The day TSA made me look like a vagrant.
In preparation for my upcoming move to New York, I spent nearly three weeks digging through closets, sorting artifacts of my life, and preparing them for either storage, shipping, or someone else’s life. At one point I had a couple dozen ads on craigslist to sell various items around my apartment. I sold tools, camping equipment, furniture, and musical gear. I’m downsizing from a 750 sq ft apartment in LA to a single bedroom in a pre-war building in Brooklyn. My dedicated music room is now reduced to an oversized duffle bag and a couple of boxes. My collection of books and records whittled down to a single ‘Media Mail’ package for USPS to ship across country.
For the final three days before my last day in the apartment, I woke up, unpacked all of the bags with which I planned to travel, and re-packed, considering carefully how many more items I could sell, donate, or throw away. Without the luxury of an industrial scale at home, and knowing that I couldn’t afford to be sloppy with packing and end up with exorbitant baggage fees, I had to guess the weight of each bag by holding it in one hand with a 50 lb barbell in the other. The constant guesswork, questioning, and worrying about the implications of each decision was exhausting.
At one point, there were several distinct groups of bags and boxes set around the apartment. I had 4 bags for the flight in one room, 6 large packages to ship in the hallway, furniture to sell in the corner, and what seemed like an endless array of piles of random small items. There were trips to goodwill, a temporary ‘take what you want’ pile in the hallway near the stairs outside of the apartment, and a steady stream of friends and strangers coming in and out with cash.
My last day in the apartment, a friend gave me a ride to USPS, FedEx, and UPS to strategically ship each item with the most appropriate vendor. UPS had the cheapest packaging, and decent insurance rates, so they got my computer and musical equipment. FedEx had pretty cheap rates for pre-packed boxes, and USPS handled media and small packages. It was hard not to feel like I was overthinking everything, but I knew that if I didn’t, I’d end up in New York with either way too much stuff and not enough money, or just not enough of either.
My last night in LA was spent at my friend’s house, sorting through my travel bags, dreaming about being back in New York, and still guessing that I would meet the weight and size requirements of Southwest Airlines. On the off-chance that I had to unpack and leave things at the airport, I took one last chance to completely unpack and repack all of my bags. Two microphone stands didn’t make it, along with art supplies, a few more books, and a pile of personal notes and sketches. 3 straight weeks of packing and sorting and I was finally ready to fly. Or so I thought.
LAX gets all the business traffic, so I use Burbank. The Bob Hope Burbank Airport has about 10 gates, 4-5 airlines, and an absurdly small and manageable security line for a city as big as LA.
I pulled up to the curb with 2 carryon bags and 2 bags to check. The large bags were a rolling suitcase and a huge camouflage duffle bag — both stuffed like Thanksgiving turkeys. The skycap at the curbside check-in grabbed the duffle with both hands, gave a lift and a grunt, and then let go.
“This is overweight. You’re gonna have to unpack it.”
He led me over to the scale on the sidewalk and told me to let him know when I was sure both bags were under 50 lbs. After a quick check of both bags, I was 25 lbs over. 13 on one bag, 12 on the other. Instantly, I knew what I had to do.
With a line forming behind me, cars pulling up and out, and the whistles of airport security directing traffic, I threw my bags off to the side, and got to work. First, I put one bag on the scale, opened it up, and started removing non-essentials. After a second, I realized that I need to reverse the concept. I pulled the bag off the scale, and instead started piling random items from each bag onto the scale, aiming for 25 total pounds.
Boxing gloves? 2.5 lbs. A full set of Beatles coasters in a tin box? 1.8 lbs. Oversized work coat? 3 lbs. Books, belts, old shoes… a few seconds into this routine, and I had a yard sale spread around the airport entrance, and a line of travelers passing silent judgement over my life choices laid out before them. I was rushing, sweating, and completely focused. I laid the heavy jacket on the scale, and started piling knick-nacks and clothes inside.
At one point, the Skycap walked back over and made a suggestion.
“You know you have another choice. You could just overpack one of the bags and only pay $75 for the extra weight.”
I stood up, pointed down at the pile of errata, and asked, “Does that look like it’s worth $75 to you? That’s a four doller grab-bag at any goodwill in America. I’m almost done.” The line behind me chuckled as I zipped up the coat around my pile, tied the sleeves together, and threw the bundle off to the side. All of the bags are ready, now I just need to get rid of this stuff…
After I got my boarding pass, I picked up my guitar and laptop case, and asked the Skycap where there was a trash can I could throw this stuff into.
“No no no! You don’t want to do that. Just tell them inside that you need a plastic bag and carry that stuff with you.”
“This stuff is worthless. I’m not taking it. Do you have a lost and found or something?”
“Yes, but they won’t take that stuff.”
“Can’t I just throw it in that trash can?”
“No, security won’t let you do that.”
Running out of time, I resisted the urge to challenge that notion, and instead lumbered like a homeless person through the airport with what must have looked like either a homeless man’s earthly belongings or a homemade bomb. On the way, I stopped every person I saw in a uniform, and asked the same set of questions.
“Hi. This is all garbage. It’s old clothes that wouldn’t fit in my bag and that I don’t want to fly on my lap. Where can I leave it?”
Universally, I received blank stares. The way you would look at someone at a bank if they asked you, “would you mind telling me the best way to rob this place?” No one knew how to react, but no one wanted to be involved. The lovely lady at the Southwest counter at least offered a ‘best of luck’ when I walked away. Otherwise, I was clearly on my own here.
I got to the security check point with my obviously-poorly-planned luggage, and asked again. And again. And again. I piled my guitar, laptop, backpack, and giant pile of bullshit onto the conveyer belt, and passed it through the x-ray machine.
“Sir, is this pile of clothes yours?”
Pile of clothes. If she only knew the randomness that wrapped up jacket represented… “Not for long.” I said. “I would really love to throw it away right here. Is that okay?”
“Um. No you can’t do that. You just gon’ travel with a pile of clothes though?”
“Nope. I’m gonna throw that pile of clothes away. Any idea how I can do that?”
As I continued to disrobe among strangers, laying my jacket, belt, shoes, hat, wallet, and dignity into a gray plastic bin, the confused TSA agent walked over to a desk full of badges and ties, and started to murmur and point my way. On the other side of a digital body scan, I wrapped everything back up, and walked over to the tie and badge desk.
“Hi guys. I’m sure by now you’ve heard about this thing.” I lifted up a brown jacket, stained in paint and dirt, and full of bad planning. “Any idea where I can get rid of this? Maybe someplace to donate it?”
“Not in the airport.” The agent laughed at the absuridy of my question.
“What if I just put it right here on the ground and walked away?” I was getting so tired of this process.
His smile disappeared. “You can’t do that.”
Before I could start another scene, an agent behind me recommended that I go into the terminal, and find a maintenance man.
10 gates later, I passed the men’s bathroom with what absolutely must have looked like a bomb rolled in canvas. I spotted the signature yellow cart of bathroom cleaners, and ducked inside. The older hispanic gentlmen was, shall we say, taken aback when I presented my load to him.
“Hi. Would you like this?” I put the jacket in his hands before he could respond.
“You no want?”
“I certainly do not.”
He paused, puzzled, staring at the nondescript thing he was now holding in in front of the sinks. I could smell his fear starting to radiate.
“I just went through security. It’s safe. Please take it. I have to go.” I started to back away slowly, like I expected him to chase me, screaming some secret code to have me tazed and tortured for more information. “It’s safe. I gotta catch my flight. You can just throw it all away if you want.”
I didn’t stick around to see what he did with it. The bathroom exit was 50 feet from my gate. I hustled my guitar and backpack over to the line, and tried to blend in. Finally, I was leaving for New York. As we taxied down the runway, I couldn’t help but do the math in my head. Was what I just went through worth $75?
“Hell yeah.” I said to myself as my giant headphones covered my ears. “New York, here I come.”