December 27, 2006

A day with Homeland Security

The day began as most days do, yesterday in Buenos Aires. But today was to be different, quite different!

At 10:40PM my plane took off for Washington Dulles. I had asked the flight attendant if the liquids ban was still in force. I was desperately trying to finish the bottle of fresh orange juice I had forgotten in my freezer, sucking the concentrate from the ice.

They call my flight.
More OJ! Need the vitamin C, I might get a cold.
They call boarding.
Damn this OJ tastes good.
They call section 2.
I ask a flight attendant if frozen OJ counts as a liquid?
She thought maybe I had found a loophole.

I threw the OJ in my food bag and head for the plane. The short angry security guard cuts briskly in front between me into the walkway (these small turds-of-men think they rule the planet forgetting that passengers pay their salaries). I give the attendant my boarding pass and make straight for the security guy, he steps back and I whisk by down the tunnel to my plane. I take my seat for an on-time departure for Washington D.C.

Lots of pretty girls on board, the seat beside me is free. This is a flight from Argentina of course! No! A white guy, he sits beside me, talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone, fluent Spanish, looks Jewish. Wonder if he too ordered a kosher meal? The flight attendants call his name. He leaves his hand luggage on the seat beside me, still chatting with his girlfriend. She called him. Back he comes with his duty free, a liquids exception for private enterprise.

He has vodka and it isn’t made in Paraguay! I have frozen orange juice. Maybe things are looking up. We’re friends within minutes. He’s got the aisle seat. He grabs my bag from the overhead after take off. I extract the juice surreptitiously, he the vodka. Now we need cups. They come, plastic, filled with drinking water. Empty that with one gulp. Two fine cocktails that look like OJ’s.


Eventually after dinner we run out of ice. Another crisis in the life of the budget traveler; my turn to ask. I wander back to the galley. I’m ignored, but professionally. I reckon the gay black guy is the best bet for attention. He voices his suspicion as I ask for two cups of ice. He feigns being drunk, his arm waving around in the air, unable to pass me the plastic glass of ice. I don’t play along. I wait for him to stop. I grab the glass. I call him a gentleman and a scholar. Was that a slur? I think he likes it but he’s still suspicious and we had been warned once already.

Back to my seat with the ice, a hero. Last of the OJ mix, loaded with vodka, two plastic glasses full! Cheers again!

Then comes the older stewardess from first class.

She launches her accusations, I sit there trapped, my glass in my hand. My partner says it’s his vodka. I assure her that this was our last one and it was practicably 100% orange juice. She doesn’t believe me! “Good!” she says, “I won’t have to spank you then!” I nod in agreement, my partner remonstrates for a spanking. He’s still jealous of my Kosher meal.

Cheers! Time to sleep.

I woke up over the Bahamas, still dark, no more screwdrivers. I reached into the food bag and found that I had a can of soda. Best to drink it.

Within two hours it was touchdown time in D.C. Dulles airport, it was a tight connection to San Francisco.

We were directed like sheep, half asleep, through the maze that is Terminal C to immigration. The girl behind me, (I had cut in front of her), was pretty. Argentina parents living in San Francisco! She asks the attendant if we will make the flight. I assure her that she had a good chance, US passport.

I however had an expired green card. Thirty five minutes in the line and it’s my turn. I show him the Irish passport, then the green card. He checks both, noticing the expiry date. I show him the form from the US embassy in Argentina. He isn’t impressed. He takes all the paperwork my passport included and drops it into a cardboard folder pointing to the mirrored room.

Secondary processing...

The room is huge and empty. All around me there are smaller rooms each with numbers on the mirrored doors, all have computers. There’s no one here.

I let out a quick sharp “Hello!”

There is no one here, and no one coming. Two Wendy’s breakfast combos sit uneaten in their bags behind the counter. I wait smelling the rancid oil. I’m on seventy security cameras. Someone will come soon, surely? I have 55 minutes till San Francisco take-off, gate C5.

A large black gentleman in uniform marches in. He knows why I’m there. He asks to see the expired green card, passport too. I show him the form from the embassy which says that I should be allowed onto the plane.

“That don’t do me no good Sir!”
“It’s in Spanish”.

I tell him to flip it over, it’s in English on the other side. He reads it and tells me it’s just for the carriers. I knew that, it had got me this far. I will go no further by the looks of my Homeland Security representative.

To lighten the situation I ask him whether I might make my flight, trying to sound positive, feigning a short smile.

“When does it leave?”
“About an hour.”
“Probably not!”

“There will be a fine!” he adds. I guess this is positive I think to myself. Better than being deported.

“How much?”
“Uh, huh!”
“You take cards?”
“Do we take cards?”, he asked the as a female agent enters.
“Yep but I need the key for the safe, you got it?”
“Nope. Call Jack.”

No Jack, no key, more computer issues. The form needs to be printed in triplicate, each copy signed, one by me, one by his colleague Ms Mason. The printer is dreadfully slow. What was that code? Two-eleven or two-twelve? A or B? 212A! Fine. The printer whirrs. I think maybe I might make this flight. The ticketing agent had come by searching for Mr. Phillips. She knew I was here, she had my bag.

More computer problems and another whirring printer. The first agent reads the printout. Just one copy. Agent Mason offers to hers while eating breakfast. But no, there’s a problem. The first agent corrects the form with a black pen, where it reads “San Francisco, Ireland”. He crosses out “Ireland” and puts in “CA”. He adds the name of his supervisor and offers me a copy to sign. There’s still 20 minutes to take off...

We leave together, all three following agent Mason. We walk right through, customs I have my checked bag now.


I hope my credit card works. There’s no one manning the homeland security payment booth. Agent Mason spins around to ascertain the whereabouts of agent Pacheco. He has the key to the safe. She leaves me alone with my baggage. She disappears behind anther security door.

Time ticks by.

Back they come! I read his tag. It’s Pacheco, the key to the safe is in the till. But! There is no key to the till.

Goodbye flight.

So now what?

The agents turn to each other. The prisoner can’t be released, the prisoner can’t pay, the paperwork is in progress. There’s nothing for it now but to go to the other building.

Ten security doors later I’m blinded by the sunshine as we exit another security door to the car park. I’m being taken in the space wagon marked homeland security. Lots of stop signs! No need to rush now. I’m just hoping I don’t have to pay for a new ticket to San Francisco.

We are stuck behind a baggage cart train, the on-board computer is pleading with us. We ignore the annoying beeps refusing to put on our seatbelts. They are my sheriffs and I their captor. We don’t quite stop at the stop signs but who cares we’re cops and I have an escort. I feel kind of special and tell agent Mason that they should offer Dulles airport tours. She says they do, for the foreign office but only for visiting politicians.

We’re there! We pay. We leave my customs form. My card works! It’s back to the space wagon parked outside.

Mission accomplished!

My bag is still waiting for me in Terminal C. I thank the first agent and shake hands with Agent Mason, wishing her a Happy Christmas. As it turns out with all the to’ing and fro’ing I never actually went through customs.

I hope the wine’s OK.


I’m escorted each step of the way through terminal C, alone. My ticket is changed for free, more security checks. I check my big bag for the next flight. I have a new boarding pass. Things are moving along nicely.

Scan time.

The security man has a broken arm. He’s polite but very intense. Takes his job seriously. I wonder did he hit someone? He asks if I’m carrying any liquids or gels.

“Did I want to declare them this time?”
I’m floored, back in the twilight zone.
Did he really say that?

I feel vulnerable taking my shoes off, surrounded by X-ray machines. It’s all a little strange but I move along bravely, I have no choice! No more trusty agent Mason to make me feel safe. I get to my gate and write some more of this then it is onto UA 237 to SFO.

Fingers crossed!
I got here and had Christmas.
Tomorrow I have another screening with homeland security.
Wish me luck!

Posted by Tony Phillips at 03:24 AM | Comments (5)

December 14, 2006

South American Hell

Summer in Buenos is too hot to sleep.

Even if you do manage to collapse exhausted in a pool of sweat, the AC on, you will doubtless be very rudely awoken, the house shaken to its foundations by a violent clap of thunder that sounds more like a Baghdad car bomb.

In Ireland, as children, we used to count potatoes to work out how far away the storm was. Flash! One potato, two potato, three potato, four. Thunder! Four miles! These storms are right there; hardly a potato chip could squeeze between the lightening flash and the belly wrenching thunder as you wake in panic like an Arab kid in Abu Ghraib.

I came back to the flat yesterday to find my neighbors outside which usually means a power cut. One of my neighbors is a ham radio freak, I tried to shuffle by but he trapped me in friendly Porteño style. He had another joke. He always has a joke when there’s a power cut. I failed again to catch the meaning in its entirety, understanding only that Lucifer or St. Peter (not quite sure), doles out various quantities of buckets of shit to an Argentine, a Mexican and a guy from the USA as they pass the fiery portal.

Oh no…

I had really only stopped to see whether the elevators were working again but now I found myself trapped listening to the end of the joke desperately deciphering meaning from context. The friendly geek, in an effort to accomodate me, switched into English but this made matters worse, ruining his comedic timing. There are few languages as unintelligible as Porteño English learned in silence from ham-radio manuals.

The barrel shaped neighbor used a British translation technique, HE RAISED HIS VOICE, the grammar perfect, the nouns unintelligible. Finally he switched back to Spanish for the punch line and belly laughed at his own joke.

I’m at sea. Standing uncomfortably feigning a smile as the geek looks around to his neighbors for reaction; they’ve doubtless heard the joke before in its pure Spanish version, they weren’t listening. I give up desperately shuffling jigsaw fragments of logic in a vain attempt to deduce humor. To this day I have no idea why the Argentine guy avoids spilling the bucket on himself, but I had manage to deduce that the elevator, the water and the electricity were inoperative.

Joy is mine!

Desperate electrical workmen interrupt us by tearing 1950’s fuses from a box in the wall beside us. I use the excuse to sneak away, with another polite smile, to start my long walk up 14 flights of stairs to my sweaty apartment.

Come to think of it Porteño English is a bit of a problem in economics classes too. The European names of mathematicians and economists (mostly German when you think about it), are mangled into the strangest concoctions only understandable to someone fluent in River Plate Spanish.

Krugman seems to survive intact, but they like him.

I used to intervene, asking the lecturers to write the names so that I might recognize the author and look them up later. This technique added shame to confusion, the teacher trying in vain not to misspell on the whiteboard so I stopped asking. Later, I tried another technique trying to be helpful. I would re-pronounce the name: “Ah! You mean LIEBNITZ!” I rapidly gave that up too; there was no connection between the noise that came out of my mouth and their mathematician they all knew and loved. The word I had uttered had no meaning and the class just assumed it was something unitelligable from me out of context in my bad Spanish which further added to the confusion. Now I just glance at my neighbor’s notes and fix the spelling in silence.

I need to escape the heat so while the Porteños go south to their “countries” in Patagonia it is off to the lands of hard currency for me. No more non-flushing toilets! Instead I shall try to put some shekels together to fund my ridiculous lifestyle. I’ve been thinking about limo driving and taking paparazzi shots of drunken celebrity sex but I’ll probably end up technical writing.

I take a plane to San Fran at the end of the week, give a shout if you have any better suggestions and a happy Christmas to all.

Posted by Tony Phillips at 11:29 AM | Comments (9)