Heathrow circa 2002 (or The Power of a Word)
I had navigated the long and confusing walkways at London’s Heathrow airport, arriving finally at the security checkpoint which would lead me to my gate.
There were two lines, and I was waved into the one on the right by one of the security staff. I heaved up my black Hartmann Studio roller bag, my trusted business travel companion, onto the conveyor belt and watched it slowly get swallowed by the x-ray apparatus.
I walked through the gray metal detector and waiting for my bag on the other side. Then one of the security guards beckoned me to the side and said "May I see your passport, please?" I handed it to him, and he walked away with it. I did not know where he went, except for the general direction.
I stood with my bag, watching several other passengers go through the metal detector, collect their bags and walk away to their gates. As they left, one after the other, I remained standing there with my bag. After more time had passed, I said to another security guard, "More than 10 minutes have passed since my passport was taken from me and I'm getting very nervous. Where did the man who took it go?" The guard replied "Ma’am, he went to the office where they're checking it." "May I go there?" I asked, "It makes me anxious to not know where my passport is." "Let me find out ma'am," the guard said and walked away.
Minutes later, a very pale Englishman, about 5'5" with receding gray hair, a short-sleeved white shirt, a blue striped tie and black pants came up to me. He was holding my passport. I was immensely relieved to see it. "Is this your passport?" He asked. "Yes it is," I replied. He opened it to the second page bearing my photograph and signature. My Indian passport had a layer of plastic laminating that page. The laminate, as my luck would have it, was detaching at the corners giving the page a worn, dog-eared look. I had observed this earlier and had lamented the poor design and quality of work that resulted in this.
"The laminate seems to have come off, and I'm not certain that it hasn't been tampered with," the passport-checker stated. This was worrisome. "Look," I said, "the passport was issued to me by the Indian consulate in San Francisco. It seems to be some cheap laminate. I cannot be held responsible for the poor quality of their work." "Ma’am," he persisted, his eyes very serious, "I can't be sure that the information on this page is the original information, as it could have been replaced after peeling off the cover."
This was a very serious insinuation, and my heart sank. An international traveler whose travel documents are being questioned is in deep trouble. This could go wrong very quickly. Heaven knows what British security does to people they are suspicious of. I could miss my plane if they insisted on long drawn-out verifications of my identity. I need to find a way to turn the situation around quickly, I thought.
I looked into this man's eyes. They were serious but not hostile. I took a gamble and decided to go on the offensive, courteous, yet firm. "I am aware of the shoddy nature of the lamination," I said, "I had noticed that it was starting to lift off of at the corners." And then I took the plunge. I looked into his eyes just as seriously, with a little bit of steel thrown in. "However, I don't recall that it was quite so detached. If it has come apart more during the course of your inspection, I'd be Very Disappointed." These last two words very measured, the counter-insinuation unmistakable.
This was clearly unexpected. He looked a little shaken, and his previously steady glance became uncertain. I continued to look at him, not wavering. He hesitated a moment, then said "Here's your passport, ma'am," then turned around and walked back in the direction of his office.
I grabbed my bag and dashed to my gate to board my flight home to the United States. In another country, who knows, I might have been held in a detention facility until things were sorted out. God bless the Brits, I thought, marveling at the enormous power of the word "disappointed."