I once knew a German professional photographer (let’s call him Georg) who, along with a fellow German photographer (“Klaus”), decided to do one of those photo safaris — driving from Cairo to Cape Town, snapping pics along the way — that sounds so good back in Hamburg, but is completely foolish in reality. Anyway, driving a mil-surp G-Wagen (not a bad choice, BTW), they set off and made it through Egypt without incident. At the border, they had to get a “passing through” visa to get across the Sudan, which essentially allowed them to be in the country for three days. When they got to Sudan’s southern border, however, the sole guard at the border post (just a hut) wouldn’t let them leave the country because they had the “wrong visa” — and they’d have to drive back to Khartoum (a two-day drive) to get the right one. When Georg pointed out that their existing visa would expire en route and they would, in essence, be in the country illegally and imprisoned if caught, the guard just shrugged. Not his problem.
I told you that story so I could tell you this one. Last week, faced with a looming legal deadline, I had to fly up to Chicago to get a legal document out of the Cook County Court archives. (Why I was unable to access the document online, or even manage to talk to someone in the County Clerk’s office to send me the document is a story all by itself.) Anyway, after having had my 5am flight canceled (thank you, American), I made the 7am flight only by dint of paying the full fare (don’t ask) and arrived at the Cook County courthouse (2nd District in Skokie) at about 11am, with all the data needed for the request on my trusty laptop..
Of course, there’s TSA-type security at all these places these days, which is where I had a Sudan-type encounter of my own. Reason? No laptops allowed in the courthouse by members of the public. I know, it’s inexplicable but hey, Cook County. I looked around for any storage lockers: none.
“So where can I store my laptop?”
“You’ll just have to take it back to your car.”
“I don’t have a car; I just flew in from Dallas. So what can I do?”
Like the Sudanese border guard, the fucking security guard just shrugged. “Not my problem.”
At this juncture, I should point out that every single glass window and door at the courthouse has one of those idiotic little “No Handgun” stickers displayed.
I’m not saying that I would have shot someone — in fact, I absolutely would not have, even if I’d been able to bring the 1911 with me — but let me tell you, after a day which had begun at 3am, experienced a canceled flight and a massive fare surcharge along with all the other hassles of modern-day travel (full flight, idiots with too-large bags, crowded train from the airport into the city etc.), only to be faced with indifferent bovine officialdom at the end of it, I can quite believe that some other guy might have dropped the hammer.
Which, by the way, is what Klaus did at the Sudanese border. He told the guard that he had the correct visa back in the car, fetched his gun instead and shot the guard dead. Then he and Georg got in their G-Wagen and raced off into Uganda. A real African tale, that one.
And now, the rest of my story.
After a half-mile walk back down the road, I managed to get a Hampton Inn receptionist to check my bag in — even without a reservation, thank you Judy! — and having printed out all the documentation I needed at the business center (thanks again, Hampton Inn!), I trudged back to the courthouse. (The only thing that stopped this ordeal from being any worse was that it was a glorious summer’s day in Chicago: 66F on landing, and just over 70F by the time I got to the Hampton Inn, with a cool, almost chilly lakeshore breeze coming in from the east. I didn’t even break a sweat.)
Back at the courthouse, the indifferent guard was now my buddy: “Hey, I see you solved your computer problem!” which earned a snarl from me in return: “No, I solved your fucking computer problem!” Fortunately for all concerned, he didn’t say anything or attempt to harass me any further.
Then on to the County Clerk’s office, where a very nice Polish lady (hi, Anna!) looked at my case number dubiously.
“Is very old document.”
“Maybe is in basement.”
“Really? A paper document?”
“…or maybe not. Is very old document. I send someone to look. Will take maybe 45 minutes.”
So I sat and waited. Then Anna reappeared:
“Document is not there.”
“Case number xxxx-354 is there; number xxx-356 is there; but your case number xxx-355 is not there.”
“So what can I do?”
She shrugged. But before I could explode, she added, “Maybe is document on microfiche.”
“MICROFICHE????” (Not papyrus sheets or wax tablets, even.)
“But,” she added with something like satisfaction, “I need microfiche number.”
Dear Readers, I have no idea what had prompted me to have printed off the court docket’s microfiche number earlier, but I had. Airily, I tossed the paper over to her.
“Here’s the microfiche number.”
She looked at me with pained astonishment. “We have to print each page off microfiche? All thirty-five pages?”
I’d waited for two hours to say this. “NOT MY PROBLEM.”
It was all downhill from then. After about an hour and a half, I got my document stamped with all the official Papal seals or whatever — the copy, by the way, looked as though it had been run through a first-generation fax machine a few times — paid the Cook County danegeld for the privilege and pausing only to snarl at the security guards on my way out, I called an Uber ride and went back to O’Hare.
Needless to say, my 5.30pm flight was delayed first to 7pm, then to 8pm and finally 9pm, and I only got home just after midnight. But that’s a story for another time.
Total cost for this whole one-day Third World adventure (and I say “Third World” because of the Cook County Clerk’s astonishing, Africa-like inefficiency): just over $1,000.
At least I didn’t have to shoot anyone.