Tuesday, June 19, 2007

National passport disaster affects local quizmaster; adoring masses cry out in sympathy

I've admittedly been a bit slow on the draw doing my quiz blog duties this week. Been busy. The most traumatic part of the week by far was getting my passport renewed, which essentially required me to put in a work day, about 9:30am- nearly 5pm at the US Customs House at 2nd & Chestnut, last Friday. This doesn't include the time it took to do the paperwork and get all of what I needed together. The US government, seeking to keep us safe from The Terrorists changed the law regarding travel to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda; basically starting January 1 tens of millions of Americans who never needed a passport before in their lives suddenly needed one for their usual business or vacation, and the agency just wasn't prepared to deal with the logjam.

(This law has just been temporarily repealed for the summer - several months too late to set things right in sufficient time for most travelers - in order to let the airline industry do its usual business and take some pressure off of the US State Department's Passport Agency, which shows what a load of crap it was in terms of keeping us safe in any way to begin with. Presumably the terrorists who were poised to attack us via Bermuda on or after January 1st won't do it while school's out..?)

Amazingly getting your passport (or getting it renewed), which used to take just a few weeks by mail without paying any rush surcharge, now takes as long as 3 months or more with the $70 "rush" fee (over and above the $67 fee for renewal or $87 for your first). In addition they suggest
you pay $15 each way to have the darn thing overnighted round-trip. Yes, your new passport might now cost in the range of $210 and take up to 3 months!

What country are we in? When I mentioned all this mess to a friend he suggested we check our money to see if the current ruler was on it yet.

The Passport Agency tests to see if you're serious about wanting to be allowed to leave the country by letting you call a perpetually-busy phone number and make an appointment via a (poorly)
automated system at one of the handful of emergency centers in the US. I was given the time 11:30, but when I happened by the building early we saw a line already stretching around the block, and we jumped in line immediately. The catch is that you need to be leaving within a couple of weeks of the appointment, you are very lucky (as we are in Philadelphia) to live near such a center, and you're willing to shell out the extra $70. If you need a passport in, say, two months, you're kinda screwed in limbo. If you mail it, even paying the $200+, it might not make it back to you in time. Now, do you want to wait another 6 weeks and gamble on getting an appointment then..? These are your options. (Remember that you need to present the expired passport to get a new one, meaning you only get one shot at this!)

We're paying an additional $12 as a Homeland Security tax, which at the Customs House manifests itself in ill-tempered foreign-accented (oh the irony!) rent-a-cops screaming at citizens attempting to access their own federal building. Much of this happened outside, as the agency is not equipped to let everyone wait inside the building. Making people wait outside and around the block for government services isn't supposed to be happening in an industrialized nation.

I supposedly had an 11:30am appointment at the agency, but this was a joke. Even with two separate lines I was customer #155 for the day for my group, and was "lucky" to actually get my documents back about $150 and 7 hours later. This is lunacy.

If you plan to take a trip within the next year - no joke, a year, some countries don't let you in unless the passport's good for six months - now's a good time to start the renewal process. Welcome to Oceania!

In case you've guessed that this means I'm leaving the country shortly, for the first time in almost two years, you are correct. Arrangements have been made to have my additional pre-written quizzes administered by Deputy Quizmasters of the highest rank and training status while I'm away for a brief research sojourn. Details forthcoming.

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