The Ponce Chronicles (Part 8)

Bureau of Certificates Bureau.

This story is Allysen’s. She has several critical tasks involving government bureaucracy, and it’s a while before she’s able to get away from the hill long enough to tackle these. In her words…

I have to get more copies of my father’s death certificate. Death certificates are critical for… just about everything, including gaining access to money in joint accounts that were improperly frozen when he died, or applying for insurance benefits recently uncovered from dusty files.

I head down the hill to the Demographic Authority. Half an hour and every possible wrong turn later, I find a sign—barely visible—pointing to the office.  It closed half an hour ago.  Sigh. Earlier is better in Ponce.

Next morning I try again. Just outside the long cement building is a large cement… desk? A man and a woman sit behind it, chatting.  What are they doing out here—having breakfast?  I feel as if I’ve landed on a flyspeck tropical island of the 1940s, not modern Puerto Rico. I walk up to ask the way to the Demographic Authority. Before I can say a word, the woman asks my business. Concrete building

Nosy, I think, but I explain: I need eight copies of a death certificate. She reaches under the desk and hands me a form.  Wait—this table is the Demographic Authority?

I fill out the form and she looks it over with care. How would I like to pay? She rattles off an incomprehensible set of choices that seem to involve the man sitting next to her.  Say again?  The certificates cost $10 each. Would I like to pay right now or at… (something I don’t quite catch). Or… this man can sell them to me for $2 each.  Huh? Sounds like they’re selling me lottery tickets.

Let’s try again. Yes, this man can sell me official death certificates for $2 each.  Well, $16 is less than $80; I’ll buy from him. “Okay,” she says. “That will be $96.”  Wait. My Spanish is good; maybe my math is lacking?  Because at $2 each, I don’t get $96.   I ask her to clarify, and we go through it again.  I can buy them at $10, the usual price, or at $2 from the man sitting next to her.  I can pay either $80 or $96.

What am I missing? Who is this man, and why does he have the power to sell me government documents at a discount? Er, markup?

At last the woman sees the problem.  The $80 is the price, she says.  To pay only that, you go back across town and line up at some other office, where you will get the seals for the certificates. Or you can pay an extra $2 per certificate to this gentleman for the seals, and get everything done right here, right now.

I pay the extra.

The woman does something magical with my paper, and hands it back to me, plus eight little strips of what look like stickers (from the gentleman?).  She waves me toward some unmarked double doors in the cement building behind her.

Inside, I wander aimlessly until someone points me in the direction of death certificates.  Stepping up to the window, I find myself facing a man who could well be Methuselah just entering his twilight years.  Methuselah examines the paper and the stickers and asks some questions.  I am armed with every piece of ID and potentially useful document in existence, including my only existing copy of the original death certificate. His eyes light up at that. Excellent! This will speed things along.

He begins to enter something into his computer… careful, slow, two fingered typing.  After a while, he writes down a number—looks like a dozen digits or so—on my magic paper.  Then he turns the paper over, and carefully types something from the back of the paper into his computer.

After a while he turns the paper over again and writes another 12-digit number on it.  Once more he turns the paper over and resumes typing… turns over the paper… another 12-digit number… turns over the paper… pecks at the keyboard… until he has done this entire dance eight times.

My father died just five years ago. Surely these records are still in their system.  Can’t he just press a few buttons and spit out eight copies of a form that already exists?  I can just imagine my father’s reaction to such idiocy. No wonder Puerto Rico’s economy is in shambles.

At last the world comes out of pause. The man reaches under his desk and draws out eight pages, one by one.

They look like bad counterfeit copies of my original. If I wanted to commit blatant fraud, this is what I’d use. I show him the original again, and ask why these copies look so different. “Oh, those are the old ones.  We haven’t used those in years.  Now we use these.”

Numb with disbelief, I thank him—Puerto Rican courtesy is catching—and head back up the hill to talk to the electricians, or the mason, or the carpenters, or the plumber, or the pool repairman, or the tree man, or… anyone who does his job well and lives in the modern world.

(Coming up in Part 9, “Timber-r-r-!”)

[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]

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