When the puma was three weeks old, I brought her to the post office to apply for her passport. I brought along her birth certificate, her social security card, a photocopy of my passport, a photocopy of her dad’s passport, a notarized form signed by her dad indicating that he granted permission for his daughter to apply for a passport without his being present—I had done the research. For good measure, I brought along not one but two sets of passport photos that had been taken at a professional passport photo–taking location. Taking those photos had taken a while. The puma had to appear in the photo alone, against a blank white wall, which sounds like a reasonable set of requirements. But the puma was not yet able to hold up her head, let alone sit, and she also did not excel at being awake, and her eyes needed to be open and looking at the camera—these are the requirements of any passport photo—and, so, it took a while.
The line for the passport application window at the post office was also very long.
At the passport application teller window, the man in front of me was dismissed because although he had a photocopy of the front of his driver’s licence, he did not have a photocopy of the back.
I approached the teller window and passed our paperwork through the opening beneath the bulletproof shield. The puma and I had waited about forty-five minutes to get there. I felt very good about getting this essential task done. Our paperwork was immediately handed back; the teller impassively stated: “No, her hand is obstructing her chin, this photo is unusable.” She did have her hand near her mouth. Triumphantly, I indicated that there were two sets of photos, that her hand was not on her chin in the other set.
“No, we can see the mother’s hand in these photos.”
“But of course my hand is there, I had to hold her up against the background.”
We were dismissed.
The next week there was a shutdown of the government.
I was trying to get the passport done in time for travel I had to do for work.
I then took many photos of the puma with my iPhone, having read online that this could be done: all one needed was to find a place that could print the photos passport-sized. So I took the modern technology object to a Staples, but they were unable to help, and then to a Kinko’s but they were unable to help, and so then I went back to the original FedEx office where the unacceptable passport photos had been taken; their passport photo camera equipment was broken. We then went to a souvenir and electronics and passport-photos-taken-here storefront. Working there were one immigrant from Bangladesh, one from Mexico, and one from Pakistan. They knew all about the issue of not having a parent’s hand or arm visible in the passport photo. They hid my hand behind a scarf and had me kneel down on the floor and then hold up the baby like a puppet in front of the white backdrop. I and the puma were both very hungry by this time. But the passport window was only open until 2:30 p.m., so we headed right over to the line.
The woman behind the bulletproof glass said she was going to lunch.
“But the sign says this window is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.”
The woman said she had already waited an hour longer than she had intended to go to lunch and now she was going to go to lunch.
We continued on to a second post office. No one was available who had the training to handle passports. At a third post office, again, no one was available, we were told. Then a woman emerged from a backroom with a sandwich in her hand; she said she was available until 3 p.m.; it was 2:50 p.m. She forsook her sandwich to help us out. She went through our paperwork piece by piece. She got to the photos. She took out a ruler and began taking measurements of the likeness of the puma’s face. “Her head is too small,” she said. “Way too small.” It was, she specified, two millimetres too small. “Listen, since September 11, they are very careful with these passport applications, this will never pass.”
We went, so hungry, to a CVS on Forty-Second Street and Tenth Avenue. A woman in line in front of us was discussing with the teller how she had five sets of visa photos taken, she was trying to get her visa to China, but she had doubts about this newest set of photos too. I felt I was about to lose it, standing in line, listening to the conversation whose end was not yet imaginable, and I probably would have gotten angry, or wept, had my mood not been pre-empted by the puma getting angry and weeping. Finally a screen was pulled down. The puma’s photo was taken, a face of resigned despair. We paid double, so as to get two sets of photos, one with the puma’s head on the larger side, one on the smaller. We returned to the original post office. The fluorescent lighting seemed to have turned to sound. We handed over the paperwork. The photo was fine! The xerox of the mother’s passport was fine. The xerox of the father’s passport was fine. The social security card was more than was needed. The notarized form signed by the father was fine. The form was notarized with a driver’s licence, not with a passport. Did we have that driver’s licence with us? We were sent away.
Her passport didn’t make it through in time for her first meagre trip at eight weeks old, across the border to Canada. We just argued her way across the border. Returning was trickier. Border patrol was unimpressed with our birth certificate and social security card. “There are no photos here,” the woman at the booth said. “How can I know if this baby is the baby you say she is if there’s not a photo of her to confirm her identity?” We looked at her. Eventually her supervisor let us through. It had to be acknowledged, that picture or no picture, no one could identify the baby, except for us.
Rivka Galchen is a regular contributor of fiction and essays to The New Yorker, Harper’s, and the New York Times. Her most recent book is a miscellany of essays and lists, published in May 2016 by New Directions.