Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Nightmare After Christmas

“You’re on the FBI Watch List,” a Southwest Airlines ticket agent said to me on the morning of December 26 at Nashville International Airport. “We’re not supposed to talk about this,” she continued, then she flipped over the printout of my reservation information and scrawled, “” She said: “You can go to that website if you want to get more information.”

Fat lot of good that did me, since the fact that I am (apparently) on the FBI Watch List is the reason I was not allowed to print out my boarding pass that morning at one of the airline’s convenient kiosks. But I should have noticed the red flag the day before: I was not allowed then to print out my boarding pass at home. When I called Southwest, the phone agent was as baffled as I. Then, after consulting with her supervisor, she returned to the phone to inform me that “it must be a computer problem,” and that I would have to take care of business at the airport the next day. She suggested I arrive at 8:45 for the 10:10 flight, which I did. But what she didn’t tell me was that I was on the FBI Watch List, and that was why I couldn’t print out my boarding pass, either at home or at the kiosk.

So despite the fact that my ticket was paid for, and I had only a small carry-on bag, I was forced to stand in line with hundreds of other passengers. By the time I got to see an agent, my flight to Baltimore-Washington International—for holiday fun with six of my seven brothers and sisters—had been long gone by almost an hour. Now I was being told I was a potential enemy of the state. Who, me?

Now, belated kudos to the professional, patient Southwest ticket agent lady, who eventually processed me to a later flight, then instructed me on how I might fly stand-by on another flight (which I eventually did).

But this turn of events had repercussions. For example, I do not use a cell phone, and I had no coins in my pocket. But I had to call my brother who was picking me up in Baltimore. So once I got past security, I went into a bar looking for change, whereupon I was told by a rather glib dope that he could not open his register unless I purchased something. Nice. So, at 11:30 a.m.—hardly Happy Hour for me at that moment—I bought a draft beer for the outrageous price of $6.50, got my change and placed a pay phone call to my brother. Mission accomplished. (At least they still have pay phones at the airport, though, like clocks at the airport, these are probably slated for oblivion. But ever wonder why there aren’t clocks at the airport?? Check it out next time you go.)

Now, ultimately, I got to Baltimore and then back to Nashville four days later, and I had an amazing time with my siblings. But what I want to know is, Why am I—a career (and usually starving) arts journalist and musician—on the FBI’s Watch List?

Things go through your head while you’re standing there in an airport waiting to have your fate determined by the watchful bureaucrats. Like, Is there an Irish terrorist named Martin Brady? And they’ve confused me for him? Have I been watching too much porn, and guys who do that are profiled as suspicious? Has the fact that I pay my taxes late every year come a-cropper? I’m self-employed. Is that bad, because I have minimal contact with the IRS?

Back in the ’90s, I used to drive and dispatch cabs in suburban Chicago. I worked with a few Arabs. Could that be coming back to haunt me?

Every avenue of self-inquiry seemed ludicrous, but there you have it. Now, what happened to eventually get me on my way is another matter. I guess they confirmed that I was not a flight risk, but why? I don’t have the answer, and the idea of contacting the Transportation Security Administration, or—God forbid—the FBI, to find out what the heck is going on, seems out of the question for any person who has better things to do and simply wants to get on with their life.

Bottom line: If I’m on the FBI’s Watch List, then our government is surely wasting the $5 per airline passenger they extract from ticket fees to support the TSA. (Do the math on that one, folks. $5 times how many passengers per year? That’s a lot of income for George W. Bush’s employment-program boondoggle for minimally skill-setted workers whose main, albeit inadvertent, task is to hassle innocent people.)

I’m told by a very knowledgeable friend of mine that you can’t appeal the Watch List. So, while there may be some kind of romantic notoriety there, knowing that I’m considered on a par with John Lennon, basically it just sucks.

If only my name had been Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Then I might’ve skated.

I have no plans to fly anytime soon. I think I’ll just drive everywhere from now on. And by the time the TSA implements its next round of security measures, I might be able to drive almost anywhere in the same time it takes for the rest of y’all to get through airport security.

Make no mistake, America. The Arabs won. And to think flying used to be an exciting and highly anticipated adventure. Now it’s just a downer.

As Mr. Potter would say: “And a Happy New Year to you—in jail!”