48 Hours!

When I went out to catch the taxi to the airport in Hanoi, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone, which continues to tick off seconds even when the phone is powered down. I hit “stop” when Carole pulled into our driveway in South Colton. Forty-eight hours, two minutes & fifty-three seconds: that’s how long I was in transit. In Hanoi, before being allowed to check my bag, I had to split it into two because it was too heavy. Fortunately, the Vietnamese are prepared for this eventuality & I was able to purchase a zippered plastic bag that, once filled, is wrapped tightly with wide plastic tape using a machine I have seen nowhere else. Okay, so three hours to Singapore, then a six-hour wait for the flight to Frankfurt that continues on to JFK. Had a very good Chinese dumpling (well, two, actually) for dinner & walked around looking at the amazing displays of consumer goods. The whole place is designed to make you feel bad if you don’t buy something, but other than my dumplings, I didn’t buy anything.

Singapore has very careful, though friendly enough, security procedures. The gate area is enclosed & all carry-on bags & documents checked. Once aboard, we taxied out & took off for a nearly twelve-hour flight over Southern & Central Asia & Eastern Europe. Most people try to sleep, but it is a miserable flight. Singapore Airlines is very good about distracting passengers with food, but twelve hours in an economy class airline seat is not much mitigated by even the very good food they serve. The woman in the seat next to mine solved the problem by sipping red wine throughout the flight, keeping, I imagine, just a light buzz of contentment. I listened to music — mostly Dylan & Leonard Cohen, with some Bunk Johnson & Blind Willie McTell mixed in, then shifted over to an audio version of Tristram Shandy I’d downloaded to my Kindle before leaving. Sterne’s novel is structured much like a dream & was the perfect choice: I drifted in & out of sleep for nearly five hours with Peter Barker’s droll voice enacting the scenes of the story in my mental theater. But while the audio version of Tristram runs nearly twenty-four hours, I eventually tired of the drollery with more than half the flight to Frankfurt remaining.

I read, I dozed, I watched the little figure of the airplane crawl across the video map of the world on the seatback in front of me. I tried to meditate but found it impossible. I should have tried harder, given the ordeal that awaited me in Germany. We touched down in the early morning & as we were rolling toward the gate, there was an announcement to the effect that those of us continuing to JFK would reboard the plane at the gate next to the one where we were disembarking. I’ve been on this flight before & this was a new wrinkle — we’d have to clear security again. Everyone is directed down a very long, featureless hallway and along a ramp in which all the doors are closed & guarded. Where the hell are the restrooms? I always thought Germans were fanatical about toilets, but apparently not for airline passengers. We arrive at a security area, get our boarding passes & passports checked, put our bags on the conveyor, walk through the metal detectors . . . & then we’re on our way, right? Well, some of us are, but quite a few of us have our bags slid over onto the far side of the outflow table, where we have to go retrieve them.

In front of me, a beefy female security cop is going through the bag of a middle-aged woman who has had the temerity to smuggle a six ounce jar of some kind of cold cream into her luggage. The cop tells her it is “a violation” & tosses it in the garbage. Now it’s my turn.

“Is this yours?”
“You will have a special check. Please follow my colleague.”

I am led into a little room where another beefy cop, this one male, tells me to take my camera bag out of my backpack, then has me open the bag & take the camera out, which he then swabs for explosives. After he puts his swab in the machine & it comes out negative I am allowed to repack my stuff & go on my way. But no, as I am hiking back out to the gate — still no god damned toilets — everyone on our flight is stopped for another document check, which is badly organized,  mean spirited, & just simply idiotic, since just ahead of me they let a family get back on the airplane even though mom seems to have lost half their boarding passes.

And my trip home was only half over. I spent another hour watching German security cops swagger around the gate area with their pistols on their hips, joking with each other & scowling at everyone waiting to resume their trip to New York. So was their some kind of threat? A piece of luggage without a passenger? Maybe, but I think it much more likely that it was merely arbitrary. As a final insult, it was real easy to log on to the “Free Wifi” in the boarding lounge; unfortunately, the wifi wasn’t connected to the internet.

The rest of the trip was long, but mostly uneventful, with the exception of how well I was treated at JFK by the check-in folks at Jet Blue — remember my heavy bags? — & by the crew on the plane up to Burlington. Everyone was really nice & went out of their way to be helpful. Carole met me in the afternoon, we took the ferry across Lake Champlain, then drove home, where, as I mentioned, I arrived almost exactly forty-eight hours after setting out from my hotel in Hanoi.

Henry Louis Gates Should Sue

That’s the provocative notion of Randy Cohen in the NY Times. I’m not sure whether it would be a good idea politically, but I think Cohen is right to point out that Gates has a legitimate case. My favorite line from the article — the the thing that struck me right from the start of this affair: “There is no law against Contempt of Cop.” Here is the relevant part of Cohen’s  paragraph for context. I think it makes an excellent and important distinction between acting as a private citizen and acting in a professional capacity:

. . . if Gates overreacted, he did so only as an individual, an outburst that might be obnoxious but is not criminal. There is no law against Contempt of Cop. If Crowley overreacted, he erred as a professional, perhaps abusing his office in a manner that is particularly fraught, given the history of African-Americans and the police. That’s what should be examined in court.

I was also heartened to see that the first few comments following Cohen’s piece — I guess this is what the Times calls a blog with comments — supported Cohen’s thesis and saw the situation for what it was, an abuse of power with an added racial dimension. I’m a white guy, also a professor, and I would have acted much like Professor Gates, though, given my own passions, I probably would have called Officer Crowley a fascist. So I was feeling pretty good about my fellow man until I read the comment from “John,” which avers: “Citizens do not have a constitutionally protected right to mouth off to a policeman and hurl personal insults when the officer is just doing his job.” Yes they fucking do, John! That’s pretty much the whole point of this country if you ask me.

Anyway, there are 257 comments as of this writing and I only read the first ten, then skimmed a few more, so I don’t know if the proportions would hold up. At least some of my fellow citizens realize, though, that, as commenter RGP put it,  “A police officer who enters a private residence without a warrant is a guest of the homeowner, and it is not a crime for the homeowner to order him to leave, even in a manner that is vigorous or rude.” It is amazing, scanning down a few more comments, that so many people do not agree with this very basic and very American sentiment. I mean, isn’t that why all those right-wing Second Amendment fanatics are worried about? Being harassed in their homes by the authorities? Funny that the NRA hasn’t spoken up about Officer Crowley’s behavior. What if Professor Gates had had a weapon? Would he have been entitled to use it to put a stop to Officer Crowley’s obvious trespass? Well, nobody every accused the American right of being consistent.

Returning briefly to the private versus professional distinction Cohen makes in his piece, we could note that Professor Gates should be held to a professional standard on campus and in the classroom and within the scholarly community, just as Officer Crowley should be held to a professional standard while engaged in police work. When either of them are off duty, as it were, they have the rights of private citizens and within the context of American democracy, ought to assert them. That’s just being a good American, doing your job correctly and sticking up for yourself.

Note: Bob Herbert has the numbers — and the right response to those who would tell the wrongly arrested to just chill out, man.