I’ve written before about my scrapes with the Transportation Security Administration.
I travel with Martin, a lot. When we fly, I carry his myriad pills and drops and liquids and compounded formulations in a heavy-duty black shoulder bag. (It’s repurposed. Once upon a time the bag held my breast pump.) Many of the supplements that aid Martin’s recovery are homeopathic and otherwise imprinted or finely calculated. I will not allow the supplements to pass through the security x-ray, because it can scramble their delicate properties.
Because of Martin’s special diet, I also have to carry food in my knapsack. In the past, my go-to has been nut butter with rice crackers. Now I like coconut butter with crackers. The TSA doesn’t like either.
The scene changes each time we pass security.
Regarding food, I’ve been told, at various times:
(1) nut butter is no problem and can come on the plane;
(2) nut butter is a problem unless it is in a sealed, unopened container;
(3) nut butter cannot be in a sealed, unopened container because all those containers are too big;
(4) nut butter is exempt from security if I’m carrying a doctor’s prescription for Martin’s restricted diet (I always am);
(5) our doctor’s prescription for Martin’s restricted diet makes no difference to what we can carry on the plane; and
(6) we can bring nut butter on the plane only if I leave the security line, take all of my belongings and Martin to the food court, request to-go containers from some restaurant, divide the nut butter into three-ounce portions among those allegedly available to-go containers, and return to security with the newly packaged servings. On the day that this food-court option was given, the TSA agent insisted that the repackaging could be accomplished in the ten minutes before our flight was to board. It became one of many flights on which Martin ended up without nut butter.
I never know which story we’ll get about the nut butter, or coconut butter, when we reach the front of the security line. And yet, traveling with Martin’s food is a piece of cake—sorry—compared to carrying supplements that should not be scanned.
We’ve been in Texas, on Thanksgiving vacation. Last week, when Martin and I flew from New York to Texas, we encountered a sympathetic TSA agent. I unloaded everything from the black bag into a gray security bin. The agent took the bin immediately, asked what it contained (“My son’s medications”), used one swab to check all bottles quickly, and called Martin a beautiful boy. I repacked the black bag, and we were on our way in less than five minutes.
This morning, preparing for our flight home from Texas, I requested a hand-search of the supplements. I unloaded the several dozen bottles from the black bag into a gray security bin. No one came to take the bin. A TSA agent had me stand in front of the metal detector holding it, as passenger after passenger walked by, each (it seemed) examining the contents of my bin as s/he entered the metal detector. I heard, “Hand-check on one!” called several times, but the agent in charge of hand-checking decided to restock the gray bins of three lines before showing up, so I stood in front of the metal detector a full five minutes with my bin. At length a female TSA agent approached and offered to set my bin aside while we waited for the elusive agent in charge of hand checking. Then I stood, bin-less, another two or three minutes until I was invited to pass, not through the metal detector, but through a full-body scanner, the next line over.
Adrian traveled with me and Martin today, thank goodness. While I stood there waiting, Adrian accompanied Martin through the regular metal detector (long-time readers of this blog know my misgivings about the metal detector) and collected my laptop, knapsack, boots, and jacket from the conveyor belt. On the other side of the full-body scanner, I was informed that, because I had requested a hand-search of Martin’s supplements, I would be subject to a full-body pat-down. I’ve received the pat-down treatment maybe twice before; its necessity appears randomized. A male agent ushered me into a glass-wall-demarcated waiting area and told me to await a female agent. I stood, on display in my glass-walled enclosure, until yet another agent moved me to a chair. Some twelve minutes had elapsed since I took off my boots for security.
The female agent materialized, donned latex gloves, and told me to stand with arms outstretched while she ran her hands over my body. Meanwhile, a male agent began swabbing each individual bottle of Martin’s supplements. He swished the swab cloths through a machine, which at one point sounded an alarm. He relayed the alarm news to the TSA supervisor, who alit from his perch behind us and asked which bottles were in the alarm group. Apparently 18 bottles were in the alarm group. The TSA supervisor instructed the agents to open each of those 18 bottles and retest with a sample stick.
Next the supervisor asked, “Are these all your belongings?”, indicating the black bag and assorted supplements.
I should have said yes. Instead, I answered honestly: My husband had the rest of my belongings.
And where was my husband?
Over there. I indicated where Adrian had taken Martin to sit on a bench.
The supervisor demanded Adrian’s return. Adrian complied, carrying his briefcase and my knapsack.
The supervisor ordered a hand search of my knapsack, which had already cleared the x-ray machine. Then, for reasons unclear to me, he told the agents to seize Adrian’s briefcase and search that, too. Adrian surrendered the briefcase and returned to the bench to occupy Martin. By now 20 minutes had elapsed since I removed my boots.
The female agent sat me in the chair again, to run her hands over the soles of my feet. With the pat-down thus concluded, she began opening bottles of supplements to sample.
“You can’t do that,” the male agent admonished. “Make her open each bottle.”
He meant me. I rose from my chair and picked up a bottle.
“You can’t do that,” the male agent admonished again, this time directed at me. “She has to hold the bottle while you open it.”
I gave the bottle to the female agent, who grasped it in a latexed hand while I unscrewed the top. Then she dangled a paper sample stick over the top of the bottle, dropped the paper stick into a magic container, and asked me to recap the bottle.
Then she picked up the next bottle. The next of 18 alarm-group bottles.
The male agent opened a small cooler containing Martin’s refrigerated supplements and an ice pack. He told the female agent she should sample the refrigerated items, too.
Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed. Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed. Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed.
Beside us, the male agent emptied Adrian’s briefcase. Bond indentures, credit agreements, and a Longhorns t-shirt spread across the table. More than 30 minutes had elapsed since I removed my boots.
The female agent glanced at the supervisor, now atop his podium again, and whispered, “I’m sorry about all this.”
I have a son with autism who takes a million pills and drops a day. Everyone here is staring at us. I am all for airline security, but why do some TSA agents have to make this an extended production while others let us through with hardly a pause?
I said, “These are my son’s medications. I really don’t like them handled.”
She shook her head. “I know. I’m sorry.”
Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed.
The male agent announced that he couldn’t fit Adrian’s laptop back in the briefcase. Adrian left Martin sitting on the bench and came to gather his documents and other belongings.
Bottle open, paper stick, magic container, bottle closed. Finally the agent finished, leaving me with an empty black bag and a table covered with bottles. I started returning everything to the bag, embarrassed by a few tears of frustration.
Some 40 minutes after removing my boots, I carried the black bag and my knapsack to the bench where Adrian had the boots waiting for me.
“Is it always this bad?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Sometimes it’s better.”
We started walking toward our gate.
“And sometimes they do all that while I also have to keep track of Martin. And then it’s even worse.”