Thursday, May 23, 2013

Do Not Passport "GO!", Do Not Collect Any New Experiences

Greetings, Red-Tape Wranglers!

Since I'm not making a ton of money right now (read: any) I've cut back on acquiring a lot of superfluous crap.  I no longer buy movies, books, music and games indiscriminately.  I don't eat out five times a week like I used to.  I make my coffee at home, but since I've always got a bag of freshly-ground Fogburner and a french press, this really isn't a big sacrifice.

About the only luxury I can't quit is traveling.  Honestly, I can't wrap my head around Karl Pilkington types who say that they hate to travel and would rather stay home where everything is familiar. You might as well come out and say that you're completely ant totally opposed to the concepts of "new", "different" and "exciting".

Now although I didn't care to much for my last job I absolutely loved the gig that proceeded it.  I haven't talked much about this mysterious enterprise but it was actually pretty rad.  In fact, for a while there, I actually felt as if I had something vaguely resembling a career.

One of the many cool perks with this job were the annual sales conferences.  Up until that point, the most far-flung place I'd ever been to was Toronto or Montreal.  Imagine my surprise when I was told that I'd be going to freakin' Miami just a few short months after getting the gig.

As a "small boy from a small town", I knew this trip would be a transformative experience for me.  But I had to get there first and current events weren't making that easy.  Keep in mind, this was back in 2003, just two short years after 9/11.  U.S. Homeland Security was cracking down on us shifty, subversive Canadian types who were trying to enter their country without sufficient I.D.  If I was going to go on this trip, I needed to get a passport.

I didn't have one at the time but, then again, why would I?  Travel was certainly something I wanted to do in the future but money had been kinda tight up to that point.  But now, with this sales conference looming, I finally had a reason to procure this precious document.  Unfortunately I had very little time to do it.  Given the fact that I only had a few short weeks to get it rushed out to me, my boss gave all of us Friday afternoon off so we could expedite the application process.

Unfortunately, back then, upstanding, hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying folks who'd known you for most of your life (I.E. your friends) weren't considered trustworthy enough to vouch for your identify.  In fact, only "pillars of the community" like accountants, doctors, lawyers, dentists or priests could be relied upon to verify who you really were.  S'funny, because, to me, this kinda looks like a roll-call for society's worst charlatans and crooks.  

I didn't know it at the time, but that afternoon would soon degenerate into a desperate, existential bid to prove my mere existence.  The first person I went to see was my dentist, in the time in since my last check up, he'd left the practice and vanished off the face of the earth.  This immediately led me to assume that dentists couldn't vouch for themselves.   There ya go, strike one.

I then went to see my family physician, Dr. Pinhead, er...Pinsky.  Granted, I wasn't in the habit of doing annual physicals back then, but I'd consulted with him before and I was pretty sure that he'd vouch for me.  Yeah, I was wrong.

"Sorry, but I'm just not comfortable signing this," he told me flat-out.

"What?  Why?!?"

"Well, you've only been here one time before and that was four years ago.  For all I know you could be a member of Al-Qaeda."


I had only one option left and I wasn't feeling encouraged.  Even though my optometrist, Dr. Gaetan Lang, had successfully cured my of my irrational fear of eye exams, I'd only seen him a few times in the past.  Would he pull a Pinsky and shut me down?

The sad state of my appearance certainly wouldn't help my case.  Since I wasn't expecting a Mission: Impossible-style assignment that day I'd gone to work looking decidedly scruffy.  And now, with my options quickly drying up, we were getting uncomfortably close to the passport office's closing time.  It wasn't just my own application hanging in the balance, my co-workers were relying on me to seal the deal as well.

Without any pretense to civility I bombed into the optometry office, madly raving like a crazed transient whacked out on crystal meth.  Fortunately, Dr. Lang was just finishing up with a patient and stopped to listen to my disjointed request.  Taking note of my disheveled appearance and palpable panic, the good doctor was kind enough to take pity on me.

"Sure, I can sign that for you," he said, gesturing for me to hand over the application.

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you..." I wheezed. 

"So, where are you going?" he asked cordially while he filled out the document.

"Mi..Miami..." I panted, giving a thumbs up to my co-workers standing just outside the glass doors.  Helpfully they were standing there, swapping wisecracks and laughing their asses off at me.

"Oh, very nice," he said, handing the completed form back to me.  "That's a great place to be this time of year.  Enjoy!"

I can't quite remember but I'm pretty sure that I hugged him.  With only an hour left before the passport office closed shop for the weekend we all ran to the car and made a beeline downtown.  It was gonna be tight.  Even if we got down there in time, the chances of us finding a parking space was pretty slim.  Mercifully, our chauffeur that day had a legitimate driver disability window sign, which pretty much allowed us to park in the building's lobby.  We all rushed inside, commandeered an elevator, found the office, grabbed a number and began to wait.  And wait.  And wait.   

With only fifteen or twenty minutes to spare, someone finally called my number.  Now that I had all of my administrative ducks in a row, I confidently strode up to the wicket and cast my paperwork down like a gauntlet of challenge.

"I should like to apply for a passport, kind sirrah!"

The clerk started to look everything over.  Suddenly his brow furrowed.

"Do you have a photo?"

My heart skipped a beat but then I remembered something my co-workers had said earlier.

"I was told that I could get one done here.  I know it's a bit more expensive but I really didn't get a chance to..."

"Sure, sure," the clerk muttered, his eyes flicking towards the clock on the wall.  

"I just need to see your birth certificate."

I pulled out my wallet, located the card and dropped it on the counter.  Suddenly, the clerk recoiled as if I'd just thrown a dead rat in front of him.

"Oh," he said, reflexively pushing the card away from him.  "I'm sorry, but I can't help you."

If I recall correctly, this was the very first time that I ever felt my eyeball twitch.  Instantly I found myself fighting the urge to launch myself over the counter and strangle him with a metal pen-chain.  Instead I took a deep breath and tried to form a coherent sentence.

"And why is that?" I managed to say.

"Your birth certificate.  It's not valid."


"It's laminated," winced the clerk.

"Wha...who cares if it's laminated?  The information is still accurate!"  

"I'm sorry, but it's not," the clerk babbled, perhaps expecting an errant fist to come his way.  "Record- keeping rules changed significantly in Quebec back in 1994 so any laminated birth certificates issued prior to that are invalid." 

Stunned and dejected I gurgled my thanks and then pushed myself away from the wicket.  A passport wasn't the only thing out of my reach; the only piece of identification I had was about as useful as a peanut-butter-smeared playing card.  The only good thing that happened that day was the money I saved on my passport photo.  Unfortunately, it was taken under considerable duress and I ended up looking like a cross between Raj Binder and John Baird.   

The following Monday I marched into my boss's office to report the bad news.

"That's it!"  I ranted in frustration.  "It's over!  I can't go!"

"Oh, you're going," he said in his own inimitable manner which I still kinda miss.

"IT'S...NOT...POSSIBLE!" I shouted back.  "I have no valid identification!  At all!  From what I've heard, those customs guys really don't need any extra incentive to bust out a cavity search!"

"Let me tell you something," he replied, matter-of-factly.  "You're going to this.  You see this email here?  It's got seven names on it including yours.  It doesn't say 'maybe David Pretty should come if he can possibly make it'.  This is a work-related event and your attendance is mandatory.  Yeah, you might end up detained in some holding cell  in JFK airport somewhere, but you're gonna try!  So if I was you I'd be gettin' a valid birth certificate pretty damned quick."     

This might sound harsh, Gentle Readers, but it was actually just the kick in the pants I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and get things done.  Suddenly the glass seemed half-full.  Thanks to my boss and my helpful co-workers, I managed to expedite an application for a valid birth certificate.  In fact, it arrived in the mail just days prior to our departure.

Our flight was at 6:35 AM and I was too excited to sleep.  My boss picked us all up in style around 4:30 AM in a stretch limousine and en route I sipped away at a lethal home-made concoction of rum and coke.  By the time we got to the airport my bladder was the size of a novelty football.  Ah, back when I was young even more stupid then I am now.

Now, I'm not a big fan of wearing logo-tainted clothing but I made an exception on that particular occasion.  En route to the airport, my fellow employees dressed me up in every single company-related garment they could find: hat, jacket, t-shirt, trackpants, g-string: the whole magilla.  By the time we landed in Newark I looked like a corporate-sponsored Heaven's Gate cult member. 

In spite of my thorough disguise, my anxiety shot through the roof as we approached the immigration desk.   

"Stick close to us," my boss whispered.

"Just answer their questions and don't say anything else!" another warned.

"Whatever you do, don't look like you've got something to hide!" a third wailed.

"Shut up!"  I yelled back.  "Jesus, I'm nervous enough as it is!"

As our group fractured and wandered off towards the next available agent my terror level went into the red.  Hoping that I would still blend in as part of the group, I tried to linger behind my boss who was clad in similar apparel.  While everyone else cleared customs without a hitch and then coalesced on the "landed immigrant" side of the queue, I felt a sudden stab of panic when another officer motioned me for me to approach.  With my knees now threatening to buckle, I weaved my way over to him and practically crammed my papers into his downturned face.

"Hello!" I warbled, my voice sounding far too chipper in my own ear.

"Destination?" grunted the agent as he sifted through the sweat-stained documents.   

"Miami," I gulped.

"Purpose of your visit?"

"Business.  Sales conference," I replied.  Was it my imagination or did my voice just break as if I'd suddenly hit puberty?

The agent stopped jabbing his computer keyboard and started giving me the once over.  He finally seemed to notice that I was dressed up like a human NASCAR.

"How's business?" he asked.

My mouth worked silently for a moment.

"I...I'm sorry?"

"Business, how's business?" he demanded, a slight edge creeping into his voice.

"Oh, good, good!"  I babbled.  "I set up small to medium sized businesses with corporate accounts and then hand them over to account managers.  I've been averaging around eleven new registrations every month so things are going pretty good at the moment.  How about you?"

'Shut up, shut up, shut up,' my brain began to chide.

The immigration officer smiled tersely, turned back to his monitor, and clattered a few more keys.  Suddenly I was mired in some sort of weird time nexus, suspended in a prolonged moment of abject chronological purgatory.

Then, all of a sudden, the agent whipped out a stamp, hammered my declaration form, gathered my papers back together and handed it all back to me in a neat bundle.  Despite my initial flinch at the sound of the stamper, I shakily retrieved my documents, mumbled a quick 'Thanks' and then meandered away.

Just as we were all clear of the CHAMBER OF FEAR I was immediately swarmed by my jubilant peers.  For some odd reason, it was one of the happiest and most triumphant moments of my entire life.  I probably would have been even more elated if I knew what was to come.

But that's a story for another time...  

EPICALLY FUNNY In Karl's defense, Ricky Gervais is a bit of a sadist.  

EXISTENTIAL FAIL  Ever feel as if your grasp on existence is tenuous at best? 

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