Thursday, July 09, 2009

If you look like your passport picture, you're not well enough to travel, or, why this entry doesn't have pictures.

Oh, internet; argh. Argh. ARGH.

I know it's not The Done Thing to whine and complain. I know that in the larger scheme of things, the little inconveniences I find so vexing are not really all that important. They're minor bagatelles along the lines of Eva Gabor as Lisa in Green Acres discovering that she chipped her nail polish while making flapjacks for Oliver.

But I swear to God, my attempts to get a U. S. passport today gave me a new respect for illegal immigrants. If it's this hard to get out of the country, what must it be like to try to sneak in?

At first I tried to do this the high-tech way. But have you ever visited the passport website? Don't. You'll drown. It's a perfect example of the Too Long; Didn't Read school of bureaucrat-ese. It's so bad that if you Google "passport" the first hits that come up aren't the government site; they're businesses that make their profits by adding a handling fee to the fee charged by the state department--just for walking you through the process.

Now I'm as cheap as the next Yankee, but today I spent over an hour in the post office dealing with a tiny little clerk named Bob while he tried to help me get a new passport. By the end of our time together, I was ready to pay any number of handling fees to make sure this passport thing would actually happen.

Bob was so tiny and woe-begone and incompetent, he was straight out of central casting. He could easily have played Bartleby the Scrivener or maybe one of the lesser Dickens characters. I felt sorry for him. After all, he's this tiny little white-haired postal worker. How loserish must he feel? So I turned on the charm and was patient and understanding. I smiled a lot. And when the pictures he took of me came out looking not just bad, but incredibly bad, making me look like a cross between my own grandmother and a jar of Grey Poupon mustard, I didn't fuss.

The thing is, Bob couldn't remember how much the passport fees were. He couldn't work the camera. Then he couldn't get the picture to print. Then he wandered around for a while looking for the "expedite" stamp, because it was so important. But then he stamped the wrong kind of envelope.

And I couldn't figure out why the sign on the wall was telling me that an expedited passport would cost $192.25 but he kept telling me it would be $135. I mean, since when does the federal government low-ball itself?

It turns out that by having me fill out labels and forms and self-addressed envelopes and such with my own white hands, he was saving me $25. Which I realize still doesn't add up. But when I asked him about it, he'd get out a piece of scratch paper and start adding columns. And I mean, come on! Scratch paper? Columns? Where's the sign on the wall with the fees? Even McDonald's does that. How do I know Bob's not giving me tonight's Lotto win?

After being sent back to the end of the line for not having everything ready to mail out, I wanted to grab Bob, pick him up by the front of his Postal Employee Shirt, and bounce him around like a paddle ball. And I could have done it. I think he was all of 5' 2" and weighed 70 pounds, including his pocket protector.

This is not my passport picture.
It's way too attractive.
But I think that's Bob.

I finally told Bob, "Hey, listen. I know I don't look it, but let's just assume for the moment that I'm rich. And eccentric. And don't want to save $25 by doing all this myself. Let's say that I'm willing to shove $192.25 at the nearest competent post office employee who will assure me--with a straight face--that I will have a replacement passport in my hand by August 6th. Because on August 6th, I'm getting on a plane to England even if I have to take you hostage to make it happen."

For some reason, he didn't take me seriously. It was very frustrating. I mean, things have come to a pretty pass when it's the customers who are going postal.

I don't feel at all confident that my passport will show up in time. And even if it does, I'll be kicking myself because that is seriously the worst picture that has ever been taken of me. And with my luck, I won't lose this passport. No, I'll probably be carrying it around for the next ten years, like a portable Picture of Dorian Gray.


  1. Oooh, are you coming to England? I'll meet you at the airport. I'll be the one frowning.

  2. Gotta love government employees!

  3. Wait, you seriously waited until July to renew your passport? That was brave.

    When we got our daughters' passports, it was such a hassle because we had to take them to one place to get their photos made, then go to the main post office for the paperwork. Both Pete and I had to go; otherwise he would have had to write a letter giving me permission to get our daughters' passports AND THEN have that letter notarized.

    I had already filled out the forms online and printed them out, so at least that was done.

    We waited in line for 45 minutes -- there was only one person ahead of us. Then it took AN HOUR for us to get the girls' passports.

    AND THEN we had to write FOUR CHECKS -- one for G's passport, one for the post office service fees for G's passport, one for E's passport, and one for the post office service fees. I am not making this up.

    The worst is that the kids' passports only last for five years, so we get to do this again before too long.

  4. Jen had it easy. My husband and I took our children to the passport office in our small town and followed their directions to apply for kid passports. Then we got a letter from the government saying we couldn't get the kids' passports until we both signed both applications for both children. Which was why we both went to the office during their limited daytime hours IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    Good luck getting your own portable picture of Dorian Gray!

  5. So, darlin', what's plan b?

  6. UGH, that sounds horrible. Maybe there's a way that you can check on your passport's progress?

    I hate that you can't smile in your passport photo. How weird is that???

  7. Blah, blah, blah...August...England. JULY. We HAVE to finish JULY.

  8. Long time lurker, first time commenter...

    One of the advantages of living at the very bottom of the world... print passport application off internet site, go to travel agent/camera shop to get photo's taken ($15?), get person (not a relative) who's known you for more than 2 years (or from birth if baby) to complete the "I know them section" (helps if this person already has a passport, but not necessary), or get an "upstanding person" in community (Dr, JP, teacher!) to complete, they also sign the back of the photo, you write cheque (or give credit card details), post (snail mail) to passport office and 10 (or less!) working days later - voila a 5-year passport! All for the princely sum of NZ$150 (US$95).

    Want to become a NZ citizen yet?

    Kiwi Lindsay

  9. I just went through a remarkably similar scenario trying to get mine renewed. Except mine had a postal employee who, when I asked to have my photo taken on-site, said, "Nah, you don't want to get your photo taken here. The machine hardly works and it's double the price of CVS." No, really - TAKE MY DAMN MONEY!

  10. We went through hell to get Ellie's passport for our last trip to China. It seems the government considered our foreign born 3 year old child a possible terror threat. (That's true in our home, but I doubt she meant harm to the rest of the country.) We had to involve then Senator Obama's office to get things moving as we'd been waiting nearly a year. They got it done - the paperwork we needed arrived within two weeks. I won't even go into the fact that her paperwork for citizenship had been in a filing cabinet in New Orleans when Katrina hit. It was therefore - "inaccessible for the near future". In other words, very, very wet.

    I could go on and on about what we went through for her - this is only a tiny smidgen of the ordeal. The rest of our passports? Not one problem and they all arrived ahead of the scheduled time given to us for delivery.


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xxx, Poppy.