CHAPTER 1: WHEREIN OFFICER GREYFIELD BEGINS THE SWIPE IN EARNEST
“There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.“
-Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002. Department of Defense News Briefing
GREYFIELD liked to cite the Aviation Transportation Security Act when stealing from passengers, along with the 9/11 Commission Report, the 9th Circuit Court’s ruling in U.S. vs. Davis (1973) and choice selections from the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
It was the ATSA Grey used on our first big theft on a passenger, the beet-faced businesswoman with the Nextels who came through Chicago O’Hare, back in ’02.
I was on the X-Ray and Grey was doing bag checks when the businesswoman reached the front of the security line. Up until then we’d mostly been pulling petty thefts— the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters that fell out of the overturned dog bowls into which we made passengers empty their pockets. The pocket change filtered down through a rift in the segmented conveyor belt, beneath which was a catch-tray that collected all the odds, ends, baubles and bangles that passengers leave behind at the nation’s airport security checkpoints each day. I would stand lookout while Grey ducked beneath the X-Ray tunnel to go through the tray. It was supposed to be the supervisor’s job to pick out all the scraps at the end of the night, so it was a little risky, our first grift, but only because most of the supervisors were stealing, too; if they were to discover Grey and I were moving in on their take, there was a good chance they’d rat us out to upper management. Night’s end would sometimes bring us more than just five or six dollars in change. You’d get the occasional diamond earrings, gold necklace, credit card. Grey had scored a 14 karat gold wedding band earlier that year over in Terminal 5. But the businesswoman with the Nextels was the first time we moved straight into the passengers’ luggage— the beginning of the swipe in earnest.
Grey, Officer Boehm and I were in charge of our own lane that day in United Terminal 1, checkpoint 2, lane 4— the lane we called the Honeycomb Hideout owing to its location in the surveillance cameras’ blind spot. It was 2100 hours or so and I was running the X-Ray at full tilt, trying to get the line down so we wouldn’t catch mandatory overtime, when the image came across my screen: a black-green mass square in the middle of a Samsonite suitcase. I could make out the cell phones’ circuit boards, but the image was still unusual. About one in ten passengers brought a cell phone to the airport back in early ’02, so I was pretty used to seeing them, but not half-a-dozen of them at once. I stopped the X-Ray belt and called Grey over for a second opinion. Grey leaned in over my shoulder, clucked his tongue in consideration and glanced over to the queue to match the bag to a face. Waiting in line on the other side of the metal detector was the businesswoman. She was middle-aged, wearing a blue silk button-up and pinstripe dress slacks; her blazer and heels were already making their way through the X-Ray tunnel. Grey arrived at the diagnosis in a quiet, reassuring tone.
“No worries. Probably just a bomb component. I’ll take a look.”
Grey said that about every questionable image on the X-Ray screen, deadpan, even if it was obviously just some kid’s Game Boy next to a block of cheese. When the businesswoman got to our side of the checkpoint and realized it was her suitcase under security scrutiny, her face flushed red with first class fury.
“My flight’s in 9 minutes. I removed my laptop. I removed my shoes. And you guys are still out to fuck me.”
“Ma’am, I have to take a look through this bag. It’s all very questionable, to tell you the truth, very questionable,” Grey began, launching into the rapid-fire nonsense he always used when he wanted to divert passengers from whatever unsavory thing he was about to bring down. “A matter of opacity and irregular density on the mass inside the bag that we’re seeing on the X-ray screen. It all bears an uncanny resemblance to some of the latest intel on aviation terror plots. Of course there’s the bag’s clutter, too, which, in conjunction with the unfortunate upright orientation of the bag as it passed beneath the vertically-arrayed backscatter sensors, caused my partner here,” Grey swung his chin in my direction, “A bit of confusion.”
As Grey pulled the Samsonite out from the X-Ray tunnel’s lead-lined curtains and brought the businesswoman over to the metal divestiture table, their conversation floated back to me on the X-Ray machine in fading snatches. . .
. . . Please hurry. . . This is bullshit. . . I understand that, ma’am, but. . . I’m a frequent flyer, I go out once a week. . .Did you pack your own bag, ma’am, and do you have any sharp objects in here that I should know about?. . . My flight departs in 20 minutes. That’s departs, not boards. . .This is to ensure your own safety, ma’am. . . I’m Platinum status; that used to mean something in this goddamned country. . .
I hit the forward button on the X-Ray panel, bringing the conveyor belt groaning back to life, images of suitcases, backpacks, cosmetic bags and shoes continuing their nude parade across my screen. I was sure Grey’s idea was to make the businesswoman miss her flight. That’s what we did to passengers who came off rude: found various stipulations and technicalities within the TSA Standard Operation Procedure so as to stretch a simple bag check out to a 30-minute affair that would lead to the passenger either missing the flight and being forced to rebook, or, if the airport gods were on our side that day, an all-out passenger temper tantrum, police intervention and arrest. I had seen enough of the businesswoman to know that Grey was probably out to land her on the permanent No Fly List.
Grey hated almost all frequent flyers—platinum-level business men and women with their self-important airs— but he hated white American first-class passengers the most. In his 38 years on Earth, Grey had learned there were a lot of things wrong with the world, and he blamed almost all of them on white, upper class, frequently flying American passengers: the decline of rock music, childhood obesity, over-vaccination, the failure of UNESCO to designate several of Grey’s favorite South American hangouts as World Heritage sites, global warming, lukewarm coffee, under-vaccination, the slow-death of serendipity in the consumer world, poverty, superheated coffee, the sudden outbreak of bedbugs in various large cities around the U.S., the unpredictability of motion-sensor toilets, the infuriating complexity of the U.S. tax code, radio jingles, speed traps, the price of cigarettes in Northern U.S. states, inclement weather, bad poetry, prolonged public temper tantrums by toddlers, caffeine addiction, chapstick addiction, bigotry— all of these problems would at one time or another be attributed to white upper class American passengers by Grey. I’m sure he was dimly aware that it wasn’t even logical, this theory of white upper class American travelers being responsible for every bad thing in the world; he may have even admitted it to himself, occasionally, on quiet evenings spent alone. But the bottom line was that Grey didn’t have time for the Great Nuanced Map of Worldly Injustice and Misfortune, that sprawling and immensely complex tree diagram, the lines of which veined upward to a generally unsatisfying source of either no one or everyone. Grey preferred a quick-stroke brushing of the world, black and white, and as far as Grey was concerned the blame came down on white, frequently airborne American passengers, who were right there in abundance in front of us every day at the airport, and who were in the position, both figuratively and literally, to oversee and pull the strings on the all the iniquities of the world.
A favorite saying of the frequent flyer: “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time at the airport.” It was Grey’s mission to make sure that all first-class passengers did their share of airport penance time, and it was clear that Grey was planning something unholy with the beet-faced businesswoman when Officer Boehm walked up to the X-Ray machine, standing over me like a huffy, reluctant messenger.
“I’m tapping you out. Grey wants you to go over there,” she said, raking me with her big blue eyes. Officer Boehm hated having to do favors for anyone on the checkpoint; having to do favors for Grey doubly insulted her. She felt as though she’d already been more than generous with Grey ever since they’d hooked up at an officer outing almost a year before.
I walked up on Grey and the businesswoman in the middle of what looked like that childhood game of Keep Away: older kid holding an object that the younger kid wants, younger kid grasping wildly at it while the older kid draws it back like the bane of Tantalus. But in this case, the fruit was a gold-trimmed, executive-level pen, and instead of sneering like a child and holding the pen above the businesswoman’s head, Grey was stone-faced and observing it at eye level. Grey kept twisting the pen— click, click, in, out— and instead of leaping for the pen, the passenger just glowered at it. They both lit up upon seeing my approach.
“Here he is. The X-Ray operator. Supervisor Holvay, the good lady here seems to be having difficulty understanding our policy on pens of this type.”
“It’s a fucking pen.”
She stamped her foot in my direction and leveled a hand at the item in question.
“And a very expensive pen.”
They both looked at me as though everything depended on my appraisal of the pen. I had no idea what was going on. In truth, we had no policy on pens, and I wasn’t even a supervisor, despite what Grey had said. In fact, Grey was the supervisor that day. Grey had brought me into God knows what, and now I had been thrust into the role of supervisor, on top of it. I was hung-over and in no mood for Grey games.
“Well, first of all,” I began, hoping to stumble my way into the angle that Grey was playing. “The reason I initially called the bag check was due to an opaque mass on the X-Ray screen.”
“Right, right, of course,” Grey said. “Which would be these.”
Grey held up two plastic containers, one in each hand.
“Passenger has 8 brand new Nextel cell phones, which would normally arouse great suspicion, but which, in this case, I have safely determined to be a case of the passenger being a small business owner who has purchased these cell phones for distribution to her employees. The cell phones are not in contention at this point. The problem is that over the course of the bag check I discovered this pen.”
Grey clicked the pen and held it out in front him.
“Which clearly weighs more than point-five ounces.”
He left it there, the end of the sentence closing out with the upward inflection of a question I did not understand. The two of them watching me— the businesswoman buttoning up her blazer, boarding pass between her lips, and Grey, arms folded across his chest, federal badge catching a glint from the overhead terminal lights.
“Well, because the pen weighs more than half-an-ounce. . .” I said.
Grey looked on like a travel ball father watching his kid in the ninth inning. The words “All men are mortal” flashed through my head.
“And because more than half-an-ounce is more than half-an-ounce, which is more than the half-an-ounce pen restriction. . .”
I shot a side glance to Grey to try to gauge if I’d done anything wrong yet.
“Therefore, ma’am, you won’t be able to take that pen through airport security.”
A smile flitted across Grey’s lips. The businesswoman turned 360 degrees, arms up-flung.
“Do I look like a fucking terrorist? Do you think I’m going to hijack a plane with that pen?”
Grey held both hands up, palms outfaced.
“Ma’am, I would not advise you to repeat that. That way goes arrests, missed flights, and unhappy careers. I understand your frustration, but these are perilous times. Our country is under attack. And in response to this perilous situation, our president signed into effect just last year a very special security Act, which, among other things—”
“Just take the goddamned pen.”
“—which, among other things,” Grey continued. Nobody interrupted Grey in the middle of the ATSA speech.
“Created us,” Grey tapped the TSA badge on his shirt. “And specified that all items such as nail clippers, knives, tools over 7 inches from handle to fulcrum, boxes of aluminum foil, knitting needles, box cutters— as though I even needed to mention box cutters— and, unfortunately, in your case, writing implements over half-an-ounce, are not allowed to pass. . .”
A salvo of boarding announcements burst out over the airport P.A. system.
“—through security. It’s what’s called the Aviation Transportation Security Act, and it gives us full authority to do whatever we have to do in order to ensure your safety aboard aircraft, sir. To make sure it never happens again.”
“I miss my flight and I’m putting in a phone call to a friend of mine. In D.C.”
“Fair enough. Supervisor Holvay, would you mind running her suitcase back through the X-Ray, sans the offending pen and the cell phones, to make sure that the bag is now in fact clear? I’ll separate it all out for you.”
The businesswoman cursed the Lord Jesus Christ and appealed to the other first class travelers for help, which was futile: no matter how many flyer miles the she had notched into her stick, she was in the federal Grey realm, now. I handed Grey one of the plastic checkpoint bins piled at the side of the tables. Grey began pulling the contents of the passenger’s suitcase out and placing them inside the bin, per re-run protocol. It was actual TSA policy for us to re-run all bags through the X-Ray machine after the search. Sometimes we followed the policy, sometimes we didn’t. Mostly, when we wanted a passenger to miss a flight, we followed the SOP. Grey’s hands worked through the suitcase, his speech sounding out like the whistled tune of a gardener pulling weeds.
“And ma’am, I’m sure your friend up in D.C. would be familiar with U.S. vs. Davis, 1973. . .”
Grey continued his spiel while ripping out the contents of the businesswoman’s suitcase and piling them in the plastic bin. He nodded to me, giving me the signal to run the bin and the empty suitcase back through the X-Ray. A final boarding announcement came over the airport P.A. just then, probably the woman’s airline, judging from the spit-string she loosed like the tail of an obscenity-flung comet.
Back at the X-Ray machine Officer Boehm was running the conveyor belt at full speed, chewing gum, barely even looking at the X-Ray images, which was her security style. Everyone at TSA has a unique security style. Mine was contemplative and introverted. Grey’s was extroverted, even showman-like. Boehm’s was a callback to the carefree bubble-gum-blowing-bored-1950s-teenage-girl-in-reform-school-waiting-for-the-bell-to-ring-while-daydreaming-about-a-bad-boy-on-a-motorcycle thing, only instead of a bad boy on a motorcycle she was watching, it was Grey in his federal uniform over at the bag check table, and instead of not paying attention to the teacher, it was the security X-Ray screen at Chicago O’Hare international airport, across which, as I walked up to her, a dark object that very well could have been a gun was gliding, never to be investigated. She was wearing a pink bra that showed through her white federal-issue shirt, a violation of uniform policy that several managers had warned her about, mostly as an in to flirt with her. Boehm generally just didn’t give a shit, which was why Grey and I could trust her with matters of national security.
“What’s Grey talking about with the lady?” she asked, chomping away at her Bubblelicious. “He’s doing the ATSA speech again, isn’t he? Why’s he waste so much time talking to the passengers?”
When I returned to the bag check table the businesswoman tore the suitcase from my hands in a fit of frenzied repacking, bringing her cosmetics bag down in the suitcase like the block in Tetris.
“I hope you’re proud of yourselves. I really do. Proud of all this authority,” she said.
Grey straightened up, hands behind back— military parade rest.
“Ma’am, where were you on 9/11?”
All traces of tolerance had drained from Grey’s face. He was going in for the finishing move. A professor having posed a pivotal knowledge-check question. The businesswoman was done repacking now, and though all that remained for her to do was to zip the suitcase closed, she put an artificial amount of attention into the rectangular ritual. It wasn’t just her hands participating in the zipping, but her eyes, too; Grey’s big question had forced the businesswoman to abandon all eye contact.
“Home. San Francisco,” she muttered. “I don’t see why it matters.”
“I’ll tell you why it matters, and I’ll tell you where my sister was that day. UA Flight 175. And I’d tell you where she is, now, but you already know. You know what happened to flight 175, while you sat there snug in sunny San Fran, strolling down Haight-Ashbury, reminiscing on your goddamned flower child days, or whatever it was you were doing. And I’ll tell you what you and your kind would have said before that day. Before the international terrorist network that now threatens our great nation came so darkly into focus: it’s just a pair of nail clippers. It’s just a pair of shoes. It’s just a pen that exceeds the half-ounce pen limit. Ma’am, please look at me when I’m talking to you. It’s just a pair of box cutters. For opening boxes. You would have said that. Isn’t that right?”
The businesswoman’s gaze rose to meet Grey’s for one moment, and then slunk away like a chastised puppy. Another final boarding call rang out over the P.A. system.
“Just go. You have to catch your plane. Your safe plane. But as you run off to B3 over there, I want you to think about where I was that day, as far as my state of my mind. My mind was occupied with thoughts of how I could serve my country.”
Grey didn’t really have to dismiss the businesswoman, since she was already at full gallop, headed B3-way, heels click-clacking down the concourse.
“I was thinking about being an American, ma’am,” Grey called after her.
The businesswoman swerved wildly in and out of the airport foot traffic, nearly colliding with a group of Chinese exchange students we’d just processed through the checkpoint an hour earlier. Grey and I stood silently for a minute or two.
“I bet she’ll make it. Just barely,” I said.
“Yeah,” Grey said. “I hope she does make it. I’d rather not see the bitch ever again. We did good there, Rapho. We did real good there.”
Grey watched the businesswoman’s retreat like a proud general overlooking a battlefield, arms folded across his chest. If you didn’t know any better, you could almost mistake Grey for a genuine, honorable, disciplined authority figure, maybe one of the many former or current military men who had signed on to jobs as Transportation Security Administration officers after 9/11.
The first thing you noticed about Grey when stepping to the checkpoint was his height and build— six-foot-two of fine Native American fettle—but Grey hadn’t worked at his physique any more than a Great Dane works at its height. Grey was the healthiest unhealthy person I’ve ever known. Apparently immune to venereal diseases and weight-gain alike, in the day he subsisted entirely on free fast-food slipped to him on his breaks by girls at the O’Hare food court. He cultivated relationships with females at the airport based on particular needs: always several food court girls going simultaneously (easy to keep secret from each other since they were mostly all still in their teens— streetwise, seventeen-year-old city girls tend to hold relationships with 38-year-old-men close to their budding chests); he was always actively pursuing ins with female CPD officers in the interest of gaining vicarious power-of-arrest, and of course, there was always a ticket counter girl for reduced-fare on flights. Always an airline girl. Grey’s sex life, like everything else about him, was an act of fleet showmanship that I honestly believed would never come crashing down, that is, until the night his wife showed up out of nowhere and caught him with the Craigslist masseuse at Anchorage International after we went on the road, and all hell broke loose. But that comes later.
In the evenings his diet consisted of Johnny Walker and or Anchor Steam washed down with several milligrams of prescription dextroamphetamines, along with Vicodins, Percocets, OxyContin and other choice selections from the banquet of whatever scripts Grey was able to steal from passengers’ luggage on any given day. But the real birth of the swipe-in-earnest came with the beet-faced businesswoman, who made her flight, just barely, as I predicted, sprinting up to a closed B3 that was mercifully re-opened by an airline employee who caved at the businesswoman’s panting running-war-whoop (I’m Platinum I’m, on-that, flight-goddamnit, Platinum).
We stood there on the checkpoint by the metal divestiture tables watching as the businesswoman disappeared for what we thought would be forever, the gate closing with a hydraulic hiss, the airline employee muttering what was probably an all-clear in his walkie-talkie. Boehm was shouting for a bag check over on the X-Ray in an increasingly angry tone, the security line building up but no one there to ease it, since it was just Grey, Boehm and I there on the Honeycomb Hideout, Lane 4, back in the good old days, when things were more innocent.
And then Grey stooped down and came back up with two packages in his hands.
“It appears the passenger forgot to repack two of her cell phones.”
Grey never even had a sister, as far as I would ever know.
“Rapho,” he said to me a few minutes later in the supervisor’s office. ”Take these items up to lost and found.”
He handed me a plastic bin of items that passengers had left behind that day, the things of such low value that there was nothing else to do with them besides check them in to lost and found: three belts, one child’s squeaky toy, one fake-gold necklace, two driver’s licenses– Nebraska and Idaho—a dirty baby pacifier, one blue mitten. Grey was acting supervisor that day because our actual supervisor, Supervisor Grunwald, was secretly AWOL, having clocked in and gone home, as he always did on Fridays with the silent approval of everyone on the team. In return for not opening up our mouths to upper management, Grunwald turned his head to pretty much everything his officers did on the checkpoint and allowed one of us to serve as acting supervisor every Friday, a role that Grey always assumed with relish.
“But before you do that, get your backpack, and put this in it,” he pointed to the two boxed Nextels at his feet. “Then get out of here. You’re done for the day.
He learned back in the supervisor’s chair and took off his glasses, which were non-prescription, anyway. Grey just wore them for the sophisticated look he thought they conveyed to passengers. Without his glasses, and with his up-slid sleeves betraying one prong of his pitchfork wrist tattoo, a hint of the wild man that Grey actually was shone through for just a moment.
“I will meet you at 2321,” he intoned, with a sort of crazed intensity.
The Nextels and the fictive sister were all part of that day’s play on the playbook.
Officially, playbook was the daily set of rules that came down from TSA headquarters— random security measures meant to keep the airport screening process unpredictable so as to make future attempts on aviation more difficult for terrorists to execute. Each day at briefing our supervisor would announce that day’s playbook play. A directive might come down that all electronic items were to be tested with explosive trace swabs between the hours of 5 and 7 P.M., for instance, or that the arms and legs of all male passengers were to be patted down for a window of eight hours, or that anyone flying out of St. Paul, Minnesota was to be given extra scrutiny until further notice. But like any directive sent from on high, it didn’t take long for the more creative among us to begin interpreting playbook to our own advantage, with national security being the last thing on anyone’s mind.
As TSA officers, we were allowed to institute any screening that went “above and beyond the TSA standard operating procedure in the interest of ensuring aviation security,” so a lot of the random airport security rules that seemed pulled straight out of someone’s ass back in the early 2000s seemed that way because they were. The truth was, a lot of us were just making up airport security rules as we went along for the first ten or so years after 9/11, up until the point that oversight committees began clamping down. Grey was the first officer I met to have come up with the idea of using playbook to steal from passengers, and the Nextels were the first real success— the victory that opened the floodgates on what we could achieve.
After dropping the tray of lost and found items off at the airport operations center I was still free from security duties a full 45-minutes earlier than my scheduled quit time, and so I decided I would stop off for a quick meal at the United Cafeteria and then go for a couple of pick-me-ups at the Chili’s Bar & Grill. I had been brutally hung-over all day from the previous night’s drinking session with Grey at a sports bar just down the street from the airport, which was the official hangout spot for O’Hare TSA officers. The one thing Grey and I had in common from the time we’d been hired the year before was our mutual avoidance of work-related social gatherings. Things tended to get rowdy at the outings; there was always some sort of fight, usually police involvement, and an arrest could mean termination for a TSA employee, depending on the charges. But more importantly for Grey and me, an arrest would mean an investigation. Grey and I both had things in our pasts that we couldn’t have turning up in a background investigation.
But Grey dragged me out to the sports bar the night before when he got word that one of the United ticket counter girls was going to be there with the other officers—a painfully cute Syrian girl— so out to the bar we went, with all the male officers vying for the attention of the hallowed United girl, and Grey choosing to approach the problem of Who Was Going to Get the Girl with a sporty-alpha-male strategy of coaxing all the suitors into playing pool (which Grey coolly dominated) and then taking every opportunity to get in close to the girl so as to help perfect her form when lining up her shots. As the night rolled on and the drinks kept coming the stratagem seemed to be working in Grey’s favor, until a man showed up claiming to be the rightful boyfriend of the girl with Ulyssean aplomb; it turned out this was legitimately so. The entire night was destroyed in Grey’s eyes, and in the worst way, too: with what he’d hoped would be his girl lost to another man, which always led Grey to hit the drinks hard and demand that I match him, shot-for-shot, beer-for-beer, until the next thing I knew I was waking up still-drunk with 5 minutes to put on my TSA uniform and head out the door in the interest of national security. So I spent the entire workday mentally cowering in a hung-over corner of myself, thinking there was no way I’d get to the end of the shift without collapsing or getting terminated for being intoxicated on the job, but that if I did get through, I would reward myself by heading to the United Cafeteria for a plate of chicken parmigiana, and then change out of my uniform and make for the Chili’s Bar & Grill for a couple hair-of-the-dog beers. Just to make the train ride home tolerable, and all.
A tolerable day is a miracle in my book.
To get to the United Cafeteria you have to pass through the connecting tunnel that links O’Hare’s terminal 1 to the C Gates, beneath the Helmet Jahn installation— that most famous artistic feature of grim-faced O’Hare— tangle of neon lights zigzagging the whole length of the half-mile corridor’s ceiling. A light and airy handbell rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue” plays on loop in the tunnel, so that the first time you experience the installation you forget that the two things were ever separate— the lights and the music— with Gershwin’s playful refrain building to fey crescendo, the neon firing in purples greens and blues. The C Tunnel light show was the first piece of airport art that I ever fell in love with. It was the only saving grace of O’Hare— heartland hub of America’s air travel, whore of an airport, taking the nation’s flights from every angle down a hundred different runways.
After changing out of my TSA uniform and into the plain white tee that I always carried so I could shed the mark of a federal employee for public drinking purposes, the train ride home actually did turn out to be more tolerable than the usual Chicago Blue Line experience, save for the police officer who got on at the Belmont stop and walked the length of the car, randomly asking people to open backpacks and suitcases for inspection.
My hatred for cops had only grown ever since becoming a federal security officer; I had come to see the degree to which official authority was always just an act beneath the surface. My thoughts went straight to the cell phones in my backpack next to me on the seat, and in a rush of paranoia I was sure the CPD officer could tell I was guilty of something. I began mentally preparing myself to show the cop my DHS badge and play the whole come-on, we’re-brothers-in-keeping-the-public-secure, no-need-to-search-me act, in case he had somehow gotten a report about stolen cell phones at O’Hare airport, but I was passed over in the spot-check inspection, and the cop got off at the next stop, apparently satisfied of the train car’s innocence.
I would later find out that a bullshit bomb threat had been called in earlier that day, putting the city police on a bullshit terrorist alert. Over the past year Chicago had been on edge second only to NYC; the Loop had been evacuated on 9/11, as rumors were flying that another plane was headed for the Sears Tower. And so you had things such as Thomas the Train Cop coming around to peek inside your bags. It amounted to an invasion of privacy, as far as I was concerned. A violation of civil liberties and abuse of government authority. So many of us spend our lives going through the day with nothing but the opacity of our pockets standing between us and ignominy, and now this 9/11 thing had come along, threatening to ruin everything. Really, Grey and I should have been the ones securing that train against terrorist threats on behalf of the government, anyway, what with us being Transportation Security officers and all, but this was before TSA formed the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team (VIPR) in 2005, which Grey would discover was great for our purposes, on several levels.
The thing that bothered me most about the cell phones we stole was that Grey would probably be coming over to my apartment later that night to collect them. I wanted to get to my apartment and continue slow-drinking just long enough to bring my hangover back to a light buzz, and then melt into bed for 9-10 hours of recovery sleep. Grey would almost certainly be stopping by now, and probably with Lazarina, the Lithuanian wheelchair girl Grey had been seeing for the past month. Visits by Grey and Co. tended to careen out of control into repeat performances of heavy drinking that led to consecutive days of waking up drunk on workdays and, eventually, to call offs.
Best case scenario, assuming I practiced superhuman restraint (extremely unlikely since I would be one Xanax down and at least five beers in by the time Grey arrived) I would end up not getting enough sleep for work the next day. It was hard enough to get sleep in my building— a run-down bohemian two-flat at 2321 West North Avenue owned by a manic Colombian slumlord named William Restrepo— with all manner of degenerates and young aspiring Wicker Park musicians raising hell above and below me at all hours. And so I popped my nightly milligram of Xanax, said a prayer for a Grey-less evening, and settled in with a beer in front of the T.V., where a comedian on a news program was riffing on Rumsfeld’s Known Uknowns speech from earlier that year. The Does Going to War with Iraq Make Sense in Our War on Terror question was raging everywhere in the news at the time.
Four beers later, at around 11 P.M, just as I was thinking about making a play for my bed, I heard the clomp-clomp and high-pitched squeal of Grey’s boots and Lazarina the wheelchair girl coming up the stairwell, respectively.
“It is disgusting here,” Lazarina said as she came up the stairs into my apartment. Lazarina, blond and not long out of her teens, was generally disgusted by any quality of hygiene below the level of NASA-grade sterility maintained by her old-school Lithuanian mother. My rundown, cluttered apartment— dishes high-stacked in the sink—was too much for her. It was the second time Grey had brought her over to my apartment; the first time she’d walked up the stairs, taken a look at the place, and told Grey she would be waiting in his car until we were done drinking.
“I do not know why you bring me to this place,” she said, fending off imaginary cobwebs as we walked down the hallway to my kitchen.
“Rapho here’s my friend, Laz,” Grey said.
We sat around my island counter, Coltrane playing over the speakers in my kitchen, per custom. Lazarina was wearing a novelty elf hat on account of the approaching holidays. The disability services company she worked for at the airport allowed their employees to wear Christmas-themed headwear for half of December. For 2 weeks, all the lone-traveling disabled and elderly airline passengers were pushed around O’Hare in airport-issue wheelchairs by elves, elfettes and reindeers— a ridiculous sight each year, all those plastered limbs and geriatric bodies being wheeled around by antlered college kids in green valet uniforms.
But Grey was happy sitting at my kitchen counter with his 20-year-old elfette, and even happier to get his hands on the Nextels, which, in front of Lazarina, he pretended was just a case of his having bought the cell phones and given them to me for safe keeping.
“The Mercedes Benz of the cell phone,” Grey said, turning phone over in his hand. It was the beginning of Grey’s addiction to cell phone theft on the checkpoint, which would really take off in just a few years, when Apple dropped its bomb.
Grey leaned toward me over the counter.
“I’ll be able to re-sell these for 200 bucks a pop. We got a 400-dollar bonus today.”
“You tell me you do not get tips in your job,”said Lazarina.
“We get certain favors under the table. We’ll split it, so that’s 200 bucks apiece, Rapho. That’ll cover you for almost a week in the D.R., Rapho.”
Grey and I had recently hatched a plan to go on a trip to the Dominican Republic in February. It was to be my first taste of life outside of the U.S., not counting a trip I took to Ontario-side Niagara Falls when I was 8. Grey couldn’t stop talking about the D.R. trip as February grew nearer, and, given the extraordinarily cold Chicago December we were having, and the far worse January and February that were sure to follow, I had begun to dream about beaches and baked bodies, myself. Grey was well-traveled, especially around Latin America, with a tender spot for the D.R. He’d been going there every summer since he was a teenager, and knew everything about the island, including what he felt was the best time for us to go (February) given what he considered to be most important for me on our one-week trip (to get my first taste of Carnival in Santiago). The long-game for Grey involved saving enough money to buy a piece of land near a little beach town he knew about called Las Galeras and living out his golden years as an expat/hostel owner with his doors wide open to absolutely anyone who was an attractive, party-friendly, 18-28-year-old single female tourist.
“See what we can get if we do this airport security shit the right way, Rapho? All those other Officer Friendlies playing per SOP, what do they get? 36,000 a year? 36,000 may be them, but it ain’t me.”
Grey pulled two peach-colored pills from his pocket, popped them and slow-chewed. Dexedrine. I could tell he was already 10 or 20 milligrams down when he walked through the door, but Grey was gunning for a full-on manic celebration.
“It ain’t me. A 400-dollar bonus from some first class asshole with more money than he knows what to do with. That’s me. We keep doing this—doing it smart— 10 years from now we’ll have enough saved between the two of us, we’ll be able to have our own thing on the island.”
Grey was always talking about “getting our own thing”—breaking free from the white man’s game by setting up shop on Hispaniola. It was essential that this financial independence be achieved within ten years, because in 2012 Grey would likely have to resign from federal employment, or be terminated. When you sign on to a federal security job you’re issued one of three security clearances: Confidential being the lowest, Secret in the middle, and Top Secret being the stuff that military intelligence analysts are made of. At the Transportation Security Administration the initial class of 60,000 front-line officers was given Confidential clearance, obtained by filling out and submitting an exacting, 40-page SF-86 questionnaire and background check application, which the investigators at TSA headquarters proceeded to diligently lose.
The panic on aviation security in 2001 created an unprecedented rush to create an enormous federal agency from scratch, and thousands of background checks were misplaced or erroneously adjudicated in the confusion, including Grey’s, which had been filled out with more than a little dishonesty: No one up at TSA headquarters ever got around to checking the legitimacy of Grey’s check-less Have You Ever Been Convicted of a Felony box. So Grey, along with countless others who had signed on with the TSA in 2002, was in the absurd position of being a convicted felon who could only get a job as a federal officer with government security clearance. For the most part Grey thought it was all pretty funny. But the thing about security clearances is that they have to be periodically re-investigated. So 10 years from his hire date— in January of 2012— Grey would be re-investigated, and it wasn’t likely he would be able to slip through the cracks a second time. Grey had to take everything he could get from the federal gig, and fast.
“Sunshine and two-pieces. Once we got our own thing on the island, it’s all sunshine and two-pieces, Rapho. No investigations to worry about, no more playing the bullshit security act. I’ll be doing my thing, you’ll be doing yours. Practicing your art.”
Grey turned to Lazarina.
“You know Rapho here’s an artist? Rapho’s an undiscovered artistic genius hidden right there with us at the airport every day. He’s the Good Will Hunting of the airport. He’s like a—what’s it—a savant. An idiot savant or something.”
“You say mean things about your friend.”
“No, he’s the smart kind of idiot. Show her the collection, Rapho.”
“It’s not finished.”
“I don’t show works-in-progress.”
Lazarina and Grey tried to badger me into bringing my work out from the basement, but I held my ground. It was a collection of conceptual pieces, composed entirely of confiscated items I’d been smuggling home from the airport over the past year.
It was titled “Stolen Booty,” and it consisted of just that. 24 pairs of professional hairdressers’ scissors bent and welded into 3 super-tarantula-sized stainless-steel spiders made up “Prohibited Pincers.” 3 doctor’s reflex hammers and 14 pairs of needle-nosed pliers went into “A Case of the Red Eye.” 346 red, white, black and blue lighters would soon be puzzle-pieced together into an American flag that would ultimately be set aflame with a blow torch we’d confiscated from a welder flying home to Pittsburgh: “Let it Burn.” 4 blender blades, 8 barbells, 6 butane torches, 2 corn-on-the-cob skewers, 49 Leatherman tools and 247 nail clippers—all wrapped up in 40-feet of confiscated bicycle chain (which I’d hand-painted and was slowly coating with melted wax from confiscated candles)— made up the collection’s centerpiece, “Seasoned Travelers.”
The millions of objects the TSA had us confiscating from passengers across the nation were really innocent and inanimate bystanders in the War on Terror at the airport, since the planes on 9/11 could have been overrun regardless of what weapons the hijackers brandished. The use of candle wax as an outer shell for “Seasoned Travelers” served as an especially ironic touch, I felt, since the tools’ functionality was negated in the very act of artistic preservation— the levered mechanisms waxily entombed and gagged like gauche exhibits of Madame Tussauds’. The wax medium held an additional appeal for me due to its erotic connotations.
Grey tried to get me to show the unfinished collection to every other girl he brought up to my apartment because he had no understanding of the artistic process.
“You’re not doing yourself any favors by refusing to display your talent, Rapho. Lazarina would probably see you in a whole new light if you opened up a little more,” Grey said while Lazarina was in the bathroom.
Soon the beer was hitting my stomach like butterflies and life seemed good again and so I put on some reggae, which always followed jazz in our progression of drunk music listening; Grey and Lazarina started messing around right there at my kitchen counter. Worried I would be reduced to a spectator in a live Christmas-themed porno scene I took the opportunity to put the action on pause by breaking out a 1/4-full bottle of Jim Beam I had in the freezer, for shots. Grey and Lazarina took kindly to the notion and soon all three of us were working at shaking consciousness, with Grey descending further into a drug-and-alcohol fueled frenzy that at one point had him attempting to slow-dance with Lazarina before she swirled around in his arms— her novelty elf hat slipping to Hip-Hop tilt— and began working the music with the singular grace of drunken dance-move-attuned youth, leaving Grey looking sort of like a captain standing at the helm of a ship he took great pride in but could not control. Grey locked his amphetamine-charged eyes with mine and motioned to Lazarina’s ass with his Stella.
“Meesah happy!” Grey cried to the soupy reggae riddim, apropos of the great Rastafarian Jar Jar Binks and the new Star Wars trilogy, the first two installments of which had just recently been pinched out over the public and which Grey already hated with the kind of passion that causes one to become chained in thought to the object of hatred itself.
Grey couldn’t stop himself from imitating Binks at every turn, even though it was chiefly Binks and father Lucas who were, in Grey’s eyes, responsible for tainting his warm, Far Far Away childhood memories of the summer of 1977, back when Grey was 15-years-old in a darkened theater somewhere back home in Albuquerque, before the realization had hit him: The world was composed of illusions spun by Svengalis such as the white man George Lucas who had chosen to cast the latest two installments of the hallowed franchise with a bug-eyed, dreadlocked minstrel who digitally shucked and jived for the sole entertainment of his billionaire Massa Lucas. For Grey, the prescient, pre-Baghdad Phantom Menace of ’98 and then, of course, the great Clone Attack of ’02 (unleashed just eight months after the real-life special-effects disaster around which our business revolved) nicely summed up the tragic and absurd way the new millennium was unfolding. Later, when Grey and I actually met George Lucas during one of our deployments to the celebrity and politician security lane at LAX, I found out Grey was not willing to follow his convictions through to their conclusions when he caved and joined in on the officers’ scramble to secure Lucas’ autograph.
It was 2 A.M. then, just at the point when I found myself with a drunk-and-drugged quasi-Rastafarian being dry humped by a Lithuanian elfette in my kitchen, 6 hours from the time I had to be up for work. I was nearing blackout point myself, being ten beers and three shots of Beam down on top of the Xanax, which was dangerous: one more beer and I would be lucky if I could come out of the fog long enough to coherently call off of work, and so I left the two amours in my kitchen and stumbled down the hallway toward my bed.
The next morning I found Grey bare-assed in my living room, sitting on a stool he’d brought out from the kitchen, back turned, elbows to knees, looking like a Hopper nude: glum light shafting in and everything. His gaze was fixed out my front window looking out on North Ave. A thread of smoke snaked from an empty beer bottle on the floor next to him. Lazarina was curled on my couch, covered by a patchwork assemblage of her and Grey’s clothes, save for one long leg and a bare, bra strap-crenulated shoulder. He’d never gone to sleep, and now he was up against the suicidal Dexedrine come-down. All traces of the island-bound Grey were gone. Grey couldn’t leave the country any time soon, and he knew it. He’d have to get his passport renewed in the process, and attempting to do so as a convicted felon would trigger a red flag domino effect that would probably get back to headquarters.
In the night Grey was all fire and dreams but come morning– when the latest Greytoy was fucked and wound down to little bird snores and there was just the crash and another day closer to his fortieth birthday– everything was emptied.
I made a play to convince Grey to join me in calling off, since we were both still drunk. They would smell it on us. He sat silently, waiting for the close of my slurred appeals. I tried to tempt him with the idea of a bloody mary down at the Blue Line café as soon as they opened, in two hours.
“No,” he said, reaching a hand to the pack of American Spirits on the floor.
“We swore a federal oath.”
Grey never turned around.
Read Chapter 2 here.