Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
It was the distant past, by current standards. An innocent time, before Oklahoma City and Columbine and the Olympic Park bombing. In fact Bush had only been in office for a few months, and the country--or at least the president--was more concerned with the fact that you could buy crack on the streets of Washington, DC, than with any imminent threat of terrorism.
I was living in Philadelphia at the time and decided--if only because I'd never been there before--to take a weekend trip to the nation's capitol, just to see what was what. So I hopped a train and rode a few hours, only to discover that the "what" in question wasn't very much at all. And when you got away from the Mall and the touristy shit, it was even less. Hardly there at all.
The day we were set to head back to Philly, the woman I was with at the time and I decided to finally go see the Capitol Building. Most everything else in town looked like it had been designed by Albert Speer, but I held out some dim, fading hope for this place.
It was a bright, warm, mid-June day outside when we walked up the Capitol steps and through the heavy doors, only to find ourselves in a line of German and French tourists--a line which lead straight to the metal detector. We had been joking around up until that point, but once I caught sight of the metal detector, I froze, as the line continued to move in front of me.
"What is it?" my companion asked.
"Shit," was all I could whisper, my hands deep in my pockets, my fingernails digging into my palms.
She looked at my face, then down at my hands.
"Oh, you didn't."
I could only nod my head briefly, still staring at the metal detector the line was both pushing and pulling me towards.
"Oh, you idiot."
I turns out I had forgotten to leave my brass knuckles back in the hotel room. Even though I had only been a Boy Scout for three weeks before I was ousted for insubordination, I still tried to be prepared at all times, oftentimes to my own detriment. And sometimes, I just stopped thinking. The line kept drawing us irrevocably towards my doom as we frantically tried to figure out what to do, where to hide them. I had no evil intent, mind you--just wanted to see the damn Capitol building. But I had a police record and an FBI file. A slim one, to be sure, but it was still there. And there was that whole "Michael Dukakis" incident from a year earlier.
We reached the metal detector and I was sweating something fierce. If I bolted and ran at this point, they'd know immediately that I was guilty of something, and they'd hunt me down. I had to play it smooth and easy (which was never one of my fortes)
The woman I was with strolled through the detector without incident. Then it was my turn. I closed my eyes and stepped under the white arch.
Sirens blared and klaxon horns blasted. I was doomed. I froze again, my eyes wild with panic, sweat soaking the back of my shirt.
The fat security guard just said, "Step back through and empty your pockets, please," which I did. With the exception of the knuckles. Oh, I was so very, very doomed. I stepped forward again.
Again with the horns and the sirens. The foreigners behind me were getting impatient.
"Step back through, please," he repeated. I stepped back, and the guard looked me up and down. "Maybe it's your hat," he said. "Take your hat off."
My hat, sure. Yes, it's my hat. The one with the special steel lining. Jesus. By tomorrow morning, my rectum's gonna be ripped to shreds.
I removed my hat and handed it to him, my knuckles still weighing heavy in my pants pocket. Why didn't I just feign illness? Turn and run when I first saw the metal detector? Why was I being so fucking stupid? I closed my eyes, took a breath, and stepped through again. One last time. This was it. After the horns go off this time, they drag you off to the special soundproofed room for the strip search.
But there was nothing. No horns, no buzzers, nothing. I stopped myself from pumping my fist in the air, tried to contain the growing, maniacal smile on my face, and collected my hat and wallet from the security guard.
Way I figure it, this guard looked me up and down, saw that I was an American in a button down shirt, a jacket, pants that weren't torn, a reasonably short haircut--was, in general, a respectable-looking fellow--and just shut the machine off for a second to save himself the trouble of patting me down for no reason while all those foreigners bunched up behind me, getting ornerier and more French.
I slapped my hat back on my head, screwed it on tight, and headed straight into the heart of the American political system.
"Let's go find a congressman and beat the shit out of him," I whispered a little too loudly, my heart still bursting with the thrill of victory.
"I think we should find the first exit and get the hell out of here, before anything else happens" she said. Which is what we did.
Thinking about it now, I'm not quite sure what the point of that story was, except that it's a good story. America was secure then. It's good to remember, now and again, that such times existed. A lot of things were still a long way off. You could trust a clean-shaven fellow with a short haircut. And by God, a man--a citizen--could walk into the United States Capitol Building with an illegal street weapon if he wanted to.