Passport to frustration

I got my first passport in 2001 just before my cross-country bicycle trip because we were going to be riding briefly in Canada and it seemed prudent to have one (although, as it turned out, I never had to show it at any of the border crossings). It expired last year without ever acquiring a single stamp on its pristine pages, but I have decided now is the time to renew it anyway. I have no international travel plans at the moment, but these things take weeks to process and you never know when opportunity will call from overseas. Like a good Girl Scout, I like to be prepared.

Long ago, when I was young.

I’m including my original photo because once I apply for a renewal, it will be gone forever.

I am an all-my-ducks-in-a-row kinda gal, so I went to the government website for passport renewal and got all the necessary information and the proper form to use. I downloaded the form and filled it out. The site said I could take it to any Post Office that is authorized to accept passport applications, so I located the one in my county that is (a 25-mile round trip from my house, please note) and headed out to get a new picture taken.

The hole-in-the-strip-mall copy shop I went to is unprepossessing to say the least, but it is the closest place to my house that advertises passport photos. The grubby-looking clerk got out a crappy little point-and-shoot camera that he held about 18 inches from my face to create this masterpiece:

Oh hellz to the no.

When I stifled a shriek upon seeing it, the clerk chuckled and said “Nobody ever likes ’em.” No kidding? With crummy equipment like that, I can’t imagine. “That’s one of the better photos I’ve seen,” he said in what I took to be an attempt to be gallant, to which I could only respond, “Well, bless your heart.” I handed over my $10.50 while he explained that the primary requirement of a passport photo is that the size my head from the bottom of my chin to the top of my hair be between 1″ and 1-3/8″. The little folder he provided with my prints had a diagram on it that showed exactly how the photo had to be framed and sized. At this point, I had to ask myself, “Lisa, are you or are you not a professional photographer?” Because if I am going to call myself that, I am for darn sure going to have a passport photo that doesn’t make me look too ill to travel!

So as soon as I got home, I set up the tripod and a couple of lights, and after about an hour  of shooting and Photoshop tinkering to correct the color balance and ensure the background was absolutely plain, I finally had what I wanted:

Now that’s more like it!

I’d like to say I had a much better camera to work with, but my Nikon DSLR’s battery chose today to die, so I used my Olympus point-and-shoot that is virtually identical to the one the copy shop guy used. The trick was to set up the camera about five feet away from me and adjust the zoom accordingly. Getting too close distorts my features in a way that makes me look like a chipmunk (or worse), which is why I cannot take decent end-of-arm self portraits with any camera. I sized the image to exactly 2 inches square and printed two copies on glossy photo paper from my inkjet printer. Looking at the copy shop’s and mine side by side, you can’t even tell the difference in terms of the production.

Now that I had a suitable picture, off I went to the Post Office. The passport office’s waiting area is about the size of a shoebox, so I had to stand elbow-to-elbow with the two other people in line with my back against the door. As I waited and listened to the clerk telling a young couple at the counter that they were always so busy that they’d really prefer that people not come in at all in the afternoons (seriously, she said that), I noticed a sign on the counter that read, in essence, “If you are an adult who is renewing a passport that has been expired for less than five years, you must fill out form DS-82 and mail it in yourself. It is a legal document and we cannot review it for you or answer any questions.” Here I was standing there with my DS-82 all properly filled out, my original expired passport, two copies of my 2″ x 2″ color portrait, and my renewal fee (in cash) right in my hands, at the one Post Office in the entire county that is authorized to accept passport applications, and they would do nothing for me. I clenched my teeth in rage at the utter absence of any kind of customer service orientation on the part of the U.S. government toward its citizens.

Because they would not answer any questions for me, I could not get the address to which to send the form or the instructions for what needed to be included while I was at the Post Office–all that information was on the non-essential pages of the form that I had left at home. Now, instead of simply handing my form, passport and fee to a government clerk and being done with it on the spot, I have to redeposit that cash into my checking account, write a check (they won’t accept cash by mail), put all my materials into a large padded envelope, and go back to the Post Office to pay to send it by registered mail to the National Passport Processing Center in Philadelphia.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to do this in person, so that a properly certified government agent could ascertain that the person standing in front of her is in fact the same person who is making the application, ensure that the correct form is filled out properly and everything is in order, answer any questions the citizen might have, and guarantee that no materials get lost in transit? What is the point of even having passport offices if they don’t offer the services that people seek? But I guess if they did that, they’d also have to enlarge their waiting area to hold more than five people at a time and maybe hire another clerk or two to actually help people instead of actively trying to discourage them from coming in.

Oh well. At least once my new passport arrives, I’ll look healthy enough to travel for the next 10 years.

Update on September 18, 2012:

My new passport arrived today. Not bad!


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