A Day in the Life of an Airport Screener

When you spend eight-plus hours a day standing watch at an airport security checkpoint, you learn a few things about the traveling public.

They move from the walk-through metal detector to the X-ray monitor to the bag-search position to the secondary-screening spot to the explosive-trace detection machine and so on.

Bulger steps in when there's a questionable X-ray image, or a bag search that needs an assist, or the discovery of a weapon or, as he puts it, to deal with "customer concerns that are escalating."

"Sometimes people are very attached to certain items," he says.

He works the 12:30 to 9 p.m. shift, which takes in the airport's busiest late-afternoon hours, when 15,000 passengers pass through security. By 4 p.m., the rush is in full force, a steady stream of humanity divesting itself of shoes and wallets, jewelry and keys amid a cacophonous white noise -- the hollow thud of plastic bins, the high-pitched stuttering beep of the metal detectors, the cries of "bag check!"

Minor dramas play out throughout the afternoon. The woman who got separated from her stepson in the security line. The baby who threw up. (Bulger only has to call for cleanup; TSOs don't deal with bodily fluids.) The forgotten boarding passes. The mother whose toddler is crying and fidgeting inside the explosives trace portal (a walk-in device that shoots air from its walls and, in a child's eyes, might appear at best a funhouse amusement and at worst a torture device). Summoned by another screener, Bulger asks if the woman can make her daughter stand still.

"She has autism! She can't be still," cries the exasperated mother. A female screener enters the machine, wraps her arms around the girl and takes her through.

A constant education

Amid this aural migraine, Bulger remains unflappable. If, after four years on the job, he has become weary of the strange (and strained) intimacies of the pat-down search, or the cluelessness of so many travelers after so long (some still don't understand that box cutters, the weapons used by the hijackers on 9/11, are not permissible, for example), he doesn't show it.

"When people are traveling, they have a lot on their minds," he says. "I have to believe that."

Which would explain the woman who departed his security lane wearing only one shoe. (She later returned for the other one.) Or the woman who walked away wearing the blue paper checkpoint-issued slippers. And speaking of shoes, the screeners are repeatedly subjected to the ripe scent of feet unleashed from their stifling confines. The TSA thoughtfully provides air freshener at the checkpoints, to be used discreetly by personnel as necessary.

Bulger has unwittingly tipped off parents to their children's vices by withdrawing cigarette lighters, and in one instance, a bag of marijuana, from their carry-ons. He and his colleagues have learned to watch for pet-toting passengers who absentmindedly send them through the X-ray machines. And he has caught travelers who are still bringing in banned sharp implements, which, when detected, are deposited in a metal cabinet with a one-way opening. Supervisors like Bulger help determine whether the offending carriers were simply absentminded or are "artfully concealing," which can bring a civil fine of up to $10,000.

If Bulger were ever easily embarrassed, he isn't anymore. A TSA employee mentions an incident that occurred the day before in Chicago, in which a young man packing a "male enhancement device" in his carry-on told the querying screener it was a bomb to avoid a humiliating admission in front of his mother. Bulger shrugs and says most "personal devices" are allowed and don't elicit so much as titters from screeners. "They come through so often, there's not much to talk about," he says.

In the days following last month's new restrictions, the TSA fielded questions that shed light on the remarkable stuff travelers feel compelled to tote along.

Was aerosol cheese allowed? (No.) Tanning towelettes? (Yes.) Goldfish? (Only without the water.) Bulger isn't one to question their motives. He has watched a chainsaw come down the conveyor belt (sans blade, but disallowed because it was loaded with gasoline). Then there was Thomas Jefferson's garden trowel being transported by a museum employee. (Not even a presidential trowel is allowed on board.) And a kitchen sink. (It got checked.)

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