Land of the Free
A condensed look at the neoliberal horrors that reared their ugly heads in 2019, spawned earlier, or may be waiting just around the corner. Enjoy?
I park outside the airport in my Udrive, only nine hours before my flight to Miami. I’ve been putting it off for too long, but now I have to go. I take my bag off the passenger seat and step out into a sticky Chicago morning, the sun shining hot through the brown-blue sky. The reassuring screams of planes in take-off cuts through the din of car horns and road rage. I love the airport.
The next Udriver is waiting at the curb. I toss him the car keys, and stroll through automatic doors into the chicken-scented bustle of DJ Khaled Presents: KFC International Airport. Smells like freedom. I don’t know why the president had to put his name on everything, but at least things are back to normal now a Democrat’s in office.
The Colonel watches over the entrance hall, massive eyes seeing all, the black pupils glinting with a hundred facial recognition cameras, his pointy white beard a fine mesh of microphones recording all audio for traces of insurgency and food brought in from outside.
Mine was a cheap flight — I could have finished paying it off with only six hours’ work at the airport, but I decided to do a full shift. Give myself an extra couple of hours to bank for credit, or maybe splash out for a bag of pretzels and some in-flight wifi. They pay better the more experience you bring, and at this point I’m practically a Facebook-Delta veteran.
I skip the long lines waiting to check luggage, the human centipede folded in on itself a dozen times, corralled by horizontal stretches of seatbelt — the thin black line between order and chaos. Where your average traveler drags a mound of bags behind them like a climate refugee, I’ve got my packing down to a fine art. One carry-on bag, clothes rolled up tight as a cop’s fist. All my toiletries are travel-sized; I buy in bulk and sell them individual on Alibabazon. 300% mark-up. Minty-fresh breath that pays for itself.
I whistle past the check-in lines, duffel bag over one shoulder and a spring in my step. It’s all an act, of course, and one that even I can’t keep up when I reach security. People stand with shoulders hunched and eyes downcast. I swallow hard and join the whitest of the lines. It’s also the longest, but it should at least move fast.
At the head of the line, TSA workers stand in the gaps between an exhibition of security scanners — x-ray, full-body, biometric, electromagnetic, Geiger, positron emission tomography, and a social media flayer. The guy in front of me is tall and lanky, but not basketball-tall, despite his attire. He wears a Chicago-Squarespace Bulls singlet and shorts, and an over-sized jacket of bright red faux fur, looking like he skinned a mascot for its pelt. It’s only when he’s filled four trays with his jacket, backpack, wallet, three phones, breathing mask (tagged with biometric data, tablet, laptop, and twentieth-anniversary gold Tamagotchi that I realize he hasn’t taken off his Nike-Tik Tok Air Force Ones. Fucking amateur.
I’ve got too much self-respect to wear elasticized pants to the airport, but I keep my waist to a slim thirty-two inches, trousers perfectly sized so I don’t need a belt. My loafers slip on and off so easily that anytime I wear them out of the house I feel like I’m cheating somehow. I put the shoes into a tray beside my phone and wallet, wait painstaking minutes for Mascot’s caravan of tchotchkes to make it onto the conveyor belt, and add mine to the long snake of plastic tubs.
Mascot doesn’t even reach the full-body scanner before security staff drag him away by the arm. He doesn’t protest, just nods again and again, his head dropping further each time.
I pass through the scanner and smile to the TSA agent on the other side. “Thank you for your service,” I tell her.
She grunts and doesn’t deign to look at me.
I join the line at the “safe” end of the conveyor belt and wait for my things. A TSA worker comes through the employee-only door, mouth set in a wide grin — just starting his shift. He banters with the other employees, swapping greets, high fives and fist bumps as he makes his way to the belt. I can’t help but smile as I watch him, his energy infectious. He stops in front of the conveyor, and as he turns to look at me his face drops into a sneer.
“Fuck you looking at?” he barks.
“This your bag?” he asks, already zipping it open with long, nimble fingers. He pulls out my clothes, scattering them across the aluminum table at his right. He inspects each item, then dumps them into and on top of my bag before sliding the whole messy pile over to me without another word; just a glare to let me know how much he hates me.
I reroll my clothing and repack my bag, the motions calming as app-guided meditation.
“Thank you for your service,” I say again, but this time my heart’s not in it.
I hold my breath as I walk past the cages, emblazoned with signs proclaiming Your borders proudly defended by Raytheon-Disney. The cages always reek, either with the animal smells of piss and shit, or, if you’re lucky, the sweet, cloying scent of antibacterial spray. Yellow-stained coloring books line the floor of the kids’ cage, bright pencils smeared and blotchy, like watercolours of the criminally insane. The fresh arrivals try and entertain themselves, the rest sit catatonic. A six year-old boy looks at me with desperate eyes, and all I can do is shrug. Blame your parents, buddy. There are legal ways to get into America, but they chose to put you in this cage.
The adults cry and wail, pausing only when a TSA agent bashes the cage with her night stick. I clear security and make it into the terminal proper. I suck in a lungful of eleven herbs and spices piped through the airport’s AC, and follow the signs to the Facebook-Delta contractor office.
I scan my boarding pass and the door slides open with a hiss. Relaxing sounds of pan pipes and a babbling brook play from the ceiling, but every worker planted in front of a terminal has headphones in — one ear plugged with music or podcasts, the other with audio from their Facebook moderation queue. I nod to the floor manager, wearing a deep purple tie and a grimace, and find a seat halfway along the production line. My weight in the seat brings the terminal to life and the queue populates with questionable content.
The algorithm likes to mix it up to keep you on your toes — possible hate speech, tentative child porn, then a video that sure sounds like drowning puppies though the picture is too blurry to say for certain, followed by some good ol’ fashioned scat play. I still can’t believe people used to complain about this work. Mom sent me to work at Taco Bell when I was twelve. I burnt my hands on the fryer a dozen times, but I never complained. That job taught me valuable life lessons. Here you get a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned office. It’s cushy.
After walking past the illegals in those cages I’m just glad I don’t have to smell the shit when I mark the scat videos for takedown.
Time passes quickly as I listen to the latest episode of Washington Post-Pod Save America, but then a noise distracts me from another synagogue mass shooting (flagged by the algorithm of the estate of Taylor Swift for copyright violation due to the shooter’s chosen soundtrack). I pull both headphones out and spot Grimace stalking down the aisle.
“We’ve got an incident at Terminal 3 food court,” he announces. “Who’s cleared for security work?”
That’s my terminal. I’ll get paid to walk to my gate. “What are they paying?” I ask.
I can do triple. Triple means it’s probably just small arms fire, or maybe a disgruntled passenger-worker with a grenade smuggled up his ass.
“I’ll do it,” I say. Just don’t make me pull the pin.
The uniform is still damp from the last security temp, but at least it’s only sweat. Get a uniform at the end of the day, and there’s no telling how many first-timers pissed their (now your) pants.
An old TSA agent with white hair and a gut sagging over his belt gives us our briefing as he leads me and two other security contractors down a warren of corridors behind the clean façade of the airport.
“ — insurgents have locked down the food court, and good people are going hungry.”
“What do they want, Chief?” my squadmate with the patchy mono-brow asks.
“No demands. The attack is in solidarity with the strikers at McDonald’s Headquarters.”
I must make a noise, because Chief stops to look at me, eyes almost hidden behind his suspicious squint. “What did you say, friend?”
“Nothing, sir. It’s just the youth these days — no idea how good they’ve got it, always demanding more.”
“Damn straight,” he says, nodding, eyes returning from their sunken hiding place. “You’re going to approach the food court from the north and act as a diversion while SWAT prepares to blow the window and come in behind the insurgents. We clear?”
The three of us nod, and Chief unlocks a cabinet stocked with tactical gear. Triple rate means submachine guns with rubber bullets and a ballistic shield. I sling my duffel over one shoulder and take the tactical load-out. The other squad member takes his gingerly, as though worried the gun might bite.
“You can leave your bag here,” Chief tells me; “ain’t nobody gonna steal it.”
“My gate is right near the food court.”
Chief nods. “Alright. Git her done and maybe we’ll see about priority boarding.”
He cracks open the door and bright light bursts through the widening gap. I blink behind my goggles. Gunfire and screams echo off the high ceilings and Chief scratches his belly.
“My shift’s about over, but you’ll be fine.” He turns and walks away.
There’s a small window in the ballistic shield, perfectly sized for my Pax-Apple iPhone in its milspec case. I switch it to video and start livestreaming straight to Facebook — with any luck I’ll see some action, end up getting flagged for moderation and feed back into the system. My personal assistant algorithm contacts news outlets on the fly, offering exclusive access to the highest bidder.
Mono-brow and Ginger charge ahead and I follow, loafers squeaking over the polished floor.
We have the insurgents pinned down inside the Jamba-GOOP, their guns appearing over the counter at odd intervals, firing wild rounds to keep us back.
Ginger is crying and praying beneath his breath, flinching each time a gunshot reverberates through the space — he must have been home-schooled.
We only had the one mass-shooting while I was at school. During an active shooter drill, one of the school guards snapped and stalked the corridors with his personal Hello Kitty-branded AR-15. I still wonder if any of his victims realized, too late, that it wasn’t part of the drill, or if they died oblivious. How many people thought the gaudy assault rifle was just another curveball thrown by the principal to keep the weekly drills fresh?
Fifty-six dead children might sound like a lot, but it’s a small price to pay for the freedom of that guard to own that bright pink gun.
I slap Ginger on the shoulder and he grits his teeth before firing a volley of rubber bullets in the vague direction of the juiceporium. Mono-brow must be a preferred contractor, because he pulls a tear gas grenade from his belt and winks at me as he pulls the pin. He tosses the grenade in a clean arc and it hits a blender, the glass shattering sharp before yellowish smoke pours from the canister smelling like Hot Wings on steroids. The insurgents start coughing and shooting, bursts of light flaring within the man-made cloud.
Another crack, louder this time, and I turn my shield-camera just in time to watch SWAT smash through the floor-to-ceiling window. I move closer, crouched low behind my shield, checking the angles on my video as the professionals move in.
Now the news channels start fighting over my feed, offers climbing as the brave men and women of the SWAT team dish out swift extrajudicial justice. This flight has more than paid for itself now. God-damn I love the airport.
When the police finish putting their tape up around Jamba-GOOP, I take off my goggles and helmet, and strip out of the tactical uniform.
I tap Mono-brow on the shoulder. “Hey, mind taking this stuff back for me?”
“You don’t want to come get a beer? We go with the officers and we’ll drink for free,” he says, a spark of mischief in his eyes.
“Nah, gotta catch my flight; visiting my Mom in hospital.”
Mono-brow’s face shifts to a mask of concern. “Sorry to hear that. Hope she gets well soon.”
I nod thanks, grab my bag, and head for the gate.
Mono-brow was just being friendly, so I don’t tell him the truth: she won’t get better. The doctors have tried all sorts of things, but now I have to say goodbye and pull the plug.
Mom will understand. She’s the one who taught me the value of hard work, and she hasn’t worked for years. Healthcare ain’t cheap y’know, and this is the land of the free, not the land of the freely given.
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