Curry egg salad, hold the Gleem, side of notebook

By Alphie McCourt

When Oscar Wilde landed in the U.S. he was asked by a Customs official if he had anything to declare. “Nothing except my genius,” declared Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. And the official waved him on. 

Not so my brother Malachy. About a year after the events of Sept. 11, Malachy was about to board a plane, on his way home from Sacramento to New York. 

“Are you carrying any sharp objects?” he was asked at the security checkpoint. 

“Nothing but my sharp tongue,” was Malachy’s response. 

“Stand over here,” was theirs. 

After a very thorough pat down he was allowed to proceed. 

A few years ago, Malachy and I, along with our brother Frank, were returning from a short stay in San Francisco. Malachy and I passed through security with no trouble. Not so our brother Frank, the famous one, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, his face well known to millions through his many personal and television appearances. The security agent had a heavy foreign accent. He could easily double for the stereotypical “gentleman of Middle Eastern appearance.” He subjected my brother to an extensive pat down, all the while chuckling and chanting, “You are not a good guy, heh-heh-heh, you are not a good guy, heh-heh-heh.” It was bizarre.

I was bothered by this behavior but Frank, who had been through a million such checkpoints, was imperturbable. Later on it occurred to us that he had been suspect because of his ticket. Malachy and I had round-trip tickets which covered our flight to San Francisco and back. Frank, having flown from Chicago to San Francisco, had a one-way ticket from San Francisco to New York. A one-way ticket? A dead giveaway, or so we are told. For the suicide bomber, on a one-way mission, a round-trip ticket is a waste of cash, and Al Qaeda’s resources are not what they were. 

More recently, as I prepared to board a plane, on my way back from a brief visit to Chicago, I was challenged by security. 

“You have toothpaste,” the agent said. 

“I do,” I replied. 

“You have toothpaste,” she said again. 

“I do,” I answered, once more. 

And again. “You have toothpaste.” 

I am agreeable, by nature, but this could go on all day and I will miss my plane, so I take the initiative.

“Is there some problem?” I volunteer. 

“Yes, you have toothpaste in your bag and the tube is too big.”

“Oh,” I said. 

“Where is it in your bag?” she asks. I move to open the bag. “Don’t touch the bag. Don’t touch the bag,” she admonishes. There is a hint of panic in her voice. “Where is it in the bag?” 

“I don’t remember.”

“Is it at the top or at the bottom?” Thinking that I can speed things up, I move toward the bag. “Don’t touch the bag,” she warns, once again. 

Eventually, the agent follows my directions, negotiates the two zippers, opens the bag, removes the giant, bargain-basement, sale-price tube of toothpaste and, with a most exquisite air of nonchalance, tosses it over her shoulder. I follow the trajectory as it sails in the direction of the giant garbage can behind her. At the moment when it hits bottom, at that precise moment, I will utter a loud “Kaboom.” That would be fun. 

But I don’t. I clamp down on the impulse. Transportation Security Administration personnel are not hired for their sense of humor. Aren’t they the ones who make us remove our shoes? And would probably have us remove everything else, as well, if they had their way? Maybe they do have a sense of humor. 

I wanted to ask if my toothpaste was destined for testing, later in the day. Would it be the F.B.I.? Or C.S.I. Chicago? Again I kept my mouth shut but I resented the loss of the toothpaste. I had paid good money for it. It was mine. It had been confiscated and tossed. And for no good reason. Would it be sold at auction, given to the poor (I wouldn’t mind that), or consigned to some landfill? From time to time I have pined for my orphaned toothpaste. 

Then, a few weeks ago, I was returning to New York from a weekend trip to a certain Southern city. The trip, like the other two, was in a good cause. This was a library affair. Our hosts were extraordinarily hospitable, even to the point of providing each of us, the dozen or so participants, with a box lunch to take on the plane. As I approached the security checkpoint with a large carry-on bag hanging from my right shoulder, an old and battered briefcase in my left hand and the box lunch in my right, the security agent offered a cheerful greeting. 

“Nice of you to bring lunch,” he joked. A joke? From an agent of the Transportation Security Administration? There is hope for us yet. 

“Is it O.K. to bring this box lunch through security?” I asked him, as he checked my passport and boarding pass. 

“Yes,” he said, “as long as there’s no liquid in it.” 

I was tempted to reward his good humor by presenting him with the box lunch. But I couldn’t. To give it away, it seemed to me, would be a violation of the spirit in which it had been given to me and of all the rules of Southern hospitality. I ate it later. The egg salad, with a touch of curry, was delicious. 

As I walked through the checkpoint I set off the alarm. In my back pocket I carry a spiral notebook and the spirals are metal. I removed the notebook, placed it in the bowl provided and passed through the detector into freedom. After an hour-and-a-half flight I was obliged to change planes. During the three-hour layover, as I sat by the gate reading a magazine, I felt a nagging sense of something missing, the old and familiar pressure, the bulge of the notebook in my back pocket. 

At the airline customer-service desk, I explained my problem. The three people at the desk were nonplussed, as if nothing like this had ever happened before. After much consultation, they directed me to the Transportation Security Administration station.

“Ask for a supervisor,” they told me. The lady supervisor at the T.S.A. station was obliging and quickly provided me with a number to call, but it turned out to be a nonworking number. 

Some people of my acquaintance will do anything to avoid the direct approach to finding a phone number. They will ask their grandmother, the boy they sat next to in second grade, even the stranger sitting next to them on the subway, almost always to no avail. If I continue to ask around I will be falling into the same trap and I don’t have time to fool around. So I call information and I am connected to a woman at the airport of origin. She, in turn, connects me with the T.S.A. station. When I ask the T.S.A. lady if I might have left my notebook in the security area, her answer is cheerful. 

“You sure diiyyedd,” she chirps. When I ask if they might be able to mail it to me, she passes me to a supervisor. 

Again I explain what had happened. The supervisor is sympathetic and she asks if I will be passing through there anytime soon. On a return trip, perhaps? 

“No, I don’t think so,” I reply. When I ask if they could mail the notebook, “No, we don’t do that,” is her response. 

But she is, as I said, sympathetic and now, when I tell her that the notebook is of no value to anyone but me, that it contains only random jottings, her tone softens even further.

“Tell you what,” she says. “I’ll mail it myself, personally.” I’m surprised. 

“You can do that?” I ask. 

“Yes I can.” 

That was Saturday. On the following Wednesday, the notebook arrives, by mail, all the way, by T.S.A.

(Names of some points of departure and arrival have been omitted, as have names of people involved. All in the interest of security, of course).