And I, I walked over to the, to the bench there, … and there was all kinds of mean nasty ugly looking people on the bench there. Mother rapers. Father stabbers. Father rapers! Father rapers sitting right there on the bench next to me! And they was mean and nasty and ugly and horrible crime-type guys sitting on the bench next to me.

- Alice’s Restaurant, Arlo Guthrie

Over the past couple of weeks, Betsy and I have been working on completing our paperwork for the “Application and Intake Process”. Most of the paperwork has been pretty mundane – signing of waivers, copies of tax forms, brief biographical paragraphs, financial statements, more waivers, etc. A family health history form was also done, and this ended up being considerably more interesting, as both of us learned some new things about our family’s health in our work with our parents to fill the sheet out, but for the most part, these forms were not particularly thrilling, nor did they take a lot of energy to fill out. We had been through the home-buying process only a few months before, so this was pretty much old hat.

However, there was one requirement that we most certainly didn’t have to do for the home-buying process – getting fingerprinted and having those checked out by the FBI.

The agency provided us with the forms to use in the information packet they sent us. While the rest of the forms had been quite modern – sent out on a CD-ROM to save paper, easily filled out on the computer – the fingerprint forms seemed like a relic from the late 70′s. The text on the card was printed in a very Wes Anderson font, and the card itself felt like the type of thick paper designed to be fed manually into a large mainframe that would whir and click and spin its giant spools of tape for a while before outputting a single piece of paper with your answer. I found a picture of one of the cards online, but it doesn’t have the same impact as being able to hold this thing in your hands.

So, on a Friday afternoon when we both had the day off, Betsy and I went downtown to the courthouse to get ourselves fingerprinted. On our way there, we attempted to get some forms notarized. That story is not particularly interesting, so I won’t tell it in detail, but let me just sum up by saying that if you ever read a website or a sign indicating that FedEx/Kinko’s offers notary services, that website or sign is a filthy liar. We went to one Kinko’s that said their notary was on lunch, and when we checked back an hour later, the notary was now gone for the day. The other Kinko’s we visited didn’t even pretend to have a notary, and referred us back to the first one. We finally ended up getting this taken care of when we were down in Portland, walking an extra 5 blocks just to not have to set foot in another Kinko’s.

After going through the metal detectors at the front doorway to the courthouse, we were directed immediately to the left to a small room. We filled out some preliminary paperwork, told the woman behind the counter why we were there, and we were told to take a seat and wait.

The first guy we noticed was a schoolteacher. We know he was a schoolteacher because he kept on telling everyone he was a schoolteacher – talking very loudly about how he was down here getting fingerprinted because he had to for his job, and asking the woman behind the counter how long it was going to take for fingerprints, and not-so-subtly hinting that all he really needed to show was a receipt indicating that he had paid for it today, and could he maybe come back on a later day when it was less busy? The woman behind the counter ignored him for the most part, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe this whole production was for the rest of the people in room, and that he seemed somewhat nervous to be there by himself.

The second guy we noticed was a sex offender. We know he was a sex offender because he kept on telling everyone that he was a sex offender – or, at least, he kept saying it rather loudly into his phone and everyone overheard. And the reason why the schoolteacher was so insistent on being identified correctly suddenly became very clear. This office served a dual function – not only did it handle fingerprinting services, it was also the place where sex offenders registered, and where they came back every week to check in and to confirm that they were still in the area. And all of the sudden, the words from Arlo Guthrie’s song Alice’s Restaurant came back to me as I started looking around at all the horrible crime-type guys sitting next to me.

The guy at the end of the bench was certainly not shy about letting everyone in the office know why he was there. He kept on getting phone calls while we waited, and every call followed the general pattern of “Hello? Oh hey, what’s up? Yeah, I’m just down at the courthouse, registering as a sex offender! So what are you up to this weekend?” A few of his callers must have pressed him for details, as he started expounding in great detail about how the judge was “making him jump through all the sex offender hoops” and that his lawyer had told him there was a good “90% chance that they would have won the trial”, but the 10% chance of going to prison was enough of a worry to make it worthwhile to accept the plea bargain of “a few years probation and all this sex offender nonsense”.

Now, I rarely judge other people (not true), but when a man is sitting 10 feet away from you talking loudly on his cell phone about his sex offender status… well, even the best of us might sneak a few glances with an eye of appraisal. He was dressed like a corporate sales guy – polished leather shoes, slacks, dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, professional-yet-stylish haircut – a look that said “hey bro, I might drive a hard bargain in the office, but I still know how to party down on the weekends, and I’ll put our drinks on the expense report if those pencil-pushing nerds down in Accounting don’t hassle me”. The imaginary history I came up with for the guy was that of a former frat boy who had learned some really bad lessons about personal boundaries back in college, and had crossed paths with a woman who called him on it.

As I sat there, more guys kept filling into the office and walking up to the woman behind the counter. The process was the same for each of those guys – they would walk up, give their last name, the woman would check on her list, and mark them off. It became quickly apparent that these were the guys who were in for their weekly “I haven’t left the area” sex offender check-in. And where the guy with the cellphone looked relatively normal, these guys… well, they looked like sex offenders. Long, scraggly hair. Weird looks in their eyes, or eyes glued firmly to the ground in front of them. One of the guys looked like a stereotypical 70′s pimp, but one that had fallen on hard-times and couldn’t afford to get his purple trenchcoat cleaned as often as he would have liked.

They called Betsy in to get her fingerprints done first. And I suddenly started feeling really awkward. This was the wrong office in which to be a single male sitting by yourself. I started wishing that I had shaved that morning, and feeling my face to figure out how scruffy I looked, and then quickly lowering my hand when I realized that sitting there caressing my face was probably really weird-looking, and then spending the next couple of minutes worrying about whether or not I lowered my hand too quickly and if THAT looked suspicious. All the while, young women were coming in to get their fingerprints done for their teaching jobs, surveying the couch, and seeing a well-dressed man on his cellphone, and a twitchy, scruffy looking guy in a t-shirt, and they all chose to sit closer to the sex offender, which, of course, only made me feel even more self-conscious.

Finally, Betsy came out, and I was called in. I was called to a table, and told to relax my hand, and to not try to roll my fingers for the technician, to just let her do it. I made my hands as floppy as possible. The technician rolled out ink on to the edge of the table. If there was anything other than ink below it, I couldn’t tell – it looked like just a paint roller of ink re-wetting an already pitch black section of a table top. The tech grabbed the first of my floppy fingers, rolled it in the ink, and then rolled it across the card. The process was actually pretty amazing – I’ve seen plenty of pictures of fingerprints before, but the level of detail on my own fingerprints astonished me. I’ve always thought of my fingertips as being flat, but here was incontrovertible proof that they were made out of very tiny corduroy.

The technician repeated the process 9 more times, and then had me ink my fingers down the to second joint and grip the card to give a partial hand-print. A quick rinse with special soap later, and my fingers were clean again. Each of our cards were sealed away in a special envelope that will show if we tamper with it in anyway. As soon as we both had our envelopes, we got out of there as quick as possible.

Last night, Betsy and I finished off the rest of the paperwork we needed to submit, and earlier this morning, we sent in everything to the agency, including the fingerprint cards, money orders to the U.S. government, and the next in series of increasingly larger checks that we’ll be writing to the agency. We’re on our way now – now it’s just time to schedule some appointments, and to start getting ready for the home study.