Monday, April 16, 2007

bureaucratic triathlon

I’ve been meaning to get more exercise. Today was a good start. Here is an account of my training.

First, pack bag with supplies. You cannot do this without a 6 inch thick map of Madrid.

Now that you are loaded down like a Chilean burro, leave home and stroll down to metro. You are confident you can do this.

So far, so good. Get on train for 3 stops. Get off train, and figure out where the heck to catch a bus to go out to what could be called Golgotha (so dubbed for its Godforsaken location).

You skillfully keep breakfast in your belly while the bus driver weaves in and out of barrios you’ve never heard of before as if he’s leading the pack in a race through the mountain passes of France or Italy.

Finally, the journey comes to an end, for there it is: the post office in question. Let’s call this Point A, shall we?

You get off the bus and skirt the perimeter of Point A as if you are a CIA agent scoping out an abandoned warehouse filled with terrorists. There is a fence around this building and you have reason to fear.

You approach a guard at the gate. Yes, there’s a secured gate at this post office. After glancing to see if he has a taser, you show him papers that are labeled with the National Post Office Insignia and tell him that you are there to pick up a package and will he please let you in Fort Leavenworth so you may do so?

He looks at you as if you are as bright as a dodo bird and says you need to go to another building that we will call “Some Building Out In The Middle of Nowhere That Is Definitely Not A Post Office, Does Not Resemble Anything Like A Post Office, And For All You Know He Is Sending You Into A Building That Belongs To The Russian Mafia.”

Or, we could just call this Point B.

You cross the street (lined with nothing but trucks, trucks and more trucks—you are the only one there without a truck), climb a set of stairs and figure out how to get into Point B. The first opening you come to in the space of about 100 meters is a loading dock for—you guessed it—trucks. There, a handful of unshaven men are smoking, laughing and scratching their left butt cheeks with their greasy, stubby fingers. Yes, all of them. You decide not to approach them, to try your luck elsewhere for fear that they will end up “pantsing” you.

Finally you come to a small entrance with a normal kind of door (the first normal door you have seen thus far) and go in there. You come into the space and this is all you see: A flickering fluorescent light fixture. There is room for two bulbs, but there is only one in the fixture. You also see about 8 feet of hallway leading to a grey metal door that looks like it was made for someone the size of Jabba the Hut. The door has no label on it. Finally, there is a glass kiosk (equally anonymous) that, it seems to you, should have someone sitting in it to help you. But, of course, that would be too easy. You think: “Surely, someone must be in there”. So, you find yourself peering through a dusty faded set of old metal blinds (blue), pulled down carelessly and bent as if they were dug out of a dumpster and duct taped to the ceiling. Seeing nothing on the other side of the glass but sewer rats, you look around the room and see a narrow, dark stairway. You take the stairway up one flight to get away from the rats.

You come to a room with about 8 people sitting at desks. As you enter the room, they all look at you as if you’ve just farted and fluff came out your anterior orifice. You mutter, holding out your piece of paper with the National Postal Insignia on it and tell them you’re here to pick up a package. They tell you to go to the building behind them.

You go back downstairs, outside, turn right, then right again. You are now on the side of a big, brown building. The wall you’re walking next to goes on and on for about two football fields. You pass the time by singing the entire score to Vivaldi’s Gloria. By the time you reach the back of the building you’ve sung it and parsed every Latin verb in it.

Then, you see it: Point C. Now: how to get in? While exploring this, you discover that Point C is actually a complex of four buildings. Parts of it are fenced in and parts of it are not. You go around the entire perimeter as if you are a bug circling a glowing electric zapper, before, at last, you find where to enter. You go in and head to Window 1 within Point C. This is where you are to pick up your package. To do so, you discover you need a stamp on your form. To get this precious stamp you are sent to Window 2, the next room. You enter and see they have a number system. You go to the number dispenser and it is empty. You manage to figure out who is next and it comes to your turn.

The lady in the bubble takes your papers and disappears. For all you know she vanishes into some large filing cabinet like a calm magician’s assistant packing herself into a coffin. While she’s gone, you look at the artistry of her cubicle: white walls, legal notices stapled--yes, stapled--to the wall, a black and white calendar, a black and white clock and four posters advertising the National Bonsai Tree Exhibitions of 1992, 1994, 1996 and 1998. Apparently, customs officers are interested in bonsai trees. Also, you notice a poster that says “Adios”. The letter “i” in the word, however, is a snuffed out cigarette butt and you see the poster is lauding the virtues of quitting smoking. You notice the paper on the edges of the poster has turned slightly yellow. No doubt because it has often been exposed to cigarette smoke by certain customs officers.

Sure enough, the lady reappears and you can smell, through the glass, cigarette smoke on her breath. And she has more papers, also slightly yellowed. They’ve multiplied like bunnies. You note that you owe them 3 euro and 1 cent to acquire your package. You look around and see she has no cash register, so you ask if you just pay out at Window 1. She says “no”: you have to go to the bank to pay the customs charges. She says this as if this knowledge is as common as knowing how to put on one’s trousers. You ask where the bank is and she tells you disdainfully, as if you’ve just soiled your trousers. You hobble out with a plume of papers and hear a few sniggers as someone kicks you in the behind.

You didn’t really understand where she told you to find the bank (“somewhere down there” is exactly the location she mentioned), so you make your way back the way you came, past Point B. As you finish humming the score to Les Miserables, you see that the man in the office who heard--and saw--your fluffy fart is now down by the door, smoking a cigarette and scratching his left butt cheek. He sniggers as you pass him and throws his stubbed out cigarette butt at you. Apparently the campaign to quit smoking has affected him profoundly.

You make your way to the stairs that lead you to the lower street and—voila—you find yourself back at Point A. You don’t know where to go so you ask the guard there (again) where to find the bank. He points to a building that says “Carga Madrid”. You make a mental note that nowhere on the label of that building does it mention anything about a bank; therefore, it must be the bank. By the way, this building is the largest one yet, and as you approach it, you are wondering how you will get into it. Perhaps if you had a grappling hook and some steel cable….

You walk through a parking lot to get there and now you are beginning to get hot, for the sun is shining. You manage to find a bank.

This is Point D, for those of you keeping track. They take your 3 euro and 1 cent and put a stamp on your papers.

You head back to Point C, Window 2 for that is what the non-Japanese bonsai lady told you to do. You hand her your papers and she puts more stamps on them, reshuffling them, keeping some of them for herself and dealing you a new hand as if she is heading a table in Vegas.

She tells you to go to Window 1 to pick up your package.

You hand the lady there your papers and she charges you another 2 euro and 49 cents for who-knows-what. You figure maybe that was the “You-looked-at-me-wrong-when-you-handed-me-your-papers” charge or something like that.

She takes your money and mutters something indiscernible. You wait for your package, but she continues to just stand there. You are about ready to jump over the counter and go back there yourself to retrieve your package when she disappears into the back room. 2 minutes later she comes back with several packages and shouts out: “Throj Kahdleek?!”

That’s you. You pick up your package and head home.

You step through the door of your home only two and a half hours after you left. Not bad for your first bureaucratic triathlon.

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