Back in the USA (MIA to SFO)

Monday March 18, 2008 Miami International Airport

We passengers got off the plane (deplane sounds so Fantasy Island, doesn’t it?) and zombied forward, toward the bureaucramaze, which is like a maize maze but not nearly as much fun.

Sergio had warned us about Miami International Airport. He was too kind.

The show run by Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration of the US Dept. of Homeland Security at Miami International Airport proved to be an utter cluster-f**k. I may be wrong (not an uncommon occurrence) but neither CBP or TSA seem to have its act together. And, they’re not happy about it. According to its entry in Wikipedia, DHS employee morale ranks lowest in the US government departments.

There seems to be no concept that the people arriving at this embarkation point may not be operating at peak capacity, often traveling six to ten hours and overnight. Second, the agency is Anglo-centric. All signs are English. There seems to be no allowance that people may not be, shall we say, fluent in English. After my eight-hour flight, even I wasn’t able to read and follow the signs. C’mon guys how about a few pictograms to help those not totally literate in English? Like maybe those of us who didn’t ace the SATs?

Our first decision came at a bifurcation point: US citizens moved to the hallway on the right, foreign visitors into the left hallway. The purpose of this is to put you on the far left or far right (is there a metaphor in there for the US to be the far right?) of the same room. That is was the same room was not readily apparent to me (I’ll not speak for Mary) and I headed to the far left where the lines appeared to be shortest and fastest. Yes, you read that correctly, the lines. Rather than placing the two groups into (nearly ubiquitous) two serpentine lines, we were directed back into the same room with nothing separating the groups, and we had to gamble on which line would move the fastest. Mary was the first of us to notice something amiss.

Her first observation was that the people seemed to be more slender than the average American. Next, their clothing looked different. Finally, the people around us were not carrying US passports. The slender woman in front of us held an Argentinean passport.

Perhaps the most telling observation came from a man a couple people ahead of us, “You’re in the wrong line.”

A visual inspection of the Passport Control station yielded a clue: “Visitors.”

Back we went to the handful of queues on the far right. Four stations (out of maybe sixteen) were marked “US Citizens.” I’d show you a picture of the chaos but the bureaucrats do not allow photographs.

After getting through passport control, we picked up our luggage and were directed by signs to “follow the green dots” on the floor. These took us to a place that resembled the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark movie with the stacks upon stacks of crates and steamer trunks. People waited at various places along the perimeter. One TSA uniformed man wandered behind tape, grabbed bags willy-nilly, and tossed them into other stacks. I never saw anything move along the conveyor belt to the x-ray machine. We waited five or ten minutes trying to get him to take our two suitcases. We would move to where he was taking bags from people on our side of the barrier, and then he would move to another area—we’d follow him there, and he’d go back to where we had been.
He finally noticed us. “Follow the yellow dots,” he growled.
Someone woke up on the grumble grouch side of bed. Did I mention that Homeland Security employee morale is in the dumper?

We staggered off on the Yellow Trick Road and found an equally confusing luggage situation with an equally harried woman using the same snatch and toss technique as the guy at the other drop-off.

She gestured with her chin. “Just leave it inside the barrier.”
We scooted our stuff under the stretchy tape’s fabric. I fully expected to never see my underwear again.

After leaving our luggage to the vagaries unknown, we went in search of the line for domestic flight security screening. We found it. Just one more bit of chaotic clusterf***:
A woman pretends to look at our boarding passes and identification as we get into the serpentine cordon.

“Okays,” hollers another guy from the equally Anglo-centric Transportation Safety Administration. “I don’t speaks no Spanish, but, we’s got four lines here. If’n the person in front of you don’t see no opening, be polite, be nice, but go around ‘em. We’s got four lines here.”

“Here” refers to the lines for carry-on and passenger screening: the sprint where you take off your shoes, cap and coat, get out your liquids, and pull out your laptop, and put them in plastic bins (that are nowhere near you) in less than fifteen seconds or the person behind you knocks you down. I hate this part of air travel. It’s Theater of the Absurd without the funny bits. I believe we are no safer; simply hassled for show.

The waiting area on the other side of security didn’t hold any good coffee or pastries. It just had another group of people waiting for another flight to another place. We sat down and waited for our turn.

American Airlines flight 431 was notable only for the fact that it wasn’t notable. The only things I remember of the six-hour journey are the lack of in-flight entertainment (other than the magazine) and there was no one in front or behind me. I reclined my chair back and snoozed some more.

In SFO, my underwear and I reunite at the baggage carousel. I would have bet money and given odds that we would never see Big Blue (a hardside Samsonite) and the flower fabric suitcases before the coming of the Messiah.

Luggage in hand, I spotted a Peet’s Coffee and bought the best cup of coffee I have ever had. I could never move to Brazil. No Peet’s Coffee there. Coffee in hand, we headed off to the skyway tram to BART.

In the tram, I talked a little Portuguese with some vacationing Brazilians and wished them a boa viagem when we got off. I hope they had a great time.

People jostled at the automated ticket dispensers for BART. We got in line behind a couple of Emo types from New York (we later learned) dressing in leather and pierced/studded in at least a dozen places. To our right, a young man dressed in black with straight shoulder-length hair begins to freak.

“The f**king machine has eaten my f**king credit card!” he cries.

He has tried to put his credit card in the printer located near one’s right knee rather than in the strip reader higher up and to the left. In his defense, it’s an easy mistake to make. The printer slot does look like the reader on an ATM.

He’s quivering. “I am so f**ked! I need that card. I’m going to be presenting at a Pop Culture seminar.

“A conference on pop culture?” says one of the beleathered New York couple. “Oh, we would have totally been there if we’d known about it.”

Will you watch my spot while I try to find an attendant to retrieve it?”

We agree to keep an eye on it.

He comes back minutes later with a large woman who has the keys to open the machine up. We head for the train platform.


He tells us he teaches English and Pop Culture Studies at a college in Montreal. He will be part of a panel presentation on Emo (kids who dress all in black and cut themselves with razor blades). I ask him what about kids who were self-cutters who aren’t into Goth.
“Oh, yeah, what’s up with that?!!” he replies.

When the Yellow Train arrives, we get into the same car. The conversation continued.

One of the New Yorkers says, “I bought a Japan album on eBay—the seller said it was a rip off of Duran Duran. I wanted to send him, a like, 6-page email saying that Duran Duran evolved out of Japan, not the other way around!”

“It must be hard to be young today,” the Montreal teacher says, “because nothing is authentic—everything is pastiche.”

Maybe. But this is not a new idea. As the author of Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

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