Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Tragedies and Bad Handwriting

The biggest under reported tragedy of Sept. 11 is the toll it's taken on our nation's paperwork system.

The revelation of this overlooked portion of the horrifying attacks came during my first day working at TJ's this afternoon, sitting at a plastic table in the basement of a former bank building and trying to ignore the 80-year-old heating system making the room fit for storing only ready to eat dumplings and fidgety new hires. The very kind management guy began going over the work syllabus as I began filling out the same mountain of paperwork I've filled out for seemingly every new job, school year, major purchase or whatever for 15 years now. He stopped me just I was checking the "single" box on the NY state tax form.

"Tim, I keep it real, tell it straight," he said, leaning back from the table and laying his hands flat for emphasis. "Let me take a second to impress upon you the seriousness of completing these forms properly," he said.
Oh-kay, I said. C'mon guy, my penmanship may have all but been purged from my brain over the years in favor of rapid, sloppy note taking, but I've done these before -- it's all sense memory at this point. No dependents, not head of household. Emergency contact, still D. Donnelly, 920 Cable Avenue. SSN, direct deposit, no need for life insurance, thank you kindly.

"I'd rather take an hour getting it right now than have them send it back and have to deal with the people in the office for weeks," he said. These forms have to be neat, he said. Don't even let your 'ys' drop below the boxes. Don't try to write over anything or cross something out. They will not trust it and they will send it back. If you use two different kinds of ink, it won't go.

Um, I said.

Yeah, he said. "Everything changed after 9/11. They really scrutinize these forms now. We've had them sent back for the tiniest thing. They're just really careful. Just take the time to do it right now and it will save us some hassle."

He was speaking most specifically of course about the I9 form, the document that proves you have a legal right to work in the United States. These forms are reviewed by Homeland Security. And no one wants to mess with the Department of Homeland Security.

I set back at it and already there were problems. I should probably write "Timothy" instead of "Tim" on these forms, management guy said, even though the former version of my name has served no purpose in my life whatsoever except to indicate parental furor or lead to duplicate document completion. I tried to squeeze the extra letters onto the forms, but it wouldn't do. A new set of forms was brought.

"Then, here," management guy said, pointing to today's date next to the signature on the I9. I had dragged my pen down the page a little too long on the 5 on "12/15/08."
"This could be anything," he said. To the trash with that one and back with a fresh form.

"Do me a favor," he said, now pointing to the second completed draft of this document, his finger resting on my birth date "9/30/1981," where apparently the "1" had sprouted too high for his liking. "You've got to just write it out real clear like this," he said, showing an elongated example of the date.

On the third try, I goofed again, accidentally drawing a line to write "NY" after my street address instead of in the designated state area. I refused to admit I was a three-times dunce, and started thinking fast. I covered by writing "Apt. 3" in the field instead. This is a completely nonsense designation as all mail in this building is piled by the front door each day. I could have written "Penthouse - Luxor Wing" and it would have had the same effect.

Would he notice? I continued and wrote out the birth date in big, slow numerals. I put the papers in his hand and hoped for the best, turning back to the handbook.

"We knew someone in the towers," he said casually, ripping my attentions away from the corporate policy on non-standard hatwear. "My wife's cousin, was in the second tower."

"She wasn't one of the survivors."

Rough stuff, I said.

A lot of people from New York or New Jersey have some story like this from that day, some more soot-covered or scarred than others, but the degrees of connection in this tightly packed area are impossible to avoid. My mom's client ran late for work in one of the towers that day, by luck avoiding a horrible fate. My old college roommate's best friend's parents went missing from their nearby offices for a day. Another friend happened to be walking to work in northern Virginia when he looked across the street and saw a plane drop from the sky and explode into the Pentagon. The experience put him in therapy and lead to a minor drug problem for a period. Still in New York, the old World Trade Center site is a big open pit, looking more like an active excavation site than a tragic landmark. On the streets, 9/11 memorial merchandise has faded from popularity over seven years, replaced largely with the calendars, framed pictures, artwork and T-shirts celebrating Obama's victory, the words Hope and Change written in big, dramatic fonts.

"All right, this looks good," he said, stashing the paperwork in his folder. "Thank you for doing that. We've just got to be real careful. Yep, 9/11 changed everything and everything. Things are just so different now."

Can't argue that. I still don't want to buy the life insurance though.


pictures via Comestiblog. More about that TJs here.

2 comments:

Daphne S said...

Hilarious. You should totally start putting Penthouse in your address.

Peter said...

I would have gotten up, punched him in the face and told him to eat his own feces. Fu-ing ridiculous.