The day started. It was a mellow, sad morning with many tearful goodbyes to my Clarion West classmates. Okay, I have to go home. I’m going to do this thing. I arrived at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport three hours before my Japan flight, paid 75 bucks for my overweight suitcase (still loads cheaper than had I sent the books by post), and I trekked off to clear security and find my gate.
That’s when things went south.
The line for security didn’t look that long — heck, I still had two and a half hours before boarding — but some TSA agent seemed to think otherwise.
“While this line looks short it’s not. It’s not moving at all. You all need to go to Check Point Three all the way on the other side of this building. The line over there looks really long, but it’s actually moving quickly and you’ll get through a lot faster and still be able to make it back to this side of the airport to get to your gates.”
When in doubt trust the guy with the walkie-talkie I always say. So me and about fifty other passengers take off in the direction he pointed. But the stampede bottlenecked and there were three ladies with signs that read: “End of Line” and they were milling about and several of our group were joining those lines and someone was yelling, “This is for a Southwest flight”, and it was just a mess.
I’m of single-minded intent here. I do NOT want to miss my flight to Japan and have to spend the night in a freaking airport, so I start grabbing people and asking where the heck is Check Point Three. Someone wearing something that resembles a uniform and what might be a walkie-talkie on his pocket tells me I want to go all the way down by the Starbucks. That way. Just keep walking. I start to hurry away when a tall, longhaired, bespectacled (and cute!) German guy grabs my shirt and asks am I flying Delta and do I know what’s going on. I say, yes, I am and no, I don’t, but follow me.
And he does.
We find our destination and line up. The line is nuts, longer than that first line and snaking back on itself over and over again. But whatever, right? The first dude-of-authority said this one was moving faster.
No sooner had I put my backpack on my wheeled carryon to rest than there was a weird commotion right in the line that was running next to us. People started coughing, like serious hacking and choking and shit. It was rippling up the line toward us. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in Japan for 23 years it’s that you always carry a handkerchief with you. I pulled mine out, put it over my mouth and nose, and reached for my phone. The whole thing escalated quickly. More and more people were coughing. But it hadn’t completely sunk in something was really wrong. I took a photo.
It’s blurry but it’s heart breaking because I realize when I looked at it later that I took it the moment right after I witnessed a dad grab a towel or handkerchief from his pocket press it to his daughter’s face and scream for her to hold it tight and not take it off. You can see her standing there while her dad and mom try to get their bags on the conveyer belt for screening as fast as they can.
It’s here that I kind of say really loudly – because no one’s saying it – “What the hell’s going on?” Some lady runs by and tells me we’ve been pepper sprayed. Fuck. So I grab my German guy and tell him we’ve got to get out of here. He agrees.
In the short span of time that followed several things happened. People began to get really scared. The TSA and other security in the airport went from not knowing what was going on, to being mildly concerned, to screaming at us to get out of the building. My German guy (whom I’ll call E because I did learn his name and while there’s no way he’ll ever find this blog I don’t feel cool using it) and I are trying to get away while one TSA agent is screaming and pushing at us to go stand on the sidewalk outside. I look up at E and say if we go outside there’s no way we’ll make our flights. He agrees and we sneak by everyone trying to herd us in a different direction and meander our way back to our original check point.
The line there is easily three times as long but what choice do we have? We saddle up behind a cute elderly couple from Georgia and prepare to move very slowly. The three of them were troopers. They pushed my carryon along as I kept jumping out of line to try and figure out what was going on. I bought E some water and the four of us chatted about all sorts of stuff. A fun but also a harrowing two hours because I was sure I’d miss my flight. In the end we all stuck together and got through. It turned out our departing gates were all next to each other: S1, S2, S3. We shook hands said our goodbyes and I stifled the urge to ask them all to take a selfie with me. (I might be regretting this now.)
The 11-hour flight was fine but my lungs ached a bit and there were more than a few people with coughs. Also, a tiny bit of irony: Before I went to Clarion West, before we all met in real life there was a question going around our ListServ: What spirit animal are you? My answer was a bear.
Then six weeks later I was bear sprayed. Well played, Universe. Well played.
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