I don't think of myself as a dangerous character. Neither, I think, do the lively old ladies who routinely trample me on the escalators at Neiman's. Nor the other software salesmen who race past me into early retirement. Nor, above all, the publishers and agents who seem to take unabashed pleasure in routinely shredding my dream of hanging up my salesman's shoes and becoming an author. But it turns out we're all wrong about me. Just ask John Ashcroft.
Frankly, I didn't think I had the stuff -- neither compelling dialogue for my probably-never-to-be-published novel-in-progress, nor the aura of a cold-blooded killer -- until a few weeks ago, when my flight from New Orleans landed at Dallas's Love Field. "How are you?" said the airport security person who popped up beside me on my way to baggage claim. "Uh, fine -- thanks," I replied innocently, though I wondered, Why are you asking?
As if she had read my thoughts, she told me that there had been complaints about me on the airplane. Then she asked to see the crossword puzzle I'd been working on during the flight. Huh? I thought. Talk about being puzzled! Still, my grin was smug as I handed it over. I had just completed the Friday New York Times puzzle, for the first time ever.
But the agent ignored the crossword and turned the paper sideways to read a line I had scribbled in the margin. "I know this is kind of a bomb," it said. She pointed to the sentence, her finger resting on the word "bomb." "What does this mean?" she demanded. Suddenly a light went on in my head. I remembered the passenger on my left leaning forward in his seat as I scribbled while we waited for takeoff. Seconds later, he'd clambered hastily over me without apology to make his way to the front of the plane. I'd assumed intestinal complications, but, now that I thought about it, he hadn't used the bathroom. He'd spoken briefly with the flight attendants and returned to his seat. As the security woman looked up at me, I now realized the passenger had been about as interested in my puzzling prowess as she was.
"I know this is kind of a bomb" is what I imagine Bucky, my main character, would say to Julie, his love interest, in the critical scene of my novel. I explained to the security woman that this is what happens when a 42-year-old man who is to literature what a karaoke singer is to opera tries to put words in the mouth of a 19-year-old fictional character. I quickly reopened my laptop, into which I had typed the offending line, and showed her shining example after shining example of similarly awful dialogue. She chortled, getting the picture that that word, b-o-m-b, was no reference to ordnance or terrorist weapons of any kind, not even in my novel.
My explanation was good enough for her, but not for the three Dallas police officers who had meanwhile turned up on the scene -- summoned, I supposed, for backup in case the dangerous character tried to write something even worse. Now, I know that if you saw me coming in my '94 Altima you might say, "There's something wrong with this guy." A tightwad, maybe. A gambling addict. But a suicide bomber??
The cops seemed eager to believe it, though. They surrounded me. One of them took my driver's license to run a fruitless background check (the closest I ever came to being in trouble with the law was accepting a beer when I was 17 from the teenage daughter of the Nantucket Island police chief). Another one of the cops was particularly hostile. He asked me a strangely menacing question: "So, how many books have you gotten made?" I started my usual back-pedaling answer to that query, honed to perfection in the Dallas bar scene, but he cut me off with, "That's not what I asked." I told him I must have misunderstood. He responded, "You're a writer and you don't understand my words?"
Without further explanation, the cops took me to the on-site police station, where I waited for an "interview" with someone from the Transportation Security Administration. By the time it began, I was being accused of writing "bomb" on a piece of paper and waving it around for the people in the back of the plane to see. While two policemen guarded the door, the honcho behind the desk informed me that my choice of dialogue was unfortunate, that life was not a stage play, and that the tiniest thing can ignite fear in American travelers these days. But he still wanted a summary of my novel's plot to get the context for why I had written what I had.
I panicked. If five years of working on this narrative couldn't liberate me from software sales, how was a five-minute pitch going to keep me out of jail? I barely got three sentences out when the guy's lids started to droop. Convinced I was headed for the gulag, I prattled faster. But in spite of my stuttering, the inquisitor must have liked my story after all, because he let me off the hook. Or at least that's how he made sure I felt: that he was letting me skip . . . this time.
Maybe he sensed that I white-knuckle on airplanes unless I have three shots of vodka on an empty stomach. Perhaps my background check told him that I'm a secular Jew or that ex-girlfriends contend that my fear of commitment surpasses that of any Hugh Grant movie character. In other words, I don't exactly fit the profile of someone who would align with a radical cause to bring down an airplane he's already afraid he'll crash in. Even so, the honcho gravely warned me that while I had not crossed the line, I had walked right up to it. And for that I would be on Homeland Security's watch list.
That set me back. Why would I be put on a watch list even after Homeland Security had satisfied themselves that I had no intention of blowing anything up or scaring anybody, that my privacy had been violated by a nosy person who had made an error, and that I had been the victim of a crazy misunderstanding? Why, in spite of that, would I end up forever marked as a potentially dangerous character -- a suspected criminal, subject to interrogations and body searches? Admittedly, some mornings, pre-shower, I do give Sheikh Mohammed a run for his money in the bed-head department; so if I ever venture to Starbucks this way, will I be straying across the line into never-to-be-heard-from-again-land?
If I could give myself practical advice and take it, this is what I'd say: Forget the things you read in history class about America, Charlie. Forget all the stuff about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Just keep your head down and your eyes peeled for that "line." The coach of my old-man baseball team, for which I occasionally hit a bomb -- though now I would never describe it that way in public -- thinks I should start taking Greyhound. I should listen to him; he's a Vietnam vet.
But I have a feeling that I'll keep flying, because of the lesson I learned from this experience. In short, it's scarier down here than it is up there.