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

Time to round up the whole county

As the threat of possible terrorist activity in America increased recently, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge urged citizens to be aware of what’s going on around them, watch out for potential threats and report suspicious activities.

He warned of a broad range of troublemakers who might threaten public safety – from groups of radical religious extremists to “disgruntled individuals.”

This is obviously well thought-out advice during these troubled times, but that last part has me a little worried.

Watching out for disgruntled individuals in someplace like Happy Jack, Ariz., might be a perfectly reasonable course of action. But keeping an eye on even half the disgruntled individuals in S’lano County – where men are men and women are mad as hell – would severely tax the combined resources of the FBI, CIA and Future Farmers of America.

Take a moment and just glance out the window, fellow Solanoan. Chances are you’ll see a half-dozen disgruntled people before breakfast.

(And if you don’t see any at all, then you’ll have something to be disgruntled about, right?)

Let’s face it, disgruntlement is an honorable and long-established way of life around here. The last happy-go-lucky idiot left S’lano County in 1951 after discovering there was no miniature golf course in Elmira. He’s currently working as a clown at a retirement village near Gilroy.

(Hey, this is righteous – I checked out the Gilroy Clown Registry…)

Disgruntlement in S’lano County may, in fact, have hit an all-time high during March thanks to the county’s ambitious new government center construction project in downtown Fairfield. Overnight it wiped out something like 30,000 convenient parking places around the courthouse and left a whole mess of already disgruntled people even more disgruntled.

Not that the county actually began doing anything with the old parking lots. No, they just fenced them off for two months in the event that sometime in the future they might actually start construction of something in the same general area.

Incoming lawyers, jurors and felons were vaguely directed to an empty lot somewhere near Union Avenue and Ohio Street. Unfortunately, many of them inadvertently turned into an empty lot at Union Avenue and Broadway where a precipitous driveway ripped the transaxles from their cars, which subsequently were towed away by an irascible property owner.

So, after being summoned to court, having their cars eviscerated and towed to an impound yard just west of Correctionville, Iowa, these already quite disgruntled Solanoans eventually got back on the road only to find that the price of regular gasoline had jumped to more than two bucks a gallon while they were paying off their towing fees.

Disgruntled? Hey, amigos, at this rate we’re going to have to round up the whole county just so the rest of the nation can feel relatively safe…

Originally published April 6, 2003