Please pull the shirt down, sir! (My belly does airport security)

My first trip post transplant scar repair surgery and its unintended consequences – namely a bulge on my belly the size of two tangerines I call “the bubble” – coincided this morning with my first trip in years out of SFO (San Francisco International Airport). Normally I fly from Oakland – cheaper fares and a much better record getting the planes off the ground – but Southwest offered a deal so I gave it a try. (For those who care: of course my flight was delayed. Two. Point. Five hours. Go, SFO!)

Befitting the Bay Area’s high-tech rep, SFO is one of the airports the U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) uses to showcase their latest and greatest anti-terror scanning equipment. Security check points there brim with tech-toys and the guys – males, almost to an agent – to play with, er, run them.

A series of coincidences got me to the airport early. Fine, I think: I’ll check the bag, run the security gauntlet, get some food and relax. I do have a small security worry, namely my new camera and lens, one of my few indulgences this last year as compensation for my medical tortures. What is TSA’s policy on a digital SLR, extra lens, spare battery and the other stuff in my camera bag? Since 9/11, I’ve only flown with a point-and-shoot which TSA never once so much as acknowledged.

As far as security and health stuff, I’d checked most of my meds – some of my anti-rejection drugs are so toxic they’re individually wrapped in lead foil which invariably leads to a hand-search I’d rather not be present for. Otherwise, I’m not injecting myself with anything these days so no needles to worry about and I don’t have any other overt medical issues to explain. Uh huh.

At SFO’s security the burly TSA agents outnumber the passengers. “Over HERE,” barks one, directing non-existent traffic. “Use THOSE bins,” orders another. “LAPtops CELLphones ALL E-lec-TRONic deVICES go INto the bins…” blah blah blah. Answering my question, he orders my camera out of its bag and into a bin of its own. “Shoes?” I ask. Surely all these latest’n’greatest security toys have eliminated the need to take them off. Not. I toss my hiking shoes on top of my backpack and move to the scanner. Though no one’s in front of me, I’m stopped before I enter.

What’s that?” A TSA agent is pointing at my belly.

Left to its own devices my belly bubble protrudes a couple of inches out of my abdomen – more if I’ve just had food or water. To compensate – and keep worse things from happening (you don’t want to know) – I wear what is referred to in medical jargon as an “abdomen wrap.” I call it a girdle or when it’s really irritating a corset and seriously question the sanity of anyone who wears such a thing for stylish or sexy reasons. What were they thinking in the 19th Century? (And no, it wasn’t just women; a fair number of men back then wore the horrors too).

To hide my wrap, or at least minimize it, I wear it over a t-shirt and a shirt or sweater over them both. This works – at least until warm weather arrives. I’ve wondered how much people actually notice with all this under-binding. Now I know.

“It’s a hernia along a transplant scar,” I say to the agent, going for the simplest if not quite up-to-date explanation. I get a look of incomprehension. “I had surgery, a transplant. That left a hernia which bulges so I wrap…”

“You’ll have to step in there sir.” The agent points to a glass cage. His face becomes a study in distaste. “You’ll have to be patted down.” But he’s not going to do it. Turning to the other TSA agents milling about he announces, “Non-alarm! Please examine.” TSA jargon I assume for ‘he doesn’t really look suspicious but we probably should do something so we look busy.’

From inside the glass phonebooth I see the trays with my camera, computer, shoes, etc., pop one on one out of the X ray scanner. The camera lens points straight up advertising itself. No agent pays the slightest attention to my stuff. A few passengers come and go. I wait. Finally I address Agent One who, his back to me, is making sure I don’t bolt from my cage.

“Uh, could you process me please? My stuff is just sitting there and I don’t…”

“It’s ok. It’s fine. Fine!” Agent One again calls to the herd of gossiping agents, this time louder: “Non-alarm! Examine!”

Eventually, another Agent, call him Two, exuding as much testosterone as an extra from a “Rock” movie, comes over and opens a second door to my phonebooth. “Stand here sir,” he says, pointing to an arbitrary spot on the floor. He studies me. I’m pale white, skinny and 50s – about as far from the terrorist stereotype as you get. He looks at Agent One. “No alarm?”

“No alarm!” repeats Agent One for the third time. “He needs to be checked,” pointing at my belly.

What is that?” asks Agent Two. I re-launch my transplant-hernia explanation. He’s not getting it, so I lift the sweater. He sees the wrap holding in my innards. This causes Acute Agent Distress in both One and Two.

“What is that… belt?

It occurs to me that maybe, just maybe, to an untrained eye maybe an abdomen wrap bears some small resemblance to a suicide bomber’s belt. Could that be it? But, like, dude? They’re TSA agents. Aren’t they, like, trained? Don’t they see lots of medically cobbled-together people going through their portals every day?

I decide to end this the easiest way I can think of (ok, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity) and pull the Velcro.

“Don’t!” It’s a shriek.

The abdominal wrap falls away and my double-tangerine bubble bulges obligingly under my t-shirt. “See?” I say. The macho TSA agents freak. I think sticks of dynamite would be more welcome.

“Put it back on, sir! Please put it back on!” shouts Agent One. I do so.

“Pull the shirt down, sir,” says Agent Two. I pull down my sweater, covering my re-wrapped middle.

I am quickly banished to the insides of one of the new puff-of-who-knows-what gas scanners to be checked for bomb residue (the light turns green which is good) then my palms are wiped with those pads that check for explosive residue (negative, also good). Finally, in what can only be described as an act of Heroic Bravery in Defense of America on the part of Agent Two, he orders me to lift my sweater again and wipes the outside of my binder with another bomb-residue pad. Negative. “Pull your shirt down sir,” he says firmly.

And I am released. I get my camera, computer, shoes, etc., sitting forlorn among the idle security equipment. Pulling on the shoes, I hear a senior agent complain how overstaffed they are and somebody needs to go home. They ignore me completely. I get the feeling that I didn’t even give them the satisfaction of protecting American skies for another day. Oh, well. One does what one can for The Homeland.

Despite my medical tribulations I’m in pretty good physical shape. I can “pass” – mostly – as “normal.” I figure if anyone notices my abdominal wrapping at all they assume I’m one of those oddities, an anorexic male out to hide his mid-life bulge with a “weight trimmer belt.” As I go in search of food I’m smiling at the experience but I can’t help but wonder: how do people with medical problems a lot worse – and more visible – than mine fare in our unhappy little security state?

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One Response to “Please pull the shirt down, sir! (My belly does airport security)”

  1. Bolting from the ER | Too Stupid To Die… | There are a bunch of cats out there missing a life because of you. –my sister, to me Says:

    […] a few months ago, after my latest near-death experience and the rise of my belly-bubble, the docs put me on a heavy dose of diuretics, two flavors, in an attempt to keep said bubble under […]

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