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Fingerprints

I went to get fingerprinted for a teaching gig in upstate New York this coming fall. Because Ulster County Community College is part of the state system, Homeland Security takes an interest in its employees. A great interest. I reluctantly filled out several forms and made an appointment for finger printing. I want to teach, after all, and if Homeland Security finds me interesting, so be it. I had long ago—after 9/11—decided not to worry about surveillance or loss of privacy. I take it as a fait accompli and remind myself that, fundamentally, we live in a free society and it is my mandate to remain free in mind and spirit. Let’s say, for example, that this blog is being scanned. That won’t stop me from writing what I want to write. That said, unlike artists and writers in China, I am not in danger of being incarcerated or persecuted.

More than a decade ago, I had been called for Grand Jury and was ink- rolled fingerprinted. Years later, the prints arrived in the mail. They were mine again, so to speak. I still have the manila card with those prints in a file somewhere in my memorabilia trunk. I didn’t want to throw them away; they seemed precious.

A writer doesn’t necessarily write with her hands; she can dictate or, if disabled, even hold a pen or pencil with her mouth or feet. Remember the movie “My Left Foot?” with Daniel Day Lewis based on the book by Christy Brown. Born with cerebral palsy, Brown learned to paint and write with his left foot. Or consider “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” a beautiful book by Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffered a stroke in his 40’s. That book was written by “pointing” to letters on a board by blinking. Both stories are more than inspirational to a writer sound in mind and body. Whatever should I be complaining about? Yet, the electronic fingerprinting process at a firm in mid-town Manhattan became an ordeal for me. It somehow threatened my identity as a writer who uses her hands to write. Straight from the machine into the computer, or something like that, never to be returned and stored in my memorabilia trunk.

The tech, Michelle Prado, trained in forensics, worked on my fingers for nearly an hour trying to get a “pass” scan. Four were rejected, one finger more than necessary for a “pass” grade to Homeland Security.

Dear reader, my fingerprints have faded. According to Michelle, this is very common among writers who type away at keyboards every day, people who use chemicals, and/or very old people. Would it make a difference to use the old ink method? Probably not, Michelle said.

She brought in another tech to help out, someone with a light touch, she explained. Had Michelle tried a special oil? No, not yet. So we tried the oil. No luck. Both women were very kind; they didn’t want me to have to come back. Why would it make any difference? I asked. Surely my fingerprints are gone, faded, never to surface again, stolen by use and time. What happens if too many fingers are “rejected” the second time?

“They’ll order a criminal background check,” Michelle said.

I wrote to the Director of the department I’ll be working for to explain what had happened and to suggest that the cash-strapped college save their money on a second round of fingerprinting and run a background check right away. She thanked me for the heads-up and suggested that my experience might make for an interesting plot of a detective novel.

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