Items Taken at Airports

If the TSA ridiculousness has spawned anything useful, perhaps it’s a cottage industry of sharps recyclers. No official tonnage reports, yet, on how many clippers, Leatherman tools and X-Acto knives have been snatched, but apparently it’s enough to justify a new government contract to dispose of the stuff. Last month TSA announced it would pay $2 million to a Virginia firm, Science Applications International Corporation, to cart away confiscated items at scores of airports. Whether this money will come from TSA’s $75 million “research budget” is not made clear.

Meanwhile, I shouldn’t have been so flip about suggesting the seized material be turned into sculpture. At least one artist is already in line with my thinking.

TSA hands over concourse contraband to each state’s surplus property division. From there it meets an assortment of fates. “Our interest is preventing deadly and dangerous items from getting on the plane,” said TSA spokesman Chris Rhatigan in a September copy of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “We’re not concerned with what the states do with it.” (Imagine that kind of resolve toward something actually worthwhile? Of course, picking scissors from people’s pockets is immensely easier, and more emotionally placating, than actual anti-terror intelligence gathering.)

Some states have decided to donate vast quantities of the booty. Check out these online photos of a Goodwill store in Sacramento. One has to wonder if Wenger, makers of the Swiss Army line of products, aren’t peeved that TSA’s silly rules are driving down the price of their knives and pocket tools.

Eager to recoup costs, other states, including Oregon and Kentucky, are taking less charitable route. Any guesses to where they’ve turned? If that corner drawer in the kitchen is running short on miscellaneous metallic doo-dads, or if for posterity you’d like to own some tangible fragments of American lunacy in 2003, look no further than our nation’s favorite receptacle of cultural detritus. Yes I’m talking about eBay. Where else to find heaps of useless personal hand-me-downs but our favorite four-letter forum of electronic voyeurism? Several airports have uploaded their catches of “weapons” for your online bidding pleasure.

If eBay is good at one thing, it’s turning every conceivable shape, size and color of crap into a catalog of virtual Americana. How I wasted my time — and $75 — driving up the price of the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and that rare collection of Stephen Dobyns poems, when for the same money I could’ve had a pile of bottle openers and miniature screwdrivers.

Or else I’m just jealous. If eBay’s existence troubles me, it gets back to a lousy decision I made one rainy night almost 18 years ago. Sometimes I imagine how many bags of ramen — even the expensive kind — I could buy today if only I hadn’t thrown away the contents of a metal footlocker in 1985. Inside that locker were about a hundred pounds of airline memorabilia that my friends and I had collected during our weekend forays to Logan International Airport in the mid and late 1970s. Virtually anything emblazoned with an airline logo was snagged and hoarded: timetables, booklets, luggage stickers, silverware, pins, pens, inflight magazines, barf bags, playing cards, boarding pass wallets.

How, precisely, we accumulated these items is worth mentioning. We’d come to know Logan with as much intimacy as we knew our own homes. We sauntered through metal detectors, rode carousels through the baggage rooms, memorized the codes to locked doors, rummaged through ticket kiosks and easily talked our way onto jetliners. This in the 1970s, in many ways the Golden Age of Hijacking. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Looking back, do I feel airport security was dysfunctional, begging for acts of sabotage or terror? No, not really. In essence it’s no different than today. If somebody is intent enough on committing a dastardly deed, they’ll figure out a way.

We’d also written to airline offices the world over, and received huge packets of promo materials — books, posters, plastic models and even t-shirts.

All gone. I remember the moment in ’85, in my old bedroom at my parent’s house. I was listening to Billy Bragg’s melancholy “Between the Wars,” as I made my melancholy decision to pour the entire stock into a garbage can. (My interests and infatuations never seemed to migrate or evolve. They tended to be stopped cold, all at once, in some terrible defining moment typically of my own making.) The locker — a silver metal chest about the size of a large suitcase, still exists in my parent’s attic in Revere, Massachusetts. It’s covered with luggage stickers from Braniff, Eastern, and North Central. It goes BWWWOOONG when you bang on it. Because it’s empty.

The only thing saved was a large stack of airliner postcards, a collection I still own and have lately begun adding to. Their portability, if nothing else, inspired me to stash them away. Years ago most airlines published and distributed postcards showcasing photos of their aircraft. I’ve got about 500 in all, from Aeroflot to Air Zimbabwe, some of which, according to where else, are worth $20 or $30 apiece.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.