Come back with me, dear readers, to a simpler time. A time eight months ago, when Steve Martin had not yet heard of Twitter, when movies about talking owls were just a magical fantasy, and when I had yet to finish living the story about which I would begin writing a month later and then forgot about until today. I resume our tale where I left off, with less than 24 hours remaining for my wife Sophie and I to acquire two forms of proof of address to use to acquire drivers licenses to use to acquire visas to use to gain entrance to India. We have just discovered, to our horror, that the Indian government has capriciously added a requirement that we include copies of our birth certificates with our visa applications. More precisely, I have just discovered that. Sophie would discover it a few minutes later when awoken by the sound of my loudly inventing ethnic slurs.
The addition of birth certificates to the visa requirements wouldn’t seem like such a big deal in an ordinary situation, when one has a permanent address and can send one’s manservant down to the archives to fish around for whatever paperwork the commonwealths might demand. But you have to remember that Sophie and I at that moment were homeless drifters who had packed our vital records, along with everything else we own (minus the items listed here), into a storage locker in Heidelberg, PA. That too wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, since Heidelberg is only a ten-minute drive from the very bed from which we had just been roused by my unexpected racism.
But it was in fact a big deal. See, the storage space containing everything we own was only 10’x15′ large and absolutely packed to walls and ceiling. We’d crammed it so full that on move-in day we literally couldn’t close the door. Rather than risk rearranging anything and triggering a deadly avalanche, we devised a precision technique involving quickly slamming the door shut and running away Three-Stooges-style. On a later spelunking trek into the locker — or as we called it, “The Well of the Souls” — I dropped a borrowed flashlight and watched it roll into the nether regions between a stack of wardrobe boxes and overturned patio furniture. I could still see it shining helplessly, but I had to leave it behind like a wounded marine on Normandy beach.
To help you understand how bad this situation was, please click on the nearby photo of the view through the door of our storage space. I’ve added a helpful arrow pointing to the location of the filing cabinet containing our birth certificates.
You’ll note that you can actually only see a little bit of the arrow, because there’s too much fucking stuff in front of it. Also please note that this photo was taken several months after this story, when the space had been partially emptied. At the time of our adventure the locker contained at least two more chairs and I think most of a disassembled Volkswagen Touareg. Also please note that the filing cabinet was facing the wall. Also please note that our birth certificates were in the bottom drawer. Also please note that at this point it was 9am, and our visa applications needed to be at FedEx by 5pm, and in between we had to go to the DMV to get our drivers licenses before we could even begin filling out our visa applications.
So inward we went. And in a manner not suited to the dramatic retelling of this event, it actually was pretty easy to just shove some of the shit out of the way so that we could get to the filing cabinet. We extracted the birth certificates from our Vital Records file and, assuming that the Indian consulate would ask for them eventually, also grabbed proof of payment of Sophie’s only parking ticket and a copy of my SAT scores (650 math, 590 verbal 1Those were from 1992, when the average score was lower because people hadn’t yet bothered to learn to count above 2000.). When our cheers roused the coyotes sleeping behind the sideboard, we quickly locked up the door and lit out to complete our next mission.
We arrived shortly thereafter in the cluster of mini-malls that housed the local office of the DMV (or as they call it in Pennsylvania, “PennDOT”). Our job here was pretty simple. We’d show the clerk our New York drivers licenses, passports, and the lease to my mother’s spare bedroom that I’d concocted the night before; take an eye test; and emerge with shiny new Pennsylvania drivers license bearing the needed proof of address to complete our visa applications. We confidently strode into the waiting room and up to a sign reminding us that our $35 processing fee was payable only by check — no credit cards, cash, or bartering hogs accepted. We confidently strode back out of the waiting room. An hour later, after a round-trip back to my mother’s and a frantic search for my checkbook, we only slightly less confidently strode back into the waiting room. It was now well after noon.
This being a Friday, the office was mostly empty. A few teenagers took their first written driving tests accompanied by their parents, all of whom had the look in their eyes of someone who’d just been told the date of their own death. A handful of senior citizens waited to renew their licenses. Otherwise it was just us. As I sat in the molded plastic chair pondering whether India would actually want anyone stupid enough to be in this situation visiting their country in the first place, the most senior of the citizens sidled up to the counter to take his eye test.
“Okay, Mr. Oldman 2Name changed for hilarious effect. the friendly woman at the desk said as she motioned to a device resembling an industrial-size Viewmaster. “Please look into the eyepiece and read the second line.”
“Look into the what?”
“The eyepiece, Mr. Oldman. It’s right in front of you.”
“This thing?” Mr. Oldman asked.
“No, that’s a pen. Just put your eyes right here.” She tapped the eyepiece.
“Oh,” Mr. Oldman said, leaning in to the vision tester.
“Now read the second line.”
“Read which line?”
“The second line, Mr. Oldman.”
“Oh.” He coughed. “G. R. X….”
“The second line. Mr. Oldman.”
“I only see one line.”
“Look down, Mr. Oldman.”
“Oh. Yeah. E….”
“E? Are you sure, Mr. Oldman?”
“I mean F.”
“Good. Keep going.”
“O,” he continued.
“I. V. And, uh, um….”
“Did you say ‘J’?”
“Very good, Mr. Oldman,” she congratulated him in the way one congratulates a dog for getting its head unstuck from a fence. “Now we need to test your peripheral vision. You’ll see small lights blinking to the sides. I need you to tell me if you see the light on the left, on the right, or both. Okay?”
“I don’t see any lights.”
“Not up there, Mr. Oldman. Look back into the eyepiece. They’ll be on the side.”
“The what? There aren’t any lights.”
“They’re on the side, Mr. Oldman. Now do you see them on the left, the right, or both?”
“I said on the left, on the right, or both?”
“Uh — the right?”
“The light could be on the left, or on the right, or maybe there could be lights on both sides.“
“It’s on both.”
“Good job, Mr. Oldman. Head over to the back and they’ll take your picture for your license.”
Sophie leaned over to me and whispered, “We’re never getting out of the parking lot alive.”
I didn’t hear her though, because during this vaudeville act I’d been examining Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Bureau of Driver Licensing Form DL-180. Having remembered our earlier experiences with the visa application Web site, I realized that it might be a good idea to reacquaint myself with my old nemesis, the bottom of the page. There it sat, lounging in its smoking jacket and overstuffed leather armchair, underneath the list of acceptable forms of proof of residency. It glanced up at me, lighting its pipe. As I read the words “Lease Agreement, Mortgage Documents, W-2 Forms, and Current Utility Bills,” the bottom of the page picked up its copy of the New York Review of Books and said, “Any TWO of these items must be presented.”
Outside, Mr. Oldman drove through the front of the Chuck E. Cheese.
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|1.||↵||Those were from 1992, when the average score was lower because people hadn’t yet bothered to learn to count above 2000.|
|2.||↵||Name changed for hilarious effect.|