I Am Born, Sort Of

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All I wanted was a name. - not up in lights, or anything, merely to become a legalised fictional entity. There is that in every man that longeth for recognition, however small and insignificant the document.

In America, it's called a dba, Doing Business As. I wanted one. My bank manager opined that this was easy and relatively inexpensive - but it did involve a trip downtown.

He did not warn me of how fraught with perils the journey toward validation would be.

Warning bells should have sounded when Elektra and I exited the taxi only to be confronted with a War Memorial depicting a young man in a slouch hat. 'To the Boys Who Wore the Grey', read the inscription. Oh, glory, my ancestors would have been proud. On the other side of the walk was another dedicatory statue, this one to Mr Aloysius Tangerine Earl, a former mayor of Burleigh, North Carolina.

The Tangerine Earls were a big noise in Burleigh from the beginning, as they owned most of the more level real estate in the district, and, probably most of the people, back before The Boys Who Wore the Grey let them down at Appomattox. Since then, they'd swanned around being Benefactors, endowing Earl University, Earl Hospital, Earl This-and-That, when bored, collecting art. You get the drift. Having paid due homage, we entered the stately edifice, quite a decent piece of early-20th-Century architecture with fascinating mosaic floors and a lot of glass doors.

Too many glass doors.

The uniformed guard at the front desk declined to search us, interrogate us, or even sign us in - so much for security. He also declined to provide any information on where we might go, other than away from his desk.

After many twists and turns, we located the notary in an unfashionable wing of the building, disfigured with cheap pine furniture. The woman behind the desk was pleasant enough, took my $14 with equanimity, typed up my name, pressed the hot seal on, and handed it back to me with a smile, which I returned with interest.

'Done?' I asked naively. She shook her head, and pointed to a shelf. 'You get the instructions over there,' she enlightened us.

'Instructions? For what?' She shrugged. 'That isn't my department.'

'Look, ' I said, alarmed by the seven-step list. 'I don't want to open a Taco Bell. I just want to register my pen name. Do I really need a business permit?'

Her smile grew wider as she shrugged. 'You'd better ask them across the street.'

'Across the street' as instructions turned out to be worse than vague. After a half-hour of fruitless searching, and even more fruitless questioning of passersby, none of whom seemed to be acquainted with the area, or willing to admit it, we happened upon a city engineer, who cheerfully took us in tow, pointing out the architectural monstrosity where he worked with something approaching unholy glee.

'See that? Built in the 1970s, obsolete then. The city planning commission is here, of course.' He got us down the lift and further into Kafkaland.

Panicked office workers, fearful that we were bringing them custom, redirected us to the new office (from the cardboard sign, they'd moved yesterday, but it might have been a decade ago). Another receptionist - perfectly coiffed, note-perfect in her uncommunicativeness - made a phone call, and announced that Caithlin would be 'right up'.

'Up?' I asked in alarm, as we had come down in the lift. 'There are storeys below this one?' She glowered at me, and shook her head, refusing to waste further breath.

Caithlin turned out to be wearing blue jeans and a manic grin. I suspected that wherever they kept her, it was a cheery place - or else boasted refreshments other than coffee. She was a scoundrel, but refreshingly forthright about it.

'Well, now, what have we here? Ah, you need a Home Occupation Permit. [I do? To occupy my apartment? How have I lived without this?] Now, let's see, first I ask you a lot of questions, you initial the form, I steal $26 from you, then we register your apartment as your place of business, then I send you upstairs so they can steal more money...'

Caithlin bustled about, doing as she had said: How big was my apartment? How much of it was I using to work in? (Desk, chair, laptop.) Was I preparing food? (Only when starving.) Could you see what I was doing from the street? (I hoped not.)...Then she pulled up on the computer a 3D mockup of my housing complex. 'Where are you in relation to the swimming pool? (Not close enough.) Okay, got it marked.'

George Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour...better yet, thou shouldst be answering these questions...This part was mercifully brief, after which we were directed back upstairs in search of the office for business licences. Which was for some reason (possibly better concealment) located behind the payment queue for water bills.

They had not hidden it cleverly enough. We found it, and the abrupt dragon inside, who snatched my papers, grunted in contempt, and shoved them back into my unresisting hands.

'You need a tax number, ' she announced.

I protested. 'But the lady across the street said...'

Ferocious wave. I ducked - this woman seriously outweighed me. 'Number. Now.'

I stared at the paper, my face set in grim determination. I was not coming back here. Ever. 'I will phone the federal government now.' She tossed a leonine head, and waved me airily out into the lobby.

Elektra, worried that neither of us had eaten since breakfast, had snared some peppermints left by a bureaucrat as an Act of Mercy1, and a couple of chairs away from the hidden buzzer under the carpet that served as an Early Warning System against potential customers. I pulled out my mobile phone and started dialling the Internal Revenue Service.

Twenty minutes of classical Christmas music later, someone answered. Thirty seconds' worth of conversation later, I was placed on hold again. I sat back, listened to Mozart, and tried to think of Vienna. Twenty minutes after that, I was finally connected to the one person I met in this process who passed the Turing Test.

This saintly woman endured a full half-hour of shouting. Not angry shouting. Cell-phone shouting.

Was it all right to give out this information over an unsecured mobile phone? Yes, because any criminal who could find this place deserved a reward. Okay, name? Yes, birth name. Okay, Social Security Number? I shouted this, perfectly well aware that everyone in the short corridor of this minor annex of hell could hear it. What did anyone think these semiconscious civil servants were going to do with it? They were all just praying to the gods of filing that I would go away.

I have reached that point in life where I have discovered The Secret: the one my grandfather knew when he stuck his twist of Red Ox chewing tobacco in his wife's purse before they boarded the airplane for Pittsburgh. The one my grandmother didn't know, which was why they debarked with my grandfather chuckling as she berated him about the embarrassment of having a perfect stranger think she chewed tobacco, rather than enjoying a ladylike dip of snuff, as she occasionally did.

The secret is this: These people do not know you from Adam's housecat. In fact, they think of you as an obstruction on the road to happiness. They are determined to get through their day without doing any more work. You are frustrating this design. However, if you get the magic number, they will have to give you what you want in order to get rid of you.

So make a fool of yourself and shout into the phone.

My only fear was that after 40 minutes on hold, one of two things would happen: this patient woman on the end of the line would find it necessary to forward my call into Nutcracker Nirvana again, or we would reach the magic moment in which she actually handed the number over...

And my battery would go dead.

With increasing urgency, I shouted answers. No, I did not wish to avail myself of free tax advice (this would involve The Hold Button). Yes, I was sole proprietor of this enterprise - my laptop, my fingers, my brain, such as they were, all belonged to me. No, I am not manufacturing anything immediately explosive - I mean, who knows, the pen being mightier, but...? No, I have no employees, all my helpers are volunteers like Ariel the Wonder Dog, who works for treats...Nature of business? Long list, but Other, definitely Other, specifics, yes, I manufacture fiction, yes, I know this is ludicrous, I just wanted this pen name, you see...

Finally the moment of truth: This angel of mercy, this paragon of public service in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, reads back to me my dba...phonetically.

I am hard of hearing. I had the phone set up so high that Elektra was biting her fist as this lovely, unseen person shouted 'Gee as in George, Aitch as in Harry, Eee as in Edward...'

It occurred to us later that at no time in this process did anyone actually attempt to pronounce 'Dmitri Gheorgheni'2.

The number obtained, I thanked my federal fairy godmother from the bottom of my heart. She was even kind enough to wish me good luck in my dubious career and to promise to google me3. I dashed into the next room, disturbed the almost-sleeping dragon, forced a cheque upon her for the $50 they demanded in this escalating governmental blackmail, and duly received a printed licence, suitable for framing and hanging upon the business premises. (I am considering refrigerator magnets.)

Then home at last, our charioteer being the indefatigable and charming Mulu from Eritrea, who proved that there are princes walking (or, at least, driving taxis) by providing the most cerebral conversation I'd had all day, and showing me his Amharic Bible.

He grinned. "Were you successful?' I nodded, and proudly held up my prized business licence.

Where we read: 'D-M-I-T-R-I G-H-E-A-R-G-H-E-N-I.'

Sic transit gloria.

Someone fillimg in a form

1Redeemable for 3 years off in Purgatory.2There are two possible pronunciations: 'Gore-GAY-nee' and the Romanian version, 'Gay-or-GAIN'.3In which case, if you're reading this, Ms R -, accept my thanks once more, may heaven bless.

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