by Angela Noel
September 21, 2017
Through a quirk of the online travel service at my work, my airline ticket was issued in my old name. A fact I did not discover nor suspect until I arrived at the airport and attempted to check in for my flight. When the ticket printed from the self-service kiosk, I stared at it for a full minute.
What to do?
Having few options, I decided I’d have to just see what happened. So, I entered the TSA PRE line as I normally do and waited my turn.
While I waited, I appraised the TSA officer checking people’s tickets. He didn’t seem like a happy fellow. It was, however, just after five in the morning. Neither rude nor friendly, he validated IDs and scribbled across boarding passes. He seemed, if nothing else, neutral. What would he do, I wondered, when I gave him my mismatched boarding pass and ID?
Soon, I stepped to the front of the line, wordlessly handing him my documents.
A second passed. “The names don’t match, here,” he said, dropping my offending ID on the surface of his kiosk like I’d just handed him the Old Maid.
“I know.” I took a deep breath. “I just realized the ticket was issued in my old name.” He looked up at me then, his eyes narrowed behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“Do you have anything with your old name on it? Costco card? Something with a picture?”
In response, I pulled out a few credit cards and an old insurance card I happened to have in my wallet.
“Nothing with a picture,” I said, as I handed him my meager stack.”But I have these.”
Mr. Neutral (or so I thought of him) tilted his head into his shoulder. He brought his mouth to his walkie, then pressed a button on it with his left hand, saying, “Can I get a leader to ten? A leader to ten, please.” To me he motioned to the side, “Ma’am, please wait over there.” Following his instructions, I shuffled myself, purse, and overnight bag, off towards the wall.
Twenty-three passengers lugged laptops and backpacks onto the conveyor belt before Mr. Neutral glanced at me again. Nothing much had changed in his demeanor, but I sensed a shift. Either he didn’t like that my quiet presence off to the side of the line was an unchecked box, or he felt just a tad bit sorry for me. Maybe both.“Leader to ten, please,” he repeated.
“I’m on my way.” A scratchy disembodied voice informed Mr. Neutral over his walkie. Three more passengers . . . then five. Another blue-shirted officer approached. His name embossed on a gold tag with black letters read “Dingler” or “Danger” or possibly just “Dave.”
Dave (I’ll call him) examined the meager pile of my documents and glanced at my face. I smiled my most non-threatening smile. He grinned back, “I’ll be right back, Angela,” he said.
So simple, really, the use of my name. A smile. So simple. My shoulders moved a quarter-inch lower; my jaw softened.
Four passengers passed successfully by before Dave returned with a female TSA officer. A foot shorter than me and eager in her duties, she said,“Come with me, Ma’am.” She gestured toward the passengers queuing in front of the roller-table. Dave disappeared from view; Mr. Neutral was now behind me.
“What’s happening?” I asked, unsure what this brisk woman, I named her Marcy, intended. “We’re waiting in line.” Marcy’s hand gently kneaded my elbow. When we reached the conveyor she asked me to remove my jacket, shoes, laptop and toiletries. As I’m following her instructions she blurts, “What are you doing here?”
Now I’m confused. “I have TSA PRE,” I replied. But wait, I worry, is this a literal or philosophical question?
“It doesn’t matter. You should have had to go to the back of the other line. That’s what No IDs do.”
That’s right. I’m a No ID. My personal scarlet letter.
“Okay.” I reached for my stuff.
“No! Ma’am!” Marcy stood between me and my toiletries. “You can’t touch your stuff.” She sighs. “We’ll just have to stay.” Obviously, I’d broken yet another rule.
I shrank back, shoulders hunched. “Okay. ” My voice, repeating the same acquiescence over and over, seemed a quiet tweet in the stale, airport air.
Next, she directed me through the body scanner. “Wait.” Marcy held up her gloved hand. My feet stood just off the yellow footprints. “There. Move your feet there,” she pointed at the painted feet. “Then, wait.”
Of course, I did as instructed, arms raised–waiting.
Finding I concealed nothing, she waved me forward. Again, I moved towards my stuff instinctively. “No!” Again, she warned me away.
“Can I get some help here?” Marcy’s exasperated voice called to her colleagues. To me, sotto voce, she said, “I can’t grab all your stuff and guard you at the same time.” But she threw my overnight bag and giant purse over her sturdy shoulders, grabbed my flower-bedecked Clinique freebie make-up bag, and my pair of flats in her two hands then headed to the stainless steel security station. She put my stuff down and seemed relieved when a fellow TSA officer walked over to check my things with swabs and keen eye.
Next, Marcy looked up at me, her manner softening as she explained all about my carpet. “Well, it’s not yours,” she said, pursing her lips at her own word choice. “But, you know . . . where you’ll stand.”
She explained the procedure, how she’d pat me down and the instructions she’d use. Passengers, trying not to stare, walked by.
“Do you want to move to a private area?” she asked.
I knew, because Marcy had told me, I’d need to assume a lunge position to allow her hands to graze my inner thighs. I was wearing a dress. I’d be semi-exposed. But, I didn’t really care. I count it among my strengths that embarrassing me is tough. If any of these people, these lucky people whose boarding passes and IDs matched, minded the sight of my pat-down– not my problem. Plus, the austere clock on the wall reminded me my departure time ticked ever closer.
Consequently, I said, “Let’s just do it.” I lifted my arms, and straddled my carpet.
And Marcy got to work. With efficiency and a gentle touch, she was better at telling me what she was doing than three-quarters of the dentists and at least a third of the doctors I’ve had.
“Your dress,” Marcy said, a minute into her exam, “it reminds me of something. Something from my childhood.”
Now, this was my moment. I love these random comments. They’re glowing neon invitations to connection. “Oh?” I said, her palms on my ankle. I wanted to say more, but the words choked in my throat. The moment passed.
A minute later, the other officer cleared my stuff, and I’m standing like a normal person. Marcy shrugs, “Okay, you’re good. Go ahead and pack up.” Then she turned and left.
Finally, I recombobulated myself and high-tailed it to the gate. Twenty minutes later I was in my seat on the plane.
During my short flight, I had just enough time to go over the experience in my mind: identity, my name, my humanity, how important it all was and is. I thought of Mr. Neutral and how empathy changed a mood, how Dave lifted me from a problem to a human by simply meeting my eyes and greeting me by name. How Marcy must have felt to know I didn’t love what was happening to me, and how she tried to connect to me in the best way she knew how.
In the end, the experience wasn’t awesome. But how could it be? It wasn’t the TSA’s fault my ID didn’t match. If blame is to be assigned at all it’s mine–I failed to notice my name update had only partially applied. I think we all did our best, though. I’m grateful I made my flight. I’m grateful for the little moments of good in a crappy situation.
There is beauty everywhere, I can see it. But next time, I’ll double check my reservation.
Your turn: Have you ever had your identity questioned? What did you do about it? How did you feel when you knew you didn’t have control?
Black and white photo by Hernán Piñera.