My hour with the Man
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The deep voice asked questions slowly, each word sliding through the headphones into my ears with authoritarian weight.
“Yes or no … Do you plan to smuggle illegal drugs today?”
A mass of equipment packed around me in the dark basement room gauged my responses. Cords ran from my fingers. Lenses and lasers mounted to a metal frame around my face measured every movement of my pupil, which stared back at me through a computer monitor across the table. The gray-scale image was the only light in the cubicle until it disappeared in place of a hollow, white dot in the center of the black screen. My eyes watered; it was getting tougher to keep them open. I was telling the truth, but my pulse peaked at the thought the machines might indicate otherwise. The image of my eye blipped up again. Another question split the silence.
“Do you plan to sell bomb-making materials today?”
“No.” I wondered how the word sounded to the microphone mounted on the frame near my lips. In retrospect it sounded a bit shaky, which peaked my pulse again. Even when you know you’re innocent, it’s hard not to fear the Department of Homeland Security.
The ad in the Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle classifieds seemed harmless enough. “Participants wanted for research. $20 for an hour,” it read, listing a phone number. I’d seen the nondescript ad before, but the 20 bucks seemed more attractive after days of fruitlessly searching for a job in my new hometown.
A recording answered, instructing me to leave my name and number, and not to try to contact an actual person, as that would be impossible ” they would call me.
My phone woke me in the morning. At noon I was to report to a place near Main Street. A man gave me very specific directions for finding a basement office.
“The office will be empty,” he said. “There will be a manila envelope on the door with further instructions.”
I laughed. “Sounds like I’m going to be abducted in a big, black van,” I said. There was silence on the other end of the line. The man repeated the instructions in a more serious tone and hung up. That was when I became a tad paranoid I might be the next victim of a serial killer. In other words, it occurred to me I was about to have a lot of fun.
Everything was frozen and slick with snow when I left the house. Traffic was stacked up in the bad conditions. Extra minutes creeped by in the gridlock. I could see cars lined up for blocks, and my destination began to seem impossibly far away. There was pressure to hurry. If another idiot slid through the intersection and blocked me from reaching my desperately needed cash I was going to scream.
At last I found the address. I parked in a restricted area and ran across the street between idling cars. My haste continued through a door and down some stairs. I was five minutes late but the envelope was there, tacked on the outside of a rickety brown door.
The instructions told me to enter the room, where I found a chair and small wooden desk in the corner. A cell phone, tape recorder and headphones were on the desk. Aside from that the room was eerily empty. Facing into the plain, white walls ” pretty sure I was being watched ” I clicked on the recorder.
The voice explained that I was working with the Department of Homeland Security and that my pupils would be exposed to a mild laser. If I wished to discontinue my participation I was to dial a number on the provided cell phone. Then the voice gave detailed directions to another basement office in a bank a couple of blocks away. I had to stop the recording a few times to write down specifics, such as “go behind the building and enter a door by the ATM, turning left at the soda machine to find a stairwell …” By the end of the tape I was reminded several times to conceal any notes I’d made before leaving the room.
I zipped everything up and packed out. On the frosty street people buzzed along in the typical rat race, seemingly unaware of the government forces at work all around them. Right under their feet, somewhere in the city, there was a “mock crime” going on and I was one of the few who knew about it. (By this time I had been informed that I was to play the role of an “innocent suspect.”) I felt super, like a 6-year-old pretending to single-handedly destroy the Nazis.
Now sitting in the chair of the dark room, an American flag hanging from a stand next to me in the tiny space, I imagined what this lie-detector would be like for a serious suspect. He would have his eyelids taped open, no doubt, and his head would be strapped up to the framework of equipment on which I voluntarily rested my chin. I asked the man running the equipment about this afterwards and he confirmed there would be added complications in a real interrogation ” probably a nightmare for almost anyone.
I’m not saying this equipment is bad. Lord knows people have done much, much worse to each other for thousands of years. However, it made me think what kind of circumstances it would take to land me in that chair for real, under the concrete sidewalks and bustling traffic, my life being stripped away in secret just to prove my innocence. Truthfully, I’m even a little nervous to write about this experience for readers two states away. Do these words somehow add up to treason? We’ll see. As our federal government pushes for more invasive security methods every day in the name of our “safety,” all I’m saying is … think about it.
People say that if you’re not doing anything illegal you’ve nothing to worry about. What I suggest considering as well is that legal stuff today could be illegal tomorrow, even small things like criticizing The Man.
For now, though, I truly love, love, love Uncle Sam ” he gave me $40 for a thrilling educational experience. God bless America!
Derek Franz celebrated his birthday alone while job hunting in Bozeman, Mont. You may send him a warm (or cold) wish at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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