Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hand-holding in Public

On Tuesday morning I drove south to Tukwila to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to have a Biometrics Scan. While this sounds like an intimating test of potential robotics (and A. suggested it meant converting me to the metric system), a Biometrics Scan is simply (disappointingly) a set of finger print scans and a photograph.

It occurred to me as I sat in a chair with my number and VISA application waiting for my turn with the complex and mysterious machines that I had missed something by not working at the counter for the Department of Homeland Security. I don’t mean the money or the hours, or the unfortunate position of power in the face of hundreds of desperate individuals who need name changes, or naturalization, or extraditing. To be the person who admits or refuses the ability for people to make a new life must be a heavy thing.

But the faces that passed through the office were definite and interesting, a parade of nationalities and circumstances: the middle-aged Indian woman with her features set in an expression of patient transcendence, the two dashing Latin American men with sculpted noses and unsmiling lips under their mustaches, children in braids sucking their thumbs on their mothers’ laps. Everyone in an attitude of quiet heightened watchfulness, waiting for their numbers to be called.

The biometrics technicians work without urgency. I imagined the sameness of their days – and yet, the power they have. The things they must know about the people whose fingers they scan, the faces they photograph. The magical monotony: endlessly discarded latex gloves, hand-holding reduced to its most sterile.

When my number was called I was startled from my chair where I tried to shuffle the books I brought over my lap (I was the only one in the waiting room who had a book) and they scattered papers and pens over the floor beneath me. A Slavic woman (her name was Lyudmilla) scanned my fingers. First four at once, and then the thumbs, both left and right. Then one by one, slowly, side to side, she cleaned my fingertips and pressed them onto the scanner. “Relax,” she said softly, “hold fingers limp. Must relax fingers.” As she pressed my fingertips to the scanner, the picture appeared slowly, emerging from east to west, thousands of small dots appearing quickly to form the ridges of my print, like a time-lapse video of stars becoming visible at night.

“You go to the university?” she said to me softly. Yes, I said, and told her I was hoping to study literature. “This is something you want for a long time, yes?” she said, shyly, and I nodded, shy myself. It was moving: this stranger holding my limp hand, rolling my fingertips against the machine pad with her own latexed hand. And the constellation of my print ridges appeared and darkened and froze ten times. I let her hold my hands and grinned like a child. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so purely, childishly, and expansively happy.

(photo from The Age.)

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