Austin – Dallas – New York – London

Wednesday and Thursday, 9 and 10 December 2009:

Eight years after Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Centre in New York, US airport security still looks a rather haphazard affair. By that, I don’t mean that it is easily breached, but that the set-up still looks temporary and makeshift. It’s as if they’re hoping the problem will disappear soon and all the security agents can pack up their equipment and go home.

That said, the big news this week is about the release over the internet of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) screening pocedure manual, with classified bits revealed. These classified bits include very sensitive information like the minimum size of electrical wires that the scanning machines can detect, or that wheelchairs are exempted from checks, information that can be highly useful to terrorists.

From the airports I’ve seen, the problem stems from the way the terminals have been built. Not being designed for security, they tend to be free-flowing spaces, rather than have clearly separated areas for each stage of processing. Moreover, I get the sense that the original layouts did not provide space for luggage-scanning stations at all. The design seems to assume that after checking in, a passenger passes through a simple doorway where his boarding pass may be checked, and then moves immediately into the food-and-shopping zone, which blends into sitting areas near the boarding gates.

Suddenly, after 9/11, they realise exhaustive checks are required, and by exhaustive, I mean having to remove jackets, belts, shoes, liquids, computers, phones and so on. So here at JF Kennedy airport (New York) Terminal 7, they squeeze their x-ray machines into a part of the check-in hall. There is actually no physical barrier between the public area and the secure in-transit area. The boundary is marked by portable tensile barriers and enforced by barking officers with guns and bullets at the waist.

All around, people are queuing up impatiently, the queue snaking here and there, partly obscuring the tensile barriers, getting mixed up with people trying to check in for flights. On the other side of the x-ray machines, people go about barefoot looking for their hand luggage or shoes. The public announcement system intermittantly calls for the owner of this and that to please come back to the screening area because he or she has left something behind.

The result of all that space limitation and congestion is that people do not follow a linear path to pass through security, but weave in and out of each other. A sure recipe for confusion and slip-ups, if you ask me.

It was very much a similar scene in the other US airports I passed through this trip, in Florida and Texas. And in JFK Terminals 4 and 8.

Dallas Fort Worth airport

There are also other security issues not quite addressed. In Austin, my brother-in-law came to pick me up from the airport. I found him standing next to the baggage carousel. The public can stroll in to pick up any bag they want? Apparently so.

* * * * *

On the flight from New York to London, I met this cute Ukrainian guy – let’s call him Timo – who was returning home after working about three years in New York City. He and his partner (from Poland) had set up a business doing house restoration work on Long Island. Armed with both a diploma from a technical college in building trades and a degree from a Ukrainian university in building design and construction, Timo got his Green Card very easily three years ago. He has not been home since then, but this year decided to go see his family, especially as he’s discovered that winter is a slow season job-wise. From now on, he planned to spend just 7 – 8 months a year in New York, returning to see his wife and son each winter.

“Earn money good,” he said in heavily accented simple English. “I make about $200 a day, and during the time me in New york, we working nearly every day.” Translated into Ukrainian currency, the Hrivna, it must be a fortune.

His last project prior to departure was to restore an old house at the far end of Long Island. It was just a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean, so it had potential, but it was pretty run down when the Jewish investor bought it for just US$200,000. Timo and his partner were hired to do it up with about $100,000 worth of renovations and the Jewish guy would then sell it for $450,000. Or so it is hoped. Whether such a business plan can still work in the current market, I didn’t know, and Timo didn’t particularly care, so long as he got paid for the work done.

He liked Jewish people. “They very smart,” he said. He didn’t like Russians, in particular Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose name he pronounced like he spat it out. “They cut gas to Ukraine.” Of course I didn’t wish to provoke him by mentioning that it was because Ukraine didn’t pay for the purchases.

What caught my attention about him the moment he first asked me how to use the movie controls was his very touchy-feely ways. He had none of the inhibition against physical contact that Americans and Western Europeans had. When he wanted to see what was on my personal seatback screen – to see which button did what – he leaned over till he was almost cheek to cheek with me, balancing himself by resting one hand on my knee. If we had both turned our heads at the same time, we would have kissed.

When he wanted to go to the toilet, he didn’t verbalise his request to let him out, but just touched me on my thigh.

And when we ordered different meals, he wanted to taste some of what I had in exchange for half his beer. He was a refreshing change from the mind-your-own-business, keep-your-hands-to-yourself, culture of cattle-class air travel.

“You have wife?” he asked me.

“No. I’m gay.”

“What that you mean?”

“It means I like men more than women.”

“Men?” He was trying to grasp the concept.

I thought it was strange. He’s lived in New York for threeyears and he had no idea about such things? “Yes,” I clarified. “I am attracted to men, not to women.”

“Why?”

I’m not sure I succeeded in explaining much given his incomplete grasp of English, but he eventually got the bottom line.

“So, you like sex men,” he wanted confirmation.

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Oh, I see.”

Did the realisation end the touchy-feely conversation? Not at all. It made not an iota of difference. He tapped my shoulder when he wanted to point something out across the cabin. His cheek strayed close to mine (again) when he wanted to find out what movie I was watching, and there was even a moment when a hand wedged itself under my buttock as it searched for half a seatbelt.

“When you spend such a long time in New York – three years – how do you get sex?” I asked him. I didn’t think he’d mind the question, given that he wasn’t the mind-your-own-business type.

True enough, he didn’t. “No sex. Three years no sex,” he replied without hesitation, “Just sex myself. Buy DVD. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, of course.”

“The girls in New York have HIV, have drugs. No good.”

Moral of the story: If governments want to limit the spread of HIV, legalise porn and encourage its distribution.

* * * * *

Heathrow's new Terminal 5 on a wintry dawn

We landed at Heathrow Airport at 6:03 a.m. The airport was far from busy and there was no one in the men’s toilet except a Hispanic-looking guy who had been on the same flight.

There were four urinals: he used the first and I used the fourth. He used his left hand, the hand farther from me, to hold his cock so that his equipment was on full display for me. Then he virtually danced to drip off his pee, and the kinetics got my attention.

He finished before me, washing his hands very briefly before drying them in a hot-air dryer. By then I too was washing my hands. But after his hands were dry, he didn’t leave the toilet. He stood very close to a vending machine looking at the choices it offered, which included condoms.

I was being cruised! At Heathrow.

I don’t know why I was surprised though. Wasn’t the celebrated Senator Larry Craig caught cruising last year in a toilet stall in Minneapolis/St Paul airport?

Very quickly, that toilet became a must-see attraction. Many guys would make a pilgrimage, sit on the infamous bowl with legs wide apart and feet tapping under the partitions, and have their friends take pictures of them.

I’m however told that the restroom has since been completely remodelled. Silly that. Authentic tourist attractions are had to come by. You cannot create them on command; just ask the Singapore Tourism Board. When one falls into your lap, perserve it!

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