Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Profile of a White Woman

Thanks to the Underwear Bomber, profiling is back in fashion. Which reminds me.

Seattle 1999. I’m living very cheaply with two fantastic roommates and have just finished up a work project. I have time. I have money. Which means one thing.


I call a friend in Brighton to ask if she'd mind a visitor. She warns that if I come now, she won’t be at home for part of my visit - something about driving a bus from Paris to Baghdad to attend a women’s conference. Typical Alex. “But do come anyway,” she reassures me adding that I can always day-trip to London.

Except for the fact that it's winter, a trip to the British coast sounds lovely. And London! Parliament. Tower of London. Seeing "The Mousetrap," the long-running play by Agatha Christie, in London's West End. I'm a sucker for a British mystery.

I buy my ticket the same day.

Now, the recent cross-country trip that landed me in Seattle was a heavy one. Not only was my travel partner a drag, but I also carried with me nearly all my possessions. Photo albums and Chinese texts included.

This trip is going to be light. No luggage. I'll simply wear several mix-and-match layers. One small backpack will hold toiletries and underwear. (Contrary to what the Underwear Bomber says, you shouldn’t layer underwear.)

I approach the U.S. Customs agent at the airport all smiles and excitement. With passport and carry-on in hand, I expect to breeze through.

But a small problem arises. The several shirts I'm wearing are now bunching up in my armpits causing me to pick at them a bit.

The agent looks at me fidgeting and asks for my passport. He flips through and notices the collection of visa and exit stamps from different countries.

Agent: “You travel a lot.

Me: “Yes. I do love to travel.”

I pull at Layer #3 that's riding up my back.

Agent: “Where do you live currently?”

Me: “Seattle.”

I sing-song “Seattle” in Chinese "Xi-Ya-Tu." He's unimpressed.

Agent: “And where do you work?”

Me: “Well, I’m sort of in between jobs.”

I finger-quote the air when I say “in between.”

Agent: “So, you’re unemployed.”

Me: “Well, I wouldn't put it that way exactly.”

Agent: “And how did you purchase your ticket?"

Me: “With cash of course.”

I begin to explain my distrust of the credit card system, but he interrupts.

Agent: “When did you buy your ticket?”

Me: “A couple days ago.”

Agent: “A couple of days ago?”

Me: “Yes. I just called my friend and she said she’d love to see me. Well. Actually, she won’t be there for my entire visit. See, she’s going to be driving this bus through Iraq ... well, that's a different story ... but the point is ...”

I stop talking as he scribbles furiously in his notebook. The agent seems very interested in my story and wants to share it with his female colleague who joins us at the counter.

Agent: “So, you don’t have a job but at the last minute you bought a ticket to London with cash. Is that what you’re telling me?”

Me: “Yes, sir. Guilty as charged.”

He stares at me. I clear my throat.

Agent: “And what luggage are you bringing in with you?”

Me: “Just this small backpack.”

Marveling at my own resourcefulness that I had packed everything for a 7-day visit in a very small backpack, I smile from ear to ear.

He’s not.

Agent: “Would you please step inside the room behind me and place your backpack on the table.”

What is going on? Does he want packing tips? I really don’t have time for this. It isn’t until I’m asked to remove my bulky wool sweater revealing an embarrassing array of shirt collars that I began to feel guilty. Although for what, I haven't a clue. I'm just glad to shed some layers.

Through the glass walls I watch my fellow travelers moving unimpeded to their destinations, while I answer all the questions over again and watch in awe at just how detailed a search of a small backpack can be. (Hmph. I didn’t even know it had a secret pocket.)

After the female agent finds nothing in my bag or on my person, I ask what’s going on.

“You fit the classic profile of a drug mule,” she says matter-of-factly.

"A 'drugmule'?" I ask genuinely perplexed.

"Someone who carries drugs across borders for someone else," she explains now sounding a bit too condescending for my liking.

Me? Really? With my looks, all tall, thin, angular, pale with glasses and frizzy hair, I’m usually profiled as a liberal-vegetarian-PBS-watching kindergarten teacher. But a drug mule? Drug mules sound dangerous. Edgy. And look like Chrissy Hynde.

I divulge that I once declined an offer to carry perfume samples from Paris to Hong Kong and ask if that is considered "muling" as well. They seem incredulous that I would offer such information and tell me I'm free to go.

I sincerely thank the agents who, for the first time, seem caught off guard.