I Came Into the Federal Building With a Weapon Today

There are few chores I dread more during the workday than making a trip across High St. to the post office in the Federal Building.  Fortunately, it’s seldom a necessity, but when I need to go there, I can never be finished soon enough.

Today was such a day.  I usually carry some postage stamps in my billfold (much easier since the Postal Service went to peel-off stamps), but I needed to mail a postcard, and didn’t want to waste one of the few $.44 stamps I had left.  So, at my three o’clock break, I resigned myself to the inevitable and made my way across High St. to the John W. Bricker Federal Building and the Christopher Columbus Station of the post office contained therein.

TANGENT ALERT: The building is named for Senator John William Bricker (R-Ohio), the 54th Governor of Ohio, and Thomas Dewey’s Vice Presidential running mate in the 1944 election.

Elaborate security precautions prevail on the first floor of the Federal Building, and they were in place seven years before 9/11.  Before the destruction of the Twin Towers and the damage to the Pentagon, there was Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City.  So now, if I’m going into the post office lobby to spend $.28 to buy a postcard stamp (as I was today), I have to wait in line, empty my pockets, have a security guard go over my person with a handheld metal detector, and step through a scanner.

I began the ritual in the usual way.  Before going through the scanner, I took everything out of my pocket: coins, wallet, MP3 player, notepad, pens (always about five of them), cell phone, and key ring.

That last item on the list, the key ring, was what caused the short-lived panic.  I have about eight or nine keys on the ring, a rubber Minnie Mouse standing next to a large letter P (a co-worker brought it back from Disney World for me), and a ring knife.

The ring knife is a souvenir from my days at the main post office in Cincinnati.  You wear it on your finger like a ring, although it barely fits past the middle knuckle.  Protruding from the top is a J-shaped blade, used for cutting open bundles (of newspapers, magazines, etc.).  The Cincinnati post office always seemed to be short of them, and when I was working in second- and third-class mail, sorting and routing periodicals, half my shift seemed to consist of scrambling trying to find a blade to split open bundled magazines.  So, one night, I was lucky enough to find a ring knife within minutes of clocking in to work, so I put it on my key ring, and there it has remained to this day.

The guard asked me about it.  I told him what it was, how I used it, etc.  I don’t think it would have made an effective weapon, even if I had wanted to try.  The blade is nowhere near as sharp as it was 15 years ago, and I doubt it could cut butter.  (Crazily, I tried to picture myself putting that ring knife on my finger, waving my arm around in a large arc, and shouting, “Okay, everybody lie down on the floor, nobody gets hurt!”  There was a guy in Cincinnati who tried to rob a bank with a butcher knife once, just as effectively as I would have been.)

The guy decided to let me go through, mainly because he sensed my impatience.  My afternoon break is only 15 minutes long, and I wanted to buy my stamp and get back to work, possibly picking up a Sierra Mist on the way back.  I would have offered to let him hold the key ring for me until I was finished at the post office.

I headed for the post office with the key ring (ring knife included) securely in my pocket.  The guards there can be a little paranoid, and I’d think that people guarding a Federal building should learn the art of the poker face.  They don’t have to be as rigid and emotionless as the Grenadier Guards at Buckingham Palace, but they seem to overreact to innocent situations.

When you enter the building, you empty your pockets into a shallow plastic bowl, and it goes down a conveyor belt, where they X-ray it and see if there’s anything you shouldn’t have.  When the bowl emerges on the other side, the guard will pick up the cell phone and push buttons on it, to make sure it’s a real cell phone, and not the remote control for a bomb.  When I go on break, I set my phone’s timer to 00:15:00 and press the “start” button, and it beeps when my 15 minutes ends.

Awhile back, the security guard turned white as paper when he took my phone out of the bowl and pushed one of the buttons.  The display lit up, and he sees a timer that is counting down to zero.  Visions of spending the afternoon with some of Homeland Security’s brownshirts came to my mind while he stared at my phone display.  He looked me a question, and I told him what it was all about.  He looked a little deflated as he handed the phone back to me.  He probably envisioned being interviewed on Good Morning America as the hero who thwarted a bomb plot.

“Good vibes” and “bad vibes” were popular phrases in my late teen and early adult years.  I’ve never taken the concept seriously.  That may be a side result of my Asperger’s syndrome, whose symptoms include an inability to “read” other people (tone of voice, body language, etc.), but the Federal Building was one I never liked, even when I came to work every day.

I got off on the wrong foot with that building.  In April 1995, I interviewed for a job with the Agriculture Department.  The appointment was at 1 p.m., and I took a morning Lakefront Trailways bus up from Cincinnati.  My friend Ivan and his stepson met me, and Ivan told me about the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which had happened just as I was getting on the bus in Cincinnati.  (I listened to CDs or slept all the way up, so I wouldn’t have had a radio going on the journey.)

Security was tight that afternoon, because at that time no one knew who had bombed the Oklahoma City building, whether it was an isolated nut or a well organized conspiracy, or whether other buildings elsewhere in the country would be attacked.  I went through the metal detector, and even though I presented my IRS ID (I worked at the IRS Service Center in Covington, Ky. at the time), they still insisted that I empty my pockets, remove my watch, and let the man pass the metal detector wand (actually, it’s about the size of a fraternity paddle) over me.  Then a guard stepped forward and said, “Sir, I need to pat you down,” which brought a “Why?  Don’t you get enough at home?” from me.  (I was a tad bit surly at that point.)

The building is as dingy on the inside as it is on the exterior, and I sometimes wondered about sick building syndrome when I worked there.  My main responsibility as an Appointment Clerk was scheduling audits, so I was always on the phone with taxpayers and/or their representatives.  When someone was coming from out of town, he or she often asked, “Which building is the Federal Building?”  I often said, “It’s the monstrosity at the corner of Spring and High, on the northeast corner,” which usually evoked a chuckle.  (I showed rare self-control the three years I worked there.  Never once did I yield to temptation and say, “It’s at Spring and High, and there’s probably an abandoned Ryder truck sitting out front.”)

I’ll let you, beloved readers, be the final judge as to the building’s beauty.  Here’s a picture, courtesy of the General Services Administration:

John W. Bricker Federal Building,
200 N. High St., Columbus, Ohio