(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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“We can’t ‘move along,’” I snapped right back, “she told us to stand here!”
Finger that, Little Man, I thought.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”