Chapter 25 – The Police Lady Always Knows Best
Tales of a Teenage Spy - The Life and Times of Gábor Rimner
After spending the better part of Monday at the passport office, Tuesday meant a visit to the local police to arrange my state ID - an essential item to facilitate daily existence in Hungary, then even more so than today.
But unlike my encounter with the affable, if inquisitive, Mrs Szöllősi, what followed was a text-book example of the communist bureaucratic mindset at its frustrated, frustrating worst.
True, the first ten seconds of our meeting were normal enough: it just went downhill quickly from there.
“Good morning. I need a personal ID,” I said to the police officer, a woman of 40 or so.
“Right, hand over your old one. I have to copy the details,” she retorted.
I explained that this would be my first ID card. “I don't have any previous ones. But I do have my birth certificate, to prove who I am.”
This was “simply impossible”, she reasoned. “Every Hungarian gets a state ID at the age of 14. You must have had at least one up to now.”
Oh dear. She was obviously one of those people who always knows best. I determined to remain calm and civil. It was in my best interests.
“Yes, I understand that's the law, but I've not had one because I've been living abroad," I said.
At this point, she started calling me a liar, saying I must have lost my old ID, and that meant I had to pay for the new one.
I asked her to ring the passport department and ask for Mrs Szöllősi, who would verify what I'd said was true.
But having dug herself into a shallow hole, she just kept on digging ever more furiously: she just didn't want to believe me.
I stood my ground, and this went on for some minutes, as she got increasingly angry. What else could I do?
Finally she relented, and went off to phone the passport section, with repeated dire warnings to me that if this proved false, I would be in big trouble.
As you may imagine, having already worked herself into such a mood, the conversation with Mrs Szöllősi didn't do anything for her blood pressure. She returned fuming, having been told by the ministry that, yes, indeed, the young man was telling the truth.
But instead of learning from the experience, it got worse: she took out a new ID and started copying the details from my birth certificate, only in her huff, immediately misspelled my name, writing Rimmer instead of Rimner.
At this point, I said: “Excuse me, but ...”
“Be quiet!” she barked – and kept on writing.
Naturally, there was little else to do but sit patently while she filled in all the details before handing me the ID.
Of course, I couldn't accept it. I tried to be polite, and said, handing it back: “Thank you, but this is not correct. My name is Rimner, not Rimmer.”
At this point, she started shouting! Why hadn't I told her?
I said: “Listen, I tried to tell you, but you told me to shut up!”
Trapped, and by now enraged, she dramatically tore the ID card in two, put it into a safe, took out a new blank one and filled that out, before handing it over and spitting out: “I hope I don't see you again any time soon!”
“The feeling's mutual,” I responded as my parting shot.
Whatever they had taught her at the police academy, it certainly didn't include much “soft skills” enhancement. Somehow, she had managed to convince herself that I'd gone there just to make a fool of her – and yet, of course, the rage was all of her own making.
So many little things like this go to make up a country's daily living a joy - or a chore. I suspect such characteristics have flourished in Hungarian officialdom since the time of the Habsburg monarchy, and before, but communism seemed designed to exacerbate such deficiencies.
If we ever do a film of my story, this should be a key scene.
I certainly pitied her next 'customer'.
UPDATE - I enquired of our hero as to what the ID in those days comprised, because I thought it was a booklet, rather than a card.
Gabor's reply shocked even me, as I hadn't realised the amount of personal infomation put into the ID at that time. This is his reply, verbatim
"It was a small, dark red booklet with the title: personal identification verification.
Photograph on the first page, and about a dozen pages containinng particulars like qualification, profession, current employer, permanent as well as temporary address, family status, number & name of children, mother's maiden name, place & date of birth, membership in the K.I.SZ. [ie Communist Youth Association] or the M.SZ.M.P. [Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, ie Communist Party post 1956] and so on... There were even pages to register if you had been at a state penitentiary institute and what the crime was that you had commited or to document the comments of the police constable who checked your I.D."