Im Not Getting Better . . . I’m Getting Older

Horsey: T S A ©2010 Hearst Newspapers

There are so many slings and arrows we become inured to as we age. Being shoved aside by youngsters bent on getting a subway seat. Receiving condescending rejection letters from potential employers under forty. Being addressed, like a hard-of-hearing toddler, in loud monosyllabic words. It sucks to grow old. But because the alternative is far worse, we simply tolerate the little insults and abuses.

Most of them.

I still get flustered when a TSA agent tells me, “I’ll have to pat you down.”

A pat-down is unnatural. Disconcerting. I try to make light – the way I do when the dentist is extracting yet another of my teeth – but a typical TSA agent has less sense of humor than any dentist. To make fun could land me in jail because to a TSA agent, I am a threat to national security.

All because of my titanium hip. Which I chose to have placed in me.

One bitterly cold February morning in 2006, I was out for a run in Fort Tryon Park. Looking upward, dazzled by the brilliantly cerulean sky, I failed to see the sharply pointed rock jutting out if the earth just in front of my toe. I tripped and flew a bit upward before falling down. My right hip landed squarely on that rock.

“It’s definitely fractured,” my surgeon affirmed, looking at my x-rays. “You must have fallen just right.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I was running faster than I’d run in weeks. I just got over bronchitis and. . . “

“You’ve got options,” he mumbled impatiently. “I could fix it. But you’ll have pain, and you’ll limp. Or I can replace it. Then it won’t bother you at all. Except when you fly.”

He was half right. It only presents a problem when I fly out of an American city. I’ve flown out of cities in Israel, Taiwan, Thailand, Italy, UK, Hong Kong, Turks & Caicos, among others, and I have never been subjected to so much as a second look. In fact, in most places, because of my age, I don’t have to wait on lines, and people go out of their way to be helpful. A body scanner readily picks up the hot spot near my groin, and other countries’ agents recognize the piece of metal that is my bionic hip. No problem. Off I go. But in the US, I’m treated with the care and respect reserved for foreign terrorists.

To be fair, some TSA agents are nicer about it than others. Some are even downright kind. At LaGuardia last month, the woman who responded to the request for a “Female Assist” was personable, friendly. She apologized and did her business quickly. It’s never fun, but in that case, the experience was not humiliating. I flew to Chicago without a single case of the willies.

The agent in Chicago at my return flight made up for the deficit by providing me with a full dose of creepiness.

It began with a bit of drama back at my hotel.

My room’s safe, where I had put my wallet for security’s sake while I attended a wedding on the South Side the night before, was so secure that it refused to open for me. The hotel had only one person with the key to open it, and he did not arrive to liberate my valuables until ten minutes after I should have headed to the airport. By the time I reached the airport, it was nearly time to board. Flights to NY that day were overbooked, and I wanted to get home. I knew, however, that if I gave the TSA people any inkling that I was in a hurry, I would irritate them.

“I need the body scanner – prosthetic hip,” I announced in the practiced, sing-song voice I’ve developed for the statement.

“Female Assist,” the cry went up.

A formidable woman appeared from somewhere else. Imposingly muscular, at least three inches taller than I, she sauntered toward me in her best John Wayne posture and looked down at me with disdain. I’ve come to the conclusion that the TSA HR looks for candidates with resting bitch faces and eyes that shout “NOTERRORISTWILLFOOLME.”

“Feet on the yellow,” she growled. “I said ON the yellow. Hands up. Higher. Hold still. Stand still.”

I emerged from the cell and waited. It took her at least a minute to get back to me. The picture in the scanner was exactly as I expected. Even though I was wearing no jewelry, no braces, no underwear, there was a dark spot on my collarbone and a large one in my hip and groin area. I have no idea what that is at my collarbone. It’s always there. The hip is self-explanatory.

“You’ll have to be patted down,” she growled again. This time she was clearly annoyed. It was my fault.

“I’m gonna have to pat you down on your breasts, your buttocks, your waist, your groin, your . . . “

“Could you just do it please?”

“Not till I’ve said what I need to say.” She started over, droning on about where she would be putting her hands. I think I groaned. She stopped and stared at me with an unmistakable death threat. “I can have you taken into a private room for this if you don’t like it here.”

“It’s okay,” I shuddered. “I was just thinking my plane is going to leave without me.

“We gotta do our job.”

“I understand.” She stood staring at me. I must have sounded sarcastic. No wonder. I should have just held my breath. Instead I said, “I never have this trouble anywhere but in America. Everywhere else, they. . . “

“Well maybe you should ’a’ stayed somewhere else then. You put our country in danger, we don’t want you here.”

I shut up.

She patted me down not once but twice in each of the specified areas. The second time she even pushed her gloved hand roughly down my pants. I closed my eyes so I could not see the other passengers, hurrying by on their way to their flights, stop to stare at the menacing old woman being detained at the TSA station.

When she was finally done, the agent made me endure a hand check. More waiting. Finally, she scowled at me and said, “You can go now. But next time? Maybe you should just stay home.”

 

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A Trifle of a Trip

I am about to embark on an adventure.  Thanks to thoughtful planning and uncommon generosity on the part of my youngest child, I will soon fly to Thailand by way of Tokyo and then home by way of Seoul three weeks later.  Each way I’ll be in transit for over 24 hours, and I will cover nearly 9,000 miles. I’ve never been to Asia before, but I have been on an air trip that took nearly that long, and I realized as I awoke this morning that I feel something like the same sense of awkward anticipation, nervous tension and absolute thrill of adventure I felt in that long-ago moment, as I was about to embark on that first trek.

It was 1957, and I was a miserable child, more than generous with my pain. My mother hoped that spending the summer away from home might make me lose some weight and gain an appreciation for my parents.  Since my half-sister, who lived in Los Alamos,  was expecting her fourth child — her oldest was just 4 — and since I was already a skilled mother’s helper, being the first of (so far) five, Mom decided that the perfect solution for everyone’s ills was for me to travel to New Mexico and spend the summer there.

You don’t think about it nowadays.  Flying cross-country is so matter-of-fact and takes so little time. But I am talking about an era when air travel was still a novelty, and my sister’s home seemed like a very long way away from mine.  We had driven there a few times in my life, and I remembered the long days in the car, the endless sky and cloud formations, the bottomless font of hymns my father could sing to keep us from going absolutely stir crazy.  It took five days to get there .  And now they were telling me I would reach my destination in only one!

My mother bought me a brand new, pink dress from JC Penney, a matching pink sweater, pink socks and white patent-leather shoes and for my flight.  I felt downright regal when I tried it all on, though my bright red glasses kept sliding down my nose.

We drove to my grandmother’s in Queens, an 8-hour journey that was rendered delicious by my father’s recent discovery that the best way to travel by car with children was to do so at night, so we dreamed soundly all the way in the moving vehicle and arrived in the morning, giving me plenty of time and vigor with which to engage with my cousins, who were veteran flyers, having been already to Europe.  They filled me with stories about the terrible things that could happen, and I felt a growing dread that only made my excitement more thrilling.

Since they lived in Bayside, LaGuardia was near by.  The airline of choice — we didn’t have a lot of them — was TWA, whose hub was there.  We parked right by the airfield and went into a small waiting room, which was on ground level and had a wall of window that looked out onto the landing field.   When the plane was ready to board, the stewardess — sorry, that’s what we called them then — came into the room and took me by the hand.  “Are you ready to fly with me?” She fairly sang, as I put my gloved hand into hers.

My mother took a photograph of me walking out to the airplane, and I remember seeing it years later, long after I’d made transatlantic flights and become something of a seasoned flyer.  The plane looked so small, so fragile, and I looked so relieved to be climbing aboard; I do remember feeling like I had to duck to avoid hitting my head on the wing as we approached.  I also remember my heart was thumping, and I was wondering what I would possibly do with myself for 21 hours while we flew.  I had two books to read and stationery on which to write my thoughts for reporting back to Mommy, but 21 hours just seemed such a long time to just sit.

I needn’t have worried.  The flight crew was aware of me, and they entertained me lavishly.  There was the obligatory visit to the cockpit, I got to “help” with the food and beverage, which meant that I served the boxed lunches to each passenger, and I visited the lav pretty frequently.  At one point, like a scene out of Volunteers, one of the Stewards pulled out a guitar and began to sing folk songs to the section of the aircraft where I was seated; in those days, passengers sat facing one another like they might on a train today.

Besides, the flying time was not all that protracted.  We stopped in Chicago, Kansas, St. Louis, Oklahoma City and Amarillo, sitting on the ground long enough to refuel, load in more box lunches and board new passengers, before we got to Albuquerque.

I was sleepy but unable to sleep, and when we reached Amarillo, I thought I heard the pilot tell us we were in Albuquerque, so I deplaned. For a terrible few minutes, I was horrified to see no familiar faces in the assembled greeters at the runway.  Expecting, at very least, the tall, looming presence of my sister’s husband, I was dissolved to tears when no one in sight looked remotely related. But before I could lose myself in despair, my guardian angel stewardess had grabbed my shoulders and was steering me back on board. We landed in Albuquerque a very short time later, and all the family members were there to meet me.

It was an elegant beginning to a glorious summer.  My sister, resplendent with the empathy of young motherhood and free of the burden of shaping my womanhood, encouraged me to play.  So I did, cavorting gleefully with my niece and nephews.  She sent me to a summer program where, as happens in a summer camp setting, I made brief but brilliant friendships.  I ate ice cream without remorse, and I did lose some weight.  I read, I wrote, I even watched some television.  And when I returned home, I was no longer miserable.  I felt soothed, renewed.

What a lovely memory to find as I prepare for my Journey to the East.  No misery to lose, no pounds to shed, I am ready, simply,  to be filled with the wonder of it all.