Essays


Check, Check, Pre-Check

When I saw the sign, I was balancing on one leg, struggling back into my shoes, shoving my laptop back into its case, and holding back tears because the TSA had just confiscated my favorite crochet hook.

The sign, perched on the counter, promoted the TSA’s Pre-check program: “Shoes on, laptop in—what’s not to love?”

Sounded like love to me. Especially if enrolling in the TSA Pre-check program also meant side-stepping the scanner—that dreadful machine that electronically strip searches your body parts while you hold up your hands as if you’ve just robbed a 7-11.

I snatched an information card, rolled up to the nearest Starbucks, unpacked my laptop (again), and fired up TSA website. It informed me that I only need apply for a KTN (Known Traveler Number), and once attained, I would be granted TSA Pre-check privileges.

The application process starts simply enough. You begin by filling out an online form that, among many other personal questions, asks for your country of citizenship. You can choose from no less than 250 countries including Palestinian Territory, Occupied; the Spratly Islands; Wallis and Futuna; and my personal favorite: “Unlisted: Any foreign country not included in the list.” What’s left? Mordor? And if you do hail from the Gulf of Lune, no doubt your application would be tossed in the trash, like so many confiscated bottles of Snapple and tweezers.

Not my problem, you unfortunate citizens of Burkina Faso/Upper Volta. I was born in the USA. Check. Check. Check. And check again. (The form asks four times about citizenship.)

The next step is to appear in person at a TSA Pre-check center (and pay $85). The closest location to my house was a chain hotel (I can’t name it for security reasons), 20 miles away.

The website warns that the wait can be long, so I packed a lunch. As soon as I stepped into the hotel lobby, I saw a door marked “TSA Pre-check.” I was about to turn the knob when a woman sitting next to the door stopped me with a horrified look. “You do not want to go in there,” she warned. “Wait out here.” I sat my butt down.

A minute later the door creaked open, and a TSA officer emerged. He said nothing. He stood in front of me. He looked me over. Then he spoke: “Give me your passport.” I gave him my passport. He looked it over. He looked me over. “Wait here until I call you in.” Then he turned around, went back to wherever he came from, and shut the door.

Ten minutes later, he called my name.

I now understand why innocent people confess under heavy interrogation. “Give me your passport,” he said, again. Then he fingerprinted me. Then he fired off a barrage of questions, the same questions I had already answered on the Pre-check pre-enrollment form, most of them regarding whether I did or did not engage in such crimes as, but not limited to, espionage, sedition, treason, terrorism, trafficking, and murder. As I answered once again no, no, no, no, no, and no, my heart began pounding and my palms perspired. I was grateful that I’d already been fingerprinted; my fingers would have slid all over the glass.

Finally I was released on my own recognizance. Three weeks later, I received a congratulatory letter along with my very own KTN: a combination of nine numbers and letters that would lead me to the Pre-check Promised Line.

Or so I thought. The next time checked in for a flight, I slid my credit card into the self-check kiosk, and eagerly awaited for the machine to spit out my boarding pass bearing a TSA Pre-check mark of approval. The boarding pass appeared all right, but lacking a check, a mark, or any indication that I had been checked and re-checked by the TSA.

I had no choice but to go to the check-in counter and consult the check-in attendant. “Something’s wrong,” I said, handing her my unchecked boarding pass. “I should have been given TSA Pre-check. I have a Known Traveler Number.” The check-in attendant checked and re-checked it. “I’m sorry,” she said, giving it back to me. “That happens. Even if you have a KTN, you might not get TSA Pre-check. I’ve even seen TSA officers denied Pre-check.”

I could’ve stabbed someone with a crochet hook. If I had one.


There Are No Strangers Here

I had no intention of running the 2014 Boston Marathon, or any marathon, ever again. I’ve run 13. I’m 52 now. Cholesterol is creeping up. Grays streak my brown hair. But I’m lucky. My legs, though dotted with cellulite, still run strong. I’d like to keep them running for as long as I can, 20 miles a week or so.

It’s just bad planning—not to mention painful—to blow 26 in one day. I decided that my last marathon, four years ago, would be my last. No more, forever.

Then last April, terrorist bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. Three spectators lost their lives. Many more lost legs. I could think of only one way to honor them—with my legs, running the marathon, once again.

Damn terrorists.

Several of my running friends also felt called to Boston. We kept each other company over 20-mile training runs in brutal northeast winter weather. Two more friends in Atlanta would join us on race day. We made elaborate plans to find each other at the start. But those plans fell apart in a maze of runners and mistimed connections. I worried I’d have to run the marathon alone. And then I remembered what Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said at the memorial service held six days earlier: “There are no strangers here.”

No strangers on the marathon course where 34,000 runners like me trekked 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston. But more significantly, no strangers alongside it, where spectators showed up a million strong, proving that “Boston Strong” wasn’t just a slogan.

They yelled and clapped and held up signs to praise us: “You Are Heroes” and “You Are Awesome.” Signs to make us laugh: “Chafe Now, Wine Later” and “You Think You’re Tired? I’ve Been Holding Up This Sign For, Like, Two Hours.” And: “Good Luck, Random Stranger.”

But there are no strangers here.

Almost everyone lining the course reached out their hands for high fives. Shy children’s hands barely touched. Mothers’ hands gently squeezed. Exuberant college hands slapped hard; they made me say “ouch!” and laugh.

I had lettered the words “Imagine Peace” on the front of my shirt. Spectators chanted back to me, “Peace! Peace! Peace!” When I slowed to a walk many times along the course, several people had enough time to look into my eyes and say, “I imagine peace every day.” 

The young women screaming for us at Wellesley College produced enough sonic energy to make me feel like I could fly. All of their signs, as is the tradition, asked for kisses. “Kiss Me I’m A Redhead” “Kiss Me I’m From Africa” “Kiss Me If You’re Sweaty” “Kiss Me I’m Queer” “Kiss Me, I Have A Test Tomorrow.” I kissed a girl, and I liked it.

 Oh, if only the race ended in Wellesley! But it’s only halfway there. Still 13 tough miles to go.

 “We finish the race,” President Obama said in his Boston speech a year earlier, just after the bombings. “On that toughest mile, just when we think that we’ve hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall. We know that.”

He was right. I did know that. But I didn’t know that in the months after the Obama speech, hundreds of crafters sat quietly knitting and crocheting thousands of scarves for strangers—like me. All of the scarves were blue and yellow (the Boston Marathon colors). Yet all were unique. The tags pinned to each scarf noted that they were being given to the marathoners “as a symbol of love and peace in this year of remembrance and hope.” 

I want every year at Boston to be one of remembrance and hope. So I’ve started to train for next year—not running, thank goodness—knitting and crocheting. Which is a lot easier on the old legs.


Craigs Risk

The “Craigslist Killer” was not too far from my mind when I posted an ad on Craigslist. I was trying to get rid of an Ikea desk that my husband bought back when Bjorn Borg was winning Wimbledon. Amby had composed many fine sentences on that desk and didn’t really want to give it up. He doesn’t want to give up much of anything. It’s that depression-era mentality his parents instilled in him, I think.

Still, the desk was in pretty bad shape. It had long ago migrated to the basement where too many rainstorms had produced rivulets on the floor. The desk wasn’t smart enough to get out of the way and suffered water damage on the bottom of both sides. In the basement, it was mostly used as a perch for Amby’s smelly running clothes and bags. In her final years, my cat Chloe liked to nestle in among the stuff, as if she were testing out death—dark, quiet, and damp.

Speaking of death, you’ve heard of the “Craigslist Killer,” right? He was a fine upstanding medical student who shot a poor lady who offered “massage services” at the Marriott Copley Hotel in Boston.

I decided to steer clear of Craigslist, where miscreants, murderers, and weirdos prowl. Instead, I chose to donate the desk to Via, a charity that runs a thrift store, the sales of which benefit people with disabilities. It was win-win-win all around. I’d get rid of the desk, people with disabilities would get some cash, and I’d live to see another day.

The one tiny hitch in the plan was the condition of the desk. The woman at Via warned me that if her moving guys deemed the desk unsellable, they wouldn’t take it. I had no fear. I assumed she wasn’t sending appraisers from The Antiques Road Show. On the appointed day at the appointed hour, they showed up, I showed them the desk, and they turned it down.

I made a bold, brave decision. Post an ad in the “Free” section on Craigslist. Although the site claims that most Craigslist users are perfectly normal, friendly, noncannibalistic people, it also had more safety warnings than the New York City subway. Reading it, I wasn’t sure how I could release my desk and keep my head attached to my body. Craigslist seemed to suggest that I leave my desk in a public place, perhaps a busy intersection, and arrange for the desk-ee to pick it up at least 48 hours later.

 “I could maybe use your desk,” came the first email response to my ad. “May I come see it?” It was signed Chris.

I read the message again. “May I come?” he (I assumed he was a “he,” of course) had written in hyperpolite parlance, clearly trying to make me drop my guard. I wanted to get rid of the desk in one visit; this wasn’t an art gallery. I told him if he would take it sight unseen, I would give him my address.

He agreed. He could come within the hour. “I take my mom out to dinner on Wednesdays [oh, nice touch, Chris, if that’s really your name] and I could come to your house first.” He said he had a pickup truck, which conjured up a whole new set of frightening images. But I said okay and immediately called Amby at work and asked him to come home. I had no illusions that my skinny runner husband could protect me, but I hoped “Chris” might think twice about committing two murders.
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Shortly after Amby arrived, the “pickup truck,” which was really just a large white SUV-type thing, backed into our driveway. I pushed the button on our garage door opener, and as the door rose, it revealed white sneakers, tidy jeans, a crisp shirt, and finally a kindly bespectacled face that was softly graying at the temples: Chris. He beamed at us, then at the desk, which he said would be perfect for the wholesale flower business he was starting. Flowers! Ahh. He was so sweet and polite and handsome, I wanted to ask him if he was married so I could set him up with one of my single girlfriends.

So the desk is gone, living a new life festooned in flowers. Getting rid of Amby’s other stuff...that's a continuing process.


Yes I Can (Open Cans)

You probably think you know how to use a can opener. You don't. How do I know this? Because I used to think the same thing. Then I went to a Pampered Chef party where I learned I've been opening cans the wrong way all my life. So have you.

Pampered Chef is a reincarnation of the Tupperware parties my mother used to go to. A bunch of ladies (housewives, as they were called back then, which sounded much like they were married to houses) sat in a semicircle in a somebody’s living room, and a certified professional consultant showed them all these nifty kitchen items they never knew they needed—items such as bowls that burped or plastic containers shaped like wire whisks so that they would have a place to store their wire whisks.

I went to the “party” only because my dear 83-year-old friend, Mildred, invited me, and I do whatever my dear friend wants. Mildred agreed to hold it at her house only because her daughter, Dana, asked her to. And Dana whispered to me—as I was heading out the door, $93.52 poorer than when I came in—that she agreed to host it only because she felt sorry for the Pampered Chef consultant. The consultant told us during her introduction that her husband had lost his job and she had three kids to support. Then she whipped out the special Pampered Chef can opener that was about to tear holes into everything I’ve ever believed about myself and my ability to open cans.

“How many of you know what this is?” asked the consultant. Quick-thinking gal that I am, I thought to myself, “uh, a can opener.” But it couldn’t be that simple, so I left it to one of the other 11 guests to answer. One woman said it was a can opener.

“Yes!” the consultant said, as enthusiastically as if the guest had just solved a quadratic equation. “But not just any can opener. It’s a Pampered Chef can opener. Does anyone have one of these?”

We all looked at each other. The same guest who had answered the first question spoke up. “I do. I love it. But I’m the only one in my family who has figured out how to use it. My son almost has the hang of it.”

Turns out, the wonderful feature of the Pampered Chef can opener—and the reason the rest of us have been opening cans incorrectly and possibly suicidally—is that it removes the entire top leaving a smooth edge. The challenge, however, as the guest attested to, and even the consultant demonstrated, is that it takes the patience of a diamond cutter to hook the opener onto the precise spot on the can.

So it was easy to resist buying the can opener. I wish I could say the same thing of the Pampered Chef food chopper, their “most popular kitchen tool.” I admit I was beginning to become mesmerized as the food chopper rendered a carrot into a neat pile of orange rubble. Fortunately Mildred’s good friend, Vicki, who was sitting next to me, broke the spell. “Just get a good chef’s knife,” she said out of the side of her mouth.

With the consultants’ hungry children in mind, I did buy a few things, including an ice cream scoop purported to melt the ice cream via the heat of my hand. Problem is, I remembered later, my hands are always cold.
                                                                                      

Room to Breathe

You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location. But if you want to live in New York City, forget it, forget it, forget it. You can’t afford it, afford it, afford it. Whenever my husband and I fantasize about becoming New Yorkers, we stay in a hotel room for a night or two and pretend we live there. But even that is an expensive fantasy. So we try to find a small place, fairly cheap, with a low rat population.

Our Pennsylvania friends recommended The Chelsea Lodge. They told us the rooms were small, but inexpensive, for New York--$149, plus enough city taxes tacked on to build a hotel in Allentown.

"Charming European ambience on a quiet street," boasted the web site. The owners noted that all their "lodge rooms" featured showers and sinks. But we would have to share a hallway "WC" (how charming! how European!) with the other hotel guests on our floor. Sounded perfect. We like to meet the neighbors.

We arrived at the Chelsea and a friendly Eminen lookalike greeted us at the front desk, which was no bigger than a kitchen counter. He handed us a set of real brass keys, not modern plastic keycards, to room 2B.

However, 2B was not to be, we discovered upon opening the door, a room that would allow extraneous movement of any kind. It could have comfortably housed a couple of hamsters, but not two life-size human beings. If I laid myself out from end to end, my body could fit across the room one and a half times. My husband, who is six feet tall, could do the same if he removed his legs.

The bed was advertised as a double, but it seemed more like a twin that hadn’t grown up yet. It was pressed up against a wall with a dresser facing it on the opposite wall. The space between these two pieces of furniture was the width of a yoga mat.

I volunteered to take the wall side of the bed before realizing that if I needed to get up to go to the WC, I would have to catapult myself over my husband and try not to crash land into the dresser. I considered doing a few practice jumps but my husband refused to be my launching pad. He wanted to get out of that room before we sucked all the air out of it, much like astronauts in a doomed space station. (We had just seen Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-nominated performance for “Best Breather in a Space Suit” in Gravity.)

But who needs oxygen, anyway? We came to New York City for the fun the city provides, not for holing up in a hotel room. At the end of an enjoyable evening of dining and theater, we returned to 2B to sleep, perchance to dream. But not 2P.

                                                                                   
Bruce Affiliation

I am in love with another man. I may as well announce it here first since my husband, Amby, has threatened to out me on his blog over at runnersworld.com. Although I’m not sure how my infidelity has anything to do with running. Oh wait, yes I do, Amby and “the other man” are both born to run.

Running around has been trendy in recent months. Witness David Letterman, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Tiger Woods. But don’t link me with those bums. Mine is an affair of the heart. The object of my affection doesn’t even know I exist. In other words, my love is unrequited and pure.

The first time ever I saw his face was back in 1978 in Philadelphia, where I’m from. Ironically, my boyfriend at the time, Larry, introduced me to him. His name was Bruce Springsteen and he played guitar and sang some songs that he wrote himself. I was smitten.

I told my boyfriend and the ones who followed the hard truth—Bruce would always be first in my heart. They had two choices: accept it or pound sand, preferably along the Jersey shore. One bought me a Bruce Springsteen songbook. He and I are still friends. Another burned that songbook in his driveway. We don’t speak anymore.

Over the years, I bought Bruce’s music, first on vinyl, then cassette tapes, then CDs, and now I listen to him on my iPod. He makes me dance, smile, and sing. I love that he loves his mother and contributes to food banks. He comforted me after the Twin Towers came down, encouraging me and the rest of the world to “rise up.” Our politics matched. I volunteered for John Kerry and he donated one of his songs “No Surrender” to the cause. Four years later he endorsed Barack Obama and that’s the closest I ever got to him. As a volunteer I had an up-front pass to a rally where he performed on the streets of Philadelphia.

I knew we were made for each other. But I never got the chance to tell him. First he married a model, and I knew, everyone knew, she was all wrong for him. When he divorced her I entertained a whisper of hope. But when he married again—this time two a redheaded guitarist, I knew, everyone knew: “She’s the One.” They had three kids together and he had the happy family he deserved. I accepted, at last, that he would only ever be what my best friend Jackie calls sportscaster Bob Costas—my “spiritual fiancé.”

Which brings me to Amby. My husband. He’s a smart guy. He knows he can’t compete with a love that has lasted for more than 30 years—even though I’ve seen Bruce in person only about six times, and always in the company of quite a number of other people. Amby has even come with me on three of those occasions, fading from my consciousness as my love for the man on the stage reignites into flames.

The last time Amby weathered this rejection was at Hershey Park stadium last May on a gorgeous evening. As the first few notes of “Badlands” punctured the air, I burst into tears, transported as I was back to my parents’ front porch, a teenager listening to the same song on a white Panasonic tape player. Amby simply brushed away my tears and the next day flew me to Mexico.

I learned two lessons from that experience. With Bruce, love is wild but with Amby, well, love is real.
                                                                                  

Hemlines

To hem jeans, first fold them up to the desired length and secure with pins. Turn the legs inside out and cut the fabric one inch longer than the fold. Press the fold with a steam iron, forming a crease.

At this point, there is no turning back. It’s nearly impossible to iron out a crease once you put it in. You can shorten, sure, but not lengthen. And there is nothing, nothing more mortifying than going to high school in jeans that are too short.

I cannot overemphasize this point. One millimeter can make the difference between getting asked to the prom and spending the evening wearing a cute dress dancing to “Staying Alive” with a cute guy or staying home that night wearing your too-short jeans and watching “The Love Boat” with your brother.

I am standing on the coffee table in our living room while my mother crouches in front of me and pins up my bell-bottom jeans. She’s an expert seamstress but I scrutinize her every move. She pushes in the last pin and stands up.

          “Done,” she says. “Go look in the mirror.”

          “I can already see from here that they’re too short, Mom. Make them longer.”

          “Tina, you’re going to trip.”

          “No, I’m not. They’re too short.”

My mother was a young person like me once. Hard to believe but there are pictures to prove it. In one picture, taken in a park somewhere in San Antonio, she and three girlfriends are hanging out with four guys. A Brownie camera dangles from her left hand. They are, all of them, laughing. The guys are sitting on top of an enormous fallen tree trunk; the girls are leaning up against them, a wooden case of Lone Star beer sitting at their feet. My mother is obviously one of the popular kids, this despite wearing pants that fall just below her knees.

“We called them pedal pushers,” she tells me, holding a pin in her mouth and letting my jeans down another micrometer. “Or gaucho pants.”

Whatever. I don’t care what you called them. I just can’t believe she left her house wearing those things. But apparently that’s what the cool kids wore in 1948.

In 2008, I’m wearing pants that fall just below my knees. Everyone wears them. They’re called capris.

To make capris, cut off about 10 inches from the legs of your jeans. Turn the legs inside out and fold the cut edge up one inch. Press with a steam iron, forming a crease. Fold the cut edge half an inch so that it meets the crease. Fold it over again so that the cut edge is inside. Stitch along the folded edge.

My husband and I laugh every time we watch college basketball. Their shorts are longer than my living room curtains and flutter like parachutes. At that length can they still be called “shorts”?

I don’t know when basketball uniforms evolved to their current look but I seem to remember a time when basketball players wore shorts that covered their buns and their naughty bits (as Monty Python called them) and not much else. Ah the '70s. The good old days.

I had shorts back then that looked a little like those old basketball uniforms. They were yellow with white trim along the edges and up the sides--but they were made of stretch terrycloth. Talk about bun huggers. I had forgotten all about those shorts until my mother unearthed a picture of me wearing them at a family picnic. I was dashing across a meadow in a park near our house. My sister had snapped a picture of me with her newly purchased Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera. The thing weighed about 70 pounds but it produced a miracle. You pressed the button and a picture ejected like a piece of candy from a Pez dispenser. Then everyone stood around it and watched the image come to life. As a bonus, the picture had a white margin on the bottom that you could write on.

My mother sent that picture to me a few years ago and had scribbled on the bottom, “Look at that butt!”

 I’m pushing 50 now and I’d rather not look at my butt, or my thighs for that matter. Nor would I wish that sight on anyone else. However, I’m a runner and I still need to wear shorts. Thank god the '70s are over. In 2010, the way-cool college basketball players give me an idea of what to do with my running shorts.

To lengthen running shorts, measure from the hem to just above your knees. Use that measurement to cut two pieces of fabric that are the same color as your shorts. Pin each piece of fabric to each leg of your shorts. Stitch.