“You’re not the Michael Brown we’re looking for.”

(Originally published May 12, 2010; edited and republished September 6, 2020)

As she thumbed through our passports with her practiced fingers and keyed the necessary data into her computer at Miami International Airport, the pleasant, Latina U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer was all smiles, the perfect blend of professionalism and “welcome home, cherished and valued citizen” hospitality.

I was looking directly at her when she came to my name and her face suddenly darkened. She knitted her brow and tapped a few more times on her keyboard, double-checking, perhaps hoping to stem the flow of bad news that was appearing on her screen. Then she gave it to me, straight between the eyes.

“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to hold your passport. Your name is on our list as one that requires ‘extra screening.’”

I did not like the words “extra screening.” I thought “extra screening” was what creepy looking Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers with gloved hands doled out when the metal detector still screamed “TERRORIST!” no matter how many coins and keys you emptied into the little plastic trays.

I knew about those full body scanners they have now, the ones that render you like an anatomically-correct diagram from a sex education book your parents used to keep under lock and key except for “The Talk.”

I fretted over the fact I had been sitting a long time on the tarmac after our flight in from Guatemala, waiting for our gate to clear. I tried in vain to remember if I had worn boxers or briefs. I tugged at my Columbia travel pants, hoping for the former.

The rest of my party and family passed their reentry with flying red, white and blue colors. Our travel companion proceeded on toward the baggage claim area, her eyes a little wide now as she looked back at her mild-mannered optometrist friend whom she had known so well for many years–or thought she had.

Eyegal and Numbers One and Three Sons could have passed through Customs as well, but they would have had to fill out another declaration, one without my name on it.

“You’ll need to stand over there against that wall until we call for you,” the agent said.

She seemed genuinely apologetic. Unlike her partner at the next counter, a man of apparent Italian descent, with a name tag that read something like “Petrocelli.”

He had apparently been required to work a whole two hours overtime that evening and was letting everyone within a 100-yard radius know about it. It was as if TSA had needed someone to test the full body scan on that day and he had drawn the short straw, so to speak, and now the word was out.

He just seemed like that kind of guy, one who would yell at the top of his lungs and finger the shiny, black Glock on his belt in a desperate attempt to overcompensate.

Eyegal thought that we all needed to stay together, to help me look “more normal.” I remembered the day my passport arrived in the mail and how she had scolded me for not smiling more and trimming my beard before having my picture taken.

“You look like a terrorist,” she had said. Now someone else apparently thought so, too. She told me later there was no way she was going to go on without me because she feared she would never see me again.

As I stood there, my blanched, Caucasian skin blending like camo with the colorless, concrete block wall, I halfway expected someone to appear soon with a Polaroid camera and number to take my mug shot.

I had always been what they call a boring “straight arrow,” not at all like the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials.

Still, I knew I had a few blemishes on my record, and I began to review them, one by one.

The most egregious was probably that time in back in ’92 when the resident Boss Hogg of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee (a fellow optometrist) fixed a speeding ticket of mine I had received on my way to his office to see patients. The traffic judge, I later learned, was a patient I saw that day.

No, that can’t be it, I thought. Then it hit me.

I had broken a few rules at Harding University, not the least of which was the time, long before the ubiquitous spread of security cameras and archived footage, I sneaked past the dorm mom in Sears Hall (an all-female domicile) the day before I graduated because “it was there” and so was she. 

That must be it, I thought. The ghost of Dr. George S. Benson, former Harding president, famed Commie hunter and guardian of Christian coed chasteness, follows you all the days of your life.

“You can’t stand against that wall,” “Petrocelli” yelled at us. “Move along!”

I thought about that for a second. I was not in cuffs or being held at gunpoint, but if I “moved along” I might soon be.

“We can’t ‘move along,’” I snapped right back, “she told us to stand here!”

Finger that, Little Man, I thought.

The Latina CBP officer was getting a little nervous. She knew from remarks I had made earlier that I was not impressed with her colleague and she seemed eager to move us along and avoid any potential trouble.

She shut down her counter and walked quickly toward a tall, uniformed African American man with salt and pepper hair, her supervisor I presumed. After a brief conversation, he walked toward us, his eyes elevating up and down, scanning me from the tip of my head to my toes. 

Not only was I being detained, I was being profiled to boot. The irony was not lost on me.

He asked me a few questions while Eyegal and crew did their best to appear very “average” and “normal.” He was calm, pleasant enough, and I could tell in an instant that he was competent as he sorted through the possible scenarios in his brain. I sensed he considered me the least of his problems that night, but I was still scared.

“Come with me,” he said. He paused for a second, glancing at Eyegal and Numbers One and Three. “All of you.”

We walked right past another line of people who had been pulled for “extra screening” and into a large, waiting area filled with rows of cheap plastic and metal chairs, which in turn were filled with many other people who required “extra screening,” very few of whom were as white as we were or spoke fluent English like we did.

It was a tad Kafkaesque, the kind of room that you could disappear into and not come out of for an awfully long time.

An expressionless, 60ish Caucasian female CBP officer told us to take our seats and wait our turn. We were in no danger of missing our connecting flight–yet–but I made up my mind that I would wait about 15 minutes before I walked slowly up to the counter, arms held out and hands in plain view, and attempt to “pull rank.”

I suspected there was not an agent or officer in that room, or probably even in the airport on a late Saturday night, who outranked me on the U.S Government hierarchy. I had my federal ID on me which contained a chip containing a copy of my fingerprints and my squeaky clean FBI background check file which they could scan and access through the Homeland Security computer system in a matter of seconds.

Okay, maybe minutes. If someone had remembered to feed the hamsters who turned the wheels of the gears inside the server.

Still, I decided to give them a chance to do their jobs and hopefully avoid a scene. The African American supervisor and his velvety-smooth, professional manner made me think that this could all go quickly if I just let it pan out.

My hunch was correct. About 10 minutes later, my name was called, and I made my way to the counter. A pudgy, pasty 30-something guy who could have used a uniform one size larger greeted me. There was something about him that made me think he had a stash of comic books under the counter and every video game console known to man back home.

Turns out that hunch was correct, too. “Sir,” he said, avoiding eye contact. “Did you ever see the movie Star Wars?”

“Um, yes,” I replied, wondering what Orwellian rabbit hole we were descending into now.

“Do you remember that scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi used that Jedi mind trick on that Storm Trooper and said, ‘These are not the droids you are looking for’?”

“Yes, I remember that scene.”

“Well, you’re not the Michael Brown we’re looking for.”

“I’m relieved to hear that. Have a pleasant evening, officer.”

“And you too, sir.”

We scurried from the room, past another checkpoint manned by an Asian officer who looked like he had been working so long that he was about to fall asleep.

He was sitting on a tall stool, leaning against the wall, his head tilted down so far his chin almost touched his chest. Nonetheless, his eyes followed us, like those in in a rich dude’s portrait above the mantle in a haunted mansion.

After a short walk down a hallway and out a glass door, we arrived at baggage claim. Our traveling companion was there, relieved—and maybe a bit surprised—to see us. She had managed to locate and pull all our luggage–except mine.

I finally found my suitcase, a black and red pariah, sitting askew and alone in the middle of a vast ocean of stained and scuffed floor tiles between two conveyor belts.

A loud, orange “You’ve Been Extra-Screened” tag was clinging by a thread to its zipper. My put-upon bag looked like an exhausted, lonely traveler, far from his native land, who had been singled out for special treatment. I picked it up, dusted it off, pulled out the handle and started the long walk toward our next gate.

I had been detained and “extra screened,” but ultimately recognized for who I was—one of many boring Michael Browns, not the more interesting type who were still out there skulking around, up to who knows what mischief, apparently using my name as a clever cover to appear—“more normal.”