"You need to turn left," Emma said.
"Why do I need to turn left?" I asked. "I know exactly where this place is."
"Because I said so," she said.
We were in downtown Philadelphia, with baby Richie asleep in his car seat in the back of the Prius. I was headed south on 2nd Street, near the river, headed for Chestnut, where the regional passport office is.
"I know where we’re going," I said. "We should be there in about five blocks. It’s a straight shot down this street."
"And where are you going to park?"
"In the closest lot I can find," I said. "There has to be some kind of visitor parking."
"There’s a huge underground parking garage over by Independence Hall," she said. "That’s the best place to park downtown. It’s only three or four blocks away."
"Three or four blocks that we have to carry the baby in the car seat," I said. "No thanks. I’m OK looking for a closer parking space."
"I have to carry the diaper bag, and the travel bag, and my purse," she said. "You just have to carry the baby. You can manage for a few blocks. And maybe we can do some sightseeing while we’re down here. Show Richie the Liberty Bell."
"Why would we bother? All the historical stuff down here just venerates the so-called Founding Fathers, and they were a bunch of white male slaveholders that fouled up this country from the beginning."
"One of these days, you’re going to say something like that in front of a TV camera, and get yourself into real trouble. And you still need to turn left."
"I know what I’m doing," I said. "This is a big government office building. There has to be a parking lot close to it. It stands to reason."
"So you want to park at a private garage that’s closer, rather than use the public garage that’s a little farther away? What kind of Trotskyite are you?"
"The kind that doesn’t want to carry a baby four blocks," I said. "See? There’s a perfectly good garage, just across the street. I was right."
"Congratulations," Emma said, with some kind of inexplicable edge in her voice.
*
"Hi! My name is Justin Fairchild, and this is my wife, Emma Fairchild, and this is our son, Richard Fairchild. We’re here to get him a passport."
The woman behind the desk was middle-aged, with her graying hair up in a tight bun. "Do you have an appointment?" she asked.
"Yes," I said. "We have an eleven o’clock appointment. But we made good time coming down I-95, so we’re a bit early. And since we have the baby, we thought we might get seen a little earlier?"
"Take a number and have a seat," she said. "We’ll call you when we’re ready."
"Are you sure?" I said. "Because I really need to get back to campaign headquarters–I’m running for Congress in New Jersey–and I was hoping we could get out of here early."
"Take a number and have a seat," she repeated. "Everyone wants to get out of here early, not just you."
I took the number. The waiting room was full, but they called someone else’s number and we were able to get a seat.
"How long did she say it would be?" Emma asked. "I think they just called number twenty-eight."
"We’re number forty-five," I said.
"But we made an eleven o’clock appointment," she said. "How long are we going to be here?"
"I don’t know," I said, thinking dark thoughts about what Republican cutbacks had done to staffing at regional passport agencies. I would have to do something about that when I got to Congress.
"Okay then," Emma said. "I am going to the restroom. Richie’s still asleep, so you should be okay by yourself for a minute."
I looked down at Richie, who was in fact sleeping sweetly–up until the minute that Emma stepped into the restroom. Right then, he yawned, stretched out his little arms, and opened his eyes.
"Good morning, Richie," I said.
And Richie started to cry, big huge bursts of sobs. I knew I needed to pick him up, but that meant extricating him from the car seat, and he was flailing his legs around. It took me a minute to find the button to release him, and then I picked him up, saying "there, there." It didn’t work. He kept crying. Everyone in the little room started staring at me, except for the old bat behind the desk who was telling people to sit down and take a number. She looked like she was carved out of stone.
"You should try jiggling him," the woman sitting next to me said. "That always worked with my kids."
"I am jiggling him," I said.
"Well, maybe he wants his pacifier."
"I can handle it," I said, but it soon became clear that I couldn’t. Fortunately, Emma finally finished in the restroom, and she had a very sharp look on her face when she made her way over.
"You need to give him Mr. Taft," she said. She fished the gray stuffed elephant out of the travel bag, and gave it to Richie, who calmed down immediately.
"I was going to do that," I said. "Eventually."
*
It took three more hours and two diaper changes, but they finally got our number. We went into the back part of the office to talk to someone who could get us a passport for Richie.
"DS-11?" she asked. If anything, she looked older and less good-humored than her counterpart at the front desk.
"Here you go," I said, handing over the official government passport application form.
"You signed it," she said.
"Well, yeah," I said.
"You’re not supposed to do that," she said.
"Wait, what?"
"Did you actually read the form? You’re not supposed to sign it until you come in here, where I can witness it."
"Oh," I said. "I didn’t know."
"Well, you’ll have to fill it out again. Go back and ask the front desk to give you another number; you can fill it out again while you’re waiting."
Emma’s face turned scarlet. "We’ve been waiting for three hours, with a little baby. Can’t we just fill it out here and not wait?"
"There are other people waiting outside who followed the rules, ma’am," she said. "I can’t prioritize you over them. Even if your husband is running for Congress."
*
The good news was that we only had to wait an hour this time. We split a box of animal crackers out of the travel bag for lunch, and I called Polly to tell her that I wouldn’t be making my way into headquarters today, which she was surprisingly cool about. When our number was called, we went back to the desk, with the properly-completed DS-11. The clerk went through everything we’d brought, eyeing it critically.
"I’m not seeing proof of foreign travel," she said at last.
"Oh. We’re taking Richie to the Bahamas on a Fairchild plane for the shareholder’s meeting next week,"
I explained.
"Can you prove that?"
"I just said that we were."
"No airline ticket?"
"We’re taking my dad’s private plane," I explained. "They’re stopping in Hanover to pick us up on their way down from New Haven."
"Hotel reservation?"
"We’re staying on the yacht, in the guest suite."
"So you don’t have proof of foreign travel," she said. "I can’t approve an expedited application for a passport without proof of foreign travel. You’ll have to come back tomorrow with a flight plan or something."
"You have to be kidding me," Emma said. "This is ridiculous."
"No, it isn’t," she said. "You’re asking for special treatment, which you can only get under special circumstances, like having to leave the country on an emergency basis. Going to the Bahamas on a private plane to stay on a yacht is not my idea of special circumstances, not if you can’t provide the documentation required by law."
"Wait. Wait one minute," Emma said. She pulled out her phone and found an e-mail with a dinner reservation we’d made. "What about this?"
"Not sufficient," the clerk said. "I need a hard copy."
I did the only thing I could. I snatched Mr. Taft away from Richie, who started howling like a lost thing.
"Can you calm him down, please?" the clerk asked.
"When he gets like this," I said, "he can go on for quite a while. Maybe you can let her print out the e-mail?" Richie’s cries went up a dozen or so decibels. "Or maybe I can have someone from the private jet service fax you the flight plan?"
"That would work," she said. "If you could hurry." She sounded rattled; clearly, she hadn’t spent a lot of time around babies.
*
We walked out of the office building, crossed the street to the parking garage, and buckled Richie into his car seat.
"That wasn’t a very nice thing you did to Richie, there," Emma said. "Snatching Mr. Taft away from him like that."
"It was a necessary sacrifice," I said. "Did you want to come back here tomorrow?"
"God, no."
I drove through the streets of downtown Philadelphia, and got on to I-95 north just ahead of rush hour traffic. I hadn’t been able to go the distance today, but it was hardly my fault. Don’t Republicans understand the connection between low pay in the federal workforce and the low quality of customer service?
*
Check out the previous installments:
Last year:
Week Forty-Nine:The True North
Week Fifty:The Garden State
This year:
Week Four:The Brain Trust
Week Six:The Snow Day

Week Seven:The Coin Flip

Week Eight:The Wicked Witch
Week Eleven:The State Dinner
Week Twelve:The Maple Leaf Rag
Week Thirteen:The Large Endowment
Week Fourteen:The Transit Authority
Week Fifteen:The Ten Forty
Week Sixteen:The Bachelor Party
Week Seventeen:The Refugee Crisis
Week Eighteen:The Taco Bowl
Week Nineteen:The Trending Topic
Week Twenty-One:The Blessed Event
Week Twenty-Two:The 3AM Feeding
Week Twenty-Three:The Stuffed Elephant
Week Twenty-Five:The Turkey Jive
Week Twenty-Six:The Wiki Leak
Week Twenty-Seven: The Baby Bjorn