Nobody who knows me in real life will be at all surprised to hear that the FBI has lost my fingerprints. It’s all business as usual for me. This one doesn’t even make it into my Top Ten Bureaucratic Mishaps for 2021.
I am barely shaken by any of it. That the paper copy of my fingerprints was somehow misplaced – possibly stuffed into a manila folder marked ‘Bank Robberies, Unsolved’ – is not the sort of thing that would give me much of a jolt these days.
I know my fingerprints arrived. I received notification from Australia Post a week ago informing me that the parcel was delivered to the Criminal Justice Information Services Department in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Unfortunately, the FBI’s side of our subsequent correspondence has a bunch of sentences like, ‘Are you sure you sent them? Did you write the address on the package properly? Did you affix stamps?’
Again – not even annoyed. On Tuesday, I will calmly return to the Indooroopilly Police Station and allow myself to be fingerprinted again by the nice constable. Then, I will fill out all the forms and papers once more and mail them off to West Virginia. I will do this knowing that this time the parcel will, in all likelihood, be accidentally eaten by some species of hyena.
But eventually, I think – possibly on my fifth or sixth attempt – my finger prints will get to where they need to go. My real concern is that, during a visit to the police station, I might be noticed by a passing detective, and somehow mistaken for a member of Shining Path. You know, the communist rebel group in Peru (hands down coolest name ever, by the way). I mean, who really wants to be detained and questioned for six months by the Central Intelligence Agency at a North African Black Site? Mind you, eventually, news will reach the Federal Bureau of Investigations that I have lived an otherwise blameless life. And that memo will, in time, find its way back to the Australian government.
At the end of the day, you just have to believe in the system, I guess.
Irrationally, I somewhat enjoyed being fingerprinted down at the police station. It was an interesting process, and I didn’t even need to steal a policeman’s hat this time. As I said above, one always worries that some detective or other is going to walk around the corner and say, ‘hang on, that guy looks like he’s in Shining Path’, but I think everybody worries about that. The problem is my track record. I don’t mean, you know, joining South American insurgency groups, but my tendency to enter into strange Kafkaesque nightmares concerning my identity. This has happened to me more times than I can remember.
It starts with some well-meaning official asking to see my identity papers – my passport or whatever. What tends to happen is that it is taken away from me to a third location, placed on a desk, and then – immediately – buried beneath a stack of manila folders. Quite likely labeled: ‘Bank Robberies, Unsolved’.
Why do I need to send the FBI fingerprints? Well, my American wife has applied for Australian Residency. And before the government will allow her to live here permanently, the Australian Federal Government needs to ensure that I – specifically me, for some odd reason – hasn’t been robbing banks overseas. Which is odd when you think about it, because originally the entire point of Australia was to give bank robbers a place to live. And anyway, I haven’t been robbing banks – I have been honest to a fault about everything I did while I was over in the United States. In fact, whenever anybody there asked me, I told them, truthfully, that I was there to steal American jobs and women.
Of course, it’s not especially easy to steal anything in the United States. Unless you get a job on Wall Street, of course – in which case it becomes almost nauseatingly too easy. But, like Shea in my richly underrated novel, The Harvard Skull Fiasco, all I had really wanted to do was fall in love, and maybe land a job at a good university in Boston. But unfortunately I soon found out that MIT wasn’t hiring, so I applied at Harvard instead and – long story short – ended up gathering enough material to write the first ever satire of that university.
I know it all sounds unlikely –you know, them giving me a job – but sometimes massive, dysfunctional bureaucracies can work in a man’s favour. Sometimes, their Human Resources Department is just that lazy. Not to say the process was straight forward.
In 2004 or thereabouts, the Department of Homeland Security lost my actual residency application. No wait – let me be clear, first they gave me permission to live in the United States and even issued me a social security number. Only after that did they lose every record of my arrival and existence. I had vanished. I was a ghost in the system.
I had to make all sorts of appointments. I sat in countless government offices and debated my existence. And everybody was quite nice to me, as you might not expect, though after many months they eventually tired of the circular nature of our conversations, and finally somebody got around to fixing the issue. But that sort of thing, I regret to say, has become so routine in my life that I’ve probably never thought of it until now. Things like that just seem to happen to me.
I’ll give you another example. In January this year, I was living near Bangor, Maine, and decided to call the Australian Consulate to ask them some questions, and inadvertently discovered that my daughters, who are dual citizens of Australia and the United States, are not allowed to arrive in Australia on an American Passport.
“Why?” I reasonably asked.
“They’re not allowed.”
“But they don’t have Australian passports. I was going to get those for them when we’re back there. They are Australian citizens, though … I have the paperwork and everything. So they’re allowed to live in Australia…”
“Yes,” they agreed. “They’re allowed to live there, obviously.”
“But not allowed to arrive there?”
“Correct. Ideally they should already be in the country.”
“Yes, well in order to be in the country, they should be allowed to arrive, shouldn’t they?”
“Yes. But they wouldn’t be allowed to arrive. You see?”
“No,” I said. “My wife is American. She has an American passport. Can she arrive with an American passport?”
“Yes, of course.”
“But my daughters –”
“No, not at all –”
“Wait! What if my daughters – like their mother – arrive in Sydney and show their American passports, and then – hear me out –they walk out of the airport and we’ll just agree that they’ve arrived and…”
“No, no, no…”
I see now in retrospect that I was in the wrong. I was talking to a Consular Official and being reasonable and rational. And if you’ve ever done that, you’ll know that there is no point in being reasonable or rational with a Consular Official. It just confuses them.
So, I had no choice but to play along with them. I agreed to lodge some Australian passport applications for my little girls. But this, the Consular staff explained to me, would require that I travel from Maine to New York. Which would take about a dozen hours on a bus.
“You know about Covid-19, right?” I said to them. It was January, 2021. The vaccine was still months away.
“Yes. But, you need to deliver the documents in person.”
“Can’t I just send them to you and –”
“Yes, you should be careful.”
“Careful, it seems to me, would require that I not travel to New York. I could mail the documents to you and –”
“I’m sorry, but you have to lodge their passport applications in person. It’s procedure.”
“You know, it’s about twelve hours on a bus from here to New York.”
“You can’t drive?”
“I don’t have a license,” I explained, wearily. “It’s a miracle I ever managed to secure myself a passport. My applying for a driver’s license would probably break something in quantum mechanics. So, I will need to take a bus. My question is: what if I contract Covid-19 along the way? And then, somehow, die on the airplane back to Australia? Would my daughters be allowed into Australia then?”
“You would need to talk to the airline about their policy of minors traveling unaccompanied.”
“Yes,” I said. “Speaking with someone at an airline would probably feel refreshing after this conversation.”
After a few days of tense negotiation (well, tense for me – they were sanguine; a common trait among people who lack a capacity for critical thought) the Consulate eventually agreed that I could lodge the passport applications by mail. But first I would need to send them an official letter from my doctor stating that it was dangerous for me to travel from Maine to New York on a bus in the midst of a global pandemic.
My doctor, being of sound mind, fired a letter off straight away. It read a little like, ‘Are you people nuts? Of course he shouldn’t be taking buses across state lines! Have you been watching the news for the past year?’
And so, I was then permitted to lodge my daughter’s Australian passport applications by mail. Now, I somewhat distrust large institutions (for some reason) so I carefully paid forty five dollars to FedEx, just to ensure that the parcel containing the applications would arrive safely in New York the very next day.
So then FexEx sent that parcel to Oklahoma – where it stayed for two weeks – and then? Well, it went south from there. The Consulate nagged me and nagged me and nagged me. But somehow, miraculously, after a three-and-a-half week tour of the southern United States, my daughters passport applications arrived in NYC.
My point? As far as encounters with bureaucratic bloodymindedness go, that example ranks as the fourth most irritating that I’ve endured this year. And this issue with my fingerprints getting lost by the FBI ranks as sixteenth. I’m not telling you my top three because I don’t want to put any readers at risk of a brain hemorrhage.
For me, the most frustrating thing about all of this is that you all probably assume I’m stretching the truth. Let me assure you, I am far too principled to exaggerate when it comes to writing about bureaucracies. In such matters, the truth becomes sacred to me! Though admittedly I did have to downplay a lot of the insanity at Harvard University in my novels, but that was to ensure that nobody mistook their genre for fantasy. The truth about Harvard is a lot more startling than most people would be prepared to accept. I will never tell the full story – at least, not unless a good bottle of whiskey is somehow involved.
Yet there is no nation as mired in bureaucracy as Australia. And that’s from someone who lived in Spain for nearly three years. Spain didn’t even bother to have an Industrial Revolution. It’s a country that shuts down for three hours each day because it gets a bit warm. Not as warm as Queensland, nor even as warm as most of Asia, but sufficiently warm that everyone is allowed to have a three hour nap anyway. Spain is basically a country where they burned the Protestant Work Ethic at the stake.
And yet, no indolent Spanish bureaucrat can compete with an Australian bureaucrat or politician. If misplacing a manila folder were an Olympic Sport, our bureaucrats would do to the rest of the world what we do in the swimming pool. It has actually taken me four months (so far) to prove to the Australian government that I have at least one child under six and no current employer.
Why? Why do I have prove that I have at least one child under six and no current employer? Yes, I sense your bewilderment. But if I explain that, I’ll be obliged to explain three or four other things and so on, and before long, I will be ranting about Margaret Thatcher and neoliberalism in general. So, for the sake of our collective sanity, let’s skip the issue for now. All that matters anyway is that I really do have one child under six and no current employer. Not that the Australian government will believe me.
They’re nice on the phone, of course, and always apologetic. I suppose they do sort-of believe me, it’s just that this should be a straightforward bureaucratic procedure and it’s not. Every single week, without fail, something goes mysteriously wrong at their end. And these people don’t even take siestas. In the interests of full disclosure, I have been trying to convince the Australian government that I have ‘one child under the age of six and no current employer’ for precisely 129 days now. I have devoted more time to this task than I spent, years ago, applying for Spanish Residency Visas for my entire family. And those are tricky!
Anyway, I obviously know what you’re thinking. I should have spent the last decade robbing banks.
I know! I wouldn’t have even needed a weapon, I could have just wandered up to the bank teller and said something like, ’listen, if don’t mind, hand over the money, or else – I don’t know – imagine me doing or saying something vaguely unpleasant’. And they’d have had no choice but to hand over the money, just like they’ve been trained to do. And then, out the door I’d walk. Maybe afterwards, I’d treat myself to some of that high-end sushi – you know, those extravagant items down the back of the menu, the ones that seem to be stretching the entire concept of sushi a bit too far. I have always wanted to order some of those, but each roll is priced at a bazillion dollars.
Anyway, that’s what I should have done – I should have robbed bank after bank, and made zero effort not to be caught, because clearly being arrested would only result in my paperwork getting lost. One week in jail and then nobody would have any idea who I was, let alone how I’d come to be there. Far-fetched, you think? Have you already forgotten that I had to prove my existence to Homeland Security years after they issued me a Social Security Number?
Do you know what I did earlier today? I wrote an email to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Here it is below.
Dear FBI. Apologies for the difficulty at your end. I know my original fingerprints arrived, I paid extra for tracking as I always do, so that I may enjoy, vicariously, the colourful journeys my packages make around the world. You know – Oklahoma, and all points south. My suggestion is that you look for my fingerprints under a notarized copy of D.B. Cooper’s original birth certificate. Which you may find, I somehow suspect, stuffed down the side of a mislabeled box containing the Ark of the Covenant. By the way, I am not a member of Shining Path.
With chaste affection,
Kris St Gabriel