Long Live the Bureaucracy

“If you could just fill these out in triplicate, I can pass you on to my associate who will require you to fill out more paperwork”

I love regulations. They’re a necessary evil to keep corruption and incompetence in check. More rules! More Big Government! Yup, it’s all fun and games when it doesn’t effect you. Any time there’s a ballot measure to increase regulations, I always vote Yes. That probably explains why my recent trip to the City permit office was a big dose of “screw you” from the karma gods.

My wife and I want to change the windows in our condo. The ones we have now aren’t sealed properly so flies keep getting into the house and driving my wife crazy. I thought it’d be pretty easy to do something simple like changing windows. You just hire someone to come and replace them, right? Nope. Definitely nope.

First, we needed approval from our HOA, which took several weeks because apparently it’s very difficult to gather five geriatric board members in once place to decide on something. Then they needed multiple reassurances that our new windows would match the color of the old ones. “Are you sure they’re going to be silver, Ronan?” YES I’M SURE NOW GIVE ME MY DAMNED APPROVAL!

I thought dealing with the HOA was hell, but that was the easy part. Not only did we need HOA approval, we needed a permit from the City. I got depressed just looking at the application and melted into a puddle of goo. My wife ended up having to spend a whole day taking care of it. She had to fill out a mountain of paperwork, draw a floor plan of our condo, take pictures of the windows, take pictures of the building itself, and make two separate versions of the application in case the City didn’t approve one or the other.

Normally, my wife would’ve gone to the permit office herself since people react better to her smiling face than to my resting bitch face. However, the task fell to me because she’s pregnant and the permit office is literally the last placed I’d want her to be. I steeled myself before entering, but no amount of steeling could prepare me for the wave of sadness and defeat that washed over me the moment I walked into the permit office. All around me were people devoid of hope, their shoulders slouched and eyes vacant. Their faces urged, “Leave this place. Hurry. While you still can.”

The first harbinger of the hell I’d entered was the man at the information counter who issued me a number. I was no longer Ronan, but I-1912. That flimsy piece of paper was the only proof I existed. I held it close to my chest and guarded it with my life. Any fool who tried to take it from me and jump the line would be met with violence (or at least a stern verbal thrashing).

Each time the automated announcer came on, I held my breath. “B. Twenty nine. Fifteen. To Window. Fourteen.” Not me. “G. Eleven. Nineteen. To Window. Six.” Not me. “A. Twelve. Twenty one. To Window. Five.” Still not me. With each stilted announcement, I withdrew further into despair.

After an hour, the robo announcer finally showed mercy and summoned me to Window 11. Sitting behind the counter was a no-nonsense forty-something woman with the demeanor of a school marm. She wore a white turtleneck and a blue blazer with a coat of arms on the chest. This lady meant business.

I plopped the huge pile of papers my wife had prepared onto the lady’s desk and gave her my best “I can haz permit now?” face. “What am I looking at here?” she scowled. “Where is your HOA approval?” As I fumbled through the pile of papers, she crossed her arms and looked away, literally turning her nose up at me.

I finally found the email from our HOA approving the new windows and handed it to the woman with both hands and my head bowed. I’ve had a lot of experience with government workers and know the key to their hearts — supplication. You might not think so, but they’re extremely powerful. If you’re an asshole, it’s easy for them to screw you over, and they’d be more than happy to do so. “I see you didn’t comply with Regulation 39B, subsection 29.111. Oh, you’ve never heard of it? You can look it up on our website. Permit denied. NEXT!”

My submissive posture seemed to appease the lady. She snatched the HOA letter from my hands and gave it a look. “Good. Good.” She rifled through the mountain of paperwork I’d handed her and separated the pertinent from the crap. When she reached the end of the pile, she said, “Where’s your site map?” I pointed to the floor plan my wife had drawn in MS Paint. “No, not the floor plan. The site map. With property lines.” My heart sank. There it was. The one “t” I’d forgotten to cross (or “i” left undotted, if that’s your pleasure).

Fortunately, the lady felt benevolent and helped me draw the map. She went to the assessor’s office online and put a piece of paper over the screen so I could trace the property lines for my condo building. Then she went to Google Maps so I could draw the building inside the property lines. My supplication paid off as I eagerly watched her STAMP! STAMP! STAMP! her approval on three sets of documents. She handed me everything, and I asked her where the permit was. She laughed. “Oh, you’re not done yet, honey.” She told me to go sit down again.

About 15 minutes later, I was summoned to Window Six where I was met by a twenty-something woman in hipster glasses. She was no-nonsense, but not as much of a hard-ass as the first woman. She hadn’t worked long enough in the City to develop the rough, uncaring demeanor of a government worker. I could tell that beneath her gruff exterior lay a soft heart that actually cared whether or not my windows got replaced.

I thought about smooth-talking her, but I sensed her defenses go up. She couldn’t let anyone know she had a soft spot for the residents of the City. In fact, any attempt to smooth talk her would likely be met with a harsh rebuke so she could make a point to her coworkers. I decided to keep my mouth shut and let her work in peace.

The funny thing is, I wasn’t quite sure what this person’s job was. All she did was review the documents the first lady had already reviewed then stamp them again with a different stamp. When all the stamping was done, I gave her a hopeful look — “I can haz permit now?” She laughed. Oh no, silly Ronan. Oh no. She pointed to the waiting area

After another 30 minutes, I was summoned to Window Seven where I was met by a lady in her late fifties or early sixties — grey hair, frumpy, cat sweater, and Coke bottle glasses. I gave her my paperwork — the paperwork that’d already been reviewed twice before — and she gave it another review.

It turned out she was the person who was actually going to decide whether to issue me the permit or not. She was the Boss Bureaucrat. I tried to charm her, but all my charms bounced off her harmlessly. Decades of public service had inoculated her from feeling any empathy. All I could do was wait for her decision. She licked her fingers and slowly thumbed through every sheet of paper before looking up and saying, “Everything looks to be in order.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief. “Now I can haz permit?”

“Oh no, silly Ronan. You have to pay first.”

So I sat down and waited for the cashier to call me. Ten minutes later I heard, “I. Nineteen. Twelve. to. the CASHIER’S desk.” The way the robo announcer said “cashier” made it seem like someone was burning his skin with a hot iron. It was a feeling I’d soon know myself.

The cashier was a dapper thirty-something Persian man in trendy glasses, pink shirt, grey pants, colorful socks, and nice shoes. The clock struck noon when I reached his desk, and I saw a City employee quickly lock the main doors and put up the “out to lunch” sign. I half expected the cashier to tell me to return in an hour and a half when the office reopened, but he was kind. Or rather, he wanted to make sure the City got its money. Here it was. The moment of truth. The cashier calmly input my information into the computer, which spit back the price of the permit — $601.10.

SIX HUNDRED AND ONE FUCKING DOLLARS.

AND TEN CENTS!!!

Absolutely insane, but there was nothing I could do about it. Did I want my new windows? So I forked over the money. The cashier told me to go back to Window 7 and speak to the Boss Bureaucrat. She handed me the permit, which was literally just a computer printout. It wasn’t embossed or have any kind of elaborate calligraphy that you might see on a declaration from the mayor or even a high school diploma. It was a flimsy piece of paper that didn’t seem to mean squat but had cost me a small fortune. I laughed as I accepted the permit. At least I was done! There was no more the City could do to me.

Then the Boss Bureaucrat handed me a form printed on orange card stock.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Inspection report,” she said. “You need to have the inspector fill that out when the job’s done.”

It turns out you’re never free of the bureaucracy’s clutches.

Ever.