“Show Me a Piece of Paper”

imagesMore police officers than usual lounged around Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on October 17th, seemingly indifferent to arriving and departing passengers.

As I approached the stairway for my train, a uniformed woman stopped the traveler ahead of me and said, “Do you think you can board this train without showing me a piece of paper?”

I joined the conversation: “I didn’t see a sign indicating I had to show my ticket here.”

“We’re on high alert. Show me a piece of paper.”

I did. She looked at it. Waved me down the steps.

It was the ticket a friend used the day before, but the uniformed woman was satisfied: I’d shown her a piece of paper.

A piece of paper declaring that the bearer’s government is prepared to allow them to leave and return must be shown when crossing from one country to another. A passport does not guarantee, however, the openness of its bearer to fresh aromas and flavors, to different ways of living and thinking.

Not so long ago, a young man and woman could not rent a hotel room without showing a piece of paper. A marriage certificate gave them the right to sleep together; it did not guarantee, however, that they were truly in love.

R.S. and Elsi Thomas had a marriage certificate, but in a poem not published until after his death, R.S. suggests that their true marriage was a paperless, ringless ceremony:

     . . . Yours the face
that young I recognised
as though I had known you
of old. Come, my eyes
said, out into the morning
of a world whose dew
waits for your footprint.
Before a green altar
with the thrush for priest
I took those gossamer
vows that neither the Church
could stale nor the Machine
tarnish, that with the years
have grown hard as flint,
lighter than platinum
on our ringless fingers.

When Elsi and R.S. exchanged their gossamer vows, there were no rings; no piece of paper either, for thrushes do not sign marriage certificates.

Pieces of paper are important: They give order to public and private life, confer privileges, protect rights, guarantee a certain level of competence. But, as W. H. Auden recognized in his poem “The Unknown Citizen,” they turn human beings into numbers that can be analyzed, categorized, and filed.

Pieces of paper show these things about Citizen Number JS/07/M/378:

   . . . Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

. . .

He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation,
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Ours is a world that maintains that if you can’t write it down, if you can’t run it through a computer, it’s not important – indeed, it doesn’t exist. Our churches turn vows stale by insisting that they conform in every jot and tittle to pieces of ecclesiastical paper. Our technologized world (what R. S. means by the “Machine”) tarnishes vows by exposing them to the oxygen of statistics.

“Show me a piece of paper” does not apply to all the things that compose a truly human life.


Poems quoted in this post:

“Yours the face” – “Luminary,” R. S. Thomas: Poems to Elsi (2013), 54.

“Except for the War till the day he retired” – “The Unknown Citizen,” W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940), 87-88.


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