“It’s like your whole life’s in there,” a friend remarked once about my fourth passport, flipping through the many stamps on its worn pages with a twinge of jealousy. At the time I was flattered. After all, I had traveled so much on it—mostly through my previous work—that I got new pages sewn in, for free, at the U.S. embassy in China. There are few more tempting grounds for self-aggrandizement than this. Imagine the comfort it affords, for example, walking home alone from bars on nights when the other guy went home with the girl. Your amusing anecdotes may have won the aggregate favor of tonight’s party guests—so the consolation goes—but have you ever had to get extra pages sewn into your passport?
Besides, my fourth passport covered ten of the most pivotal years of my life. Pimples to paychecks, make-outs to marriage, dormitories to domiciles—years 16 through 26 presented an agreeable progression, not unlike our own species’ passage from Lascaux to Lautrec. Each stamp was a geological age in my emotional maturity. I went to those places, I saw those things, I overcame—a resplendent Caesar triumphing over the shadows of my earlier, more puerile, selves.
Like I said, my friend’s comment buttered my ego nicely. Who doesn’t want to be known as a rough-and-tumble world traveler? It was only later, however, that the implications began to be downright unsettling.
For starters, my fifth passport was destroyed by fire. Not a house fire, nothing so tragic as that. I did it myself. Under my own volition. It came in the mail when I ordered it after my fourth expired on my 26th birthday, and I received it, held it in my hands for a few moments, and then threw it into the microwave, upon which it immediately burst into acrid flames.
As impulsive as this may seem, I was acting out a bit of advice from a friend who I now realize is some sort of anarcho-libertarian. All new U.S. passports since 2006 have a RFID chip inserted into the cover, he told me, which broadcasts the holder’s biographical information and current location to electronic readers in customs queues in airports around the world. First issued under the second Bush administration (that old conspiratorialist bugaboo), he told me hackers—and governments—have the ability to steal your information from these mindlessly broadcasting chips and put them to nefarious use. For privacy’s sake, he urged me, you should destroy the RFID chip with a quick hammer blow, a bout in the washing machine or, his personal favorite, a 3-second go-around in the microwave. At the time it sounded sensible. Nobody would know the difference, he said. You can’t see the damage, he said. It’s not illegal, he said. He certainly never mentioned the possibility of flames.
Clearly I did not think this through.
After the fact, with a melted RFID chip and a charred passport stashed away in a shoebox under my bed, I discovered the State Department website warns that tampering with passports is a federal offense subject to 30 years in prison, right up there with treason and insurrection. I thought of draft dodgers, anarchists, wild-eyed and frothing, men and women without reason who trample on social norms and believe in aliens. These were people who believed the moon landings were staged. They would tell you to your face that the CIA created AIDS to kill black people. My God! I was not one of these people! I was not ready to join their ranks! Relent! Relent!
But the facts were there under my bed. What kind of man would destroy his passport with fire? What noxious fumes exhaled by a fevered mind would lead to such symbolic violence?
As though in confirmation of my fears, the website noted that damaged passports had to be brought in person to a local post office for an interview before a reapplication could be granted.
Surely this was meant to check the mental wellness of the applicant, to ascertain his or her political views, to judge their proclivity for violence against the state. Why else the need for an interview?
Perhaps they would ask me vaguely ominous nonsensical questions like, “You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm. How do you react?” or “You’ve got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?” The horror! My twitching eyes and dilating pupils would be all they would need.
I had diarrhea the day the interview came. The nervous kind.
They ushered me into the conventionally small room beloved by bureaucracy everywhere, with a single table, four chairs, and a dangling light fixture of middling quality overhead. Everything was grey except the door, which was off-white. You could hear the sound of air circulating in vents. I waited in silence for some moments.
The door opened and a Chinese postal employee with slick hair came in. He was followed by a big Anglo-Saxon man in a black suit and crisp white Oxford-collared dress shirt. I could smell the starch—oddly menacing, intrusive.
The first man sat down in front of me and shuffled some papers around. He didn’t even say hello.
“Your passport was—burned,” he said at last. The last word was elongated, mouthed with a peculiar emphasis. I noted the use of passive tense. Ironic? Sneering? It was impossible to tell.
They both exchanged an inscrutable glance. The postal worker marked something down on a pad of paper before him.
“Is there anything else you wish to say?”
Was there? Should there be? What magic word was I to utter to dispel all suspicion from my person—I, who held the proverbial smoking passport there in my trembling hand on the table? Surely, to them, I already appeared crazed. Surely, to them, the jewels of sweat inch-worming down my face were signs of suppressed guilt, not merely the body’s natural coolant mechanism employed against the devastating heat of the room. But no verbal deliverance could be sought; no utterance could clothe my nakedness against the uniform eye of the State and her institutions. Had I ever thought to displease her? Had I thought myself obdurate enough to grabble with her will? The worm of diarrhea twitched again.
“No. I have nothing else to say.”
The Anglo-Saxon man shifted on his feet, the barbaric blood of his pagan ancestors no doubt baying for violence in his druidic veins.
I felt fear. Real fear, hot in the blood vessels beneath my skin.
Suddenly the Chinese man pushed his chair back from the table. The metal legs grated loudly against the linoleum, etching white trails into their speckled grey-and-black surface. He looked over my shoulder at a vanishing point somewhere outside of space and time.
“Goddamn, I just can’t do this anymore,” he said. He swept a hand through his gelled hair and held it there with a kind of desperation. “Trent,” he said, presumably to the Anglo-Saxon man, “I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore.”
Was this a kind of ruse, some kind of elaborate theater intended to break my resolve? To expose my chattering insanity in the cruelest way possible—through machinations and mind games? I didn’t understand. What were they playing at?
He looked at me searchingly. “You don’t mind if I smoke? Of course not. ”
He had answered the question already, so I said nothing. He flicked out a pack of Kent from inside his postal uniform and slipped one between his lips. He lit it and took a long drag.
The diarrhea kept twitching deep within, but there was a new sensation dawning now, slowly of course, but with an unfolding inevitability. It was a sensation of—what? Kinship, perhaps. A sort of fellow-feeling, one that was alive with shared bitterness. It was a bit like biting into a steak at a restaurant and realizing, with a grimace, that the meat was rotten—and seeing the same grimace on the face of a man across the way, steak-knife in one hand, the first bite still bursting with corruption in his mouth.
“I hate my job,” he said, to nobody in particular.
And then he said, “Supervisors don’t give us smoke breaks.”
Later he said, “It’s been a long week.”
The possibility that I had been wrong about everything broke across my mental landscape for the first time.
Trent and I watched him smoke in silence, the whole thing, probably five or ten minutes. You could still hear the air ventilation, enough sound to fill in the blank edges of your perception. The Chinese man kept his eyes closed. Trent stood with his arms behind his back and maintained a face that was unreadable, blank—a void onto which one could paint a thousand different possibilities. It was remarkable only in its absence of expression.
In the silence, I realized they were both essentially sad and pathetic characters, mere cogs, like myself. What I had mistaken for cold menace was in fact indifference—but a brutalizing indifference, the leveling indifference of procedures, memos, and bureaucratic seals.
After a while, the Chinese man pressed the butt into the table, rotating his wrist to grind out the last bit of life left in the coal. He brushed the detritus onto his hand and then deposited it into his breast pocket.
“Sorry, Trent,” he said again to the Anglo-Saxon man. And then to me he said, “Thanks for that.”
He looked at some papers before him, stamped two of them, signed another and then got up. Without looking at me he said, “Ok, we’re done here. You’ll get your next passport in four to six weeks.”
And then both he and Trent walked out the door.
My bowels unclenched in the gastrointestinal equivalent of a hallelujah. I had no idea what had just happened in the particular, but in the general sense, I knew I was home free.
Not quite, as it turns out. My sixth passport was a long time in coming.