Tuesday, August 15, 2006

From the Annals of Aiport Security: The New Puffer Machine

I once had an interaction with a puffer machine. You know what those are, right? They are the airport security machines that blow a puff of air on you to search for traces of explosive material. They've got one at Pittsburgh Aiport. It seems to think I'm a fine and decent American.

My mother lives near Pittsburgh. My mother has been ill, and over the past year or so I've made frequent trips to visit her and help her with business and doctors visits.

So in late May, just after Memorial Day, I went home to see my mother. I was taking her to the hospital for some tests, and it was one of the first really warm days of the year. I wore a striking psychadelic colored cotton dress. Not only do I love this dress, but 90 percent of the people who see it, especially strangers, feel compelled to compliment me on it. (I should say right now that I got the dress at a little shop in Brooklyn called Red Lipstick. If you're in the borough, don't miss it.)

Long story short. I had a rental car for the day, and after a lovely day with my mother I headed back to the airport to return the car and make my way home to New York. I drove around desperately looking for a gas station near the airport. Pittsburhg Airport is surrounded by undeveloped land. Western Pennsylvania is truly beautiful -- one of the last few places where you find wide swathes of land yet undiscovered by McMansions. But what that meant for me that day was that there were no gas stations to be found.

After missing my flight, I finally gave up and went onto the airport property to return the car with an empty tank. Rounding the all familiar airport loop, I saw what looked like a gas station right there on the property. Yes, it was a gas station with decent prices. Price is a matter of perspective, though, isn't it? I live in New York City where gas stations are also few and far between, but in stark contrast to this particular gas station, New York gas stations have extraordinarily high prices. (I still take some comfort in knowing that (a) I rarely drive in New York; and (b) our prices are still well below San Francisco Bay Area prices.)

Blah, blah, blah. So I go to the gas station, and start to fill up the tank. I drift off for a moment and soon the tank is overflowing and gasoline is gushing out of the tank and nozzle. It simply refused to automatically shut off. What up?! It kept spilling and spilling. I panicked, but thought maybe the gasoline might stop pumping if I pulled the nozzle out of the car's tank. So I did. And it didn't. The movie "Zoolander" has a brilliant and nearly identical gasoline scene. Let me put it this way. The song "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" by Wham was screaming in my head. The gasoline was arcing into the air like a . . . a fountain. And as it gushed, I was showered in gasoline. Soon I was standing in an inch-deep puddle of gasoline pleading for another customer to tell someone inside to shut the damn thing off.

Finally, I just crammed the nozzle back into the gas pump so that it could pump back into itself. It stopped. It stopped after charging my credit card about $30 for a quarter tank of gas. (Here is where you must resist the impulse to think this price is reasonable.)

In the end, the dim-witted cashier turned off the pump and refunded me $5. Whoopee. She gave me a paper towel to wipe off the bottom of my shoes so that I didn't soak the interior of the car with gasoline. But it was too late for my cute little dress.

I slogged into the airport, which was at this point totally dead since I'd missed my flight. One USAirways ticket agent helped me find another flight while a second one just hung out watching over her shoulder. The extraneous agent said, "What's that smell?"
I glanced away and said quietly, "That's me."
She said, "No, it smells like . . ."
"Gasoline." I completed her sentence.

I told the two of them my horrible story, as my eyes turned nervously to the screening machines at security. I was hoping the TSA agents wouldn't smell the gasoline. But how could they not? I ducked into the bathroom to try to at least wash the gasoline from my skin and shoes. Afterwards still, I reeked.

With great courage, I marched toward my fate at the security. As I anticipated, the agent stopped me. He grinned from ear-to-ear. Was he cruel or had he lost his marbles? Excitedly, he asked me if I wanted to try the new puffer machine. I spilled my guts to him. I apologetically told him that I couldn't possibly use the new puffer machine because I was covered with gasoline, and the machine would surely detect it.

No! He told me I'd be fine. I should give it a try.

The machine was more like a booth than a conventional screening machine. I had to step into it, stand on two giant green clown feet printed on a mat inside, then a gate closed behind me.

The new puffer machine blew one forceful puff of air on me.

After a few seconds, the gate at the front of the machine opened.

Drenched in gasoline, I stepped out and got on my flight.