It’s like one of those logic problems from the SAT: Travel with children is hell. Travel in this age of attractively color-coded terrorism alerts is hell. Therefore, travel with children in the age of attractively color-coded terrorism alerts is a special total-mega googolplex super-hell, much like the process of reading a Bret Easton Ellis novel in a Chuck E. Cheese while listening to Enya.
Under the best of circumstances, flying with kids is difficult. The baby gets her spitty germs all over the big girl’s sippy cup. The computer runs out of battery power before the complete viewing of “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie,” which, when you are 3, is a tragedy roughly equivalent to the Rwandan genocide. The baby’s desire to kick the seat in front of her is cruelly thwarted. There is no changing table in the airplane bathroom. We forget the stuffed carrot full of little gingham bunnies. We are loaded down with so much gear, we look like Sherpas, only without the noble Nepalese lack of kvetching. At any given time, someone is generally crying or vomiting. (Usually, that person is me.)
Then there are the delays. According to the government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, so far this year, 17% of flights departed late and 20% arrived late. I think my family was on all of them. Planes are crowded. Meal service is curtailed. Masters of the Universe, who are already cranky that their companies no longer will spring for unlimited seats in business class in this post-bubble era, are now rigid with air rage at the thought of sitting near anyone in Pampers who is not Rupert Murdoch. The line to get through security stretches and swerves for miles, like a steroidal caterpillar in an Eric Carle book. Everyone’s snarling. Shoes and laptops and watches are flung into bins that inch through the X-ray machine. Everything smells like feet. Overgrown frat boys roll their eyes at sweet old people who don’t get it, who don’t disrobe fast enough, who have to go back through the gate-y thing repeatedly.
We all understand that the screening system is important. Yes, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. But sometimes we experience the cluelessness and power-trippiness of the Transportation Security Administration personnel, and we wonder whether our terrorism-fighting dollars are well allocated. I guess I should be glad that no one has stopped me and forced me to drink my own pre-pumped breast milk to prove that it isn’t full of um, terrorism-related substances, as happened to a woman flying out of JFK in 2002. And at least Josie and Max don’t seem to share their names with any suspected terrorists, which apparently can be very inconvenient. The Associated Press recently reported that infants have been stopped from boarding planes at airports throughout the United States because the bubelehs’ names are similar to those of suspects on the government’s no-fly list. In July, a woman named Sarah Zapolsky was trying to fly out of Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., when a ticket agent told her that her 11-month-old son was on the list. She had to wait half an hour for them to fax a copy of his passport and confirm that he was not, in fact, a teeny, seditious criminal. Hey, we can’t be too careful. Sure, Baby Zapolsky always said he was at Gymboree, but where were his receipts? What language was he speaking to his stuffed monkey? It sure didn’t sound like English, know what I’m saying? I heard he was spotted in some bucket swings that are a known hangout for Al Qaeda. (Seriously: The little suspect was in good company. Senator Edward Kennedy and actor David Nelson of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” also have been stopped because their names matched those on the no-fly list.)
According to TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark, families of 89 children mistakenly placed on watch lists have contacted the TSA’s ombudsman. Fourteen of those kids are under age 2. I’m mildly disappointed that Maxine isn’t among them. I’d always thought she was so advanced. Why hasn’t she built her first shoe bomb? Even the babies at crappy daycares are encoding sleeper cell chatter. Where did I go wrong?
While Max may not be as accomplished as Baby Zapolsky, at least she’s as capable of having a surreal “Voyage of the Damned” flight experience. Last weekend, after a lovely visit with the machetunim in Milwaukee, we made the mistake of trying to go home. Our flight was delayed for four hours, rescheduled to arrive at 2:30 a.m. (always fun for the kiddies), then canceled. We were booked on the first flight the next morning. At that time, the line to get through security was about eleventy-zillion miles long. When we finally got to the front, the power-hungry TSA agent insisted I fold the double stroller (which, as always, we were planning to gate-check) and put it through the machine. I told her, politely, that it wouldn’t fit; we’d be happy to walk through the Arch of Terrorism Prevention and have her run her wand over the stroller, the baby and moi, as usual. No, she insisted, I had to put the stroller through the machine. But it won’t fit, I said. But you have to, she said. I took the screaming Maxine out of the stroller, put her on the metal ramp leading down to the conveyer belt, prevented her from hurling her sobbing body backward with one arm while simultaneously corralling Josie to remove her size 4T denim jacket at the TSA Lunch Lady’s insistence, also to be put through the machine, all while folding the stroller with my other seven arms, like Durga, the Hindu Mother Goddess. The stroller did not fit through the machine. The TSA lady smushed it down a few times, wiggled the wheels and laboriously flipped it over. Nope. She then told me to reassemble it, put Maxine back in… and, yes, one of her underlings would wand us — the way I’d suggested in the first place.
We barely made our plane. In the air, no one had a tantrum or a diaper-related containment incident. But when we arrived, hello, lost luggage. As Josie would say: Disastrophe! The lone Midwest Airlines agent on the ground at Newark, who had just worked a double shift and was stressed and exhausted (ah, staff cutbacks), couldn’t take time away from checking in people to trace our bags on the computer. She said to assume they would be on the next flight, and she’d call when the plane arrived. We drove home and discovered that Con Ed had cordoned off our street, thanks to a major power outage the day before. (Note: I do not blame the airlines for this. Though I’d like to.) The street was a construction zone; we couldn’t drive down our block to unload the car. Fortunately, thanks to Midwest, we had no luggage! Yay! So we got as close as we could; we lugged the tired
kids, stroller and few things we did have to our building, and found no working phones, no fridge, no air conditioning, no nebulizer to treat Josie’s asthma (the travel machine was in the lost luggage; the home machine is electric), no transitional objects (aka Piggy, Bear, Kitty and Bunny) for the kids’ bedtime. No one called about the bags. After a few hours, I called Midwest. Surly agent Theo insisted the bags had only just arrived, so he’d have to call me back later, and no, he wouldn’t let me speak to his supervisor. (“I’m my own supervisor,” he snarled. “I only report to me.”) After I took his name and threatened to report him to Midwest corporate headquarters, he finally put me through to his supervisor, who admitted that the baggage had come in hours earlier but they wouldn’t be able to deliver it to us for at least another six hours, at 1:30 a.m. So, she apologized, they’d deliver the bags in the morning.
At 1:30 a.m., with our entire exhausted family asleep, the phone rang. Someone had put through an order to deliver the bags in the middle of the night. Our street was still closed because of the Con Ed cable-melting sitch (as we’d already told both Theo and his supervisor), so Jonathan had to get dressed and go out to First Avenue to pick up the bags. The handle of one had been completely broken off, so he had to nudge it all the way up Third Street like a seal pushing a beach ball.
I think Theo got his revenge.
Now, is any of this a true disastrophe? Nah. Is it irksome? You bet. Will we fly again before the kids are in college? Probably. Alas.
Write to Marjorie at firstname.lastname@example.org.