Sunday, December 10, 2006

Robbed at LaGuardia
This post has little to do with television, and more to do with the state of the world right now. On Friday and Saturday, I travelled to NYC on business with my boss. I've flown since the incident in the summer that forced all airlines into their stupid gels and liquids policies, but I've never been subjected to the sort of behaviour that I was on the weekend.

First, leaving Toronto from Pearson airport, the security guard took my boss's toothpaste. You're allowed 100mL of a substance, and his toothpaste tube was 125 or something. Because, as we all know, if a terrorist is going to smuggle a substance and hide it in a toothpaste, they will ONLY insert it into a tube that is over 100mL. They took my water bottle that I'd just gotten -- because they assumed there was some toxic substance, and apparently it wouldn't have been effective had I just taken a swig from it to prove it was OK. No, of course not. I had to turn it over, walk through the checkpoint, and right into a variety store where I bought the EXACT SAME BOTTLE. (I stood in line behind my boss, buying the same tube of toothpaste they'd just taken from him.) But that wasn't all they took. After the guy at the checkpoint took my lotion (it was a 200mL bottle that had maybe two squeezes of lotion left in it, but hey, it's all about the SIZE OF THE BOTTLE, despite the signs saying how much GEL you are allowed. You must get this straight, people.) and my bottled water, he looked through everything else -- with the sheet of guidelines sitting right in front of him -- and said it was all OK. He sheepishly admitted that he thought this was bordering on ridiculous, and said they'd definitely bumped up security to a level that was ludicrous. I went through and put my bag on the conveyer belt. Other end, another official stepped up and took it, and said he'd have to look through it. Great. So while I'm standing next to my BOSS, they open up my bag and pull out panties and other unmentionables (my boss was gracious enough to walk away at that point) and they find -- GASP, horror of horrors!! -- my shampoo and conditioner. Both had been put into 75mL bottles, and both were in a Ziploc bag, just like we'd been told to do. So what is the problem, you might ask? He pulled out both and said, "nope, can't have these. See, these are unmarked containers that you've filled with shampoo and conditioner; if they'd been from the manufacturer, they'd have been fine." SERIOUSLY. Because, as we all know, if you buy the travel size of Pantene shampoo from your local pharmacy and it gets used up, you can't possibly refill it. I looked at him like he was insane, but said nothing. I assumed there would be shampoo and conditioner at the hotel, and it wasn't any big deal. I was pissed, but not furious or anything. My boss muttered that this was a conspiracy by toothpaste companies. I said the airports were in cahoots with Ziploc.

So off I went to NY where I stayed in Queens (or, in my world, the land of Ugly Betty and Entourage), and the conference was right downtown. I met my pal Fionna for lunch, and she came with her friend Shar, who instantly became my friend when we wandered into Times Square and I said, "I suddenly have an urge to throw my hands up in the air and yell, 'I DID IT!'" and then Shar not only DID do that, but in Japanese. Instant love. ;) NY was awesome, finding a cab back to the airport was impossible, but we managed, and that's when I had to go through Round 2. Now, my bag had been searched, x-rayed, and parts of it confiscated, but the guys had opened everything and explained to me why they were letting other things through. But apparently, at LaGuardia, the rules don't matter. It's whatever the gals feel like confiscating that particular night. This time, I was ANGRY.

My boss made it through, no problem, but once again he had to stand by a wall while they stopped me at the end of the conveyer belt again. This time we had 4 women, all in the middle of a VERY IMPORTANT CONVERSATION about some woman named Charlene who was dating the wrong guy (to the point where my boss, standing before the metal detector, finally shouted, "CAN I WALK THROUGH NOW??!!" to get their attention). This woman opens up my suitcase without the formalities (no, "is this yours, ma'am? I'm going to have to open it" like the other guy did), and immediately pulls out my bath gel. It's in a 75mL bottle, less than 1/3 full. "You can't have this." "Why not, it's less than 100mL" I say. She just looks at me. "You can't have it." Then pulls out a second one. "You can't have this one, neithuh." I just stand there, beginning to fume, but they were both small bottles, easily replaceable. Whatever. Then she takes out a moisturizer. Doesn't say anything, just tosses it to the side. My blood pressure is rising, and finally, just as it seems she won't take anything else, she grabs my hair sculpting stuff. Not a word, tosses it. I finally say something. "That's not a gel. It's not a liquid. It's solid." She's so busy talking to her friends she doesn't even answer. I speak up. "EXCUSE ME, that's not a gel!" I point. She stops, cocks her head at me in mid-word, mouth still open, turns and grabs the stuff. "This? Do you use this in your hair?" "Yes, and it's not a gel. Can I show you?" She opens it herself. "See?" I say. "It's a mud. That's solid, it doesn't fall under the category of gels or liquids. Not to mention, the card there says I'm allowed a maximum of 100mL, that's less than 50, and you've confiscated everything else I have. That stuff is more expensive, and I'd like to keep it." "Nyuh-uh" she says as she tosses it, "Gel."

WTF?!! What's with the "you can have a maximum of blah blah blah" if chickie here thinks she can take whatever she wants? Here, you want a sweater? How about a hairdryer? They're not a gel, either, but hey, hasn't stopped you yet!

"So ANYWAY," she continues to the other 3 women, "I said to Charlene, 'Girl! If you go back to the guy I swear to GOD I will never talk to you again,' and she did! So I'm all up in her face about it, and..."

"I got on a plane just last night with all of the things you have sitting right there, and they said they were fine."

"...she said she loved him, and I said, whatevuh, and so whatevuh. I'm just not talking to that ho no more."

I stood there, decided to give up (I'm Canadian after all, not to mention my boss was standing nearby with that worried look he gets when he thinks I'm about to stir shit up and we're going to be late for our plane), and in my head thought, "Good for you, Charlene. Stick with the guy. If it means you never have to deal with this bitch again, it'll be worth it." I walked away.

And by the way, they had a bin where they were tossing the confiscated material. They tossed two of my things in it, but I had a nearly full container of moisturizer, and my hair sculpting stuff, and she set those onto the shelf where the girls were sitting. I have no doubt she just popped both of them in her purse to take home with her. Maybe I should be thankful she didn't need a winter coat that day.

Yeah, I know I sound like one of those people who accepts the way things are until they happen to her, but I've actually never thought all of this insane crap made any sense, even when I wasn't flying. Look, if a terrorist is going to smuggle something onto the plane, they will KNOW about the stupid strictures they have on everything. They will hide the chemical in a toothpaste tube that is 75mL. They will go to the doctor and get some prescription meds and hide it in there (by the way, I had a whole bottle of tylenol in my purse that they didn't touch on either end. So why did they think a terrorist couldn't put it in pill form, walk through security, and then go buy his bottled water on the other side and pop the chemical into it there?!) They will find a way to get past all of this idiocy at the checkpoints.

And in the meantime, at the airport, the old adage "innocent until proven guilty" has fallen by the wayside. You are Guilty. Period. There's no jury where you can plead your innocence. If you don't hand over your stuff, you don't get on the plane. Simple. You are guilty. All of us are criminals. Honest, hard-working citizens by day, terrorists the moment we step into the airports. Somehow the airports have become areas that are separate from the rest of the country, where the laws of privacy don't apply, where your personal belongings can be taken from you, where martial law has been declared. I was only going overnight, but what if I was going on a weeklong vacation? I'd have to bring nothing, and buy it all in the stores in the airport. It's a scam, and there's nothing we can do about it.

Now, you might say to yourself, Yeah, yeah, I hear ya, but in the end, I feel much safer knowing that they're taking these precautions. Well... think again. See, after we passed through these checkpoints and had half our stuff stolen, we got onto the plane and sat there. And sat there. The flight attendant (only one, small plane) looked perplexed, and kept calling someone on the phone. The pilot came out a couple of times and looked at us and went back into the cockpit. The flight attendant made another call, and looked ticked, and finally said "I'll need to see all of your boarding passes." We pulled them out. He walked up and checked all names off on the manifest, and then, OH! Found someone who didn't have a boarding pass, and had managed to just slip by all the checkpoints and was sitting on the plane. But they realized she'd been booked, she just didn't know she had to actually get a pass or anything, so they LET HER STAY ON.

So yeah, they took my boss's toothpaste, my shampoos and conditioners and hair stuff and moisturizers, but managed to let a HUMAN BEING onto the plane that had made it past them all. Awesome.

I believe somewhere in the future, someone will uncover this period of history and look at us the way we look at people in the medieval period who believed in the vapours and cured illnesses with leeches. They'll wonder what the hell was wrong with us.


The Chapatikid said...

Now imagine if they fingerprinted and photographed you EVERY TIME you crossed the U.S. border, and then, to add insult to the injury, asked you where you learned how to speak such good English.

Crissy Calhoun said...

yowza...that is nightmarish. as if hair mud stuff (which is def. not liquid or gel) couldn't get on the flight but a rogue human could. :P

Nikki Stafford said...

Chapatikid: You are so right. I can't imagine going through that every time, and when we were leaving the airport there was an Indian man who was in front of me and had painted lines onto his forehead. I don't know what it signified, but it looked religious. He looked exhausted, and I figure he must have showed up hours in advance knowing he would have been stopped.

You know, your comment is interesting, because maybe this liquid and gel thing is an equalizer. Where before you were stopped because of the colour of your skin, now everyone is stopped because of what's in their suitcases. It's terrible either way, and I'm so glad you brought up this point, because being fingerprinted every time I crossed the U.S. border would probably make my head explode (then they'd think I had a bomb in there). I don't know how you find the patience. :(

marianna said...

Wow. Toothpaste? Shampoo? Conditioner? When did these become the signs that terrorists are a-comin'? Quick, let's raise the alert to RED.

It'd be too funny, if it weren't so sad. ;)

Her Bad Mother said...

You're right, it's SO PSYCHO. Same thing happened to me travelling to and from NYC in September. Now, we've got a flight booked for two weeks from now, with the baby (gah, toddler), and are dreading the complications. Formula? How much? Packing food for her? Juice?

It's going to be hell, I know, and I'm going to lose my mind at someone. So if you see a headline about a crazed mother detained at Pearson...

fb said...

the sad thing is, i went through that very same security check to board the very same flight less than 24 hours later (last night) and i had no problems whatsoever. it seems to be completely arbitrary, depending on the whims of the person on duty, which is ridiculous.

as for the fingerprinting, i have to go through that AND a retinal scan every. single. time. i cross the border, thanks to my british passport. it's a tremendous pain -- and i can't even begin to tell you how rude and obnoxious the border crossing guards can be. they make you feel like a criminal even when you've done nothing wrong. i think i've told you the story of when i moved back to canada 4 years ago after 6 months in london -- they freakin' DETAINED ME in a room, went through ALL my stuff, interrogated me, tried to ask me the same questions over and over to see if i'd answer them differently, wouldn't let me make a phone call ... they kept me for almost an hour. and for what? no reason whatsoever. i have never been that angry in my life, and yet, you can't SHOW them you're angry, or it will work against you. and that wasn't going into america -- that was at pearson!!

my father absolutely refuses to go to the US ever again for that very reason -- he flat-out refuses to have his fingerprints taken, period, on principle. if it weren't for all my friends in NYC that i love to hang out with, i would join his boycott.

Anonymous said...

This is getting beyond ridiculous. Sadly most of my friends are detained for 3 hours each time they travel into the US, because they happen to be muslim. I know for most people out there the word muslim = terrorist but its so degrading especially since the majority of the people in general are law abiding innocent people, yet you are so correct, about GUILTY....
At the airport as if traveling was not stressful enough, these security checks have made me wanting to never leave home.
I think you are correct about it being a "scam" at the airport and how they expect you to pay $5 for a bottle of water that they just took away from you 10 yards earlier.
In any case your ordeal sounds horrible... my sympathies

Nikki Stafford said...

Her Bad Mother: Great to have a new voice here! I travelled with my toddler, who was 18 months at the time (now 27 months) to Cuba, and it was brutal standing in those lines. And that doesn't even count going through my suitcases and removing formula, which they didn't do at the time. Luckily, they've lifted that rule, so you can actually board with formula. So now we know where the terrorists will be hiding the weapons. :/

I remember in Cuba they told us we could stand in the oh-so-special "family line" for customs, which only had 5 families, so we did, and we all stood there for an hour watching all of the other lines pass us. It was awesome. And by awesome, I mean not. Airports are awful, and three times as bad if you're standing there holding a cranky toddler.

Nikki Stafford said...

fb: That is awful, but understandable, don't you think? I mean, the Brits have never had any affiliation with Canada, and when it comes to war, they've never agreed with the U.S. or their policies, or... oh wait. Seriously, airports just upset me because I know I relinquish all rights when I walk into it. And I'm talking as someone who holds a Canadian passport, and has white skin, so I can't imagine the horror it must strike into the fears of someone holding a "foreign" passport and is a person of colour. My friend's mother is still a landed British immigrant, and when she went over to the U.S. they made her fill out this long form, which included questions like, "have you had any affiliation with the Nazis in the 1940s?" My question is, who answers YES to those questions??

Anonymous: I'm with you on the never wanting to leave home part. I think a lot of companies will soon take advantage of video-conferencing, and we'll all huddle "safe" in our little countries, having nothing to do with anyone else. What a lovely world that won't be. Sigh...

The Chapatikid said...

Rohinton Mistry boycotted travel in the U.S. post-9/11. I wish I could too, except my godchildren and best friend live there. Now that I have a Canadian passport, I haven't (yet) had Customs running their fingers in the lining of my passport pouch (which they did before). I am so glad to live north of the border. I always feel incredibly tense going south, and indescribably relieved returning back.
Going South: Customs Officer: "Ma'am, are you carrying any liquid, gels, or Weapons of Mass Destruction?"
Coming North: Customs Officer: "Hello, Bonjour, Ma'am, are you bringing back any alcohol or tobacco? Eh?"