One night in summer of 2002, I walked through the streets of my hometown, taking pictures. After I tried to capture a view of the U.S. flag flapping outside the federal courthouse, an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms followed me down the street, flashed his badge, and asked what I was up to. He never arrested me or took my film, but I didn’t appreciate his attention. I realized then that people who work security at government buildings don’t like me.
Take the Capitol Police officer who recently ordered me to the other side of the sidewalk. It was a bright Saturday, plenty of people were out, and I was not carrying anything suspicious; somehow he still needed to bark orders. He kept yelling until I was close enough to ask why I couldn’t go up Independence Avenue in the direction of my home. “We have a situation,” he said.
Then there was the earpiece guy at the National Gallery’s West Building who interrupted my enjoyment of some English landscapes to command that my shoulder-bag hang at my side, not over my back. “O…K…,” I said very slowly. But I was thinking, All right, you just let your guard down once, just once, and I’ll nab a painting faster than you can say Samuel Palmer. I couldn’t help it. This is the problem with being thought a menace: You start thinking like one. When people act as though you’re about to do something nasty that you would not ever do, you start to wonder if it would be fun.
But not even I could imagine what sick fun a guard thought I was going to have with one of these. During a period of depression, I’d kept it in my bag so I could drink at the office; by chance it was still there when I passed through security at D.C. Superior Court.
“We’re gonna have to take this,” said the courthouse guard.
“So I can reclaim it when I walk out?”
He didn’t take kindly to “what.” As he began to fume, I tried very quickly, in a supplicant’s tone, to explain the emotional value of this wine tool: It’s my only wine tool, my ex-girlfriend shoplifted it especially for me, and I am all alone and unloved and in need of many drinks and could I please keep it? Whatever I said, it was humiliating enough to appease him. He laughed a false laugh and wrote my name on a sticky note and said I could pick up the tool when I left. Later, once I headed out the door, I tried to meet him and make up. I held out my hand. He wouldn’t shake it.
After these encounters, and several more, I still wasn’t going to write about it. It’s a bad habit to use the press to settle one’s scores. But yesterday, one more guard decided to jerk me around. I was going through the space-age metal detector at U.S. District Court, which traces the objects on your person. He said there was something in my right pocket; I needed to go through again. I showed him the offending object: a stack of business cards. Those are made out of paper.
“Sir, you need to pass through again!”
So I went back through. No C-4 this time. Then he made me wait five minutes while he puttered around with my license and my phone (you must check camera phones there) and recorded my name in a notebook.
“Mr. York,” he grumbled, “what’s a phone number other than your cell phone?”
“Phone number, other than your cell phone!”
The number was 202-332-2100.
I told him with as much venom as could be squeezed into each of those digits. I told him as though the City Paper office line were a slap in the face.
Does security treat you any better?