“DO NOT pass the Curtain w/o an AUTHORIZED AGENT”, announced the sign. “Violating this WILL end up in Immediate Removal.”
I read the sign and then carefully sat down, making sure not to disturb the curtain. A bell rang as a man opened the door of the storefront and walked in.
He looked at me. “Is this where they do the fingerprinting?”, he asked.
“I think so,” I responded. “But so far all I know is that you can’t go past the curtain.”
“I had trouble finding it,” my new companion said. “It doesn’t even have a sign, just that sandwich board outside.”
He paused and looked around.
“Well,” he said slowly, “I have 20 minutes until my appointment. I’ll be back.”
“Yes,” I concurred. “Surely there must be something more interesting in this shopping center than this mysterious waiting room.”
You could call it a “waiting room” or you could call it a “storage room with two lines of chairs”. Boxes were piled up on one wall. A clock did its best to blend into another wall. The lone table in the room did not hold a sign in sheet or any other indication that someone might be interested in knowing we were here.
The shy clock said 10:15 AM, just five minutes until my appointment. At 10:20 a woman bustled out from behind the curtain.
“Are you here for fingerprinting?”, she asked.
“Yes, I am,” I replied, standing up to speak with her.
“I’m going to ask you to sit down again,” she said politely, but firmly. “Someone will be out to get you in a moment.”
Obediently, I took my seat again while she asked if I had my ID and if I was there for digital or hard copy fingerprints. I answered from my chair and then she went away again.
I stared out the window for a few minutes and then a couple came in. They read the sign, just as I had, and then sat down.
After a minute, the man got up and stepped over to a laminated TSA Pre-Check document tacked to the wall next to the curtain.
“Stan!”, hissed the woman in an anxious tone, “Come back. It’s too close to the curtain!”
“You gotta be careful around here,” I chimed in softly. “It’s a demanding sort of place.”
“Right?”, said the woman, looking at me. “I don’t wanna get in trouble!”
We all laughed as another couple came in.
“Is this where we go for the name change documents?”, the woman asked with a serious look on her face.
“Yes,” said the man who had been reading the TSA document. “See, it says so on the sign … if you can get past the commandment about the curtain.”
“Oh, OK,” she said, nodding nervously. They sat down.
After a moment she said to no one in particular, “They used to do this at the courthouse, so it’s kind of confusing.”
“Yeah,” said the man next to me. “There they make you go through security before going in the building. At least they don’t do that here. … Although we don’t really know what they do behind that curtain.”
The nervous woman’s face broke into a smile. We all laughed again.
Eventually, an employee came to the curtain and called my name. I was now a bit reluctant to leave the security of the group in the waiting room, but I jumped up again and we went behind the curtain to her office.
We chatted amiably about how the fingerprinting process for sales licenses had changed and I had probably made the wrong kind of appointment and should go back to my office and make another, but I insisted and we went ahead with the fingerprinting anyway.
Nothing much has changed at the intersection of government and commerce since Mark Twain wrote The Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract in 1867, has it? Maybe the technology has changed and services have been outsourced, but it’s still “very slow and very certain” and it still doesn’t seem all that far-fetched that the government would have a “corn-beef division”.
What’s more, we still comply with regulations while refusing to be cowed. Today, just like yesterday, the Americans in the waiting room still band together and laugh at any aura of authoritarianism.
May it always be so.