Yeah, this is gonna work just swell …

In America’s never-ending war against terror – and obnoxious airline passengers – airport security screeners nationwide have been instructed to occasionally engage would-be passengers in seemingly innocuous small talk to see if they might create a problem once they’re airborne.

For example, if an airport screener asks, “Hot enough for you?” and the sweaty traveler with the beady eyes spontaneously shouts, “That’s not my rocket-propelled grenade in the duffel bag! I don’t know where it came from!” chances are the passenger will be asked to step aside for a more complex conversation.

This is a great idea as far as it goes, and it undoubtedly will root out many potential troublemakers in airports from Minneapolis to Tulsa, whether they’re likely terrorists or simply crazier than road lizards. But airport security experts need to remember that there are some places where small talk can turn weird at the drop of a hat.

California, for instance…Here in the Golden State, where we wisely voted an Austrian body-builder into the governor’s office, any conversation can be distinctly unsettling.

Anyone who’s ever asked for directions in San Francisco knows what I’m talking about.

The simple query, “Do you know how I can get to Van Ness Avenue from here?” may be met with a multitude of answers, none of which will be particularly helpful to a tourist from Iowa or South Carolina.

For example:

A. “Yes.”

B. “I guess you could, like, drive there, dude…”

C. “Why do you want to go to Van Ness? Nineteenth Avenue’s a lot prettier this time of year.”

D. “Cabbages! Cabbages! Cabbages!”

And we’re talking simple directions here, amigos. Things can get a whole lot more complicated when a typical California airline passenger is met by a uniformed security screener who casually asks “Going on vacation?”

What to do, what to do? If you say you’re not going on vacation, are you going to be arrested? If you say you are going on vacation, are you going to have to explain that you’re meeting your nephew Pugsley at Lake Havasu to celebrate his release from prison, even though he was innocent and never, ever tried to smuggle used kitchen grease across state lines?

So you stand there speechless with your mouth open, one eye twitching nervously and – guess what? – you’re being asked to step aside and answer a few simple questions while your flight takes wing without you.In most places, small talk about sports is usually a pretty safe topic. At the San Francisco Airport, though, both screeners and travelers should exercise due caution when chitchatting about local teams…

Screener: “Hey, how about those ‘Niners?”

Traveler: “Yeah, they bombed…”

Screener: “Bombed? BOMB?! I need some backup over here now!”

Yes, somebody’s on his way to meet Mr. Floor and, perhaps, a relaxing body cavity search.

Sometimes it’s best to just stick with “Cabbages! Cabbages! Cabbages!”

Really. I wouldn’t kid you on this, amigos…

Originally published January 8, 2006

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