Edward Schwarzschild: My (short) life in the TSA
Our friend Edward Schwarzschild’s newest novel In Security, which follows the working and personal travails of a TSA employee stationed at Albany International Airport, is being serialized in the Times Union for four consecutive Sundays in August. Here's a link to Part 1, which was published yesterday. The book is published by SUNY Press.
A UAlbany English professor, Ed is also author of the novel Responsible Men (2005) and the story collection The Family Diamond (2007), a collection of stories about family, love, and loss, set in and around Philadelphia. He talked about In Security with Paul Grondahl back in June.
In this essay, Ed describes the three months in 2012 he spent working as a Transportation Security Officer-in-training at Albany International Airport.
It was my first shift of on-the-job training as a transportation security officer at Albany International Airport’s only checkpoint, and I was told to shadow Steven, a fast-talking, big-bellied former car salesman. We started our rotation at “divestiture,” the Transportation Security Administration’s term for the place where you surrender your belongings. I rehearsed the script about emptying all pockets, putting laptops in their own trays, and removing shoes, jackets and belts. After 15 minutes of that, it was on to the next task. We moved from bag search to the walk-through metal detector, to the document checker, to the scanner, then back around to divestiture. Steven pattered advice my way as we circled the checkpoint. “Carry extra gloves in your back pocket,” he said. “Make sure they’re not too tight. And remember, you’re in charge. This is your house.”
It didn’t feel like my house, which I’d left at 4 a.m., tiptoeing out so as not to wake my wife and three-year-old son. And despite my brand-new, titanium-blue uniform, complete with patches, epaulettes and a shiny nametag, I didn’t feel in charge at all. While I listened to Steven, I scanned the checkpoint for my fellow TSOs-in-training. Eight of us had just spent two weeks in a heavily air-conditioned, windowless classroom together. In our civilian clothes, we had listened to lectures, learned how to read X-ray images, practiced pat-downs, and passed various tests. I caught sight of one of my classmates: Nina, a bubbly former schoolteacher. She was bouncing on the balls of her feet as she worked the walk-through metal detector. She didn’t look in charge either, but the crisp new uniform lent her an undeniable aura of authority. She gave me the thumbs-up and I returned the favor, remembering my pre-dawn drive to the airport. A cover of “Feeling Good” had been playing on the radio as I pulled into the employee lot: It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life. … I had walked toward the terminal with the music still buzzing in my ears. Red lights glowed out on the tarmac. Under the layers of asphalt and concrete, there was marshland. Along the chain-link fences, cattails still grew tall, rustling in the wind. They were stiff from the cold, and I listened to them brush like bamboo against the fence, an odd but soothing wind chime.
Steven thumped a hand down on my shoulder. “Come on, man,” he said. “Focused attention please!” The lines around me at divestiture were backing up; suddenly there were two passengers in wheelchairs, another two passengers requesting pat-downs to avoid the scanner, and a young woman with a Siamese cat in a small pet carrier. I struggled to recall the standard operating procedure for pets. I had to keep the lines moving. I needed to continue repeating my script about liquids, gels, aerosols, jackets and laptops. As TSOs, we were supposed to “create calm” and demonstrate “command presence," but I was starting to sweat and my voice didn’t sound confident to me; I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be saying into my walkie-talkie, either. I was grateful that Steven was there to help me out. Clearly, it would take a little longer to establish authority.
Just a few rotations later, Steven and I were at the scanner when a familiar voice shouted: “This guy is an impostor!” I looked up and saw Gene – a friend and retired professor from the University at Albany – about to enter the scanner. He was old enough to keep his brown loafers on. I was already nervous enough. I feared I was now moments away from being fired.
In Security is available to order through the SUNY Press website at a 30% discount with coupon code ABF20 through October 24th. Click here to order.