Eden at the Airport

I was wrong, completely, about the TSA experience at the airport this week. It was actually astonishing. Trump and team have, at least for a moment (and I can’t imagine this moment lasting very long), done the impossible. They appear to have actually created a momentary bond of sympathetic understanding between TSA agents and business people. I know everyone’s supposed to be acting like assholes – that’s the baseline expectation that I shared as well. But I didn’t see it. The security lines were all staffed and moving quickly, and the people going through them were, broadly speaking, being quiet and kind. People were thanking the agents, if you can imagine that.

Look, if you’re not familiar, the relationship between the common business traveler and the average TSA agent isn’t just fraught. I honestly think it represents class relations in the US in microcosm. A travelling corporate sales executive can pull more in one good commission check than the guy in the blue polyester uniform shirt is going to make all year (even when he’s actually paid, which as of this writing he’s not), and they both know it. Their views of one other are traditionally uncharitable, their relationship frosty at best. And this has been going on for a long, long time.

Broadly speaking, it works something like this. The agent sees the traveler as a rolling, bloated gasbag of commingled entitlement and idiocy. The agent knows that the traveler has been through the security line a hundred times before, yet somehow the guy’s still going to put his jacket on top of his laptop in the tray. He’s not supposed to, and there’s no way he doesn’t know this, but he’s going to do it anyway. Which means that the agent’s going to have to get him to move it, which means that the guy’s going to give the agent attitude about it. This interaction, however minor, is going to take a painful little nibble out of the agent’s well being. Not a big deal in itself, but those nibbles are going to go on all day. And days like this are how the agent feeds his or her family.

As far as the agent is concerned, only two explanations for the traveling salesman’s behavior are possible. One is that the salesman is truly, desolately dumb, a grown-ass man unable to navigate the simplest conceivable tasks. That’s possible, but if true it’s infuriating to the agent. It’s infuriating because with the money that guy paid for the blazer that’s now sitting on top of the computer in the tray, the agent could have put food on the table for a couple of weeks at least, and if we’re in any kind of large urban airport, putting food on the table is not a trivial concern for somebody getting by on a TSA income.

The other possibility, of course, is that the salesman is just fucking with the agent, and if we really break it down this is exactly what the agent suspects. Nobody can actually be that dumb. Deep down, the agent still believes in some concept of meritocracy, or at any rate wants to, so it’s hard to believe that an obviously well-to-do guy could seriously be walking around with his head that far up his ass. No, this is malice. Petty malice, even – the worst kind. The guy’s just casually throwing a wrench in the works because he can. It’s a power play. Sure, he’ll move the jacket when the agent makes a fuss, but he’ll roll his eyes when he does it and do this whole canned performance thing around it, and everybody in line knows that the whole production is just to get under the agent’s skin. That’s got to be what’s happening.

Obviously, the sales guy sees things a little differently. Of course he knows he’s not supposed to put anything on top of his computer, but he left the house yesterday at three in the morning to get an early flight out, then had to be out with prospects last night, even though he and they both know this deal isn’t going anywhere. Even though he badly needs it to, because he’s on thin ice if he can’t make some magic happen this quarter and right now nothing in the hopper is coming together the way it needs to. Because yeah, he did pull down a big commission check early in the year, and that was great, that helped, but he’s been riding on the fading afterglow of that deal for a while now, and the guys upstairs need to know that he can do it again. And he gets that, he understands. He chose a success-based role and you pay to play, so to speak, but the dial on his sales quota resets at zero every quarter just like it does for everybody. Even if they do keep him around, his base salary without that commission check isn’t going to cover him. It’s an okay base but with two kids, childcare, summer camps, orthodontics, not to mention his first wife bleeding him dry and a that credit card balance that just seems to edge up and up no matter what he does? No chance. And speaking of credit cards he’s got to go back now and try to get his VP to sign off on a $400 bar tab for a deal that everybody knows is on life support, and he’s got a quarterly plan due next week, which means he’ll be trying to work pull out his computer while wedged in a middle seat, which itself might be easier if he could get to the gym once in awhile, but he’d love to know exactly how the hell he’s supposed to find time to do that. All of which is to say that keeping everything on point for the goddamn TSA just isn’t the foremost thing on his mind right now, which seems to be some kind of big surprise to the scruffy kid in the blue uniform shirt who’s getting all over him about his goddamn jacket.

Anyway, you get the idea. It just hasn’t been a good relationship for a long time. Which why I was kind of taken aback to see something different going down. Because it’s true – at least right now the scruffy kid is getting paid exactly nothing. And my guess is that nearly everybody going through line is perfectly capable of doing a little though exercise around what missing a couple of paychecks would do to them. This is America in 2019, guys. Whatever it says on your W2, thin ice is an almost universal norm. Mine might be a little thicker than yours, but I’m not standing at the pole right now either. Most of us aren’t. And for a minute there, in the security line, everybody seemed to be getting that. For a strange moment, the South security checkpoint at Denver International Airport was a garden of peace and human understanding – a thing I never thought I would see.

Of course, none of this will last. Ironically enough, we’ll all be back to glaring at one another again the minute everyone’s getting paid again. Nor do I necessarily think that we’ve stumbled on some kind of formula for national reconciliation. Class isn’t our only issue; hell, I wish class was our only issue. That said, I also wish that the secret to bringing people together wasn’t kicking half of them in the nuts while the other half watches, but there you go. Still, it was a nicer travel night than I expected, and in airport ever, I take what I can get.

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