The onset of rush-induced paranoia is subtle as I approach screening. It’s heightened by the constant proximity to other acutely panicked individuals. It creeps up from my fingertips, slinking slowly like the serpentine line it precedes.
A hungry snake, this one.
It opens its mouth slowly, beckoning me to join the ranks of traveling human cuisine. I grip its fangs for balance as I step in, careful to avoid the lines of electric venom and heat-seeking saliva dripping around me. It’s still within the oral cavity, but for those of us moving slowly down into the digestive tract. The snake recoils grotesquely every time someone up front makes it past identification and wades into the churning stomach acids.
The snake only moves when it has to—the ornery mongoose skirting its sides makes sure of that. I can see her just beyond the membrane, nipping at the serpent’s body to herd travelers along.
“Don’t move! You honey, move to the front!” she snaps.
Comply accordingly and this bellicose snake-tamer might give you terse thanks; or she might ignore your ephemeral existence all together. Test her, and she’ll strike with lighting force.
“I’m coming for you! Stay where you are!” she snarls.
I watch from my place in queue as she reins in a passenger who is hurrying for a pending departure. With her priority action identified, our tenacious facilitator pounces, using her sharp teeth to gnash at the snakes belly with surgical precision.
The plastic is unclipped, the nylon belt slides open and the Alaska-bound blockage is sent to the front of the line for immediate processing.
Whoosh! The snake exhales, relieved to be free of the intestinal sty. With such a high volume of food passing through its innards daily, it’s important that the rest of us pass normally.
The line shuffles forward.
By the time I reach the precipice between the queue and the machines, waiting to disrobe like the rest, I’m relatively calm. I’ve grown accustomed to the nerve-racking system that our airport shepherd has nurtured up to this point. She’s effectively passed us through the esophagus in a timely fashion.
And no one made jokes about improvised explosive devices.
The snake now seems to be resting peacefully, sleeping off the drowsiness that comes with eating so much fodder. I can see the inside of the stomach organ in its entirety now. I’m ready to walk in and get broken down.
A portly Latino man with a black mustache, blue shirt and latex gloves is ready for me, too. He greets me with a knowing look. Don’t worry, his expression seems to say, most make it through this rigmarole unharmed. He hands me off to another mustachioed blue-shirt who smiles as he checks my ID and flags me for advanced screening.
I know what you did with that Sharpie, Dave.
Yet, I can now finally begin my participation in the peculiar human phenomenon that takes place in the belly of airports across the country. What a thing to see! Like obedient automatons, the people around me take off their belts, remove their shoes, and empty their pockets as if taking cues from a mugger. I follow suit, watching carefully as my wallet and laptop move slowly into a dark recess of the snake’s stomach lining.
Look at all of the surrendered credentials and jewelry! If we were at gunpoint (and it’s not certain that we aren’t) our assailant would make off like a jack rabbit! In reality, some do profit from the chaos inadvertently; others fall by the wayside. I see an elderly man pocket a hurried businessman’s smart phone by mistake.
I see a child being patted down for weapons.
Barefoot, pants sagging, I interlock my fingers behind my head. I’m a contemporary manifestation of thousands of years of armed inter-human conflict that has now spilled into the world of commercial aviation. The good bacteria, like probiotics, scan three-dimensional imagery of my body to evaluate its worthiness for uptake. Others are already through, crossing the security membrane and entering the bloodstream. They put on their belts and shoes hurriedly as they scurry off in the direction of their mitochondrial vessels.
If things go well for me, the digestion cycle will end before there is much more time to reflect on human trends. God, I hope so. I’ll be spit out the rear like excrement into rainwater running down a gutter—skin, fingernails and tousled tufts of hair.
And just as soon as I entered this lair, this transitory zone that exists between ground-based freedom and airborne containment, I find myself strapped in, resigned to my thirty-five-thousand-foot fate. From there I look down, always, on the quiet majesty of the Great Lakes; or the Rocky Mountains; or the Pacific Northwest.
From such heights, the relative insignificance of my existence is never more apparent.