NOTE: If you haven’t read yesterday’s post, you need that backstory before continuing with this post. You can find Part I here.
Picking up from where I left off …
So, I woke up from my drug-induced slumber when Michel came home from his class, sometime around 5:45 Wednesday evening. We made coffee and we talked about my frustration from that morning. I was truly despondent, and he sensed it. He assured me that it would all be alright the next day, but it didn’t stop him from going online and registering a complaint with the Médiateur de la République. The Médiateur is a position created under Sarkozy that is responsible for mediating problems between French citizens and their government. Apparently, at its inception, there was a team that was very responsive to issues submitted on the website, but the level of response has waned in recent years. Despite Michel’s reassurance that the next visit to the Prefecture would go more smoothly for me, I was about as certain of that as he was that he’d hear back from the Médiateur.
The next morning (Thursday) at 5:00, the alarm went off. I was up and out of bed, showered and dressed, and on the first tram to Bobigny at 5:40. At the station in La Courneuve, a lady approached me and asked me how to buy a ticket. She was heading to the Prefecture as well, so we ended up traveling there together. We arrived at the Prefecture just before 6:00, the little lady from the tram right in front of me in the line, which was already surprisingly long but at least a bit shorter than the day before. That wasn’t saying much, but it was a good thing, and I was grasping for even the smallest indications that it was going to be a better day.
As part of my ongoing effort to chronicle my life through every possible social medium, I checked in on FourSquare. To my surprise, I received the following pop-up alert: “Congratulations! You just received the title of Mayor of Préfecture de la Seine Saint Denis.” Well, I’ll be! That meant that I was the person who had checked in at the Prefecture the most during the last 60 days. Now that‘s a dubious honor!
Standing there surveying my little kingdom, I began my wait. I had three very long hours ahead of me, almost two of which would be in the dark. Like the day before, I was soon propositioned by the “spot” brokers, the guys who apparently sell places farther ahead in line. “Not today, gents,” I thought. “If I can’t get a ticket after being on the first tram to Bobigny, then I just won’t have a ticket. It’s not like I’m willing to camp out and spend the night on the sidewa … well … maybe … no. No. No! I am never going to do that.” Not that others hadn’t. In a desperate system, one does desperate things.
Like fight …
Just like the day before, there were a few small disputes in the line. Every now and then, I would hear raised voices coming from somewhere ahead of me, undoubtedly because someone had tried to cut in line. That was nothing out of the ordinary, though it definitely made me feel a little less secure, especially since there are no police there to provide security or order—notwithstanding the fact that the Prefecture is the Prefecture of Police.
Then, all of a sudden at about 6:30, there was an eruption of noise, and I saw with my own eyes—not more than fifty feet ahead of me in line—a man pick up a folding chair and throw it at another person in line! There were screams and a sudden exodus from the line where the attack had occurred, and then I saw a group of people running after someone into the parking lot. There was no way for me to determine exactly what was happening or what had sparked the violence. I instinctively tucked my iPhone back into my pocket, but once the brouhaha subsided, I posted again:
I just saw someone throw a chair at someone else and then a screaming match ensued. Someone got chased away by a group of people — general panic in the line near the disturbance. Really incredible.
Of course, since there were no police in the vicinity, we were left to police ourselves. I can’t be sure, but I can only assume that it was the perpetrator I saw being chased away by a vigilante crowd, and not the victim. Thankfully, that was the extent of the violence that I had the misfortune to witness that morning. The rest of it was spent bundled up against the early morning chill, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for the sun to rise, and then waiting for the doors to open.
At 9:00, a team of immigration agents exited the Prefecture and started the process of sorting the crowd. I showed my expired récépissé and was directed to the line for the “welcome desk” just like the day before. This time, however, my arrival an hour earlier seemed to place me far enough ahead in the queue that I felt pretty confident that I’d finally get my magic ticket. Once inside the building, we shuffled along in our “line,” dealing every now and then with people who thought the small waiting room just inside the door was a free-for-all holding pen. In their defense, it did have that sort of feel, but we were determined to maintain our own sense of order: “Know who is in front of you in line, know who is behind you, and don’t let anyone else get there.” At one point, as a line-jumper behind me was being politely reprimanded, I realized that the enforcer was the same gentlemen with whom I had spoken the day before. We commiserated a bit about having both been turned away and having to come back again. It was his second day of missing work—his second day of no pay. “It’s a broken system.” “Yeah, completely.”
After about 45 minutes, my section of the line reached the straightaway where the three windows—S, T, and U—were finally in view directly in front of us. The anticipation was so strong that my stomach was fluttering. When my turn came, window U opened up and I found myself face-to-face with the same woman with whom I’d dealt the day before.
“Hello. My récépissé expired and I need a new one.”
She took my document, consulted her computer, and handed it back to me with a magic ticket! I was number 0956!
“Thank you. And, please, how many photos are needed for the récépissé?”
“Just one. Okay, thank you.”
I’m not sure why I thought she might remember me from the day before. Perhaps she did, but if so, it was inconsequential to her. After all, how many of us does she see every single day?
I hurried over to the main waiting area where, at 9:52, I sat down for the first time in over four hours. I placed my dossier on my lap and took a photo of my magic ticket. “You will be called under the number 0956.” I read again with relief. “Today is 10/13/2011. It is 8:49 [the time the ticket was printed]. There are 246 before you.” With only 246 people ahead of me to be serviced at four windows (M, N, O, and P), I calculated that I would probably be finished before 2 pm! What a coup! I looked up at the LED display showing the last number called, and it was already 0762! “Well, even better. That’s less than 200 people to go,” I thought as I tucked my ticket inside my dossier and sat back to await the call for number 0956. I was actually content. Talk about distorted expectations.
Then the problems began.
When the numbers reached 0800, some major glitch hit the system. Suddenly, the next number being called was 0830. The murmur in the waiting room grew louder as people started to move toward the windows with their tickets in hand. It was general mayhem in the little area between the windows and the seats in the waiting area. As soon as a window opened, someone raced forward to object to having been jumped over. There was almost a sense of panic from some of the waiting crowd.
“Do not approach the windows until your number is called. If you are in the 700s you will be called after the 900s. I repeat: do not approach the windows until your number is called.”
Those who had congregated near the doorway separating the windows from the waiting area were grumbling, cursing, shaking their heads in disbelief. “What does that even mean? The 700s? They just skipped 30 people in the 800s! They’re going to start with the 900s now?” No one knew exactly what was going on. But then, as the numbers continued to advance in a chronological fashion from 0830 to 0831 to 0832 to 0833, we started to believe that the glitch had been remedied, at least for everyone except numbers 0801 to 0829, who continued to mill about near the windows.
“Once again. Do not approach the windows until your number is called. If you approach the windows, we will close them for everyone!”
Nice way to defuse a situation, people. Very professionally done. I was actually afraid at that point that there might be some altercation and they really would close the windows. Shortly thereafter, three police officers arrived on the scene. They directed the disgruntled element back to the waiting area and paced back and forth in front of the windows, checking tickets and regulating the traffic. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a bureaucratic office. But at least people were no longer on the verge of storming the Bastille. Then, the system hiccuped again …
0835 was followed by 0845 …
0845 was followed by 0867 …
0867 was followed by 0883 … then 0889 … then 0919 … WTF?!
“It’s the lottery. You have to have a lucky number today!” exclaimed the guy sitting behind me. We exchanged looks of nervous amusement. And then, inexplicably, the system started to advance normally again: 0920, 0921, 0922, 0923. A director emerged from an office somewhere and addressed the waiting crowd:
“There was a problem, but we have regulated it. If your number was not called, it will be called again after we have finished the 900s.”
In a moment of complete self-interest, I was utterly relieved that the system had been fixed before it jumped to 0957. For those 100-some-odd folks who had just had their hopes for a quick day at the Prefecture dashed, I felt sorry … but not enough to trade tickets with anyone. Not after the day I’d had before. Not after three visits in four days!
At about 12:20, I saw flashing on that LED screen what I’d been then been waiting for for 6-1/2 hours:
(They had opened up windows Q and R to serve our requests,
while agents N and O went to lunch.)
I practically sprinted over to Window R with my ticket in hand as if I had won the lottery. Almost breathless with excitement:
Hello! My récépissé expired, and I need a new one!
Thirty seconds after handing over my old récépissé, I got back a brand spanking new one attesting to the fact that, yes indeed, I have submitted a request to renew my residency permit, I’m still waiting for it …
and I have the right to wait for it for at least three more months!
© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved