Control: Or how I managed to fly with a gun from Kabul to Pittsburgh

Scene 7: JFK*

*Previously on “Control,” I bought an antique firearm on Chicken Street in Kabul for my father’s Christmas present. I stored it in my checked luggage and transported it back to the United States. The story of the antique firearm’s transport is longer than this but the time spent at John F. Kennedy Memorial Airport was certainly the climax of the journey.

The plane landed with a thud and we rolled into New York. It was exciting to be back in the US and I foresaw few problems for the next few hours until my Pittsburgh flight. I passed through an hour wait at border patrol and quickly walked past the customs scanners. Knowing that my checked baggage would alert security if it wasn’t cleared, I walked straight to the counter and told the attendant with a high honey comb weave and New York accent, what I had in the bag. She was perplexed. We discussed what should probably happen and she called Port Authority police to make sure the bag was safe for travel. I waited. I wasn’t about to have a repeat of Mumbai in New York City. It was important that this bag was checked in properly.

I hadn’t used the restroom for a while and was becoming impatient when I asked if there was another counter I should go to. The woman explained that I could go upstairs and try to check the bag there. I headed out and on my way two tall American police officers walked past me briskly. I realized they were looking for me and I turned around but by this time I found myself on the wrong side of a door reading “No Entry.” I went to the customs desk and told them the situation, even using the words “antique gun,” and was allowed re-entry to talk with the Port Authority police officers. I was proud of myself for being so forthcoming and compliant with airport policy, thinking that this would help my case.

The Port Authority men were kind, if a bit brusque, and quickly identified that I was in legal ownership of the weapon. How they came to this conclusion without any evidence was a mystery to me but I was sure that asking them how they deduced ownership was unnecessary and potentially disadvantageous for me. They then told me that I would have to speak with someone from TSA before I was allowed to fly.

Shortly, a woman with bleached roots and red tipped hair and the impatience of a woman who has worked for too long in public service in New York City appeared. She refused to look at the weapon and told me that all firearms must be transported in a “hard case.” I tried negotiating, to show her the weapon and that it wouldn’t fire. When I uncovered it and touched the trigger to show how very broken beyond repair the antique was, the taller of the two tall police officers winced and told me not to touch the trigger in a less than diplomatic tone. “I’m not a gunsmith,” the officer kept telling me as I asked for someone to inspect the weapon. I tried to explain what had happened in Brussels and how easy that process was. “This isn’t Brussels, this is New York City,” the officer retorted. I hadn’t meant it as a criticism. I was trying to say that it could be inspected by someone. I was honestly surprised that TSA at JFK airport had no one to inspect suspicious checked bags. Where was their American mercenary with the 1000 yard stare? Exacerbated I looked to the first attendant for support as my frustration started to show in the corners of my eyes. I was losing that hard won control of the situation.

I asked to speak to the first TSA agent’s supervisor. I wasn’t getting anywhere if no one was going to look at the “weapon” in question to see just how dust ingrained and ancient, if potentially fake, the weapon was. At one point I considered pretending to be a history professor to allege expertise about the weapons origin. It wasn’t worth it. The TSA agents and police officers spoke to each other as if I wasn’t standing in front of them, “She has an antique weapon.” “We can’t identify whether it fires.”

The TSA supervisor, also with bleached roots but a much more controlling demeanor stepped forward, explaining the situation to the younger TSA agent who had first assessed the situation to me only 10 minutes before. “I’m standing right here,” I gasped, frustrated that not only was I still in a very public location, in front of the check in desk in the transit security checkpoint, but no one was speaking to me directly.

“I’m just explaining the situation to her,” was her response. It didn’t matter that the younger woman with the aggressively dyed hair was the first to speak to me or that the police who I had been cordial and at points humorous with were standing behind me. The TSA were here and they were not negotiators, least of all when they stood to lose. Finally, I agreed to look around in the airport shops for a “hard case” and headed to terminal 4 with the tallest police officer. He tried to calm me down and be supportive, in a gruff, New York way. “You gotta understand the position they’re in,” he explained without provocation, “if they let you through and someone steals the weapon and uses it to commit a crime, they’ll be liable.” I understood this, though it hadn’t occurred to me that that could be the larger concern. Even if the gift recipient, my father, repaired and used the gun, it would be illegal. He continued to explain.

I had managed to control the tears leaking out long enough to sigh and resign myself to finding a “hard case.” The police officer pointed me in the direction of terminal 4 and I was free to go. In retrospect, they had bent a significant amount of rules already for me to look for a “hard case.” They had unleashed a woman coming from Afghanistan via UAE, India and Belgium with an unregistered weapon into the greater metropolitan area of New York City. The irony of this oversight or rule breaking, whichever it was, was not lost on me.

I went to Terminal 4, and hurried to the shops, bypassing a security checkpoint with nothing more than a brief explanation and a plea. I found the shop referenced by Port Authority officers and went straight to the woman at the counter, a young African American woman with a kind smile. She quickly understood the situation, and wanted to see the gun. I showed it to her. She thought it was cool. I felt validated. The young woman didn’t know if they had the inventory so she asked the manager who was sitting with his wife eating lunch or dinner. Time of day was lost to me. The south Asian couple who managed the store regretfully told me that they use to have inventory like that but no longer did. The husband figure went out and asked the other shop managers if they had anything like a “hard case” for a gun. They did not, he informed me. Their helpfulness and understanding almost made up for the rude and disgruntled TSA agents. But while I felt briefly at ease, I also had not solved the problem. I needed a “hard case.” The managers and young clerk told me to go to “Five town,” a mall close to the airport. The male manager suggested I purchase a razor case that was hard and could hold a weapon. At that point in the journey, anything was possible, so I took him on his word and followed his directions towards the Taxi stand.

I exited the airport, illicit weapon unsecured in my red rolling suitcase and hopped in a taxi. Immediately, I told the taxi driver that I needed him to take me to “Five Town,” and bring me back to the airport. We negotiated that the price would vary based off of the meter but then lowered since we weren’t going very far. The taxi driver had a Caribbean accent and we talked about my situation. He was helpful even if he was calculating how much this trip would earn him. We got to “Five Town,” a strip mall with a boarded up K-Mart and abandoned TJ Maxx. My options were a cosmetics store, a dollar store and a Lowes hardware store.

I checked the cosmetics store first, following the directions of the helpful luggage store manager from Terminal 4. They had razor cases but none were big enough for the antique weapon. I literally ran from the cosmetics store to the taxi where the driver convinced me that the dollar store might have something like that. I went to the dollar store and talked to the woman at the register, her accent a mixture of unknown immigrant (maybe South Asian?) and New Yorker. If I wasn’t in such a rush, the diversity of accents I was hearing would have been a conversation starter, at least with the gentle taxi driver. She directed me over to the luggage and I literally ran across the store. There was no hard case luggage so I ran from the store, hopping into the taxi and driving the short distance to Lowes. I had an idea that made sense to me at that moment.

A “hard case” is a toolbox. That’s logical. I thought. I went into the Lowes and right up to the customer service desk. I explained the story and made it clear that I had left the antique firearm in the car. The man behind the desk, possibly of South Asian descent via the Caribbean if first impressions and accents tell anything about immigrants to the US, was extremely helpful. He left the customer service desk and we discussed toolbox options. A younger man with a thicker Caribbean accent joined us as we discussed options. The ones that looked like silver suitcases were either too small or contained too many dividers to empty out for a gun. I settled on a plastic tool box with moveable sections. There were two latches but no lock.

I shrugged. “It will have to do,” we agreed. I started to leave and the customer service desk attendant handed me a bunch of cardboard. “To pack it,” he explained. Hurriedly, I agreed that using cardboard to pack a weapon into a plastic tool box would be just fine to pass the TSA requirements. Just fine.

The taxi driver and I headed back to the airport. He double checked that we were at the right terminal while I packed up the weapon and threw away the extra cardboard. I paid him an even $40 for an hour of his time and thanked him profusely before hurrying towards the checking gates. I approached the checked baggage counters cautiously, knowing full well that I was going to have to inform a new group of strangers that I was carrying questionable materials in my bag to be checked. I explained the situation and requested the Port Authority officer who had helped me earlier to come and look at the weapon. I waited.

The shorter Port Authority officer showed up, not the one who had walked me to Terminal 4. Disoriented, I followed him to the TSA desk, hidden behind the checking counters. They wouldn’t let me enter the TSA office space so I stood looking at a suspiciously blank door while a police officer went in and out. This officer was not pleased with me, though he did have an understanding air about him, almost like an elementary school principal disciplining a historically good student. Almost as if he was disappointed in me. Somewhere staring at that door, I lost control. I tried to negotiate with my Port Authority officer, I pleaded, I got angry. He wasn’t moving and the TSA wouldn’t let me in. My face was soaked in tears by this point and I was in clear view of all of the individuals waiting to pass the security check. It was becoming a show and the Port Authority officer was realizing it.

Finally, the TSA agent inside let me in to talk to her. She was gruff but I could tell she wanted this to be resolved. It was hard to tell at this point whether or not they were being helpful because I was crying so hard or because they sympathized. After all, I had abided by the rules as much as possible, though a weapon in a hard case with a lock is a lot different than an antique gun in a plastic tool box with cardboard padding. I tried to sort this out through the tears and finally the TSA agent took pity on me.

“If she gets a lock on the bag it can pass.” A lock! I can buy a lock! The Port Authority officer was visibly relieved. “I’ll take her to the shop downstairs,” he agreed and led me towards an elevator. We passed several groups of people, my eyes uncontrollably leaking, and the display undoubtedly shook up some strangers. It looked as though they had been torturing me in a hidden room. He loaded me into the elevator and told me he’d meet me downstairs. I went down and found him immediately as we walked to the shop. The officer, in the proudest policeman tone, told the man at the counter to step aside, that I had a plane to catch and was in a hurry. The man was snarky and said “I’m in a hurry, too.” I looked up at him meekly, eyes still leaking. I apologized for cutting in line and he stopped being sassy. The clerk rang up a lock and I handed over $20 without a thought. I got my change and the officer sent me back to the elevator. He met me at the top and guided me back to the blank door behind the counter. I locked up the bag under the watchful eye of the TSA agent.

“Do you have your boarding pass?” she asked.

“I’m sorry I lost it,” I tried to apologize for my crying, which was at this point uncontrollable.

“You lost your boarding pass?!” the woman was irate.

“No,” I croaked between sobs and pulled my boarding pass out of my pocket.

“She lost control,” the Port Authority officer explained. And that was when it hit me. All this crying was not because of a gun, or a gift, or fatigue, hunger, and the need to urinate. It was because I was no longer in control of my actions. I couldn’t change the situation no matter how many taxi’s I got into or gifts I purchased. I couldn’t change anything about what was happening. It was bigger than me. All of it. Starting in Kabul with all the problems of a war zone, learning about the school shooting, dealing with airport bureaucracy, all of the steps along the way. None of it was in my control. And so I lost control of my ability to withhold tears.

Shortly, the Port Authority officer guided me through security, leap frogging the line. I thanked him for helping me and told him he didn’t have to do all this.

“I want to get rid of you,” he responded.

“You’re sweet,” I said and managed a smile. The tears hadn’t really stopped but were slowing. I was getting through the security and the officer disappeared. I shuffled towards my gate and went straight to the bathroom. There I broke down a little more until it was all out of my system. Seeing myself in the mirror made me want to cry more. How ridiculous I was to be this upset. My eyes were red and puffy, my whole face was, actually. I went over to the gate and realized that not only had the officer pushed me through security, he had done so early. I had another 45 minutes before my plane started boarding. I curled up in as small of a ball as I could and waited. Listening to music, reading, trying to think of anything other than this strange journey I had taken.

We boarded the plane and departed to Pittsburgh. My bag was checked and locked. I was almost home.

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