WESTLAND, Mass. It’s 7:30 Sunday night, and Mike Pfeiffer is taking this reporter on a drive through several western suburbs of Boston to expose what he describes angrily as “criminal neglect.”
“Look, there’s another one,” he says as he points to an assisted living facility with a yard sign out front that says “Heroes work here!” A left turn and a mile down the road takes us past the local fire station, where a banner on the lawn says “Thanks to our first responders!” “That really frosts my ass,” Pfeiffer says as he shakes his head bitterly before turning his car towards home.
Pfeiffer is a notary public, a minor public official authorized to authenticate signatures on legal documents such as deeds, wills, and washer-dryer combo installment sales contracts. The ritual incantation notaries pronounce at the end of their quasi-religious ceremonies–“Is this your free act and deed?”–is believed to date from the Roman Empire, when notae Tironianae were called in to certify odometer readings on used chariots.
“Let’s see–do I stamp it first, or seal it first?”
But that deep tradition doesn’t help the profession’s collective self-image in the current public health crisis because some states have loosened their rules to permit notarization by teleconference. “I’m sorry, I don’t get to put out a three-alarm blaze remotely,” says Westland Fire Chief Paul Urquart. “If those guys want a little respect they should earn it, instead of charging $2 a signature for stamping and sealing a freaking piece of paper.”
“This isn’t legal, but if you think I’m gonna pass up $2 you’re crazy.”
Pfeiffer is president-elect of the Massachusetts Notary Public Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of its members and fights inroads by other professions that want to cut in on their revenues, such as captains of “booze cruises” who attempt to solemnize marriages under the law of the sea. “Last week we caught a manicurist trying to notarize a codicil to a will while her client’s nail polish was still wet,” he says bitterly. “That’s two bucks one of my members could have used to buy a corn muffin, the Official State Pastry of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”