The avalanche

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

Back in 2003, I spent a week hanging out with a good friend on Vashon Island, the largest island in the Puget Sound. It was a wonderful trip.

As it happened, that same week, my mom was taking a trip to Albuquerque with her cousin Patti, and that trip was going to last one day longer than my trip. I’d never seen the southwest before and it seemed like a good opportunity, so I arranged my trip so I could spend the last day with my mom and Cousin Patti in New Mexico.

This was a mistake.

I had met Cousin Patti once or twice in my life, but I had never been around her long enough to form much of an impression. That all changed over the course of about 36 hours in Albuquerque.

Have you ever been at a gas station and seen someone smoking a cigarette at the pump? Or have you ever been driving down the interstate and seen someone applying makeup or reading a newspaper while they roar down the highway at 80 miles per hour? When you see people like that, do you ever think to yourself, “I don’t understand how this person has managed to survive long enough to reach adulthood?”

That was the Cousin Patti experience.

Patti was phenomenally wealthy – she was in Albuquerque to look at a plot of land she owned in a gated community, which is another story entirely – but she was also the single most naïve person I think I’ve ever met. For example, on one memorable occasion, she got lost driving back to the hotel because she didn’t believe the directions my mom and I were giving her. Rather than listen to us, she drove into the roughest-looking neighborhood she could find, parked in the middle of the street, rolled down her window, turned off the car, removed the key from the ignition, and then yelled at a guy sitting on his porch to ask him for directions. Fortunately, he was a very nice man and gave her the same directions my mom and I had been giving her, but the moment solidified my impression that Patti had survived 50+ years based on luck alone.

I don’t begrudge anyone for having a complete lack of common sense, but what was infuriating about Patti was that she treated everyone like they were a recently-lobotomized simpleton being reintegrated into modern society. This reached its comedic peak when she attempted to show my mom how to use an automatic paper towel dispenser, which was a pretty-well established technology even in 2003.

All of this leads us to the flight back home.

My mom and I have a similar approach to air travel: we travel light, because checking luggage is expensive and it’s a pain to haul around a bunch of bags.

Cousin Patti, on the other hand, travels like a 17th century merchant preparing for a transatlantic voyage. She brought eight bags. Eight. Bags. For a week-long trip.

Now of course, Cousin Patti couldn’t carry all those bags herself. That was a job for me and my mom.

I was standing in the security checkpoint line holding two of Patti’s bags when I was called for a random TSA search. I tried to get Patti’s attention and give her bags back, but Patti – a self-described introvert – was too busy chatting at some poor stranger in line to notice me.

A TSA agent pulled me away to a separate area and gave me a full pat-down. On the table behind him, I saw Cousin Patti’s two mystery bags, just waiting to be opened and examined. I had no idea what was in them.

I assumed the bags were full of women’s clothes, which meant that the TSA agent would assume I was a cross-dresser. This was the least of my worries. Many fine Americans have been cross-dressers, such as J. Edgar Hoover or Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H.

No, my concern was that something much, much worse was in the bags. Over the course of the previous day, I had learned there was no bottom to the depths of Patti’s terrible judgment. For all I knew, the bags were full of guns, or rare black-market desert tortoises, or several pounds of Walter White’s finest Albuquerque methamphetamine. I had no idea how Patti had accumulated her wealth or why she needed to carry so many bags, so the idea that she was a smuggler pretending to be a remarkably inept middle-aged woman seemed like a distinct possibility.

The TSA agent finished his pat-down and jerked a thumb toward the two bags.

“Are these your bags?” he asked. “Did you pack them yourself?”

“Yes,” I said, lying to a federal employee in charge of airline safety less than two years after 9/11.

He walked over and struggled to unzip the first bag. It was packed so tight that the zipper would barely budge.

All at once, the zipper gave way, and an avalanche of feminine hygiene products spilled across the table.

The TSA agent studied the pile of feminine hygiene products. Then he slowly turned and looked at me.

“Are these yours?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

The TSA agent nodded slowly, opened his mouth as he considered a follow-up question, decided against it, and began rummaging through the bag, removing numerous tubes of mascara, a dozen different makeup kits, and enough bottles of nail polish to paint five coats on a ‘75 Cadillac Fleetwood. Eventually, he walked back over to me.

“I’m going to have to confiscate one of your pairs of cuticle scissors,” he said. “TSA policy only allows you to carry one pair.”

I told the agent that was fine, and in fact he was welcome to take both pairs because you can’t put a price on safety.

The TSA agent left me to repack the bag, which I did as hurriedly and angrily as possible, and told me I was free to go.

When I met up with my mom and Cousin Patti, Patti thought the whole situation was just hilarious.

I didn’t speak to her again for the remainder of the trip.

 

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