The Washington Bureaucrat’s hard hitting, soft power, six-part series going undercover at the State Department continues with Tuesday. If only interns were eligible for AWS!
Fearful of not being able to find the place, I leave my apartment at eight-thirty. I wear my brand new charcoal grey suit with a brand new shirt from Brooks Brothers and a bright red tie that I spend longer than I’d care to admit attempting to knot. I even set the auto-timer on my camera to take a picture of me dressed up and ready for my first day at the office to send to my parents.
Into my pocket go a piece of paper on which I have written the phone number for Suzy Miller and the three people from my department—[name redacted] ([acronym redacted]) within the Bureau of [name redacted] ([acronym redacted])—with whom I have had previous contact. Concerned about violating some sort of scary government security protocol, I don’t bring my backpack or any schoolwork with me. All I bring beyond the usual cell phone/keys/wallet is my passport, per the instructions of Suzy Miller.
I am so anxious about missing my stop and being late and having to reschedule that I get off the bus at the Foggy Bottom metro stop a half a mile from the Annex at Columbia Plaza where I am supposed to check in. Up ahead in the distance I watch the bus stop directly outside the Annex.
All the same, I am standing at the security desk at nine-twenty.
“Which office are you visiting?” the guard asks. I have no idea. I take the piece of paper with the phone numbers on it out of my jacket pocket and slide it across the desk. She phones Suzy Miller and gets no response.
“I’m a little early,” I say, “I’m supposed to meet her at ten.”
“We’ll try her again at ten after,” I’m pretty sure I hear the guard say.
In the meantime, she copies down all of the information on my driver’s license and gives me a temporary badge that says “escort required at all times”. Another officer runs my winter jacket through an x-ray machine while I walk through a metal detector. Nothing alarming.
I sit down on a bench to wait. This is still outside the turnstiles. Every building—every entrance of every State Department building—has the same setup. To get in or to get out, you have to insert your ID badge and type in a six-digit code. Only then will the doors slide open. For people without a badge, the guard at the desk needs to unlock a special side door for you to pass through. It is this side door upon which I fix my gaze. The way it seems to work is that someone on the inside comes down, walks over to that gate, nods to the officer at the desk, and their waiting friend or contact or whoever it is is allowed to enter. I imagine what Suzy Miller might look like, scrutinizing everyone who comes out of the elevators for telltale signs. She will probably be carrying a clipboard or some other training materials. She will be a she. That’s all I have to go by.
I watch easily fifty people pass through those turnstiles. None of them is looking for me. Four or five times I recheck the time and address I copied down from the confirmation email. I make it a game to see how long I can go without looking at my watch. Then I make it a game to see how much longer I can wait before going over to the guard and asking her to call for me. At ten-fifteen I cave. Nobody answers. At ten-twenty-five she tries again to no avail, calling not just Suzy Miller but zeroing out to try the numbers of several other people in the department. At ten-thirty I take the paper out of my pocket and try the second name on the list: Deborah Walker. She has something to do with personnel in [bureau name redacted].
Once I’ve explained who I am, she asks if I tried calling Suzy Miller. She takes down my cell phone number and says she’ll try calling her and then call me back.
Five minutes later I learn that Suzy Miller has the day off. Deborah says this is crazy, she has the email confirming my appointment right in front of her, she cannot believe this, she is calling someone else to come down and get me, they will do my orientation, and when I finish I should go over to her office in the Harry S. Truman Building (HST, or Main State) to take care of the rest of my paperwork.
At ten-forty-five, Ashlee comes downstairs to get me. We go up to her cubicle where she gives me a folder with a dozen or so forms to fill out. I have everything filled out by eleven.
“Hold on, I think someone’s supposed to swear you in,” she says when I hand her the completed forms.
I next find myself in Eric’s office. He produces a plastic American flag from somewhere and wedges it into the corner between two walls of his cubicle. He has me raise my right hand and repeat after him.
“I, state your name, do solemnly swear to defend the constitution, etcetera etcetera etcetera, so help me God.”
“Congratulations,” he says, and hands me temporary spring intern badge number 55.
Eric escorts me back down to the entrance. He apologizes for my having to wait so long and gives me directions to Main State.
I find the building easily enough. After all, it extends between 21st and 23rd St and from C to Virginia. I even remember to go all the way around to the visitors’ entrance on C instead of the convenient one on 23rd.
Armed with my intern badge—a piece of plastic with cartoonish writing and a background picture of sunflowers—I approach the door guard. He directs me to the visitors’ entrance off to the side. I show the guard at that door my badge.
He looks at my badge and asks, “What is your purpose in coming here today?”
I fish my wallet out of my pocket and slide my driver’s license out for the third time that day, resolving to leave it loose in my pocket for future inquiries.
Through the visitors’ door there is another x-ray machine and metal detector. Out come my passport, wallet, keys, and cell phone. Off come my jacket, hat, scarf, and gloves. I pass through the metal detector without alarm. In front of me the exit leads back outside, where there is a winding rope path like the ones used in movie theater lines. It leads back over to where the guard I first talked to is standing.
There are two lines. One is for registered and one is for unregistered visitors. I stand ambivalent between the two until one of the receptionists calls me over. I show her my badge and she points around the corner of the desk to another security guard who I need to talk to.
“What is your purpose here today?” he asks.
I show him my badge.
He takes out the official list of interns and scans it for my name, stopping to use my driver’s license to swat at a fly buzzing above his head.
“What did you say your name was again?”
He looks at the name on my driver’s license and scans the list again, this time using the license as a guide as he slides it down the list of names.
None of those names is my name. The guard calls someone and asks when the list was last updated, confirming that he has the most recent version. He scans the list again, then scans yesterday’s list and the list from the day before. He calls someone else.
On the next list scan, the guard notices that my temporary intern badge number corresponds to the number written next to one Lu Hsin.
“That’s not you, is it?”
I put down my jacket.
The guard makes several more phone calls before asking if I have the number for anyone in my office. I take out the piece of paper. He points towards a courtesy phone over by the door and suggests that I call and have someone come down and get me.
First I dial Deborah Walker. No answer. My assigned supervisor, Steven Apple. No answer. My initial contact, Rachel Winter. Deborah Walker.
Eventually, the guard simply takes out a pen and writes my name in block letters at the bottom of the list.
“Why don’t you go on ahead?” he says.
“Are you sure? If nobody picked up the phone they might not be there.”
“Sometimes they get busy and don’t answer.
“Oh, and make sure you always wear that badge,” he says. “If you don’t have it they’ll ask you to leave.”
I put the lanyard holding the badge around my neck.
He pushes a button and the gate opens. Halfway down the hall towards the elevators, I check my pockets for my driver’s license and don’t find it. I check my front pockets, back pockets, suit jacket, winter jacket, wallet. Nothing. A guard tells me I need to move along as there is a large group coming through. I walk all the way to the end of the hallway by the elevators and pretend to be waiting for one until the group passes. I return to the gate I came through.
“Did I leave my ID here?”
The guard says I didn’t. He checks the desk. I check every pocket again.
“Did you look inside your cell phone?”
I shake my phone at him to demonstrate the absurdity of the suggestion. My license falls off it onto the counter.
Finding the right floor is simple enough. Four is four. But then there are the hallways. There are nine hallways in all, with the even ones more or less running north-south and the odds running east-west. Only there are random offices in the middle of hallways, so that to walk “straight” along four I have to follow six to nine then cut over to four, then take a detour on three and then finally turn back onto four. Thankfully, the maps posted at regular intervals include room numbers. At about twelve-thirty I pull open the door to the office number I was given.
It is empty.
After a couple minutes of me making conspicuous noises, a woman comes around the hallway corner and asks what I need. I showed her my intern badge and say I am there to see Deborah Walker. Deborah is out to lunch and won’t be back for awhile.
I have class starting soon, and it will take me forty-five minutes to get to school from here.
Sharon the secretary tells me the paperwork I have to fill out will take some time. Although, there is one form I can fill out quickly in order to apply for a badge. I filled out the form, and then I write a curt note for Deborah thus: “[name redacted] was here. Please contact me with instructions for tomorrow.”
I retrace my steps all the way back to the main door, back to the Foggy Bottom metro, and over to school. And that is Day One.