Saturday, July 21, 2018

Mysterious Bananas and Airport Security

As airports go, Orlando International actually seems like it was designed by a human being. While I'm not a world traveler by any means, I have seen enough airports to know that many have an uncomfortable resemblance to a cattle slaughterhouse. We're talking dark and impersonal passageways that tickle the claustrophobic portions of my brain and give the impression that something sinister could happen at any second. The idea around their design being the efficient movement and grouping of semiconscious travelers instead of providing an open and friendly place to ease the stress of long distance journeys.

The highlight of Orlando Airport's human-friendly design has to be the massive atrium which is shared by the Hyatt Regency Hotel and numerous restaurants. Dominated by the skylight making up the ceiling, the atrium has more than enough natural sunlight during the day to seem warm and open. The addition of small palm trees around a park-like fountain in the center of the waiting area makes visiting the airport a pleasure in many ways.

Travelers are advised never to leave their luggage or belongings unattended while inside the airport. Furthermore, never accept items from strangers and report anyone who asks that you carry a package for them. Finally, please notify any airport staff or TSA personnel if you see unattended luggage or suspicious packages or behaviors. Thank you for your cooperation.” The totally warm and friendly but strangely authoritarian voice said over the airport intercom as my family and I entered the atrium. My first thought was that if this message was not computer generated but came from a real flesh and blood human being that this man had to be related to the late Fred Rogers of the PBS show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. My second thought was while the voice had the same saintly and patient tenor of the beloved Fred Rogers, I did feel there was the ever so slight hint of an Orwellian presence making sure everyone understood their cooperation was not asked for, but demanded.

My wife, daughter, and I had driven down to Orlando the day before for one of our many Disney vacations. The purpose of our visit to Orlando International was to pick up my wife's young niece, Sandra, who was flying down from her home in Alexandria, Virginia to join us for the next five days. Sandra's mom, my wife's sister of course, is a true cultured world traveler and being honest here thought it was beneath her to rub elbows with all the lowbrow plebeians. Having Sandra join us allowed her to have a Disney experience saving my sister-in-law from dealing with the general chaos associated with the unwashed masses. Truthfully, unbeknownst to the unwashed masses, my wife and I were doing them a huge favor by taking young Sandra to Disney and not her mom.

What surprised me once we reached the atrium level were the theme park gift shops located there. Naturally, both Disney and Universal Studios had huge shops that were extravagantly stocked with not just the expected cheap trinkets and t-shirts but high end items. On the Disney end for example we're talking large, framed limited edition prints that ran several hundred dollars. Strolling through the Universal Orlando gift shop, I found equally expensive items like detailed model cars and various Harry Potter stuff. What was also interesting was that Disney and the Universal gift shops had people dressed up in character costumes allowing travelers to have their pictures taken with the likes of Goofy or Albus Dumbledore.

Even the relatively nearby Kennedy Space Center was getting into the act with a gift shop selling such high priced items as models of the Saturn V rocket and the space shuttle along with limited edition portraits of various astronauts. Their character for picture taking was a stationary but detailed, life-sized model of a NASA astronaut in a spacesuit placed in front of the entrance. A few minutes later after leaving the Kennedy Space Center gift shop I found another for Sea World and Ron Jon's Surf Shop.

Travelers are advised never to leave their luggage or belongings unattended while inside the airport. Furthermore, never accept items from strangers and report anyone who asks that you carry a package for them. Finally, please notify any airport staff or TSA personnel if you see unattended luggage or suspicious packages or behaviors. Thank you for your cooperation.”

After spending around two hours in the Orlando airport, I noticed that the Fred Rogers-like male voice giving instructions on luggage, suspicious behavior and unattended items rotated with an equally pleasant but authoritarian female voice. The female voice seemed a combination of Oprah and Sally Field with a dash of Harry Potter villain, Dolores Umbridge just to get your attention.

I tried to picture just such a woman as the young twenty-something Transportation Security Agency dude was feeling up my groin for explosives or drugs, or whether he felt like going full KGB/Nazi and ordering a rectal exam. Truth be told his supervisor, a stereotypical middle-aged, middle management type told me the second I stepped up to the security line that I had drawn the short straw and was going to get the full pat down. I'm sure the absolute last thing the twenty-something TSA agent wanted to do that day was get a personal with a stranger but jobs free from crappy and demeaning tasks are damn rare. So he had to suck it up and try to meet his training standards, especially with his boss standing just a few feet away.

Yes, I felt violated and more than a little angry. But the TSA foot soldiers have a true damned if you do and damned if you don't predicament. Their job is already near impossible when you consider they must keep the flow of human traffic moving as fast as possible so flight schedules can be kept. But on the other hand, they have to be thorough with their inspections because if just one bad guy get onto a plane that at a minimum might mean the death of hundreds. From what I understand rank and file TSA agents are underpaid and overworked since to the guys and gals in senior management the idea of paying decent wages and hiring enough people are as alien concepts to them as in their comrades in the private sector. Then again such crappy jobs tend to attract lowlife douchebags who get off on the power.

What was really bothering me though was the amused expression on my wife's face as she and my daughter waited on the other side of the line. So much that what got me through the government authorized groping was the idea of screaming out some Arabic-sounding gibberish to freak out the clearly nervous TSA agent who by that time was standing behind me and feeling up my man boobs. At that moment, I was sure such an outburst would have caused the TSA agent/kid patting down my body to crap in his pants. It would also probably caused his boss to order the deployment of the nearest available SWAT team with me being whisked away to some nameless prison thus giving me a vacation I would truly never forget. 

Once my ordeal was over my wife, daughter, and I boarded the nifty shuttle tram that looks like a Disney monorail knock-off and rode it to proper terminal building. We arrived at the gate little Sandra would arrive about an hour early. The extra time we allocated to picking my my wife's niece was a precaution to the vagaries of airline schedules. We knew an early arrival beyond a few minutes was an impossibility, but we needed to know if her flights ran into trouble so we could coordinate a proper response should something happen.

Luckily for everyone involved, we soon learned that Sandra's final flight was scheduled to arrive in Orlando on time. But that still left a significant wait for the three of us. My wife quickly fell into one of the several magazines she carried. Barely a minute of two later after sitting down and pulling a magazine out of her bag, a bomb could have gone off and she would be oblivious to the aftermath. I on the other hand didn't bring anything to read leaving me at the mercy of people watching.

Travelers are advised never to leave their luggage or belongings unattended while inside the airport. Furthermore, never accept items from strangers and report anyone who asks that you carry a package for them. Finally, please notify any airport staff or TSA personnel if you see unattended luggage or suspicious packages or behaviors. Thank you for your cooperation.”

After hearing the male-female voice combo warning about the dangers of leaving your luggage, strange people, and unattended packages twenty to thirty times, it sort of started to merge with my unconscious. You have to wonder what effect such repeated warnings have on those who work at the airport. Is there a tendency to begin to look upon everyone as potential terrorists? Or does the incessant but unfounded warnings breed a contempt for institutionalized and government approved paranoia?

Whatever the case, I was sitting at the gate little Sandra was scheduled to arrive in about fifteen minutes eating a giant pretzel when I noticed the a white, middle-aged woman two or three seats to my left. The woman was an immediate curiosity for me since the first thing I noticed was her agitation. The easiest way to describe it was that she seemed like a long-tailed cat locked up in a room full of old people sitting in rocking chairs. I got the strong feeling that if something was suddenly shattered that lady would jump so high the airport maintenance staff would be pulling her out of the ceiling tiles.

Wearing a conservative flowery dress that, to me, looked on the expensive side along with numerous rings and flashy necklaces, this lady she fit in perfectly with the other upper middle-class types floating around the airport. In the seats to her right and left the lady had obviously emptied the contents of her carry-on bag which were books, a generic computer tablet, and other items I couldn't identify. My assumption was that she was about to go on a trip but wasn't cool with the idea of flying. This being the case, I turned my attention elsewhere for a minute or two watching a mom and dad chase after their toddler twin girls who had both decided their parents were a serious drag and had decided to make a run for the nearest exit.

When I looked back in the direction of the middle-aged lady, I caught sight of her leaving the gate area with her bag. Curiously enough while she had clearly put her belongs back into her bag, she had left a lone banana in her seat. The banana was in near perfect condition so I couldn't figure why she had purposelessly left it behind.

Finally, please notify any airport staff or TSA personnel if you see unattended luggage or suspicious packages or behaviors. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Call it a testament of the times but for a couple of minutes I actually thought about alerting the TSA to the suspicious banana that now lay innocently a couple of seats over from me. I couldn't help but wonder was it possible to weaponize a piece of tropical fruit? I tried not to think about the dipshit a few years back who had packed his underwear with explosives. His attempt to detonate his ill-conceived device resulting in massive third-degree burns to his groin. Did that banana constitute a similar threat to the well being of hundreds of innocent people in the terminal, most whom were there to visit the various Orlando area theme parks.

Part of me wanted to call the TSA, I had this vision of them mobilizing their assets and surrounding the banana with men wearing heavy body armor and carrying loaded assault weapons. Leading the pack would be the twenty-something kid who had earlier patted me down with an intimacy usually left to a girlfriend. But it was the arrival of little Sandra that caused me to throw caution to the wind and leave the lonely banana unmolested.

As my family and I left the airport and finally reached our car for the drive back to Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, I waited for the alert of a suspicious package to be announced. None ever came leaving me to wonder the ultimate fate of the strange lady and her abandoned fruit.

The banana in question.


MikeP said...

"That's no banana..."

Harry Hamid said...

I suspect that the TSA agents probably cease to hear the automated warning after a couple of weeks. There's a horrendous screeching noise that that happens as the Harris County Law Library doors slide open - every time - top alert everyone that someone has walked in. I stopped hearing it about 2 weeks after I started working there. I mean, writing that now, I KNOW that they haven't turned the noise off, but I don't remember hearing it lately. Sound blindness?

I would have liked to have seen SWAT bring in a bomb disposal robot to dispose of the banana, though. Those would have been some great pictures.

sage said...

I don’t fly as much as I used to, but still fly a couple times a year and I don’t pay attention to the voices anymore... I remember flying into Orlando in late Sept 2011, after the terrorist attacks—although I rented a car and was there for a meeting, there were people coming back and every car in the garage next to the airport had been towed! It was surreal

The Bug said...

I hesitate to admit this, but I would probably have eaten the banana.

Pixel Peeper said...

I immediately, even before starting to read your post, recognized this as the Orlando airport!

The most suspicious banana story I have involves my ex-husband. When we lived in Western New York, I usually flew out of Toronto to go to Germany. Since it was a 3-hour trip to Toronto, we would bring lunch along for the trip. My ex dropped me off, and I was on my way to Germany while he returned to New York. A banana that we had brought along had not been eaten and was sitting on the passenger seat.

At the border, the customs officer said, "What is that on the front seat?"

Ex: "A banana."

CO: "I can see that."

Ex: "So why did you ask?"

CO: "You are not allowed to import fresh fruit and vegetables into the U.S."

Ex: "We brought it from the U.S. just a couple of hours ago."

CO: "You cannot bring it into the U.S."

Ex: Peels banana and eats it. "Now I can."

He did have a crazy sense of humor...

goatman said...

Hope the rain down your way is below acceptable levels.
Crazy weather -- we had winter, then summer. Staying inside, I am.

goatman said... is where my blog is now, and has been since'06.
Google is screwing with my blog . . . don't know quite why??