Open letter to passport office (since their phone is always busy)

Dear Mr. Najarian: First, a note of thanks. As you sat behind the counter of the passport office in Boston that April morning, my wife and I were reassured by your neatly trimmed beard and your unflappable authority. Here, we agreed, was bureaucracy as it was meant to be - helpful, nonpartisan, and organized.

We've seen the alternatives. We've spent an entire day getting alien registration cards in a European capital. We've checkpointed through to East Berlin, hawkeyed by stone-faced men of unsleeping suspicion. So don't get us wrong: We're grateful to be citizens of a nation whose government offices work so well.

And we sympathize. The 350,000 passports your local office issued last year broke all records - part of a trend toward overseas travel that boosted the national figure for 1983 to a new high of 4.12 million US passports issued. This year's figures are well on the way to a new record.

But that, frankly, is not the reason I'm writing. I have a simple - and, I fear, sadly commonplace - tale to tell.

My wife set out to renew our family's four passports in February. Needing information, she called your office. The line was busy. Several minutes later, she called again. Still busy. She tried again the next day; one day, persisting , she called you about 30 times. Busy. So she called the federal government information number - only to be told that she had the right number and that it was always busy.

What to do? Come down in person, the operator suggested - an undertaking that would absorb at least an hour and could cost several dollars for parking. Were there not better ways to get information? ''Barbara,'' I said, calling a friend at a foreign consulate, ''I'm terribly embarrassed to ask your government about the workings of my government. But you deal with passports. Do you know how we get US passports renewed?''

She did: She even sent me a newspaper article, which told us we needed two photographs and $35 per renewal. I finally managed to phone your office one day just before you opened - connecting at last with your recorded message. How we managed, one Saturday morning, to meet our older daughter at her school in rural Maine and find a photographer is another story. But all that had been done when we showed up at your office.

So we filled out your forms - two pink ones for my wife and me, and two beige ones for our daughters. As neither daughter was with us, I had a moment of concern on reading that ''beige forms must be signed in person before a passport agent.'' But the instructions added that ''A parent applies on behalf of a minor.''

So we got in line - only to be told, you may recall, that while we could sign for our younger daughter (under 13), our older daughter, though still under 18, was somehow no longer a minor. ''Sorry,'' you told us in substance, ''she'll have to come in in person. Or go to a major post office up in Maine. And unless you're there to vouch for her, she'll need some identification, with a picture on it. Does she have a driver's license? A school ID?''

No, Mr. Najarian, she doesn't. She's a US citizen with a passport. Must she drive to prove it? Must she attend school in an area where security is such a problem that photo IDs are required? Might your recorded message at least have warned us?

Well, my point in writing is not to air a personal grievance. In fact, we rather look forward to driving to Maine - again. No, what bothers me more is your last comment. ''If you don't get these three passports by five days before the date you requested,'' you said, handing us our receipt with what seemed a knowing smirk, ''give us a call.'' Astonished, we were about to relate our tale of the phones when you added quickly, ''Or drop by.''

Easy enough to say, perhaps, and not impossible for us to do. But we are not my concern. What becomes of those who live farther from your office? Who have no convenient way to get there? Who can't easily leave their jobs during your weekday working hours?

It's not your fault, of course: You only work there. But perhaps you'll pass this letter along to your superiors, reminding them that we're taxpayers and that you work for us. Please take some of our taxes and install another phone - with a complete recording, and a number to call for further information that answers when people ring. You might even take some more of our taxes and pay yourself overtime to work weekends or evenings - when more of our fellow taxpayers are free and when parking is easier.

And please spread the word to other government offices. This is not East Germany. We actually enjoy meeting people like you. Let's make it easier all around.


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