When I was young, a passport seemed about as foreign as that little Italian grandmother on Haverford Avenue who would yell something at me most mornings on my daily walk to school. I didn’t have a grandmother and I didn’t speak Italian, so the entire concept of her and what she was about left me clueless, but not clueless enough to put a ton of thought into, sort of like a passport to seven-year-old. By the time I was old enough and, well, wealthy (take that lightly) enough to travel overseas (we’re talking Caribbean here, as if that even counts), it was pre-9/11, which meant you could still go to most islands in the Caribbean with just a photo I.D. and your birth certificate, and which further meant that the idea of a passport still didn’t cross my mind much.
Enter, age thirty.
With one divorce and no kids under my belt I decided it was time to act like a big girl, so I moved in with my parents. Oh, that’s… not the big girl part, obviously. I mean, I moved in with my parents (because of the divorce) and saved every dollar I made from the two jobs I worked for the year leading up to my thirtieth birthday. The plan? Do something I had always imagined doing: travel, alone if I had to, to Europe. I was ready. My time had come and no person or thing was going to stop this reality. All I needed was a few thousand bucks (check!), six months of Italian lessons (check check!), and my passp… fuck.
“Ma’am, you can’t smile in these photos. The gov’ment won’t accept a smiling passport photo.”
“Um, the ‘gov’ment’ can kiss my ass, Miss Rhonda. I look forty in that non-smiling one. And what the frigg is up with the lighting in here, anyway? It‘s worse than the DMV lighting. I didn’t think a picture could look worse than a DMV picture. Thank you for blowing my beliefs out of the water today. Let me guess, you think George Michael is gay too, don’t you? ”
(Growing impatient, or as we call it in Philly, Post Office Syndrome.) “Ma’am, you’re gonna pay me money today to take your picture, and you’re gonna wait your four to six weeks, and then you gonna come back to me and tell me that I need to take your picture again, and we don’t do freebies. You do whatcha want, but you’re gonna have to see my face again if you don’t do it right this first time. And George Michael been out since ‘98, so, yeah, I do think he gay.”
“Okay Rhonda, you made your points. Take the damn picture.”
Rhonda won but only because Rhonda was right (was it really ’98?) and so I waited my four to/or six weeks for a tiny envelope to arrive from the United States Department of… (Googling)… STATE (total mindfart there), and lo and behold, I was now the proud owner of my very own U.S. Passport. I don’t care who you are – be it guido or hipster or hick – if you are the bearer of a passport and have never once thought of yourself as a person who could wear a tux, drink a martini, carry a pen that doubles as a fighter jet, and be involved in some sort of international espionage while a Sheena Easton song plays vaguely in the background, then you’re a blatant lying fuckface and we can’t be friends. In fact, stop reading this blog right now. NO! NO GO AWAY! I NO MEAN IT!
This thing – this little leatherette booklet with its official seal and its hologrammed pages – it, well, I guess it always felt so empowering to me. It meant that I could do the things that my parents not only didn’t do on their own for themselves, but also didn’t do for any of us, like take us to faraway lands, or fill our minds with the belief that roads are meant to be travelled, and surround us with different cultures, foods, or music. It was my ticket to getting out. The beginning of what would be my lifelong love affair with continents afar and languages a-plenty. I held in my hand the key to the beginning of the rest of my being and my life, suddenly, was headed where I had only before dreamed it could go.
Enter, age forty.
“Isn’t there a box or something you can stand on? I mean, no offense, but you’re much littler than I. Maybe the light at your angle is casting a dark shadow on my face. That picture is (sighing)… I can’t use that picture. I look deformed. “
“Ma’am, it’s for a passport. I really don’t think the department of immigration is going to judge you by your laugh lines. Or that… is that a mole?”
“Oh, you are fuhhhhh-nnny (for a hobbit).”
“What was that, Ma’am?”
“I said ‘you are funny; would you stop it?’ I’m forty, kid. I know what it’s for, but you don’t know what it means. See, there’s a difference here, and it’s much more than just the eighteen years between us and the fact that I wouldn’t look good in that official U.S. Postal Service sweater vest. What do you call that color…? Shire blue?”
(Taking my paperwork and old passport from me.) “You understand that you won’t be getting your original passport back, right? And you understand that you have to pay by check or money order?”
“I do, and I do,” I said, watching as Peregrin Took went about his fastening, stapling, and no-eye-contacting, until, just for a second, I saw him pause and then, look up. He looked at my face as if to determine that the person whose photo he just despisingly took was the same as the one on the old, worn, and beautifully used passport before him. I watched his eyes trace my aged face in fractions of a second before he glanced back down at the envelope he was mindlessly stuffing with my official State Department documents.
“It’s one-hundred and sixteen dollars. You should receive your passport in fou…”
“… four to six weeks, yes. I’m well aware,” I said knowingly, and looked, one last time, at my first ever passport before it was slipped into a letter-sized cardboard envelope, never with my eyes to be seen again but often recalled in the memories I had made with it. All those countries. All my stamps! Oh, I’m going to miss them, so.
“I wouldn’t worry about your picture, ma’am” Pip said as I gathered my belongings before leaving for home. “I think you look better in this one. Not that you care what I think. I am, after all, just a hobbit in a sweater vest.”
And with nothing more than a slight smirk on my face and a bit of pink in my cheeks for more than one reason, I turned on my heel and headed for the door, hoping to find Jason Bourne or James Bond waiting for me somewhere in the parking lot.
Hopefully, with a goddamned martini.