Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
TSA

TSA

  • 0

the airport, United's hub in Terminal C. He parked his cart near the checkpoint, unlocked a metal cabinet and pulled out a container filled with grooming and cleaning products, such as shaving cream, hairspray and a giant can of Lysol. He dumped the flammable items in one bin and the non-fiery substances (Vaseline, sunblock) in another.

Before plunging into a second receptacle, Markasyan paused for a wardrobe change. He slipped off the blue plastic gloves and replaced them with a pair made of Kevlar. The protective gear is essential; he once cut his hand on a blender blade. Yes, he received stitches, and yes, people really do travel with blenders. A lot of people.

The bin resembled a kitchen drawer messy with steak knives, cake cutters, screwdrivers, scissors, corkscrews and a railroad spike. Markasyan tossed the metal jumble into an empty box, creating a loud racket that sounded like the Tin Man falling out of bed.

In addition to the obviously unacceptable items, the TSA also rules out objects that appear benign but harbor a dark streak. For example, air pumps and barbells can be used as bludgeoning instruments; wiry contraptions that evoke bombs and weapon-shaped novelty items, such as water pistols and iPhone cases with brass knuckle handles, could create hysteria.

"We don't allow replicas because they could cause a panic," said Lisa Farbstein, an agency spokesperson.

Markasyan tossed a plastic bow and a toy gun longer than a child's arm into the expanding stash.

Before pushing off to the next checkpoint, he had one more load to gather: lost and found.

People are forgetful, especially when juggling multiple bags and scrambling for their flight. They leave behind all sorts of odds and ends, including dentures, a single shoe and sleeping aids. The most common orphans are cellphones, laptops, keys, IDs and belts.

"We have so many belts, we could give away a belt as a token of appreciation," said Ofelia Ruiz, the agency's customer support manager. "And glasses, glasses, glasses, glasses."

Officers inventory every discovery, even the tiniest hairpin.

"The simplest thing could mean the world to the passenger," Ruiz said.

The morning's list of finds demonstrated this position: a black Hugo Boss belt, a silver tiara, glasses with a missing lens, a dog license and a smartphone that started to ring.

"Your customer lost his phone," Ruiz explained to the voice on the other end, calling from Israel. "When he picks up his rental, let him know that he left it at TSA security. Thank you. Shalom."

After three checkpoints, Markasyan's pace slowed as he strained against the growing poundage on the cart. He performed an unofficial weigh-in, estimating about 40 pounds of aerosols, 50 pounds of liquids and 70 pounds of "prohibs."

He had seven more pickups to go.

TSA wants to clear up a few misunderstandings.

First, the agency does not "confiscate" banned goods; the passenger "surrenders" them. Second, giving up the goods isn't the only option. For instance, you can return to the airline's ticketing counter and check them, run them back to your car, or hand them off to a friend who is not traveling. Some airports also have a mail service so that you can be reunited with your belongings at home. When the passenger doesn't have the time or willpower to do any of the above, however, the only choice is to relinquish the item non grata.

Another monster misconception: Many people assume that the officers keep the items. Not true.

The liquid and aerosol substances are destroyed, for instance. At Newark, they are stored in a small shed surrounded by tall reeds and sparse trees. Inside, several blue canisters hold the materials, which the employee separates by type (explosive, flammable gas, etc.). A contractor eventually hauls it away.

After completing his rounds at the airport, I followed Markasyan to the disposal station. He barely glanced down as he chucked the stuff.

I silently shed a tear for three bottles of Ron Barcelo rum that would never see a cocktail glass or summer sunset.

The remaining goods in his car continued onward, to the agency's office adjacent to the Keane University campus. The staff fills empty boxes with 50 pounds of prohibs and stacks them on shelves and any available floor space. Larger, longer items, such as golf clubs and bats, are arrayed like a bouquet of thick stems.

Every three or four months, a truck carts off the loads and heads west to Harrisburg. Lost items valued at less than $500 are also in the mix. (The agency holds them for 30 days before shipping them out.)

The 18-wheeler was scheduled to arrive the following day. I regarded the assorted sealed cartons and suddenly heard a siren's voice calling out, "Open me." I obliged.

Farbstein cut open a taped box marked 12/28. "It's a sickle," she exclaimed, grabbing the crescent-shape tool from the top layer. "I have to take a picture of this!"

(Farbstein contributes photos to the agency's Twitter and Instagram accounts. Some highlights include a green comb with a concealed blade and a gun sewn into a teddy bear.)

I fished out a Hobbit letter opener still in its packaging, a half-dozen Leathermans, a bag of dirty nails and a cleaver. Farbstein grabbed the hatchet for a portrait.

When I unearthed a pillbox in the form of a replica gun cylinder, instinct told me to unscrew the top and bottom sections. I noticed a dusting of herb-green flakes.

"I found pot!" I declared with pride.

A TSA officer sniffed a confirmation.

Several major airports and many minor ones across the Northeast send their abandoned property to the State Surplus Distribution Center, which resides in a residential area of Harrisburg. The truck that picked up 2,975 pounds of prohibs and 1,275 pounds of unclaimed goods from Newark on Jan. 6 would later collect TSA wares from JFK and La-Guardia. Smaller facilities mail a box or two to the store every few months. (Washington-area airports funnel their items to the Wytheville Surplus Store/Distribution Center, in southwest Virginia.)

When the goods arrive, the staff weeds through the mounds, searching for the bad apples in the bunch. They pull out any items that have no function beyond causing physical harm, such as the lipstick with the hidden knife and blades that fold up into a credit card shape. Handcuffs — fuzzy or metal — don't make the cut, either.

"If it's a comb, it needs to be a comb," said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of General Services. "If it's a lipstick, it needs to be a lipstick."

Some of the inventory goes online and is sold in bulk — a 50-pound mixed box of knives, for example, or designer purses. The rest goes downstairs to the thrift store that also sells used government office supplies, such as desks, mugs and BlackBerry car chargers.

Thompson says the shop's prices are about 50 to 65 percent lower than listings on eBay or at standard retail stores. To prove his point, he showed me a $50 vise-grip pipe wrench that goes for $90 at Lowe's. Despite the liquidation prices, the state has earned $1.5 million since the program began in 2004. (All proceeds go to the commonwealth.)

The five-year employee still shakes his head in disbelief at the strangeness of the pieces and laments the heartbreaking losses.

"It always amazes me at how many people travel with kitchen items — rolling pins, frying pans," he said. "One of the items that always makes me sad to see are the wedding cake knives, because of the sentimental value."

The most recent crop was short on culinary tools and newlywed souvenirs. I found an unused 12-piece dinner-knife set, a package with three steak knives and a hippo-shaped cheese knife. Total tally: $7.

At the front of the shop, a glass case contained higher-end knives. I counted 18 basic Swiss Army knives for $5 each, plus two rows of deluxe versions of the cardinal-red tool ($15 or $20, depending on the number of extras).

For the hunting knives, I asked Jeremy, a staffer with outdoors experience, for assistance. He told me that the 5-inch Tomahawk blade with the scorpion image on the handle would please any deer-hunting mate.

The 5-inch Remington, meanwhile, could do some damage to a bear. And if I were to buy Jeremy a thank-you gift for his helpful services, I would spring for the "Made in Pakistan" knife with a wood handle, worn leather case and price tag of $5.

For myself, I had so many choices. Snow globes from New York City, Germany, London and the Land of Laughing Teddy Bears. Souvenir baseball bats for the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox. Sticks and rods used for hockey, lacrosse, golf, billiards and curtain-hanging. Hand tools for $2 apiece. Scissors for three for a dollar.

I was rummaging through $1 wine openers when an employee shouted, "You've got 54 minutes." I was hoisting a red power drill when she hollered, "Ten minutes." I was trying on a bullet-bedazzled belt when she informed me that I had only three minutes left.

I left the store right at closing time, hearing the door lock behind me. Walking down the long hallway to the exit, I gripped the manila envelope filled with my TSA purchases: six knives and a hammer, plus a government invoice for $21.20.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News