Who Needs Privacy Anyway? Adventures in Modern American Airline Travel and Beyond
"Big Brother is watching you."
-George Orwell, 1984
"Hunnid bands, hunnid bands, hunnid bands
Contraband, contraband, contraband
I got the plug on Oaxaca
They gonna find you like blocka"
-Childish Gambino, This is America
“This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl.”
-Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
I. Kafkaesque Terminals
I’d packed one of my bins wrong going through security, the agent at the scanner shook his head and reprimanded me—not so much a reprimand, as an implied one; as he was too ground down by the monotony of the job to elucidate the specifics—and he repacked my things. The second bin, the one he repacked, with my headphones and computer charger, which had been above regulation to keep in the same bin as my laptop bag, keys, phone, wallet, and underarm deodorant, hung on the belt for a moment.This was after I’d already made it through the body scanner and out of the line, just then waiting for my things.
He examined them carefully on the screen, and it seemed, for a moment, that there may be a snag. And I’d have to go aside and let them swab my electronics for traces of explosives materials and dig through my bag, with its elicit copies of Moby Dick and Ethan Frome hidden away inside—I didn’t bring Mishima because I thought maybe they’d take it the wrong way and I’d have to explain I wasn’t a Militant Japanese Nationalist. And me the whole time, as innocuous as my few items are, stressing that somehow I’d get caught in some Kafkaesque loophole and have to defend my innocence against a battery of bureaucratic absurdities—Like a dog. But finally the bag made it through and I took back all of my things, wrestling with the tangle of wires and my belt and shoes, all the way to a bench where I could finally get myself together.
I remember something a customer at the book store said to me a day or two before my flight. He was inserting his chip into the card reader to pay and asked, half joking, half serious, "How long do you think before they just start putting these things in our hands?"
"I'm sure it's just around the corner. Won't take much convincing if it's convenient."
"I mean, really..." he went on, lifting his cellphone, "I don't think this generation even has any concept of privacy. People carry these things around because of all of the stuff they can do and meanwhile give away their location and all of their personal information without even being asked to. The TSA's got Air Marshalls following random people around now, putting them under surveillance, just because they decide."
"Yeah, I heard about that." I said, remembering the article on NPR, "They observe all of your movements and take notes; what you do, where you sit, how many times you go to the bathroom."
"Exactly!" he said, "It's real! It's data collection and what are they doing with that data!?"
"You can remove your chip now, sir."
I half wonder if they've got an Air Marshall following me and taking obsessive notes on my every little move, like one of the rigid bureaucratic agents that shadow Josef K in The Trial by Franz Kafka—who was accused by agencies unknown to him of a crime unknown to him. Perhaps having run some algorithm and turned up one of my rants on the president or politics online and decided that I was worthy of observation. So now this agent takes absurd pains over my every little move, he notes: Very strange habits. Is content with physical book, something thick with whale on cover. Why is he smiling? He's just reading words on a page. What is he typing on his cellphone? A standard message is often very brief and yet he types for five, sometimes ten and twenty, minutes at a time without stopping. Takes no selfies, seems to be only interested in surroundings. Very suspicious. But, somehow, I seriously doubt it.
After I was through security, and had my luggage back in one piece, I headed off on a singular mission to find coffee. I'd only slept for about 4 hours the previous night because I was up until after 2 AM writing—as I have been basically all week, starting up on blank pages a few hours after my shift at work ends, only to get up and go back to work in the morning. When I landed in Texas and went to my parents house that first night, it would likely be the first full night of sleep I'd get since the previous week. I headed down to the gates and paused about halfway through the long hallway, I saw the sign for mine, at the end on the left-hand side—D8—and turned around and doubled-back to the cafes and restaurants lined on either side, just past the security gate.
I glanced at the signs and displayed menus, and decided on La Grande Orange Grocery, it seemed to me to be the most straight-forward route available to some simple, fresh drip-brew. I wheeled my luggage over, past the "No Alcohol After this Point" sign in front of the restaurant, and waited at the back of the line. I was behind a group of men who all had employee identification badges for Sky Harbor International, these were the baggage handlers, all hanging out together before it was time to clock-in. All of them had, what sounded to my deeply untrained ear, to be Nigerian accents and they seemed to move in a group, casual but tight-knit. They threw the bags and navigated the airport daily, intimately tied to its basest, yet most essential, operations. Knowing every nook and cranny, every structural nuance and idiosyncratic detail in not only the building, but the people, the management, and the overall scheme of things. It was harder to get Americans to do this kind of work, I remember thinking, unless they'd been to jail or were hard-up for money, and yet these men were smiling, up early, uniforms ironed and crisp, prepared. Is the American dream truly dead or is it simply wasted on Americans? Those of us born into it, rather than those who had to come to it from faraway? We complain about the brokenness of the system and yet three-quarters of the adult population in this country didn't vote in the last election. Democracy by definition requires participation, you have to take care of it.
Otherwise maybe the system does devolve into a Kafkaesque nightmare. And bureaucrats with blank humorless faces, like the TSA Agents, checking ID's and operating the x-ray machines and metal detectors, come to run everything. Every little move you make notated and filed away with absurd precision, no past or future, no growth or change, just the ceaseless codified present in all of its cool sterility.
II. Food Industry Savages
The front end of La Grande Orange was sleek and modern, they played upbeat electronic and pop music, it fairly blasted from the speakers, while customers took business phone calls at the tables and toiled away on their laptops between flights. I went up to the counter and ordered, waiting while they prepared my drip coffee, it was iced, I’d assumed it would be hot, but I wasn’t going to hassle the clerk.
I watched the operations of the kitchen, crowded with figures in the windows who were washing dishes and cooking rapidly, speaking Spanish to one another in hurried tones. One guy, with thick rimmed frames and an impressive mustache-goatee combo, who seemed to be a kitchen manager, moved with composure and purpose through the back end as the rush hit them, emerging every so often from the chaos of the kitchen to communicate with the clerks in English. He braved it the wave deftly, with his technique down pat, and there really is something to be said of a crew that can handle a rush with such style. Having worked back end myself, in a grocery store meat shop, where we often couldn’t, I can attest to that.
The reality is, no matter how clean and presentable the facade is, the production end of things is almost invariably insane, with insane people on staff. Most of my coworkers were ex-cons, reformed methamphetamine and heroin addicts, whose reformation was itself tenuous, and day-to-day operations proceeded like an infernal and clunky piece of machinery, parts oiled with blood and meat grease and driven by pirates. These guys were animals, as he cut ribeyes and New York strips with utter precision, my manager would be at times be aggressively humping the block and making intense sexual grunting sounds, rating the passing women from 1, being the lowest, to 10, the highest.
And he’d talk all day about how psychotic his wife, the mother of his children, was and the girls on the side he’d stack, providing the key pleasure in his life now that he was, mostly, clean of hard drugs and definitely dealing—since he had been busted for it and incarcerated, thus ending his amateur Rap career.
He once said another one of my coworkers, “You’ve gotta have side bitches, bro, it’s how you know you love the one you’re with.”
“Aw, man...” the coworker replied, absently cutting a rib-roast with a seven-inch blade and staring off into the space through the window, that looked out through the cooler onto the counter and the rest of the store, lost in his imagination, “I really wish I would’ve messed around more when I was with my ex.”
And one time he told me during a rush that he wanted to slit my throat, which given how anxious I can be, it’s surprising how little I can be fazed at times by threats to my own physical well being. I simply got agitated and went off to cut whole chickens apart with the cleaver, in quick frustrated bursts—legs, wings, thighs, breasts, and repeat—thinking that he was a fucking asshole, but I had to get back to the job at hand.
The only one I really got along with was a 6 foot 3 bodybuilder who was born in Iraq but immigrated to Detroit when he was young. He had a thick Detroit accent but spoke perfect Farsi if he needed to. He had served time in prison for beating a man nearly to death in a barroom altercation. Now he did intensive power-lifting and ate almost nothing but chicken and brown rice to manage his anger. He gave me some pretty useful tips on lifting in fact, he of course talked about his dick and fucking as many women as possible as well, like everyone else there, but was very patient in training me and helping me out when I’d fall behind. Because he knew the head of the department, a former meth addict and all around nut bag, purposely hadn’t completed my training and pinned all his mistakes—of which there were many, a manager from another shop told me we were utterly hemorrhaging money, as if we were just dumping hundreds of dollars worth of product away—squarely on me, and was actively trying to grind me down into quitting.
I remember one night the situation was so bad corporate actually came in, late at night while I was rushing to complete all of my closing tasks, which I never had time to do, right after I had bleached the cutting block, and they dumped the contents of the trash bags on the blocks and began picking through the wasted meat and photographing it to examine how much good product we actually discarded in a day. After it was done this group of men, in their clean polo shirts, nice slacks, and polished shoes sort of just looked at me, as I stood there helpless and demoralized, and nodded, by way of a thank-you, and walked out, leaving me. They were terse though, keeping things tight and being careful not to be too sympathetic, as I, the worker, was the enemy in this case. I was the cause of this bureaucratic headache, cranked out in equations by the bean-counters, when they saw money going down the drain, and determined as being “part of the problem”.
That occurrence, to me, was corporate oversight in a nutshell; sloppy, crude, and executed in very broad strokes. At least at the end of it all, I can say that I outlasted my department head by about two weeks. He was transferred and demoted, and I had moved downtown, but the store manager was actively hamstringing my transfer to a store closer to my apartment. He was in desperate need of manpower, especially in the shop. So as soon as I listened to his hasty and awkward excuses when I asked about my transfer on one end, then heard on the other that he was telling people I had attendance problems—my attendance was nearly perfect—I threw my hands up and simply left.
No one ever expects that move oddly enough, it would seem a lot of people are content to linger. And thus ended my brief tenure in the food service industry, forever cementing one of my heroes, Anthony Bourdain, in my mind, as a deeply credible character witness.
III. Whales in the Sky
I went and looked out the big windows at the end of the terminal and watched planes taking off and landing on the tarmac. As I approached the mounted binoculars by the window, a man standing next to them looked at me strangely then turned away to take a phone call. He was FaceTiming with a little girl, his daughter, speaking conversely in Hindi and English, reminding her to return a DVD that they’d rented.
I glanced through the binoculars without touching my eyes to them, looking at the distant mountains lined up on the horizon. There wasn't much seating at my gate and I had about 10 minutes until they started boarding, so I thought it best to wait within ear shot of the flight attendant's microphone. After a few minutes of trying to snap interesting pictures of the tarmac, I gave up and began typing about the TSA experience earlier on my phone. An electronic voice came over the intercom, "Arizona state law prohibits smoking indoors--" and trails off into the background static. There were voices and footsteps echoing all throughout the hall, and there was the muffled screeching sounds of the planes taking off on the tarmac outside.
I looked up from my phone as they called the A Group to begin lining up, inching a bit closer to the waiting area, being in B Group. There were all sorts of faces crowded along the numbered posts. A woman in her forties or so with long red-hair, the grey roots just beginning to show on top of the scalp, she talked animatedly to someone else in line who was blocked from my view behind another person. And there was a scrawny looking child, except he was stretched out to the height of a tall lanky adult. He was sun-tanned and brown like a farmer, with a military pack that looked too big for him, like a passing breeze would knock him over, and an equally over-sized white cowboy hat.
After a time the A's all filed onto the plane, one after another, and then they called the B's and I waited for a few minutes before being called to board. It took some effort to adjust everything once I was called in, carrying my iced coffee the size of a small bucket, my two bags, and trying to present the digital ticket in my phone's Apple Wallet to the attendant at the scanner beside the door. But I made it, to a window seat no less, it occurring to me that this was the first time I had one in probably 3 or 4 years. I looked out directly over a wing, but that didn't bother me much, I'd still have a view of the sky and the clouds and if I leaned I'd be able to see the murky landscapes below—transitioning from rough and dry, rolling brown mountains, to flat circular and square patches of multicolored farmland, drawn on the face of the earth with mathematical precision, as the flight progressed.
As the plane got ready to take off, and they told us to put our electronics in airplane mode, I typed the last of my notes and shut my phone off completely.
“It’s August, it’s Texas, it’s hot. That’s all I’m going to say about that.” the pilot joked over the intercom.
“Hot?” the woman next to me said, a quintessential Texan grandma, “But we’re leaving Phoenix.”
And eventually the plane pulled out of docking and slowly went into position on the tarmac. As the plane trembled into motion again and began moving down the runway, getting ready to take-off, a little girl yelled, “Blast off! Blast off!”
And I began itching to be in the air, now that I thought about it I couldn't think of why I totally shut off my phone. So I figured I'd wait until we were at cruising altitude and turn it back on in airplane mode. The whole time I had a running commentary in my head, of the people and things around me, of what I would write as soon as I was again able to edit my Google docs and Notes on my phone. I did have a physical notepad with me, but sadly forgot a pen, however I find these days my fingers move much quicker across screens and keys anyway—a true 21st Century Digital Boy, as the old Bad Religion song went, and I suppose still does now, crystallized in the digital Amber and replay-ability of Spotify or Apple Music. I thought about waiting in line at La Grande Orange and seguing it into my short time slicing meat in the food industry, all of the insane people I interacted with.
The more I thought about it and the more I fleshed it out in my mind, the more these unhinged food service employees, myself included, sounded like characters from Moby Dick. Except instead of a ship, we were piloting a filthy meat stinking cooler across uneasy seas of customer expectation, our White Whale was simply job security and whatever the factors were among us or in corporate that threatened our daily bread and board: "Store manager? Fuck 'em. Piece of shit doesn't know what's up. All this new protocol's got us doing is fucking up the shop." To take it a step farther: "Aye, that blubbering mass of rotten sirloin-trim and foamy lard hinders us every which way. I strike thusly this decapitated chicken, plucked of feather and disemboweled, with mighty cleaves! One, two, and three! Lashing against these fresh injustices, culled from the hearts of sunken Sodom and Gomorrah! Aye, they say them Cities of the Plain fed and fattened themselves like hogs on a pure carnivore diet and grew wicked for the taste of blood!"
I fully acknowledge how ridiculous that was just now, but will delete none of it.
So the plane reared itself down the runway at speed and then the wheels lifted up off the ground. And soon we were at altitude, up above the clouds, watching the span of the desert landscape. It occurred to me then, seeing it through tattered holes in the cloud cover, just how dry and desolate a landscape it is. Of course it’s gotten up to 117 this summer, so I guess it would. Personally I’m glad to be going to Texas, it’s just dropped below a hundred and there are scattered showers and lightning storms all over the state. Everything I don’t get in the desert. I like both climates just fine though, the summer in Arizona is hellish, but there’s plenty to like. The way the mountains and bare landscapes unfurl into the foreseeable distance, wisps of white clouds in the otherwise clear, dry blue skies.
After I got my notes down, I spent the flight reading Moby Dick, the great unknowable beast that moves below the endlessness of the waves, its skin pale white—an eternal blankness, a white absence, caught in the center of Ahab’s roaring dreams, which crash into sea-foam and shudder in great squalls. The crude way his obsession settles in his mind is like the way an aneurysm swells in the brain tissue. He grapples with death, eternity, that unknowable other that extends forever beyond the reach of our fingertips. That’s what Kafka was writing about too, the mind grappling with the expanse of the unknowable, and its manifestation as dreamlike systems, physical structures, machines, and figures of inscrutable authority.
That which is greater than. This is what I endeavor to capture in my own way, as I move through the sky in this incomprehensible machine, carpeting and metal underneath my feet and then thousands and thousands of feet of nothingness just below that. I go on and on, but the more complex my words and ideas become, as they try to reach towards this thing, the further and further away it gets, efforts falling shorter and shorter.
Some things are beyond words I guess, such as the white sea of clouds in the sky and fat bloody cuts of meat on the block, and then everything in between. Just keep rambling, walking and talking, maybe something will come out of these random stream-of-consciousness reflections as you wait in transit. Just stay in motion.