The busiest time at the airport, I learned last week, is 5:30 on Thursday morning. The TSA line at Humphrey — OK, Terminal 2 for all you romantics — folded back and forth like a diagram of King Kong's intestinal system, then hooked into the skyway, went alllll the way back to the ramp to the light rail station, because you had to take the train to Lindbergh to get to the actual end of the line.
Lucky for me, I was Zone 1, because I'd thrown the airline $10 to board early. So I got in the short line, feeling a bit like a man who dressed up in a skirt and bonnet to get on the first life rafts after the Titanic hit the iceberg. I'd like to think I'm not that sort of man. I'd wait until the last boat to put on the dress; less of a chance you'd have to shove a nun aside.
Eventually the line emptied into an open area where an eager dog capered back and forth, smelling everyone. Of course, I'm worried that the dog will smell my dog, and the next thing I know I'm in a small, brightly lit room where the words "cavity search" have nothing to do with a dental exam. But the dogs are no doubt trained to ignore other dog odors, unless you had a dog that built explosive devices. My dog is, after certain meals, an explosive device, but not in the way the TSA is worried about.
When everyone got to the line where you whip off your belt and shoes and take out your electronic devices, we were told that we should not remove our computers and we could keep our belts and shoes on, as well as everything in our pockets, and then proceed to the scanner. You know the device: You walk in, plant your feet, raise your arms as if you're at gunpoint, feeling like you have to show them "I know how to do this. Watch how crisply I assume the position of surrender!"
But hold on. Previously we were told that anything in our pockets — a grain of sand, perhaps — would trigger an alert. Not now. The dog's nose has rendered all the protocols obsolete.
Flash forward a few days. I'm in the Newark airport. Here we do not have to take out our electronics, but everything in your pockets must be emptied before you go through the scanner. It's slightly different, as if they're using dogs, but smaller ones, and also invisible.
Also, do not move to the scanner until your bag is on the rollers that take it into the machine. "SIR! SIR! I NEED YOU TO STAND HERE." This must have marked me as a possible threat, because after I was scanned I got a pat-down on my shoulders, to ensure that I had not replaced them with prosthetic shoulders packed with incendiary material.
You think you know what to do, and then the airport changes it up. You wonder if you'll set off an alarm next time if you don't cross your eyes while being scanned. "Sir! I need you to clench your teeth and whistle 'Dixie.'"
Solution: more dogs. If dogs can figure it all out, as it seemed at the Humphrey Terminal, then just get lots of them, everywhere. Packs of eager, happy dogs roaming the airport. Hounds on alert at every gate. We could return to the days when you could just walk into the airport and stroll to the gate.
To be honest, I'd prefer it to the X-ray machines, because with all the cords and chargers I pack, my luggage looks hideously guilty, and I'm always dismayed I don't get taken aside.
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James Lileks is a Star Tribune columnist.
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