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Rant #137
(published June 5, 2003)
David Nelson is Dead
by David Erik Nelson

First, the pertinent literature.

Synopsis of the Literature: Since September 11, 2001, the Federal Transportation Security Administration has created a set of lists, pertaining to folks who can and cannot get onto airplanes. There is a "no-fly" list composed of folks that (surprise!) aren't allowed on a plane at all, and there is a "selectees" list of folks who get additional searches and such— presumably because they are suspected of some sort of shenanigans which would make them a threat to air-travelers and homeland security.

My name, "David Nelson," appears on one of those lists— apparently the second, the "selectee."

In case you're wondering, I've never been arrested, and the most heinous crime I've ever even been accused of is a traffic violation. I fly about twice a year— tall gangly freakazoids like me hate cramming their angular, paranoid forms into the American airline seats they can afford. Preparatory to flying, I tend to bitch about having to fly for the preceding week and a half. It's very hard for anyone with even a nodding acquaintance to me to miss out on the news that I'm leaving on a jet plane. The last time I flew, another teacher at the school— a guy that I'm not especially close to, but with whom I exchange the odd word or two a month— frantically chased me down the afternoon before I left to tell me he'd heard a piece on NPR about David Nelsons getting hassled at airports. I laughed it off: "Oh, National Public Radio; what will they come up with next?", but was nonetheless scarred shitless. I went anyway, and had no worse a time than usual.

Of course, the key word is "usual": I'm a young, white, 6'2", gangly freak. I'm loud (my soon-to-be in-laws have described my laugh as "highly aggressive.") I have extremely long hair, and am frequently pretty grimy. There are a lot of hippie-bullshit patches sewn to my knapsack— which I've been dragging around for the last dozen years or so— and my jacket has a baboon stenciled on the back, as well as some additional hippie-bullshit patches with a distinct "What Up With this Goddamn War?" slant. Until Sept 11, I carried, at all times, at least three knives and one of those many-bladed multi-pliers. I carry a lot of electronics— and, because I'm a geek, these electronics are sometimes bleeding edge to the point of obscurity (tiny clamshell computers and PDAs, cell modems, an early iPod, a fancy minidiscman— all have confused and frightened screeners.) Walking down the street in both major and minor US cities, average citizens (both strangers and casual acquaintances) attempt to buy drugs from me (a trade I've never worked in, by-the-by.)

So, the last time I went out the Northwest Terminal at Detroit Metro, yeah, I was sent through the metal detector three times— by the end I was shoeless, in my under shirt, with my belt flayed open and the waistband of my pants rolled down. My bags were thoroughly searched and there was some little concern about the terrorist-potential of my Zippo lighter[1]. I was shaken, and indignant, but everyone was polite, no one touched my bathing suit area without first saying please, and it more or less seemed to be par for the course.

But, of course, I've been suspect my entire adult life— not like the actor David Nelson, or the Senator David Nelson or the countless lawyers David Nelson, who probably haven't been unjustly suspected of a crime, out of hand, since they were in their teens, and are now furious at being delayed in the name of national security. Of course, I'm furious at being touched by strangers in the name of national security. I'm inclined to believe my fury is better and less prissily whitebread, but who am I kidding? I like my fury because it's mine. Prior to 9-11, we all had a right to be furious about whatever we wanted, as Americans. Now, I don't know.

But, you know, whatever.

I guess, most startlingly in all of this is that, somewhere in America, there is an actual David Nelson who is the Evil David Nelson, the real terrorist suspect. An evil-doer. And just like all of us OK David Nelsons, the ones who get hassled all the time, are just victims of circumstance and outrageous fortune, what if the Evil David Nelson is the same— not evil at all, just caught in the web of chance and somehow on the list, waiting for the FBI's bullet with his name on it?

My dear ole da' is also a David Nelson, as is a Rabbi local to where I grew up. The Rabbi David Nelson and the Real Estate Developer David Nelson are always getting mistaken for each other. This can be very confusing in my hometown, as folks will meet my father— who, tall, somewhat swashbuckling in western riding boots and kerchiefs, is not exactly the separated-at-birth twin of the small, portly holyman who I'm told just about sleeps in a three piece suit[2]— and say "David Nelson? Rabbi David Nelson?" Once, my da' and the reb were, unbeknownst to them, on an airplane together (a lot of planes in this story,) and their dinners got switched. My father is pretty bellicose about his pork consumption, so one would suspect this was a bigger deal for the rabbi than my dad, but my da' is also not one to eat a kosher meal and let it slide— so it was probably another surreal headache for the stewardesses: "Two David Nelsons? A cowboy and a rabbi? What are the odds of that?"

It seems that my dad got quite a hassle last time he flew. God only knows what terrorist syndicate would enlist my father. Taking my father and I as prime examples, I think it's safe to say that the males in my family simply don't "blend" very well, which I imagine is a big item on your terrorist resume. Flash Jewish Guys Need Not Apply. I wonder if the Reb is now getting mistaken for a terrorist or (gasp!) is himself the Evil David Nelson now causing all of these good, God faring, patriotic David Nelsons such trouble.

And what if the "Evil" David Nelson, the one that they're looking for— in truth innocent, but the one who really owns that name on the list— the one that will show up at an airline gate one morning, be escorted to a backroom and never heard from again, on a free flight to sunny Camp X-ray, what if that David Nelson is me?

But, so, all this aside, I've yet to be hassled in a new and special way. My presumption, after going through the airports in Detroit and San Francisco, was that the list must include a physical description, and probably the evil David Nelson is black or short or something. I mean, "David Nelson" is not a unique identifier. Every database I've ever been in (the video store, the library, the dentist and doctor's office, the university I attended) has had scores of David Nelsons.

"Hmmmm . . . I have a couple. Middle initial?"


"Well, that didn't help. Middle name."

"Erik. E-R-I-K."

"Ah, yeah. Address, maybe?"

"I've moved a couple of times. Try . . ."

and so on.

Judging from the articles, though, it seems that the Evil David Nelson is white and has short hair. Guess I'll have to continue to delay that extreme haircut (now completing its first decade of being avoided) for a few more years, until things calm down.

Last time I was in DC (this is in, say, 2000, maybe spring of 2001), I was at the Vietnam War Memorial and, out of curiosity, went through the directory, and found a "David E. Nelson" on the wall— one who came from a town near where I grew up, and died around the middle of the conflict. I keep a rubbing of his name on my wall, an eerie memento mori unstuck in time. After 9/11, my cousin Ruthie (who I hear from few and far between) e-mailed me to mention that the only person she knew who had died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers was named "David Nelson."

Why am I always turning up dead?

But, you know, whatever.

People keep coming across these "David Nelson, You're Screwed at the Airport" articles and bringing them to me. Numbers are still out on how many people will bring this fact to my attention, moving forward. When I was a kid, people would hear my name and say "David Nelson? How's Ricky?"— a limpingly lame joke that I knew was related to The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a show I have never seen and which, when described in abstract, seems cryptically un-entertaining[3]. It was with great relief that I greeted the drying up of these jokes in the mid-80s. From 1987 until 2003— 16 glorious years— my name elicited nothing more than "David Nelson? I have two here, are you David Nelson at 1210 Bladdabladda Street, or David Nelson at 1308 Yaddawhohaw Lane?"

Unfortunately, I'm beginning to suspect that the leitmotif of the remainder of my life will be "David Nelson? Wow, do you know your name is on a terrorist watch list?"

1. The way back was about the same, plus a swab-test for explosives— a first for me. For this one, I was actually on the same side of the analysis machine as the screener, and so could watch the terminal as it scrolled through dialogues like:




It was like waiting for 15 rapid-fire blood tests to come back, each with the risk of coming up "AIDS" or "BUBONIC PLAGUE" or "SMALLPOX." Ever spent five minutes trying to remember every place you've taken a given knapsack over the course of twelve years, what chemicals it might have come into contact with, and what possibly false-positives could creep up in a bomb test? I know that aspirin can read as Marijuana on a drug test; can 3-in-1 oil read as plastique? Excilerating stuff, in a "this might be my last moment of freedom right before I'm seized by federal agents" way.

2. An Aside About the Colorful Plumage of American Jewish Men in the Early 21st Century: In personal leisure fashion, Jewish men of my father's generation frequently favor a distinctly western motif, where as Jewish men of my generation mostly seem to want to be Urban Black Americans. Interestingly, none of these Jews seem to be able to understand the others' desire to express the modes that they choose, which leads to a lot of young guys standing around in outsize pants and sneakers, busting phat rhymes about their pops' six shooters and lassoing competitions, while the fathers shake their cowboy hats and make their best "Aw, shucks, dern kids is done gone loco again" faces, thumbs hooked into belts. It's a decidedly weird set of charades, if it is indeed even play-acting, properly speaking, especially considering the mutt-ish and pidgin lineage of most Jews in America.

I'm not sure where the Rabbi David Nelson fits into the Personal Fashion Continuum of Jewish David Nelsons. Frankly, I just don't know the rabbi well enough to have an inkling as to what he wears when not in the public eye. Were I to sneak into his home, mayhaps I'd find his closet to be full of boot-cut jeans and snap-front western shirts, a ten-gallon hat in every color of the rainbow. Of course, I have it on good word from the circumcised homies from my hood that your chances are fair-to-middlin' of running into the good rabbi at certain by-invite-only open mic MC battles, where he's generally parked behind a set of Technic 1200 turntables in his Adiddas and dope rope, bald pate covered in a reversed Kangol cap, waxin' and milkin' all over our square heads, bustin' ruckus on the ones-and-twos: "Eine-Zwei, Eine-Zwei! Get the ladies in a line; my rhymes slip past the lips like the Manischewitz wine!" Sure, this essentially blows the whole generation angle from my fashion hypothesis, but it's worth it. It's a brave new world, with such things in it.

At the end of the day, to the entire matter, I'm left only to shrug, saying: Keep it real, yo. Don't be hatin'.

3. I mean, what the hell did Ozzie do for a living? Or was the show a bizarre, post-modern meta-program, about an average family whose breadwinner makes his living appearing in a show about an average family whose breadwinner makes a living appearing in this show about this average family . . . ?

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