I fly a lot, though I flew even more in the days before online conferences were remotely practical. In the early 90’s, I was flying from O’Hare to Dulles. I had some time to kill, so I used a payphone to dial my voicemail. If that didn’t make it clear that this was nearly 20 years ago, perhaps the fact that I had a pony tail and dark glasses, and looked vaguely like a Bond villain does.
Then, as now, people would occasionally leave rambling messages that didn’t really say anything, but just in case there was something important at the end, I’d listen to the whole thing. I’m sure I looked fairly frustrated after the fourth time the caller meandered his way through saying the same thing he easily could have summarized — or not said at all — and I noticed a girl standing at the pay phone next to me, holding the receiver to her ear with a vapid expression and twirling her gum, staring at me.
I put on a crazy expression and said into my receiver, “I killed him, he’s dead,” in a thick German accent and slammed down the phone on the still-rambling voicemail. Then I turned my head slowly and looked at her.
“Oh. My. God,” she mouthed, and hung up, and scurried away.
I didn’t give her a second thought, and checked my watch. Plenty of time before my flight, so I figured I’d go get a pretzel or something. As I got in line, I looked over, and the girl is chatting with a policeman.
She sees me, yells “Never mind! Thank you for the directions!” at the cop, and scurries away again. The cop shrugs at me as if to say, “what was all that about?”
I didn’t see the girl again, and by the time I got through the pretzel line, my flight was boarding. As I got on, I noticed the same girl was on my flight, already seated. And my seat was right behind her. She had noticed me as well, and now wore an almost comical expression of abject terror. I briefly considered saying something to her, but concluded that she was so wound up that it could not possibly end well.
When the flight attendant came by to ask her if she wanted something to drink, she nearly jumped out of her seat, then yelled back, “I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING WITHOUT MY GLASSES. I WEAR GLASSES. BUT NOT RIGHT NOW. WHEN THEY’RE NOT ON MY FACE, I CAN’T SEE A THING. I CAN’T WEAR CONTACTS, EITHER.” She spent the rest of the flight alternating between sitting perfectly still and comically pretending not to be able to see at all.
People tend to jump out of their seats when a plane lands, but nobody moved more quickly than she did. If she had brought any luggage on board, she was content to leave it behind. As soon as the door opened, she climbed past everybody, yelling, “I have a connection to make! To … uh … Mexico!” and plowed off the plane, running down the jetway.
Dulles has a weird system where passengers need to take a huge bus between terminals, and when I stepped on the bus, surely enough, there was the same girl, pressed up against the front window, jumping from foot to foot. I considered turning around, but she spotted me, letting out a little shriek, which she quickly stifled. I waved and smiled, but I didn’t think anything would calm her down at this point.
Once the bus stopped, she disappeared. Assuming she had run, I took my time, hoping not to encounter her again. I happened to look up, out the window, and there she was on the tarmac, running parallel to the terminal. I figured the best thing to do was to make myself scarce before airport security picked her up.
After 9-11, the TSA took over, and things got weird for a while (and, to some extent, still are.) One thing I noticed right away were the presence of “amnesty cans,” where passengers were supposed to be able to throw things away before they got to the security line.
Like what? Guns? I was curious, so I walked over, and looked into the can. The interior was kind of dark, so I leaned in.
Mostly lighters, a few bottled waters, nothing too interesting like chain saws or detonators, and a collection of things like tissue and wrappers that I cannot imagine one needs amnesty for.
One of the ever-vigilant TSA saw me, and yelled, “hey! You!”
I’m not really in the security line any more, and as far as I know, I haven’t committed any crimes, so for some reason, my first impulse is to run. With the can. Hunched over a bit. Yelling, “AMNESTY! AMNESTY!”
Yes I did.
I have to give the Chicago Police some credit, for at least watching the Hunchback of Notre Dame, if not reading the book, since they were content to stand by with amused smiles as the TSA chased me down to the next security line, where I left the can and blended in with the crowd.
After a few minutes of searching, the guy from the TSA who yelled at me recognizes me, but I can see the uncertainty in his eyes.
“The airport is no place for practical jokes,” he says to me, managing to be both pointed and noncommittal.
“So… What exactly did you have in mind before you found this out?”