For weeks, I’ve been mentioning a certain something in my life that’s been going on and which has, on occasion, interfered with my normal routine. I’ve hinted at it during my tastytrade show, and I’ve mentioned it off-handedly in the comments system. Now that it has an ending, I’m ready to tell the tale. (TRIGGER WARNING: If you do not have utter and complete disrespect for anyone who works for any government, you might want to give this entire post a miss. I have a lifelong disrespect for all civic employees. Every single one. So, like I said, I would suggest perhaps you pop over to the Kardashian website or something instead. Kiss, kiss………………..Tim)
The Trip Forthcoming
As long-time readers know, the vast majority – – virtually the entirety – – of our family’s travel is due to fencing. Our children are elite, internationally-seasoned fencers, and we’ve been to a dizzying number of cities and countries to the sport.
Now, having never been an athlete myself, I’m not sure what kinds of places other athletes go, but when it comes to fencing, I am convinced the organizers of any of these events pick from a list of the world’s least desirable locations and choose those for the venue. I’m not going to enumerate them, but let’s just say that, were it not for fencing, I’d have never visited any of the cities are countries to which we had traveled.
In that spirit, the next trip up was in…………..Romania. You remember them, right? The impoverished former member of the Eastern Bloc whose dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was so hated by his countrymen that, when the USSR fell to pieces, he and his wife were shot to death by his own army on Christmas Day, 1989. So, true to form, the fencing destination was a former Warsaw Pact shithole, and a place no one would ever want to visit. Ever.
Where Is It?
As you well know, there are two kinds of ID you need for air travel. For domestic flights, you need a driver’s license (or some other suitable state-issued ID, but it is virtually always a state driver’s license). For international travel, you need a passport.
In mid-October, when my wife and daughter returned from their latest European trip, I didn’t do my customary routine of taking custody of the passports (I’m pretty hung up on order and organization and knowing where things are). I knew a trip was coming up in the first week of December, however, and as Halloween approached, I started to wonder where their passports were. My daughter produced hers right away, but my wife wasn’t sure where hers was. She and I even vaguely wondered if she had given it back to me, and I began to be concerned that I had screwed up and misplaced the thing.
As the days ticked by, I became increasingly anxious. (Indeed, it took me a while to write this post, because doing so caused me to re-live all that anxiety). I knew from experience that passports take many, many weeks (even on a so-called “expedited” basis) and with the trip only about five weeks away, the situation was completely unsettling to me. My wife was slated to go with my daughter, as was almost always the case, and not only did I not want to mess up those plans, but I certainly didn’t want to be required to go as the “fencing parent” instead, which obviously I’d have to do if the passport didn’t turn up. So I was getting freaked out.
The Value of Apathy
On November 1st, I made my fatal error. I had turned the house upside down looking for the goddamned thing. As George Carlin correctly predicted, I sought the lost object in the places where it was supposed to be dozens of times, and I had examined every suitcase, backpack, and bag imaginable. I was convinced that somehow or another the passport had simply been lost, and the sooner I started the process of getting a new one, the better.
So I went to the State Department’s website, which has a special online form specifically to report a lost or stolen passport. At the time, I naively thought that performing this task would initiate some kind of abbreviated process of getting a replacement passport, but that was absolutely not the case.
Once I finished the form, the passport was instantly cancelled, and there was no “hey, let’s get you a new one now” process forthcoming. The only thing accomplished was that the passport was immediately invalid. And, of course, about five minutes later, I hear, “Hey, I think I know where it is!” And she grabs her travel backpack, opens up a special concealed compartment with a zipper, and voila, there it was.
Now, in a sane world – – a world in which the government actually operated like a business – – there would be a special Hey I Found It form on the State Department website, perhaps with a small fee. And I’d take a couple of minutes to declare that, hurray, we found the goddamned thing, paid them twenty bucks or something, and we all move on with our lives. End of story. No harm, no foul. Life would be dandy again.
But, no. This is the government. And ANY government, be it city, state, or federal, will naturally pick the most illogical, inefficient, idiotic way to do anything. Because they don’t care. Governments are populated by people with no incentive, no ambition, and no particular talent (which, umm, is why we have free enterprise and private businesses that actually DO stuff). They are there to get their paycheck and work at their own pace. So there was no such form.
Thus, I was left with (1) a worthless passport (2) a very, very, VERY pissed-off wife (3) personal risks I didn’t have before. The entire situation was now entirely fucked up.
An Act of Conngress
My personality doesn’t find a sense of helplessness very agreeable. It doesn’t find the notion of being at the mercy of a goddamned government clerk to be appealing. Efficacy, self-direction, and agency are what make me tick. But now I was thrust in the position of having to deal with something I absolutely despise, which is the morass of government, peopled by adults who actually choose to work there.
I immediately drove to the office of our local Congressional Representative and explained the situation. The Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff was relatively understanding, and of course she had a form that I had to sign, waiving any rights to privacy on the matter. But it soon became clear there wasn’t a goddamned thing they could do for me. The situation was plain as could be: we were at Square One. We would have to apply for a new passport, like she just showed up in the United States for the first time (when in fact she had a U.S. passport for decades).
Now, once again, in a sane, private-enterprise-driven system, I’d apply for a new passport online and have it within a few days. Indeed, I’ve learned that in most countries, you just walk into a post office, show them a couple of documents proving you are a citizen, and BANG, you walk out with a passport. At worst, you might have to wait a few days. But not in the good old U.S.A. The standard waiting time, I kid you not, is 18 weeks, and the “expedited” period is 5-7 weeks, which involves another fee. Because we all know that gluing a small photograph to a passport takes at least a month, if not several. Because of the lightning-fast, highly-intelligent personnel that work at these places.
But you don’t apply for a passport online. You have to physically show up at a U.S. Post Office (or other federal agency) and apply in person. By appointment. At their convenience. Most appointments were weeks off, but I managed to find one, at some distance, for November 3rd.
A Fresh Application
So on November 3rd, a work day, we drove some length to the post office to submit the application and all her original documents. The bored, not-very-helpful postal worker, who apparently spends all his working life dealing with these DS-11 applications, plodded through the process. Even though the website said it would be 5-7 weeks for “expedited”, and we paid the fee, he wrote “12-14 weeks” on the receipt. I didn’t question him. I was already sick of this entire thing.
Thus, the waiting game began.
Even if this thing was given to us in 5 weeks (which, I suppose for how government works, is breathtakingly fast, since it would require them to work more than 30 minutes a day at a speed other than 1st Gear), it would be too late. So I was feeling rather bereft about the situation.
The State Department has a website where you can check the status of your passport application. Pathetically, I checked the site multiple times a day, and it was the same status every single time. The application was ‘In Process”. I was becoming convinced that I would be the one going to Romania, and this passport would eventually show up early in 2022, once the clods at the government had finally finished it.
This Is an Emergency
Now even though I’ve related there are just two “speeds”: to the process, “Regular” (18 weeks) and “Expedited” (5-7 weeks) there are actually a couple of others, although they are unusual.
One is a “Life or Death” exception. I’m not sure what would constitute this, but, I dunno, let’s say I was a perfect marrow transplant for a family member overseas who would die if we didn’t do a medical procedure in a couple of days. Well, if I can prove the case, then they will issue a special exceptional passport for such an emergency.
The other is simply an “Emergency” passport, which is typically for instances in which you have a confirmed flight very soon, and you don’t have a passport. They have very specific rules for getting an emergency appointment. Your flight has to be within two weeks. And the appointment has to be within 3 days of the flight.
The flight to Romania was on December 2nd (which is the day I am writing this post). Therefore, I would be permitted to attempt to make an appointment (and I do mean attempt, since they are limited) on Friday, November 19th, as early as 5 a.m. So you sure as hell know that at 5:00 that morning, I was on the phone.
I was relieved that they still had an opening. They could see us on December 1st, literally the day before the flight. What gave me concern was that the person on the phone wasn’t quite sure what I should bring. You see, most people getting such appointments haven’t even applied yet. So they do what we did weeks before at the post office – – bring in a DS-11, their original documents proving their citizenship, and so forth.
We already had submitted that. We HAD no original documents left, because the State already had them. So I was extremely nervous that, even with the emergency appointment, they wouldn’t be able to help us. But this was our only chance to achieve was apparently is a Herculean achievement when it comes to the federal government, which is getting a goddamned picture glued to a goddamned passport book with your name in it. So the date and time were set.
The Big Day
I spent the entire month of November worrying about this situation. Here is a list of things I don’t like in life:
- I don’t like uncertainty;
- I don’t like being away from home;
- I don’t like going to weird-ass poor countries with sketchy citizens;
- I don’t like being away from my dogs and my computers;
- I don’t like long plane flights;
- I don’t like wearing a mask for 13 hours at a stretch;
- I don’t like being in a time zone that is ten hours different
The prospect of going on this trip basically checked all the boxes. I really, really didn’t want to go. And I very obliquely mentioned this, without explanation, both here and on my tastytrade show. Not only did I really not want to go, but in case you haven’t divined this, I really don’t like things that I don’t like. All I ask from life is that everything be exactly like I want it to be. I’m simple that way.
So I was quite worried, obviously, but I began making plans to go to Romania (motto: “Gateway to Bulgaria”). I got a suitcase packed. I got my documents in order. and I warned my tastytrade colleagues that I might have to miss some shows. And I mentally planned how I could best spend my time, particularly the grueling dozens of hours flying back and forth.
December 1st finally came. Having already spent hundreds of dollars in fees, and a number of hours (to say nothing of weeks of angst) on this endeavor, I had already surrendered to the fact that part of December 1st would be wasted. I had no idea what to expect from this so-called emergency meeting. I figured it would be just the two of us in a little room with some passport specialist. I figured just a handful of people got these ’emergency” appointments, and they were see in a quiet room, one at a time.
Boy, was I wrong. After we got to the federal building (and went through so much security, it makes an airport look like a joke) and entered the huge Passport Agency area, it was sort of like the DMV on steroids. This place had:
- Dozens of people waiting in line, each of them with emergency appointments;
- Screaming kids;
- Dozens and dozens of people sitting in chairs;
- A board displaying which numbers (E123, B107, etc.) they were seeing;
- A huge series of thick plexiglass windows, behind each of which was a passport agent.
The sight of all those windows made my heart sink. This wasn’t going to be an intimate experience, face to face with a very specialized agent in a private room. It was going to be shouting back and forth to some goddamned clerk on a stool like you were trying to pay for some gas with a credit card at a seedy service station. I figured the person would just tell us they couldn’t help us, and I’d be screwed.
Luckily, that was not the case. After I carefully explained the situation to the agent, she said we needed to fill out a DS-11 (again!) just like we had already done at the post office a month earlier. I was terribly concerned that, lacking all the original documentation, they wouldn’t accept it, but we were able to produce enough documentation to satisfy them that she was a citizen. My stomach was in knots the whole time, wondering when someone would say that they couldn’t help, but things seemed to clunk along, and they told us to sit again and wait our number.
As we sat, I took a look at what the market was doing, and I saw that it had gone into a total free fall. Indeed, the market and my day were agreeing with one another. Early in the day, equities were exploding higher, and my mind was filled with anxiety about this stupid passport situation. Hours later, the bulls were getting their heads blown off, and things were actually looking pretty good for the passport. So I was feeling a lot better, even though I didn’t allow myself to assume this was going to work out.
After we were called to the second clerk, and answered a bunch of the same questions all over again, she starts using her rubber stamp and hand-writing things, and I was getting more optimistic that this was actually going to happen. My brain had actually been poisoned into thinking that this trivial document was some kind of gargantuan achievement, but believe me, after worrying for a solid month, I was willing to accept it as such. I was ready to perform fellatio on one of the oversized guards there if that would get this stupid document into our hands. I was sick of the anxiety.
Everything Falls Into Place
It was about 11:30 a.m. by now, and she told us to come back at 3:30, and it would be ready for pickup. Now I was starting to feel I was actually going to escape this trip. I wasn’t really inclined to sit around for four solid hours in this hellhole, surrounded by shrieking kids and irresponsible parents, so we drove all the way back down to Palo Alto, and then all the way back up to San Francisco shortly thereafter. I wasn’t going to take any chances.
We got back to the city, paid for parking, and we ate lunch. I had my wife sign some forms authorizing me to pick up the passport (the federal building was just across the street, but I didn’t want her to have to through the nearly body-cavity-search level of security again over there). I left her at the restaurant, and although I was told to show up at 3:30, I was heading through security at 3 (That turned out to be a good move, since I realized later EVERYONE was told to be there at 3:30, and the line was a mile long by then).
In my mind, I was still willing to accept that something was going to go wrong, so my stomach was still in a knot. I saw people walking out with big blue envelopes, each of which had a passport. I got up to the counter and handed my receipt with my authorization to pick it up. She went to the big box of envelopes and looked. She didn’t seem to see it. I started worrying again, which I excel at. She wandered around some more, and poked around the box once more. I saw her grab an envelope this time. She walked back to her stool, pulled out the passport, opened it, and held it toward me. My wife’s smiling face was on the photo inside.
“Is this your wife?'”
“Yes it is!” She slipped the envelope through the slit in the barrier. I thanked her, my heart singing that I finally had this stupid goddamned federal document in my hand, and I headed out the building.
I walked with the envelope clasped against my chest with both hands, just to make sure one of the hundreds of insane San Francisco homeless maniacs didn’t run up and grab it or something. I was reminded of the scene in Risky Business when Joel finally gets his father’s Porsche back from the repair shop, and he drives it home, hazard lights on, at five miles per hour the whole way. I was guarding this stupid passport as if my life was in my hands.
We got into the car. Paid for parking (again). At that moment, my wife glanced at her phone to see she had just received an email. It was from the national office for US Fencing, saying my daughter had just been invited to also fence in Paris on December 9th. She excitedly said that they would be there.
So God has quite a sense of humor. He figured he’d reveal the location of the passport back on November 1st, only minutes after I declared it lost, and conversely, He decided to create another international opportunity for my daughter within seconds of the new passport hitting my wife’s hands, thus doubling the value of the document instantly. Good Lord, heavenly father, haven’t you put me through enough? I’m your favorite chartist! Let me be!
I sit here, now, in a darkened house. My wife and daughter are seven miles above Hudson Bay at the moment, making their way toward Europe. I obviously wish them both well. I also just about kiss the floor of my house every time I think about this past month, since I’m so glad to be here.
It was all so unnecessary. If the government had half a brain cell, it would recognize (as I quickly discovered) there is an entire sub-culture of people who went through PRECISELY what I did. Specifically, people who (a) thought they lost their passport (b) reported it lost (c) found it (d) then were totally and utterly screwed. Do a Google search if you’re bored. These people are everywhere, and for obvious reason, they felt the same way I did. They just didn’t write a mile-long post about it.
I would have ABSOLUTELY paid $3,000 (or even more) to undo this. The government could make countless millions of extra dollars with such special fees. Notice I’m not even suggesting they be competent and do their jobs swiftly. I know that’s not their nature. But there are people like me who will gladly sacrifice large amounts of cash to avoid this kind of hellish nightmare.
And let me say this: I am being facetious when I declare this to be a matter of gluing a picture to a book. I realize this is partly about national security. But the fact that this agency was able to produce, in a matter of hours, valid passports for the hundreds of people with “emergency” needs on Friday, December 1st, clearly demonstrates that it is, in fact, possible to go through the rigor of vetting that information and providing passports to legitimate citizens. It CAN be done. It simply ISN’T.
Thank You, Sweet Baby Jesus
So I’m glad it’s all over. It does nothing for my opinion of the government. My bargain with the US is a simple one. In exchange for me giving them a significant portion of money that I, and I alone, have earned through my intellect and creativity, I am permitted to stay out of prison. That’s all I get out of the deal. Oh, I suppose I also get nuclear missiles in silos that will be part of a global exchange to vaporize me in case such a thing ever happens, but I don’t particularly embrace that as a valuable asset. Plus the knowledge that my cash went to buy weapons for the Taliban.
So…………what did I learn? I guess I could say “Don’t be rash“, but I’m not sure how “rash” I was being after a solid week of searching. All the same, from here on out, I’m never reporting a passport stolen again. Even if I see a person named Hassan bin Laid wearing a ski mask who snatches it right from my hands and shouts, “I am stealing your passport, Timothy Knight! Bwa ha ha! Allahu Akbar!.
Anyway, this was a staggering drag, and I’m glad at this very moment I’ve got my feet propped up on my big black lab, and my body is not propped up in a tiny seat with hundreds of masked strangers.
I’m here. I’m queer. Get used to it.