Clearly, Some Are Different

A Clear Registered Traveler ID card like this will soon be accepted at Dulles and Reagan National airports.
A Clear Registered Traveler ID card like this will soon be accepted at Dulles and Reagan National airports. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Two of Washington's airports -- Dulles and Reagan National -- will soon be part of the federal government's Registered Traveler program, which offers passengers the happy prospect of getting through security lines faster, swifter, better. (Ninety thousand of them and counting have enrolled.) All you need do is pay an annual fee -- $100 to start, plus a $28 shakedown so the government can make sure you're, you know, okay. Next you submit all sorts of personal information, fingerprints and, because the future is now, an eyeball scan.

Then you are all clear.

In fact, the company that clears you is called Clear, and once you're good to go, they mail you a clear plastic ID card with a square blue logo that says Clear. ("The wait is over," proclaims the company's slogan.)

The mind immediately goes either way on this, first to a dark place: Depressingly, America potentially becomes still less like "America," where everyone was supposedly equal, no matter how bad things got. It's the "Lexus lane" syndrome over and over, where special people buy special access to get ahead of the losers. And yet, hasn't this been the essential human narrative all along? Me before you. People becoming Clear is simply another chapter in the self-deterministic struggle. Ayn Rand would totally have one.

After that comes a more tantalizing thought: Can we get a Clear card for everything else?

Some pre-Clears (if you'll excuse the Scientology undertones) have been waiting for this -- impatiently, of course. Clears are already the fastest people at airports even without the cards: shoes and coat off, laptop out of the case, X-ray buckets lined up on the conveyor belt, waiting for everybody else to get it together.

A few thousand people in the Washington area have already applied, and on a recent weekday, 35 people visited the American Express office downtown at 15th and K streets NW, to get cleared by Clear, says Clear spokeswoman Cindy Rosenthal. "What we hear most from people is that they want predictability," she says. "These are people who don't like waiting on line."

Clears are the simple and speedy people, who tend to know the price of things before they get to the register and always have the cash or debit card ready, and step out of the way immediately to a place where they can put away their change and receipt and reassemble themselves without obstructing the flow. Clears do not dig into their purses in search of engorged wallets into which they go a-huntin' for six cents so as not to break a bill, or to look for that Subway sandwich stamp card. Clears have amazingly uncomplicated business to do at banks and in post office lines -- places they almost never go to anymore -- conducting transactions so fast the teller or clerk barely has time to wish them a good day. Clears tend to order only sodas in movie concession lines. (Clears also get to movies 20 minutes early.) Clears have written pamphlet-length diatribes in their minds about a certain drugstore chain that rhymes with "Skeevy Mess" and the lackadaisical inabilities of not only its incredibly slow employees but its equally slow customers.

So why stop with airports? Clear is already thinking about that. "Major crowd events, like a 60,000-person football game," Rosenthal says, could be conducted more efficiently with Clear cards.

Clears are sometimes confused with "high-maintenance" customers, when, in fact, it is low maintenance that defines the true Clear. (Clears have doubtless eaten their share of the kitchen staff's spit for only suggesting that things could be going faster.)

Clears can give you a very long lecture about the economic concept known as opportunity cost, which is just another way of saying time is money, so why clip coupons?

Beyond a swift exchange of pleasantries, Clears never make chitchat with cashiers, because there are people in line behind the Clear, and the Clear is doing them the favor of clearing out. They almost never cause malfunction of the process, and are never more disappointed in themselves as on the rare occasion when they do take too long. Clears almost never special-order or substitute menu items, and are quietly horrified when their dining companions do. Clears love stores with names like Grab-N'-Go, or Git-N'-Gone, and long for the day when such establishments can honestly and consistently live up to such ideals. Corporate America invented self-checkout lines for Clears, which worked well for about five minutes, until someone who wasn't a Clear caused yet another human paper jam.

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