Flying to Fairbanks, Alaska was a huge deal for me. High-maintenance, anxiety-prone Xannie on a plane, alone? Bad combo. I had—still have, to some extent—a fear of flying; turbulence, back then, was enough to trigger a full-on panic attack. Add to that the fact that I hadn’t flown in years, and that this would be the first time I flew alone, and well, needless to say, I was a nervous wreck.
Standing in line at the TSA checkpoint around 8:00 AM on Monday, March 21, 2016, I couldn’t stop fidgeting. I just about picked my fingernails clean off. I was so focused on the upcoming flight, in fact, that I forgot to worry about the fact that I had weed in my carry-on.
Those were the days when I couldn’t do anything without weed. It was my teddy bear; it had to go with me wherever I went. The night prior, I had unwrapped a fresh pack of American Spirit cigarettes, removed ten of them, dumped their contents into a dish, and then carefully repacked each one two-thirds of the way with freshly-ground marijuana and the rest with tobacco. Once they were back inside the pack of cigarettes with all twenty little butts full-mooning the observer, you couldn’t tell them apart. I was very proud of myself.
I made it through TSA without trouble, at first. I was sitting on a bench at the end of the conveyor belts and security scanners, lacing my shoes back up, when I heard a deep voice bellow, “WHOSE BAG IS THIS?!?”
A TSA agent was standing on a bench as if he were Mufasa on Pride Rock, brandishing a canvas, Whole Foods shopping bag above his head as if it were the Royal Son.
That’s my bag, I thought dreamily. And then I frowned as the thought kicked in. Of course—my Whole Foods bag, my grocery bag; it contained the food off of which I planned to live for my entire trip. It contained the cigarette pack.
“It’s mine,” I said shakily.
The TSA agent whipped around, eyes wildly scanning the crowd for the speaker. I raised my hand. Our eyes met, and he hopped down from the bench, motioning for me to follow him as he made his way to a secondary scanning area. I felt my stomach leap into my throat as I helplessly obeyed. This is it, I thought; I’m done for. I’m going to jail.
The agent calmly placed my bag onto the conveyor belt and let it glide into the scanner. I stood beside him, watching the screen as strips of an image were coughed out at a rate akin to geologic time. The agent drummed his fingers on the side of the scanner impatiently and I began to feel like a criminal waiting for the executioner to find the right key to the gas chamber. He cleared his throat and shot a glance in my direction. I met his eyes, hoping I looked like some cherubic child, upon which he might take mercy once he saw the horrible thing I’d done.
I guess I did something right because he smiled at me. “Just standard procedure,” he said. “They saw something funky in their scan, so, I have to scan it a second time. No big deal; I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Absolutely nothing, my brain chimed.
The image finally loaded, and I studied the agent’s face while he scrutinized the contents of my grocery bag.
“Now, what in the hell is that?” he asked, jabbing his finger at the screen.
I shuffled a little closer, gulping down my pounding heart. He was pointing at a large rectangular object in the middle of the image. The scanner had colored it dark blue. I studied it, trying to determine whether it was too large to be the cigarette pack, but I struggled to focus—the agent was now studying my face, with such intensity that I thought my face would melt.
“What is it?” he barked.
“I-I-I-I don’t know!” I blurted.
Before I could say or do anything else, he wrenched the grocery bag out of the scanner and began rifling through it with both hands. After a moment, he paused, frowning into the depths of the bag, and then his face went slack.
My blood ran cold.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he said, and a smile cracked across his face.
Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh—
He retracted his arm and presented a Costco-sized bottle of Skippy peanut butter, still smiling.
I stood there with my face quivering as I tried to wrap my head around what I was looking at. When I first saw it, the Skippy label had temporarily been the American Spirit label, but when I blinked, it was, truly, just peanut butter. Just a gigantic bottle of peanut butter from my trip to Costco with Mountain Man last week.
I became aware that my mouth had been hanging open, so I snapped it closed, slapping a hand over my mouth in embarrassment. I couldn’t help it—a giggle escaped, and then I was cracking up, almost crying. When I finally managed to look at the TSA agent again, his smile had faded to a sort of grimace, laced with confusion at my reaction. I realized I needed to pull myself together, or he’d take another look in that bag.
“You can’t have this on the plane,” he said matter-of-factly.
“You can’t take this on the—”
“It’s just peanut butter.” I frowned. “It’s not even a glass container.”
“I know,” he said, and I sensed a twinge of sorrow in his voice, “but our machine thinks it’s liquid, and liquids aren’t allowed.”
“It’s literally not even open,” I said, my frown deepening in annoyance. “Unscrew the lid and you’ll see—it still has the foil over it.”
He looked at the jar—he actually thought about it for a second—but then he shook his head quickly and held it out to me. “No, I’m sorry, ma’am. You’ll have to either eat it or throw it out.”
As I took the jar from him, I gave him an incredulous look. “Eat…it?”
“Sorry, I meant throw it out,” he said, waving his hand as if clearing the air of a particularly raunchy, lingering fart.
I snorted, too annoyed to laugh at his stupidity. “Cool.” I snatched my bag off the counter by the scanner and stomped over to where I’d left the rest of my belongings—I hadn’t even finished lacing up my shoes—and plopped down on the bench.
I was about to chuck the peanut butter into a nearby trash bin when a moment of genius struck me. Back on the other side of the TSA checkpoint, I’d passed an airport-exclusive Chinese restaurant. There’d been a dude behind the counter, opening up shop, preparing his “kitchen” for the day; as I’d walked past, I’d noticed some of those tiny, plastic containers—the ones you’d fill with your choice of sauce if you’re taking your meal to go—and beside them, most importantly, a stack of lids.
I realized that I couldn’t throw the peanut butter away. It was the main source of protein I’d planned for the trip—I didn’t have anything else, except for a few Powerbars. I needed that peanut butter, for survival!
There was a TSA agent reorganizing the shoe bins next to me. “Excuse me,” I said.
She looked up.
“If I were to…” I trailed off for a moment, looking at my peanut butter and trying to determine how best to lay out my plan for this unsuspecting woman—“If I divided this jar of peanut butter into smaller, one-milliliter containers, would it set off the alarm on the machine?” I asked, pointing towards the scanners.
She studied me for a second. I could tell she thought I was totally nuts, and yes, that pun was 100% intended. “It should be fine,” she said hesitantly.
“Okay, great,” I said. “How do I get back to the other side of TSA?”
She let me through a gate and I, with all of my belongings dangling from my extremities and jostling about, ran back to the Chinese restaurant. I asked the man if I could have some, ten? Fifteen? of his plastic containers and a spoon. He was perplexed, but he allowed it, so I sat at his bar, spooning chunky peanut butter into those plastic containers while he, and number of passersby, looked on with unabated interest.
The second time’s the charm, right? I almost missed my flight, but I made it through TSA without a problem after I’d scooped the peanut butter into all those plastic containers. And, what do you know? I was so giddy about how strange the morning had been so far that I was no longer anxious about the plane ride.