Trouble. It’s out there. Sometimes you find it; sometimes it finds you.
I first met Edward T. Hall III last October at TEDxGotham, one of those independent TED offshoots that spring up around the world. A friend had invited me to attend her presentation on social robotics. Edward—Ted to his friends—distinguished himself from the rest of the speakers by reading a poem on the steps of Cooper Union after the event.
As the poem concluded, he wept openly, tears streaking his cheeks between long locks of hair. There’s a special kind of person who can authentically cry in public, bridging the gap between goony political hack and genuinely heartfelt devotee. Later, I discovered that Ted was the grandson of world-renowned anthropologist Edward T. Hall, Jr. whose obituary reads more like an astronaut’s.
Last month, I was surprised to learn that my pal Ted had made the tabloids and then became news around the world while trying to catch a plane departing New York City's JFK airport for San Francisco using an extremely unconventional approach. The consensus among various news outlets is that Ted, desiring to see a woman named Maya, tried to board a United Airlines flight without an ID, and then, when he was denied, he attempted to crawl through the baggage carousel to gain entry to the tarmac. I chatted with Ted not long after his release from jail.
Zachary Urbina: First, what were you thinking?
Ted Hall: Ha ha! I wanted to spend a little more time with Maya. The universe conspired for this to happen. I decided to buy a ticket at the last minute from one of those ticket kiosks. I didn’t bring my ID to the airport, but they let me buy a ticket. We waited in the security line and when I got to the front of the line, they said they had to find a way to validate my identity.
I was determined to make this flight. I waited while they tried to check my identity but it was very close to the time the flight was scheduled to depart.
At some point, I asked security, “What will happen if I just go past you.” Their response: “You will reap the consequences.” Really, I wasn’t thinking about other people. I realize that especially in New York, I was trespassing on social norms, but I was just thinking about spending more time with this girl. Eventually, I decided to return to the United ticket kiosk to see what they could do for me. In my eyes, I was a customer and they should be able to help me. United. UniTED. There’s so much Ted in my life! At that point I realized I was getting on this flight, or getting arrested. I felt a certain magnetism. I remember thinking, I’ve gotta do it myself. I’ve just gotta try. If I get arrested, so be it. Love can be that strong.
Zachary: At what point did you get on the baggage carousel?
Ted: I was at the ticket kiosk and I half-jokingly told the person at the counter. “Could you zip me up in a bag and send me through?” I saw a bag moving through those floppy plastic dividers. At a certain point they could tell that I was actually rather serious. They said “Well, there’s nothing stopping you…."
I stepped over the scale. I didn’t jump. I walked over to the baggage carousel and climbed onto the conveyor belt. Over my shoulder I heard people yelling, “Sir, sir you can’t go in there.” By the time I got to the plastic dividers, they stopped the conveyor belt, and I had to crawl on my hands and knees. It was like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where Harrison Ford and that Asian kid were on the mine cart. Low ceilings and totally dark in some places. I had to push someone’s bag out of the way. Eventually it opened up into a corridor.
There was a baggage handler who saw me emerge. He looked surprised and said, “What in Scott’s name are you doing?”
The security guys were just doing their job. They took me to the control office. Someone else told me “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
I waited for the police to show up. I thought that the worst that would happen was people would tell a story about New York City and airplanes that wasn’t terrible. I realize now that I worried my frienda and family.
Eventually I was cuffed and dragged out. The NYPD was very respectful toward me. My experience with the police was ideal. I felt like they were looking out for me. Incredible, awesome people.
One of the officers asked me, “What were you thinking?” It was really more about doing.
Zachary: What can you tell me about your time in jail?
Ted: Jail was an interesting experience. Airport security was flabbergasted. I saw mostly smiles, and a couple of scowls. The police on the other hand, were peeved.
Security and flying are sensitive topics in New York. I most certainly freaked some people out. The police station that they took me to had a 9/11 mural on the wall. I’m sure that some of the officers involved lost friends on 9/11.
A few of the cops were a bit rough, but it was nothing that I wouldn’t understand. I did something so asinine around such a sensitive place.
After they questioned me I was led into a solitary cell. The jail cell was 10×10. I was in there alone and I mostly meditated. The cell was painted all white and had in it a toilet and a bench.
There was a Russian gentleman that I tried to start a conversation with, but he wasn’t having it. There was also a Spanish fellow that was having an asthma attack. I had chronic asthma as a kid and I tried to help.
What I’ve learned is that even if you have good will toward something, people will use it as an opportunity to vent. This was a sobering experience, but I’m not letting go of the passion. I wanted the world to know that I really want to see this girl.
I’m accepting of any punishment they have for me.
Ted was eventually charged with misdemeanor trespassing. Three weeks have now passed since Ted’s initial airport drama-comedy. I caught up with him to get a sense of what perspective he'd achieved regarding his unique adventure.
Zachary: It's been three weeks. Have you since seen the girl?
Ted: I have not seen Maya. Haven’t yet taken the trek to San Francisco. I plan on surprising her in some fashion. We‘ve discussed a Burning Man collaboration. After the wreckage, I don’t know if I still have the freedom to travel as I once did.
Zachary: That brings me to my next question. Are you allowed to fly?
Ted: I don’t know. I suspect that I am. I recently went to JFK to pick up my bags and a few other things. I didn’t get tackled by security or anything like that. Actually, the people at the security office treated me like something of a folk hero: “Wow, it's that guy,” that sort of thing.
I’m still facing possible trespassing charges, but as of now, they’re calling it conditional discharge. I’ve since quit my job at Columbia and lost my apartment.
Zachary: One final question. Are you happy?
Ted: Yeah, very happy.
Conditional discharge in New York State means that if Ted stays out of trouble for a year, he stays out of jail. When he was not actively looking for trouble or trying to spend a little more time with Maya, Ted was previously employed as a research assistant at Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions: his specific discipline, human impatience.
Zachary Urbina's narrative nonfiction has been published consistently since 2006 and his photography has been published in print and on the internet, in both New York City and Los Angeles.