My children are going to visit their father this summer. Jessie has a passport, Imogen does not. Imo has her Certificate of Canadian citizenship, which used to be “good enough”, as it were, but these days, in case you haven’t been keeping up, one needs a passport to travel by air between the USA and Canada.
Applying for Imo’s passport has been an arduous process. First of all, in order to apply I had to have the divorce decree, which meant I had to actually be divorced and then receive the order in the mail. It came, and I first applied for Imo’s passport on April 13th – three months before her travel date. I went to our local service center, where the wait times for passports were listed as six weeks. Perfect!
She’s traveling on July third? the nice woman said to me in a voice made breathless with horror. That’s not enough time! You need to ask her Dad to change the flights by a few days. Even a few days should be enough to get this back!
I did. He didn’t. But that’s okay – all is not yet lost. If I go to an actual “passport office”, of which there are ones in Vancouver and Victoria, I can get the passport more quickly. I go to Vancouver the following week, bright with the hope of applying for Imo’s passport. Perfect!
I show up at seven am to find a line some three hundred people deep.
Three hundred people?
Still, I wait in the rain for a few hours, aware of Imo’s passport application, clutched under my arm, getting more and more soggy. After three odd hours when the line still has not moved, I give up. I will get up early the next morning and beat the line up. Perfect!
The taxi drops me off at 4:15 the next morning. It is raining, again, and there are already 75 people in line. This is also my last day in Vancouver, and I have to be back at the hotel at 11:00 am to check out. This is not going to work. That’s okay! I will go to Victoria and apply for a passport at that office on my next day off of work. Perfect!
Today was that day. It’s a two hour drive from my house to the passport office in Victoria, so I set off at one in the morning to make sure I am there in lots of time. I have a blanket, pillow, my passport, Imo’s pictures, the application signed by her Dad, me, and my guarantor, my divorce papers, our separation agreement, and proof of the children’s travel. Nothing can stop me now.
I get to the office at 3:00 am. There are seven people sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the building. It’s unclear which is the end of the line and which is the start, so I wave hopefully through the window of a nearby building to attract the attention of the security guard. He shows me where to wait and says, You’re the first person in line! Except you’re not. Because those people and here he gestures to the sleeping people in front of me, are homeless people that are going to sell their spots in line.
Okay, I think, and settle down with my pillow and blanket feeling at one with the world. Unlike my friends next to me, I stay sitting up, unable to sleep. First of all, I am too wired. Second of all, I am not comfortable enough to actually go to sleep or even want to go to sleep. Awake, I will know what is happening to me. Asleep, it will all take me by surprise. I watch the street sweepers roll by and wait for the hoards of people to appear. There isn’t much else to do, I didn’t bring a book or even a fully-charged mobile phone on which to play games, so I think about what I am going to do when the bakery across the street opens.
I will buy coffee for myself and for the seven homeless people who have staked out spots! We will have muffins! I will go to the bank and withdraw $200 and distribute it to them with affection! We are all one on this planet, I think, just trying to get along. I will be eighth in line, and it’s wonderful, and the world is a good, good place. Imogen will get her passport. I will stop having stress dreams. These homeless people will get a little break and sell their spots and everything will be happy.
At 4:15, a full hour and fifteen minutes since I wrapped myself in my blanket and sat down, the next person arrives. I am a bit disappointed about this. I could have slept for another hour! But that’s okay! He sits far away from me on a little fold out chair. I realize that he, seeing a line of people in blankets, thinks we are all homeless people claiming spots to sell. That’s okay! I feel glad I sat right next to this pink blanket with black boots poking out from underneath and did not sit a healthy distance away as he did to us.
One of the homeless people, the only woman, sits up. The security guard comes out and they begin to talk about an incident which happened not long before I arrived. They were all sleeping, and the man in the front of the line (he’s not there, they’re gesturing to a point ahead of the line as I see it) suddenly woke up, walked back to this woman and her partner (who were sleeping) and kicked her partner in the face with his work boots.
Then he did it again.
The man got taken to jail, the partner got taken to the hospital, but by the time I got there he was back and sleeping, covered in a tatty grey blanket. The woman and the security guard describe his eye to me. It has, from the sounds of it, been essentially kicked in.
People who think homeless people are homeless because they’re lazy are wrong. People who think that sleeping in the passport line-up is an easy way to make money are wrong. The guy got his eye kicked in.
Wow, I say, slightly stunned.
That’s just disrespectful, the security guard says.
It is! the woman agrees.
I do not agree. Disrespectful is not the word that leaps into my mind when I think of someone kicking a sleeping man in face.
As the kicker got arrested he told the woman, who had run to the security guard and asked him to call the police, that seeing as how she was a snitch he’d have her killed for sixty dollars. They seem to think he could, and that he very well might. May he not get out of jail, I think. And then I wonder, will he get out of jail? Will anyone press charges? How does the system work? I don’t even know.
At five am the next person arrives. It’s five am and there are only three legitimate people in line. I am less excited now. Why couldn’t this have happened in Vancouver? Why did I wake up at one in the morning and drive two hours? Heck, I could probably still be sleeping. I am also starting to feel slightly less magnanimous about the idea of the homeless people selling spots in front of me to people who can’t even be bothered to get here until the last moment. After all, they’re not actually spots. The homeless people are not going to go in and take up time in the passport office, after all. If no one gives them money, they will go away, and I will be first in line. Which is as it should be, I am quite sure. I have been up since one. What the homeless people are doing, I realize, is selling phantom spots. They’re essentially taking money so that a couple of people can feel morally okay about budging in line. Budging in line in front of me! This is not, I realize, akin to trading your spot for money.
I am first in line but you can have my first place spot for $100 and I will take your spot. If you don’t pay me $100, I am going to go into the passport office. My presence is a spot. Their presence is not a spot. They’re selling budging privileges.
Now the line behind me is five people deep and I am eyeing them warily. Are any of them potential budgers? They seem nice. I stand up and fold up my blanket and they visibly relax. I am one of them! Not one of them. I wander over and we all chat back and forth in a friendly way. They are not going to buy a phantom spot in front of me. Okay! All is right in the world, but I am not buying coffee for the homeless-phantom-spot-creators. And I am not giving them money!
Meanwhile the other homeless people have woken up and are beginning to realize the hoards of people they’ve been hoping for have not arrived. I am still disappointed about that myself – being first in line isn’t special if there’s no line behind you, let’s face it. I went without sleep not only to get Imo’s passport but also to feel smug! How disappointing.
I get a good look at the man’s eye around seven o’clock, when his girlfriend wakes him up. They’re worried about the line. If they can’t sell their spots by 7:30, when the commissioner from the passport office hands out numbers, they’re done. No money. No sales. They start working the line. I am not sure a man with stitches across his head, a bloody eyeball, and a black eye to the cheekbone is going to have a lot of luck, but maybe. Hard to tell. One of the other phantom-spot-sellers comes up to me. I don’t like this guy, right from the start. He is the healthiest looking of all of them and he’s clearly an operator. One of those guys who is as smart as hell and uses his powers for evil and not for good.
You look tired, he says. Tired and grumpy.
I have been up a long time, I tell him.
You know, he says, his voice going all sing-song and sweet, snake-charming, you could buy the second spot in line, then you’re just in and out.
I look at him. I look at the line, of which, technically, I am in the front. There have been no buyers. I look back at him with something close to admiration. Here is a man trying to sell me a spot in front of myself that doesn’t exist.
That’s pretty cool, actually.
No, I grin at him, so he knows it’s all good. Inside, I am really, really glad I didn’t buy coffee.
In the end they make five sales at forty dollars each. The snake-charmer guy makes them all and divides up the money with his friends, who do not, apparently, include the kicked-in-the-head guy and his very nice girlfriend. They leave empty-handed, just one eyeball short after their night hoping for a sale. That’s a lot to lose for forty dollars. That’s a lot to lose for nothing.
I stare at all the people who bought the phantom spots. They don’t seem to care that they are budgers. The people behind me and I have all grown quite chummy and we stand around in groups chatting and laughing. Secretly I hope the phantom-spot buyers feel ostracized but you know, I think they really don’t care.
Around 8:40 the first fifteen of us are allowed inside. Boom boom, here we go. I get up to the counter and unload all my documents. He doesn’t want proof of travel.
But can’t I expedite it?
You don’t need to, you’ll get it the third week of June or so.
Imo is traveling on July third!
You’ll be fine.
He takes full copies of the divorce decree and the separation agreement, all 35 pages of it. Because this was done outside of Canada, it will get sent to the legal department to make sure that Imo is legally entitled to a passport.
What? Both her Dad and I signed her passport application, she’s going on a trip with her Dad to visit her Dad at her Dad’s house, and I am applying for the passport so clearly this is okay with me, and with him. What else could matter?
Well, some times courts in other countries do things in a way that we don’t do things in Canada. Our legal department has to … review things.
You’ll be fine.
I haven’t worked out yet what we will do if we’re not fine. So I have decided to agree with him.
We’ll be fine.
I gather up my pillow and blanket and trot back down the stairs to Fort Street, where I had spent such pleasant hours. Farewell old street! Farewell people still in line, good luck and god bless! Farewell homeless people, wherever you have dispersed to. May it go a little easier the next night. I don’t like the phantom spots, I admit it, five hours outside changed my tune, but I wish you the very best. May someone kinder buy you coffee. May that man, when he gets out of jail, never find you.