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When my absentmindedness threatened national security (UPDATE)

June 7, 2012

I’m an absentminded fellow. A few days ago, on my way to John’s house, a cop on driving the other side of the road shined his light (the one mounted on the outside of the car, in front of the rear-view mirror) in my face. I don’t know what he thought I was doing, but his intrusion was fruitless, so when he passed me he turned his light off and continued on his way. I was only two minutes away from my friend’s house at this point and I made note to tell him when I got there, so we could say, “That’s weird,” together. But I forgot to tell him when I got there, I think because the initial encounter threw me off: We went upstairs instead of his ground-level abode. My brain naturally brushed the cop story aside to note this unexpected and intriguing development. So maybe you wouldn’t call me absentminded but easily distracted. However it’s named, that attribute put America in danger.

If the worst consequence of my absentmindedness was my friend not hearing about a stupid cop story, I’d live with it. Hell, I’d probably spin it to a positive. “It’s just a result of my hyperactive mind jumping subjects quickly,” or some vain bullshit like that. But no.

Certain tasks at work require that I go back and forth across “the border between the U.S. and the rest of the countries,” as one of my coworkers puts it. That border is actually a magnetic door that separates the arrivals lobby from Customs, through which I tug 40 baggage carts with a little cart. Normally, I bring them up to the door, swipe my access card, open the door, drive them through, stop and walk back to close the door.

I got all the way to the walking back part yesterday. On that walk back, I noticed that the last cart in the line was lifted off the ground unevenly. I stopped to inspect why. The V-shaped belt I use to secure the end of the line was more like a check mark—one of the arms was shorter than the other. I shoved the last cart down and tried to make it even because a a white patch on the side needs to be near the ground for a sensor count it; that’s how the company makes money. Confident that the white patch was positioned well enough, I went back to the front of the line to continue driving.

The next 30 seconds went as usual. I tugged the line mindful of the international passengers who would walk in front of my path. A large group of them blocked me for a while and when a worker for another company told me to move I motioned to them. He nodded. Then I heard a high-pitched ringing and the worker looked around, looked toward the door, then looked at me with pity. Other workers in the area looked at me with raised eyebrows. An officer ran to the door to close it and silence the alarm. Still blocked by the passengers, I looked back gravely. The door itself was blocked from my view and he was taking too long to emerge from there. He finally did, finding me in the crowd. He approached, asking if I had just come through there. I said I did and walked toward him , but apparently he didn’t want to keep talking. By this time the passengers were gone and I finished tugging my line to its destination. When I had detached my cart and went to drive it back outside, he approached me again and asked if I had gone through. Again I said yes, and he said something like make sure it’s all the way closed because it doesn’t close on its own. I hoped that was the end of it,

You know that it wasn’t, though, or I would have written, “That was the end of it.” I exited through that door to four cops, my manager and three coworkers. The lead cop, a truly giant man with “Lubs” on his name tag, talked into a radio about the person who just walked through a door. I was being watched from who-knows-how-many angles. My manager told me to keep going, so I started driving the cart, but Lubs said, “Wait just a moment, sir,” so I did that.

“Did you enter through that door?”

“Yeah.”

“And did you close it all the way?”

“I guess I didn’t.” I should note here that maybe after I was done with that last cart I went to close the door and simply failed to pull it all the way shut. I really don’t know, but I think the first story I told is more likely.

“Did he enter with you?” He was referring to my manager.

“No. Just me.”

“Well, you need to make sure it’s secured shut. You can feel the magnet lock when it’s fully closed.”

I nodded.

“Can these guys go now?” My manager asked about my three coworkers.

“Yeah, they can go.” They went.

“You can see how serious this is,” Lubs continued. “Someone could have gone in or out. That’s why all of us [the cops] responded over here.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Then my manager said basically the same thing, adding that I was trained to always close the door. I waited through his speech patiently, knowing that he was saying it for the cops as much as me. He needed to save face for himself and the company.

Lubs was shockingly nice about the whole thing. Another cop, Diaz, came and asked what happened and Lubs said, “This gentleman forgot to close the door.” Me, a gentleman!

Lubs and the rest left. My manager clapped his hand on my shoulder and said to get back to work. I was relieved that I wasn’t punished further or fired. I got another cart and pulled it through the door, and when it was through I heard a coworker of mine say, “Keep going!” It looked like he closed the door so I could save some time and he was probably unaware of the incident. Still, I went back to make sure.

Then, when I left, three people in officer’s uniforms came out right behind me. I was prepared to close the door on them, but one of them said that so long as they swiped their cards before leaving it was okay to leave it open for them. I knew that to be true. One of them walked out before he said that but then went back to swipe once she heard him. Obviously she usually just went through in those cases, but this time she suffered the minor inconvenience for my sake.

Then a manager I had never met before radioed me to come down to the office. When I did there were three managers talking. One of them motioned toward the inner room, the manager’s room. I went in and thought, Fuck it, I might as well sit. They stopped their private discussion and came into the manager’s room, closing the door. The first manager I mentioned gave me a talking-to and a form to sign. This was just the first warning. I spent the meeting looking dejected, understanding that I opened the door (is this too serious a time for puns?) for smuggling. In another Universe, I let a terrorist with a bomb for the Golden Gate Bridge get through. I really fucked up, I’m not downplaying that. Alternatively, people form the outside could have walked in. I don’t really see the point of that for a terrorist. No one wants to bomb specifically the Customs area, right?

I didn’t like how if I looked at the manager who was talking to me, the one who had been with me and Lubs, my back would turned to the other two while they stared at me. So I just looked at the floor. When asked I told them about the uneven cart. The manager who radioed me never said anything. The third manager didn’t say much but he closed the meeting by asking me if I was thirsty. As a matter of fact, I had yet to eat my lunch, so I asked if I could do that (as if they could say no).

This whole incident probably forever alters their perception of me. I don’t say much at work, and they each take that for something different, character-wise. I feel like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Earlier in the day, the manager who was with me and Lubs thought he perceived that I wasn’t enjoying a certain part of work. The only way to move carts from one level to the next is to put them in the elevators. The only problem is travelers use the elevators, too, so I have to rush to remove the carts from the elevator. There are two lines of four, and those fuckers are tough to move. It’s difficult, but I’m already getting too far into it. I was doing the work as best I could with my characteristically blank face, and the manager saw fit to give me a pep talk.

“Do you like to do elevator drops?”

“Yeah.” It may have sounded like “Eh.” I’m not expressive.

“It’s difficult, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” This one was accompanied with a shrug.

“Yeah, it is difficult. Physically. But think about it, sometime in the future you will be at another job and think, it’s not as hard as before.”

I smiled. That was a nice way to look at it, but I really didn’t mind doing elevator drops. They are part of the job. I need to do the job to get paid. That’s as far as I think it out.

“And you’re helping the airport. You know, you’re keeping it clean. And people use these baggage carts everyday. Think of this place like a beehive, and you’re a small part of it.”

Yeah, dude, I get that, too.

“Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

“Yeah. Really, I don’t mind doing this.”

“Okay.” Who knows if he believed me. He might see me as a novice who need mentoring, and he’s just the guy to do it. I reduce him to a character. Is one more reductive than the other?

I’m the only person who works my shift, so my breaks and lunch don’t line up with the breaks and lunch of my coworkers. I have nothing else to do except read Ball Four by Jim Bouton, a baseball player who recording his thoughts with a sportswriter every day during his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots. He writes about being an outsider, supposing that his constant note-taking makes him seem like a recluse to his teammates. Whenever I have free time at work, my head is buried in that book. My managers (the break room is right next to their office) and the few coworkers I run into on breaks probably take that as my signal that I’m a recluse. A recluse reads a book by a recluse about being a recluse to let people know he’s a recluse.

UPDATE: I forgot this earlier. Here’s a version of this story that doesn’t excuse my behavior with slithery charm. (Is that what I have?)

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