Thursday, November 18, 2010


(Maggie Jochild and Terri Stellar at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC, June 2004, as part of the VSA International Festival where Actual Lives performed; photo by Olivia O'Hare)

What with the recent apparent discovery by the general public that TSA search policies shred civil rights, I thought it was time to re-present a performance piece I wrote and enacted for Actual Lives (a page to stage autibiographical theater troupe for disabled adults directed by Terry Galloway) during the early 2000s. This is a completely true story with, in fact, no embellishment. It has since been published in My Body Of Knowledge, edited by Karen Myers and Felicia Ferlin. The online version can be found here.

In December of 2001, two dear friends who "get it" rescued me from spending Christmas absolutely alone by sending me a plane ticket to visit them in Boston. All I had to do was get myself physically there and back. But that was the part that made me anxious. This would be the first time I had flown since my knee replacement surgery. I can't stand for very long, can walk only short distances, need to change positions often, run a high risk of blood clots in my legs, don’t fit in most airline seats, get asthma in pressurized cabins …. I was, well, anxious.

But if you think I was anxious — this was just a few months after 9/11. I would be flying into cold, grey, paranoid Logan Airport, the airport that launched United flight 175 and American flight 11. To add to their burden, the day I traveled was the day a lunatic tried to set off explosives in his tennis shoes and that flight was emergency landed at Logan.

Passengers were being separated from their loved ones right away. After that point, I would be in a wheelchair and, like Blanche Dubois, relying on the kindness of strangers—strangers wearing dark blue American Airlines blazers and stony faces. I kept telling everybody, at every step of the way, that I needed an extra wide wheelchair. Apparently, Logan couldn't find such a thing, so I was crammed into what I think of as the California surfer girl model. But then, my luck turned. A tall young man with a full beard stepped forward from the cluster of blue blazers to be my official escort: Enter Ahmed.

Ahmed was from Saudi Arabia, from a city that had been home to two of the hijackers. His looks, his accent, his absolute being made all the passengers in the airport freeze up around him. He was fucking sick of it. And here I was, a huge crippled dyke. If we were dumped out of a car together into the town square of an average small white burg, I don't know which one of us would get stoned to death first. We bonded instantly.

Turns out, in his off hours Ahmed was an Elvis impersonator. I don't know how he got around the obstacle of his beard, but in terms of dialogue, he really had it down. My little brother Bill was also an Elvis impersonator, so Ahmed found in me the perfect foil. I’d feed him a line like "Melli Kalikimakki" and he’d start singing "I’ll have a buh-looo Crismuss without yew." I’d ask him which part of Boston he lives in, he’d break into "Since mah baybee left me / Ah found a new place to dwell …"

Ahmed as Elvis was charming, and clearly disconcerting to his fellow American Airlines employees. He didn’t seem to give a rat's ass. He kept trying to find ways for me to get through the long lines and bottlenecks faster. At checkpoints, even though the wheelchair I was in was clearly their property, I had to get up and walk while they removed this chair and replaced it with another — also their property. Looking around at all these humorless guys in camouflage carrying assault rifles, I had to wonder, what is it that I could pull off in a borrowed wheelchair that would be as deadly as those automatic weapons. I mean, I’m not a crip McGyver.

They also seemed to be stopping people randomly and asking them to remove their shoes for inspection. We didn’t know about the sneaker bomber yet, so this struck Ahmed and me as especially hilarious. I can get my shoes off by myself, but not back on without certain kinds of help. I decided if they picked me, Ahmed could use the occasion of kneeling before me to do the proposal scene from Viva Las Vegas.

My friend Danny, who is wheelchair-bound and Latino, also had to fly somewhere this same holiday season. He told me later that when he was selected out for a shoe search, he was honored that he could still be perceived as a possible terrorist, even though he was an overt cripple. Then he added that what probably pushed him over the edge from pity into menace was the spic factor.

When I went through the metal detector, I told the guys on this end of it that my left knee is titanium and it absolutely would set off the alarm. Even so, when I emerged on the other side, the quality of what registered on their security monitor brought every blue blazer in the vicinity to stand around me. Ahmed waved at me over the shoulder of one official. I emptied all my pockets, but I was still setting off red rockets of alarms. But Logan was running short on the little wands they use to wave over people's bodies, so I had to be patted down by a security expert. They sent for the one woman apparently allowed to do this kind of work.

Now, here's the thing. I am a lesbian Chandler Bing; I make jokes when I am nervous. I was nervous then. They were keeping Ahmed and the second wheelchair a few feet away, giving me a folding chair to sit on until the pat-down artist arrived. And when they parted the blue blazers to let her through, she was — of course — skinny, white, extremely straight, with impeccable make-up and hair. Except when I’m in all-lesbian groups, I have never in my life been wearing the right clothes around other women. She looked as dismayed at the sight of me as I was at the sight of her.

So, I had some tension to let off. I managed to keep it together until she reached a certain region that my mother referred to as munchkin land, as in, "Did you wash good in munchkin land?" Which made watching The Wizard of Oz a truly bizarre experience as a child … but I digress. When her pale, well-manicured hands began searching munchkin land for box cutters or plastic explosives, I could not help myself. I said, with complete Tupelo charm: "Thank yew, thank yew verra much."

© Maggie Jochild