Lisbon. The adventure begins. It was a six-hour flight from Newark, which left early, at 6p.m., so that we could start the day when everyone was beyond ready to go to sleep, at midnight Newark time. I caught maybe an hour of sleep. The flight was uneventful, if we can say it is a non-event that the audio system on the in-flight entertainment did not produce sound, and that the in-flight meal consisted of a slab of Tillamook cheese (from Oregon!), a filet of fish that had probably once been canned before being breaded and pressed into service, and broccoli that, surely as a precaution against terrorism, had been bludgeoned, boiled for eight hours, and electrocuted on its way to my plate. At the Lisbon airport, I was two-and-a-half hours early for my flight to Bilbao, though in the end I barely made it on time.
This was because the airport authorities of Lisbon (I think we may safely refer to them as Lisboners) had contrived to herd over 400 people into the passport control line, where the heat and stench and shuffling of mammals resembled nothing so much as a corral of cattle on the way to the abbatoir. There were people in the line, and I may have been one of them, who had not, on all the evidence, showered since 1987. (Most of them seemed to be clustered around me, come to think of it). The line led to 10 booths for passport control personnel, of which seven were productively occupied. (An iPod proved a boon against the long trudge around the ropes.)
Two hours after I stepped into the line, I was pleased to be reminded why we had to endure it: the tough grilling by alert passport controllers, ever on the lookout for terrorists. Why are you here? Who do you know in the country? Where will you be staying? Are you sweating? How much cash do you have? Do you agree that America sucks? I took a deep breath.
“You came in from Newark?” the uniformed passport controller said to me.
“Yes,” I said, and to speed things up, added, “and going to Bilbao.”
He grunted and stamped my passport, then jerked his head to indicate I should walk on. It was, I had to confess, a brilliant display.
You may be saying to yourself, But a computer with an electronic stamper, or even a monkey, could have asked if I had come from Newark! But here’s the thing: a computer could not have listened to my potentially terrorist-revealing response, and a monkey would not have understood it. That’s why being herded behind ropes with 399 people at 6a.m. to be asked the hard questions is so crucial to protect us from those who hate our freedom.