Friday, March 24, 2006

Talk to the Invisible Hand of the Marketplace

9am: Chinese consulate opens

9:15am: I arrive. The line to pick up visas is out the door. There is no line for dropping off applications, though.

9:17: P.’s visa application successfully delivered.

9:18: I get in the pick-up line

9:26: I arrive at the front of the line and slap down my credit card to pay the $50 fee.

9:27: My work here is done.

9:30: It begins to rain as I wait for the first of three buses that will take me to the Russian consulate.

10:31: Last of the three buses drops me off at the corner of Union and Baker. It’s only one block from the consulate, but unfortunately, this particular block has a vertical rise of about 80 feet. (They don’t call it Pacific Heights for nothing.)

10:36: Arrive at locked consulate gate. As I am wondering how to get in, I hear the lock buzz open. It’s as if they know I’m there.

10:36:30: Same thing happens at the door to the building. It’s uncanny.

There is no line here, just a few solo travelers and tour guides toting stacks of clients’ passports, keeping a wary eye on anyone trying to jump the invisible queue. The tour guides bicker non-stop about whether Serge or Andre is the one with the glasses until I want to scream. I wonder if situations like this are why there is a sign that says, in English, “Did you know that keeping your voice down will get you to the front of the line faster?” This is clearly a culture with advanced line-standing rituals.

10:39: The guy in the window says “next” and looks directly at me. I wonder if this is the Serge or Andre the tour guides are obsessed with.

10:40: Although I have stacked my documents in the prescribed order (passport, invitation letter, THEN visa application), I am turned away because Serge or Andre will not take a credit card to cover the $100 visa application fee. I also lose style points for neglecting to provide a photocopy of the information page of the passport I’m about to hand over. “Money order or company check” intones Serge or Andre.

10:58: I am on Lombard Street in the rain. Lombard Street in this part of town is not the Crookedest Street in America, just the Seediest. I am on an urban scavenger hunt, trying to find a Kinkos and a bank that will grant me a money order. It is still raining.

11:08: I spy a print shop with a self-service photocopier.

11:22: There is no bank among this row of bars and cheap motels, but there is an ATM. Surely the Russians still like their American greenbacks?

11:41: Serge or Andre and I pretend we have no history. But when it’s time to pay, he’s not pleased by my stack of 20s. “No cash. Money order or company check. I told you.” So he does remember. He looks at his watch, clearly pleased that there’s no way I’ll make it back before the office closes at noon. I wonder if blue jeans still have barter value for Russians.

11:41:15: One of the men I’ve taken for a tour guide pipes up. “I can write you a company check, he says.” He takes out a checkbook, scrawls on it, and hands the check to Serge or Andre. I give the checkbook man my stack of 20s. He hands me a business card. There’s a phone number, a Market Street address, his name, and in the biggest typeface of all, his title: “Visa Aide.”

11:41:18: I realize I’ve just handed $100 cash to a complete stranger. Still, it seems to work for Serge or Andre, who hands me a claim check and tells me to come back April 4. So tune in next week, when we discover whether or not your correspondent has thrown her passport and money in a deep, dark, Russian hole. Perhaps by then we also will have a clearer idea of why the Russians take twice as long and charge twice as much for visas as the commies over on Geary Street.

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