King of the Blue Line
TSA is not the face of America. I want to feel at home in America although New York, or more properly Newark, NJ, some part of the sprawling megalopolis, is still far from home for me. My plane to Chicago leaves in a little more than an hour so I begin to lose heart at the long lines for passport control. Even in a new airport, something about the queues and the industrial strength carpet and boundary markers to ensure that we move slowly and singly up to the desks gives it a dinginess.. The line is sadly quiet because the monitors telling us what not to do intrude on any but the most basic of conversations. "Here we go, the indoctrination begins" someone says echoing what many of us feel. The video tells you how to pack your liquids and so on but mostly it seems so self-justifying. These folks are not the keepers of security. It is not their exclusive reserve. I chat amiably with the man in the line in front of me. He's from Colorado. He has an even longer flight than I do and a three hour wait for his next flight.
More self promotion as the TSA has a poster reminiscent of the World War II era proclaiming that they are the face of America. I smile nonetheless as I get to the desk. The man does not smile back. It was like this last time, but last time I tried harder to engage with him and got a smile and welcome back. This man in prison guard grey shirt does not smile. He does not even look at me, but he asks twice, skeptically if I am really not bringing anything back --"nothing as gifts?" he asks. "Just myself " I say as brightly as I can and offer nothing more. I pass and then more lines, including removing shoes and belt tho I have been only on a flight and in this carefully controlled part of the airport. The tears well up in my eyes. This is just not the welcome that I had even remotely hoped for. I am relieved that I have not been selected for a "secondary baggage" check and head for the gate. The delay meant no chance to stop for food and domestic flights now do not even provide the much-ridiculed peanuts or pretzel sticks so I arrive in Chicago, hungry, anxious, still hoping for a welcome home somewhere.
The long walk to collect my bag is punctuated with some interesting public art. It brings a smile to my face. As I approach the baggage area, I am greeted by the sounds of a Chicago blues band playing. The familiar rhythms get my heart beating again.
I fumbled my way to the the express train into downtown Chicago. I knew which train but did not remember how to find it. I ask the woman who got on with me, "Is this the train to downtown?" She thinks so. The man sweeping the corner of the train, booms in a baritone, "Downtown Chicago!" "Sweet home, Chicago," I reply echoing the blues band's refrain. He finsihes his sweeping and comes to me and says, with his dust pan like a royal sceptre, "Welcome back home to Chicago." I got what I had been hoping for. The real face of America is and always has been the hard working nearly invisible ordinary people who keep the dream and the country alive. I will be forever grateful to the King of the Blue Line for his welcome.