Just over four hours remained for Sophie and I to procure Pennsylvania’s drivers licenses with which to complete our applications for visas to India, and I’d again been foiled by my own personal Officer Dibble, the Bottom of the Page. It chortled in my face as I sat in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation waiting room and through a mouthful of Brazil nuts explained that to get licenses Sophie and would I need a second, and completely unobtainable, proof of address. Then it toddled off to the conservatory, humming the overture to The Yeoman of the Guard. Moments later, Sophie gently took the application form from my quivering hand to see what had led to my sudden urination on the portrait of Governor Rendell. She looked it over and with a whistling whoosh deflated and flew in loops across the room, eventually snagging on the bus schedule rack.
In truth, my anger at this new development wasn’t because our situation was hopeless. In fact, I’d known for several days that we had a perfectly viable alternative for getting our licenses–one that was legal, required no complex machinations, and could probably be finished in under an hour. But it was an option so utterly distasteful to me that I’d sworn to under no circumstances, with the possible exception of having my head locked in the jaws of an alligator who demanded I buy him a pack of Camels and a bottle of Yellowtail, ever resort to it.
Let me take a minute here to explain some things about me. I’m not someone who likes being told what to do or how to do it. 1Note to potential employers: I’m perfectly fine with being told what to do and how to do it. I, for as long as I can remember, have always hated being coached or given unsolicited advice. That might explain why, in pee-wee soccer, my designated position was the player the coach gave to the other team when they were short a man. I’ve lately come to suspect that this attitude of mine might stem from the fact that my mother has always spent a lot of time telling me what to do and how to do it. I’m not blaming her; it’s what mothers do, especially Jewish mothers, and especially Jewish mothers who are daughters of Jewish mothers who spent a lot of time telling them what to do and how to do it.
Add to this fact that my mother is the type who, when I was in kindergarten, arranged to come into school and show the students how to make bagel pizzas. For my fifth grade class she organized an in-office demonstration of fax machine technology. And one day in high school, I sat in homeroom when the vice-principal’s voice came over the PA system. “Seth Madej,” it said, “please come to the office.” Then there was a pause.
In his desk chair, the vice-principal stared at the microphone. His finger hovered over the Off switch. He thought, “I could end this announcement now. And if I did, the other students in the school might think of Seth as trouble-making bad boy who’s being called to the office to account for his audacious misdemeanors, which would cement his reputation as someone who has kissed many girls, a few with tongue, and who would never wear a Bugle Boy pullover to a Queensrÿche concert. If I simply turned off the mic and went back to work, it would drastically increase Seth’s chances of being liked by other students. He might even end up enjoying a significant period of high school. I can’t take that chance.”
He leaned in and added, “Your mother has your lunch.” 2I had another run in with the same vice principal my senior year. I was late for school, and the student parking lot was full, so out of desperation I parked in the public “Hilltop Lot” nearby. As I climbed out of my orange Ford Fiesta, a voice from another car said, “Excuse me. Come here, please.” The V-P was sitting in his car, waiting for scofflaws. I walked over, and he said, “There is no student parking in the Hilltop Lot during school hours.” Then he handed me a typewritten slip of paper that read, “There is no student parking in the Hilltop Lot during school hours.”
I’m telling you this because it explains why I’d discounted the simplest solution to our drivers license problem when I’d first discovered it, all the way back in Istanbul. See, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Form DL-180 clearly states:
If you reside with someone, and have no bills in your name, you will still need to provide two proofs of residency. One proof is to bring the person with whom you reside to the Driver License Center.
In other words, I had to bring my mother to the office so she could tell them it was okay for me to have a driver’s license.
Sophie had known of this option all along, but she also knew me well enough not to suggest that we do it. But here we sat, slumped on the official state linoleum, all of our other options clearly depleted.
“Let’s go to lunch so I can think about this,” I said.
Up the hill at Eat’n Park, a crinkled pickle slice lounged on top of my Superburger and mocked me silently. I brooded under the guise of devising some miracle solution. Because major utility bills were considered proof of address, I contemplated having a second water line installed in my parents’ house. That seemed reasonable compared to the other option. As a 35-year-old man, I refused to accept that I required my mother’s permission to get a driver’s license. Because, by extension, it meant that I needed her permission to go to India, and, by further extension, to complete my dream of traveling around the world. I wouldn’t admit to that.
But I’d known for days that it would come down to this, and in the back of my head I think I’d been preparing myself. I just needed the few minutes of that one quiet lunch to steel myself, to convince myself that this was all just one formality that had nothing to do with pride. That this wasn’t a metaphor for my whole life. Sophie ate her salad and waited for patiently for me to get to that point. After 18 Pepsis, I was close enough.
And from there it was easy. My mother works from a home office, so we drove over and filled her in on the situation. She came with us to PennDOT right away, no questions asked, no nagging, no triple-checking that we hadn’t missed something the first time. She’s my mom, and as much as I like to get angry at her momness and write blog entries that make fun of it, she’s always done the right thing for me, every time, my entire life. And that afternoon she knew that the right thing was to understand how hard this all was for me and to just say, “sure” and get in the car and go to the DMV. Less than half an hour after Sophie and I’d finished lunch, we were licensed and had everything we needed for our visa applications. 3We’re only about halfway through part three. Normally I’d break the story here and save the rest for another entry, but 10 months is enough already. Plus I just bought Fallout 3.
Of course, that wasn’t true. See, I didn’t know that, due to the federal government’s new Ain’t Nobody Gonna Blow Us Up Now That We Done Standardized Our Driver’s Licenses regulations, Pennsylvania no longer issues official, honest-for-reals licenses at the PennDOT offices. Instead they hand you a license that looks exactly like a regular driver’s license, except for the word “TEMPORARY” stamped in large, red, block-capital letters across all of the vital information.
Heated dialogue ensued as Sophie and I debated our precise level of fucked-overness. There seemed to be little point in sending the Indian government documents from the state of Pennsylvania certifying our status as unstable transients. I considered offering to bring my mother to the immigration office in Mumbai. But after careful weighing of our nonexistent alternatives, we opted to tell the Indian consulate to suck it if our temp licenses weren’t good enough for them. I finished explaining that to the chargé d’affaires, hung up the phone, and we set out to complete our applications with two hours to spare.
Filling out an Indian visa application takes approximately three hours and 16 minutes. The application form itself is pretty simple, maybe 15 minutes of online time per traveler. That’s until you get to question number 37, which demands the name and address of a reference in India. Despite there being 1.2 billion people in India, neither Sophie nor I know any of them. We called most of them just to make sure. So for us that meant booking a refundable hotel room for a few days that we guessed we might possibly be in the country, if we got the visas. That hotel–despite their staff having no idea whether or not we actually existed nor how many severed heads we might be arriving with–became our reference.
After you fill out your application form online, India’s third-party visa processing service emails you a copy of the completed form for you to sign and mail, a scannable cover page to include with it, and, tucked away at the end, a checklist of required items that I’d already read multiple times on their web site. I printed out the applications and started through the checklist.
- Application form: check
- Passports: check 4You have to send in your actual passports when you apply for most visas. The consulate affixes the visa right to the page.
- Copy of birth certificates: check
- Copy of newly obtained, worthless driver’s licenses: check.
- Two identical, passport-sized photos of each of us: Ha! India thought they had us on that one. Nice try, India! We had to take all the stuff to FedEx Kinko’s to send it anyway, so we knew we could get passport photos taken there.
- Completed form AdditionalInformation.pdf: chec–WTF? Nowhere up to this point was there any mention of form AdditionalInformation.pdf. I even went and fetched the Bottom of the Page out of his bath to make sure. He confirmed, sudsy, that not only had there been no mention of it, but also that it was buried at number six on a checklist that no one actually reads. The forms the visa service had emailed me didn’t even include AdditionalInformation.pdf. I had to go back to the Internet and type in a long web address from the checklist to download it.
Many months ago back in part one of this much-longer-than-it-deserves story, I mentioned that India’s consulate is notoriously capricious with its visa requirements. Clearly AdditionalInformation.pdf was their most recent whim, invented solely to be tucked away at the bottom of a checklist as inconspicuously as possible so that applicants wouldn’t notice that its existence and therefore could have their applications immediately shredded by the paralegal. This suspicion was confirmed when I saw the form itself (which you can download here, if you want). It looked like the entry form for a middle-school Magic: The Gathering tournament. It included no header, title, attributions, page numbers, formatting, or any other evidence whatsoever that it wasn’t printed by a pantsless man in a public library. After an inch and a half of blank space and an inexplicable horizontal line, it just started right in with:
a) Whether the applicant or his parents or grandparents (both paternal and maternal) were holding the nationality of Pakistan at any time:
It continued with similar questions/clauses:
b) Whether the applicant has ever been within Pakistan.
c) Whether his parents or grandparents (both paternal and maternal) had ever been within Pakistan.
d) Whether the applicant had enjoyed the episode of Seinfeld where the man had a Pakistani restaurant.
e) Why does the applicant keep talking about Pakistan so much, anyway? Seems suspicious to us.
I should mention that, since this form was a PDF, Sophie and I each had to print a copy and fill it out by hand. I should also mention that it required us to list all of the countries we’d been to in the last 10 years. I’ll also throw in there that we’d just finished four months of traveling in which we’d visited 25 countries. Nevertheless, we dutifully completed AdditionalInformation.pdf, splinted our wrists, assembled all of the materials, and somewhere around 4pm took off for FedEx. There we had our passport photos taken, bundled everything up and sent it off for Saturday delivery. We’d done it.
And so this is where the story skips over any climax and becomes all denouement. Our lack of Pakistaniness was so readily apparent that our applications flew through the consulate at remarkable speed, and we had our visas in hand by 10am Tuesday morning, almost 36 hours before our flight out of Pittsburgh.
That’s a flight we never actually boarded, because I spent the next several weeks literally thinking that I wanted to kill myself. That was followed by several weeks learning that my brain was tricking me into thinking I wanted to kill myself thanks to the undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder I’ve had most of my life. That was followed by several weeks of life-changing mental revamping. That was followed by my finally having the courage to move to Los Angeles to become a teevee writer like I’d always wanted.
I suppose I could’ve used these past 5000 words to write that story, instead of spending them on an ultimately pointless anecdote about a few hours of inconvenience. But that story isn’t finished yet. And this one ends with a picture of an expired visa to India in the beak of a pelican:
[ + ]
|1.||↵||Note to potential employers: I’m perfectly fine with being told what to do and how to do it.|
|2.||↵||I had another run in with the same vice principal my senior year. I was late for school, and the student parking lot was full, so out of desperation I parked in the public “Hilltop Lot” nearby. As I climbed out of my orange Ford Fiesta, a voice from another car said, “Excuse me. Come here, please.” The V-P was sitting in his car, waiting for scofflaws. I walked over, and he said, “There is no student parking in the Hilltop Lot during school hours.” Then he handed me a typewritten slip of paper that read, “There is no student parking in the Hilltop Lot during school hours.”|
|3.||↵||We’re only about halfway through part three. Normally I’d break the story here and save the rest for another entry, but 10 months is enough already. Plus I just bought Fallout 3.|
|4.||↵||You have to send in your actual passports when you apply for most visas. The consulate affixes the visa right to the page.|