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holiday part 2: intolerance in the customs line

When I studied Latin, we learnt how to decline nouns and conjugate verbs (I sometimes forget what day of the week it is, or the age of my children, but I can still do amo amas amat and puella puellae puellas) and also many interesting facts about Roman history. In the time of the conflict between the plebeians and the patricians, the hero of the hour was a guy who put public good ahead of private good. He laid aside his plow to serve the city, even though his family might starve, accepting the fasces of the dictator. (The fasces was a bundle of sticks, and it was the emblem of the dictator. That's where the term fascist comes from! Miss Kennedy told us brightly. Huh? we said.) He saved Rome in a matter of weeks, and went back to plowing. (That, at least, is the way Livy tells it. I can't believe there are many successful dictators' families in danger of starvation.) The hero's name was Cincinnatus, and it lives on in a small American city known for its basbeall team and classical pops orchestra.

When my kids and I missed our flight to New York, and were standing at 5:30 am in the Toronto airport, grumbling, yawning, scratching our heads and blaming, well, me, the Delta representative fiddled with her keyboard, and said, What about Cincinnati?

I held my tongue. I have learnt that there is a time to show off a classical education, and a time to shut the hell up. What about it? I said.

There's a plane taking off in half an hour that'll get you to New York via Cincinnati, she said. And so the adventure began. We were a little late, and heading in the wrong direction, but we were off. First, though, we had to make it through customs. Our line was the slow one. Our guy was mean looking, with a large bald head and close set eyes, black and shiny as watermelon seeds. Often a quick physical judgment is completely false, but maybe not this time. He sure seemed mean. The lady two ahead of us was almost in tears when he finally let her go. Next up was a woman wearing the burqah, and I found myself guilty of racial profiling. (Not that I thought she was a terrorist -- I just wished she was in another line.) But before she could step forward an airline staffer came by, pushing a man in a wheelchair past us to the head of the line.

My daughter was on this one quickly. She has a strong sense of justice. How come the

wheelchair goes first? she asked.

Maybe he needs more time to get seated onto the plane, I said.

Then he should get here earlier, said Thea.

Yeah, the handicapped get all the breaks, I said, and Thea blushed.

You know what I mean, Daddy.

Yes, I did know what she meant. In an ideal society, those in wheelchairs would be treated like everyone else, except for the fact that they can't climb stairs or tapdance. But I was prepared to be tolerant this one instance.

Our customs guy wasn't. He didn't cut the wheelchair any breaks at all. Questions, frowns, fingerprint validation. It took a long time.

Then another wheelchair rolled up to the head of our line.

The woman in the burqah turned away, muttering under her breath. Could have been a prayer or a statement of compassion, or a reminder to herself to send an email, but it sounded very much like what I was thinking.

Dad, said Ed, as we ever going to get on the plane?

It's with Allah, I said, very quietly.

What? With Ellen?

Yes, I said. It's with Ellen. Ellen is most great.


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