Just in time for the holidays, new revelations about airport patdowns have suddenly sparked the nation's ire. As if travelling in the era of Al-Qaeda isn't odious enough, now we're obliged to toss our downsized toiletries if they're not in a one-quart Ziploc. We're herded along the conveyor belt, forced into a disturbing intimacy with strangers, as we remove our shoes like a bunch of dutiful kindergardeners. But for anyone like me, who bears an extra load of surgically-implanted metal, travel has long been a frustrating, often revolting endeavor. That's why I saw deliverance for the first time in full body scanners. For me, they're a godsend.
My hip replacement was no big deal. I was relatively young for the procedure. Except for the hockey player whose trashed body needed an overhaul, most of my fellow post-ops inching down the corridors on walkers were older than me. But when they sliced off my leg and installed a foot-long titanium shaft with three woodscrews, the years-long agony from the grinding and scraping of a congenitally misshapen hip joint, discovered when I was nineteen, was finally over.
After my third follow-up visit, when my scar had diminished to a tiny, puckered strip, the surgeon told me I could fly again. My hip felt so good I wasn't sure I even needed a plane. Nevertheless, the receptionist handed me a white plastic card. It bore my name and a fancy hospital logo; it was my pre-emptive explanation for the great din my new metal body part would inevitably incite at airport security. It looked about as authentic as my official Wyatt Earp's driver's license that I picked up at a gift shop in Tombstone. Nevertheless, I was optimistic the first time I flew after the operation. Bursting with entitlement, I presented the card to the TSA employee at the security checkpoint. "That's a joke, right?" the checker asked. Chastened, I walked through the machine. The buzzer beeped and then for the first time, I heard the official yell those two hated words: "Female assist."
He screamed it, I would soon learn, because the one female on duty is frequently awol, or else engaged in another body search of a ninety-year old woman with a pacemaker or two metal knees. Usually, he'll scream it again. And again. And again, and I stand there with the clock ticking, listening to the boarding announcements, hoping at this point to make my flight.
Recently at LAX, I waited twenty minutes for a woman to emerge, and I regret to say that my equanimity failed me. Usually, I'm resigned and compliant, hating every minute of it. I understand that these folks don't make the rules. But this time, I went nuts on the guy, as he called and called -- not loudly enough, I noted repeatedly -- for a female assist. I told him I would sign a waiver indicating my willingness to be searched by a man. I offered to rip off my clothes. I begged to go look for a woman myself -- after all, they were in possession of my phone, computer, wallet, money, suitcase and shoes. I would leave my watch, for good measure. Traveler after traveler passed me by, looking at me as if I were a prisoner in the stockades. I needed to get home, and the probability of making my flight was growing dim.
And here's what happens in these patdowns. First, she does a full scan with her wand, and when she finds metal, she tells me she's going to use the back of her hand to investigate it manually. Of course, all the metal is over the naughty bits. The underwire in the bra sets off the alarm, as do the grommets and zipper of my jeans. As does the offending hip joint, which starts behind my pelvic bone, on the right hindquarter. Even in form-fitting trousers, my behind gets the once over, about six or seven times. So, yes, she touches and feels and rubs and pats. And sometimes, makes conversation. I've been complimented on the color of my toenail polish. My weight has frequently been remarked on, as has my suntan, and even a mole on my abdomen. Many TSA employees want to chew the fat about my hip replacement, either as an added security measure or, I suspect, to mitigate their own sense of absurdity. I imagine they're asking themselves, Why does my job require that I flay this nice woman? Do I really think her bra is carrying a detonator?
And in spite of it all, none of this really bothers me. It's inconvenient, time consuming and frankly, ridiculous. But if the nation thinks these patdowns are going to keep us safer, then I support it. It's the world we inhabit, where threats are unpredictable, and non-state actors keep us terrorized, and guessing, and on our guard. I'll admit that I can't understand the logic of being able to travel with five different electronic devices and their chargers, but not my foundation make-up or my face cream. But if one day, someone tries to smuggle an explosive in her bra, the authorities will be prepared.
I don't actually believe my privacy is being violated, or that the women who pay too much attention to my groin have anything in mind besides doing the job that they're required to do. It's never occurred to me to complain to the TSA, even when my children watch me get pawed and prodded from the sidelines. The sense I get from the female assists is that they know as well as I that it's a charade. My daughter nailed it once when she asked, "I know you have a hip implant, but why are they searching you?
In the last two years, I've flown from Stockholm, London, Moscow, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Port-au-Prince, and Copenhagen. I have never been searched to the degree that the woman in Springfield, Missouri carried out on my t-shirt and summer skirt-clad, flip-flop-wearing body. Overseas they seem to do a bit of sensible profiling at the border, and once I explain my hip replacement and they do a minimal search, I'm generally free to go.
Which brings me to the body scanners. They are time saving, efficient, and not nearly as invasive. I worship them. They are freedom from the pointless ritual of lifting up my shirt, turning down my waistband, justifying my lingerie, and explaining for the thousandth time to a federal employee why I had a hip replacement at 45. If the TSA is going to make security a humiliating but necessary ordeal, I say, get it over with fast.