me my tray of metal. She then comments on my harmonicas, putting in a request that I play them some music. So after the handover I put the ‘Puck’ to my mouth and start playing an upscale jovial waltz. Everyone at the checkpoint, even the soldiers seem to appreciate the music, one of the guardsman even putting his hands together to clap to the music for a moment until some inner voice suggests that might be inappropriate. His smile does not disappear asnd beckons me to come over with an undulating finger. He asks me, in an accent definitely from some Southern part of the country, if I can play ‘Oh Susana’. I smile and nod, leaving the area playing the tune. I glance towards the military men, and the one who asked for the song is dancing a modest barely perceptible jig as his cohort is lightly clapping hands. It only lasts 10 seconds before an awareness of decorum brings them back to sobriety. Still I smile.
As I walk down the open marbled corridor towards the gates, pushing a baggage cart amongst more conventional travelers, I feel a little awkward playing. Oh Susana somehow transforms back into the waltz and then I decide that perhaps that is enough music, returning the space to its airiness.
I believe that I have returned to the land of anonymity but a moment later an airport man with earplugs dangling coming the other way complements my harmonica playing, in a thick Hispanic accent.
Perhaps it is time to reexamine just what are the tools for the modern traveler.