To a keen observer, airports are an unending source of amusement, bewilderment, and wordless commentary on the human condition. Amid a nameless sea of lovers parting ways, families reuniting, and businesspeople traveling to sell their wares, there is one man who indisputably stands the test of time as the most memorable.
His name was Frank. Frank taught me the meaning of friendship, perseverance, and truly not giving a fuck.
On a particularly unremarkable trip between Tampa and Detroit in the late 2000’s, I stood in the security line at DTW to gain access to the old, decaying Berry Terminal. That’s when Frank rolled into my life — a pleasant-looking old man, probably in his 80’s or 90’s, his wheelchair being pushed by a gentleman of roughly the same age.
I could never place why, but I got the feeling that this man was an old childhood friend of Frank’s. As I watched them come closer, I pictured the montage of their lives playing in the background — from the first time they played jacks at recess in a Depression-era school, to serving in the same World War II Air Force squadron (Frank saved his friend’s life in Okinawa), to speaking at each other’s weddings to their respective high school sweethearts, to having Sunday night dinners with their children and grandchildren, to this shining example of lifelong camaraderie.
Frank and his friend rolled up to the TSA agent checking tickets, and a toothless grin emerged from his face as he softly whispered, “Hello, I’m Frank.”
His voice was low but strained, in a tone that simultaneously made you want to help him cross the street as well as listen to his life story.
The TSA agent smiled, clearly hypnotized by the calming glow of Frank’s reserved effervescence. “Welcome to DTW, sir. You and your friend can go right this way to the front.” The agent pointed to the front of the line, ahead of the rest of us common folk.
“Thank you very much, young man. You know, you remind me of my grandson — he smiles just like you do.”
The TSA agent grinned sheepishly, unsure how to respond besides simply waving him along. Frank’s friend rolled him to the front of the line, bypassing me and at least 50 others that had fallen victim to his geriatric charm.
“Hello sir! And where are we going today?” inquired a female, middle-aged TSA agent in the loud, patronizing tone that tends to characterize communication with old people.
“Tampa, ma’am. It’s a little cold for my bones this time of year,” Frank replied, making an endearingly weak attempt at a wink.
“Well, let’s get you on your way! Can you put your carry-on bags through the x-ray machine, or would you like some help?”
“Oh, it’s no bother. Walter, do you think you could put our bags on the belt? You know I have my leg condition.”
‘Frank and Walter,’ I thought to myself as I watched Walter unload their bags onto the conveyer belt. Every bag except for one — a small, black bag about the size to carry one’s toiletries. He was holding it in his lap.
“Sir, I’ll need you to put the small bag on your lap through too,” the TSA agent said patiently.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have forgotten.” Frank handed the bag to Walter, who placed it on the conveyer belt.
“Are you able to walk through the metal detector?”
“My legs haven’t quite been the same since I took a fall a few months ago, but I can try.” Frank let out another dry laugh, and then tried to hoist himself up using the wheelchair’s arms for support — wincing in pain.
“Oh my!” exclaimed the TSA agent, clearly feeling guilty that she was inconveniencing such an old man. “No problem at all, we can roll you through the side here. We’ll just have to do a pat-down.”
For a brief moment, I noticed Frank grimace uncomfortably. He insisted, “No, no, dear. I don’t want to be a bother.” Like the symbol of perseverance we all believed Frank to be, he slowly pushed himself up and took a few steps toward the metal detector.
“Uh, excuse me, sir…” nervously interjected a TSA agent behind the x-ray machine — a young man no more than a year out of college. “You can’t take this on the plane.”
We — and I say we, as I was not the only one enthralled with Frank’s airport saga — turned our attention to the x-ray machine. The agent had opened his small, black bag and revealed three cans of Caffeine Free Diet Coke packed tightly in various departments.
It was at this point that the narrative I had constructed of Frank as a kind, wise old soul began to slowly unravel before my eyes.
“Oh, I’m so sorry about that. You can throw them away. It’s really no bother.” Frank motioned apathetically to the trash can — as if this gesture of compromise signified that he was taking the moral high road. After a moment of quizzical pause, the agent complied, and Frank continued his triumphant journey through the metal detector.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP! the detector chirped, red lights flashing.
Frank chuckled, “I’m sorry, I forgot my coat has metal buttons.” He was about to hand his coat to Walter when the female TSA agent intercepted it.
“I can take that for you!” she said cheerfully, still under the spell of Frank’s elderly aura. She halted in her tracks as her arm sank, as if the weight of the coat caught her by surprise.
“What the…” her voice trailed off. She reached into one of the coat’s pockets and pulled out yet another shiny, golden can of Caffeine Free Diet Coke (total count: 4).
Frank stammered out a chuckle. “Heh, old age hasn’t been kind to my memory…”
The once-bubbly female TSA agent was not amused. She reached into the opposite pocket — yet another can of Caffeine Free Diet Coke (5).
“Jesus fucking Christ,” she exclaimed as her excavation continued. Leaving no pocket, hole, or crevice untouched, she pulled out one gold can after another.
“Caffeine disturbs my sleep,” Frank pleaded with the agent.
Frank had now become the talk of the entire line. About 25% were annoyed at him for the delay, but the rest were simply entranced by the spectacle.
“This can’t be real,” whispered one woman.
“Do they not sell Caffeine Free Diet Coke in the terminal?” wondered another.
By the time she was finished, she had pulled out a total of five additional cans of Caffeine Free Diet Coke (10).
Finally finished, the female agent barked, “Sir, is that all?”
“I believe so. I really do apologize for this, ma’am — I can be so forgetful sometimes,” Frank said and solemnly shook his head. “I hope I’m not causing any trouble for the other passengers.”
My BS-dar long since piqued, I had become quite skeptical of Frank’s innocent old man act. Still, I was confounded by what was happening in front of me. This was a hitherto incomprehensible level of sheer, unmitigated chutzpah. And people were eating it up.
“It’s so sad when people become old and forgetful like this,” lamented one woman.
“I know — dear, promise when I’m old you won’t let me do things like this,” her husband (presumably) responded.
Convinced that she had searched every last nook and cranny of Frank’s coat, the female agent put it through the x-ray machine and motioned Frank to come through the metal detector again.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!
‘You can not be serious,’ I told myself.
“Sir, please just get out over there.” She motioned to another agent with a portable metal detecting wand.
Frank breathed deeply, “I’m sorry, ma’am. I must have left some change in my pocket somewhere.”
The agent began waving his wand over Frank, meticulously checking every inch of his body. Around his head, down his arms, along his torso…
BEEP BEEP! murmured the wand — this time, directly over his crotch.
“Sir, good God no…” moaned the agent.
“Oh, I’m sorry, this is quite embarrassing for an old man,” Frank whispered through his characteristically toothless grin. Unashamed, he reached right into his pants, squirmed around a bit, pulled out a single, shimmering golden can of Caffeine Free Diet Coke (11), and handed it to the agent.
He placed the can with the rest of Frank’s caffeine-free contraband and checked him once more from head to toe, clearly praying that was the last one. Silent, this time, the agent holstered his wand and let out a long, deep sigh of relief before muttering, “Move along.”
Our dark comedy finally over, a lone “whoop whoop!” emerged from a teenager a few families in front of me. I wasn’t sure if he was cheering the end of the delay, Frank’s perseverance, or Caffeine Free Diet Coke.
As Walter rolled Frank away and the line resumed inching forward, I tried to piece together what we had all just witnessed:
Before arriving, did Frank actually think he was going to get through with any of those cans? Did he not realize there were x-ray machines and metal detectors at the airport?
If he was senile, did someone else plant the cans on him? Was Walter simply taking advantage of his friend’s old age for some unknown but surely nefarious purpose?
And regardless of who planted the cans, what does anyone need with that amount of Caffeine Free Diet Coke? Where could they possibly be going?
Eventually, I made my way through security, unhindered and without soda, and meandered over to the terminal’s lone, mediocre food court. Standing in the doorway, my eyes traced the reflection of the bright fluorescent light, dancing its way across the checkered vinyl tiles. It was as if the light was pointing toward what some invisible force wanted me to see.
There stood Frank, hunched over the soda machine. His finger was holding down the silver, regularly-caffeinated Diet Coke button, quickly filling up an extra large styrofoam cup.
Undeterred by my gaping mouth and puzzled gaze, Frank topped off his cup and practically skipped to the other side of the room. He slid into a booth with Walter, the two touched their cup in cheers, and erupted into a raucous laughter that filled the small, mediocre food court.
In the ensuing years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Frank, Walter, and the time we all shared in DTW’s Berry Terminal.
Were they selfish? Their motives remain murky, but the answer appears to be an unequivocal yes.
Did they try to lie and cheat their way through security? A reasonable observer would likely conclude the wheelchair was indeed a total sham.
Did two grown, 80-year-old+ men simply troll TSA and delay an airport full of people solely for their own childish amusement? The jury is still out, but we do know that Frank is 100% willing to cross the picket line on the issue of caffeination.
One thing is clear: Frank does not give a fuck, and I can’t help but admire his peculiar irreverence.