A law passed recently in Virginia permits notarizations using video or audio conference technology. An iPhone app has been developed to provide remote service by a 24-hour team of Virginia notaries.
The Boston Globe
It’s not easy being a notary public in Massachusetts these days, let me tell you. Notary fees have been flat since God knows when, and they max out at two dollars. Try putting food on the label for a growing family at two bucks a pop—you can’t do it.
So many of the guys I started out notarizing with—Tommy Bledsoe, Lenny Fucillo, Bud McMahon—have all left the business. “Where you goin’?” I asked Tommy one Friday night as we were sittin’ in The Marliave, known far and wide as a notary bar because of its proximity to Boston’s rubber stamp district.
“I’m leaving this joint, and I’m leaving the business,” he said in disgust after a week in which he’d cleared only $6.25. Two bucks for a deed, two bucks for a will, protest of a bill of exchange for non-acceptance where the amount thereof was more than $500, another buck. For recording the same, fifty cents. Then he got an odd job noting the non-payment of an IOU—seventy-five cents. “Whoop-de-freaking-do,” he said as he jammed his hat on his head and threw a buck on the bar. “See what the boys in the back room will have,” he said to Rocco, the bartender.
“There ain’t nobody back there but Tony Rotelli,” Rocco said, by way of warning. It was Rotelli, the Assistant Secretary of State for Notaries Public and Justices of the Peace, who collected the $60 fee the state charges you for a seven-year term as a notary—a bargain it ain’t.
“Oh,” Tommy said. “In that case I’ll take it back.”
That’s how tough things had gotten. “And they’re about to get a whole lot tougher,” Lenny Fucillo said after eavesdropping on my internal monologue.
“How so?” I asked.
“The Virginians are coming,” he said, echoing Paul Revere, who either did or didn’t say “The British are coming” on an April night almost two hundred and forty years before.
“Whadda you mean?” I persisted.
“Virginia just passed a law making remote notarization legal,” Lenny said.
“Pah,” Bud McMahon said. “They’re thousands of miles away.”
“Closer than that,” I said, checking my iPhone. “It’s actually only . . . six hundred twenty-nine and three-tenths miles.”
Lenny looked at us both and shook his head. Without opening his mouth, he let loose with a mirthless little laugh. “You guys are so far behind the times.”
“Are you kidding?” I said. “Look at my cool iPhone 5, which my wife handed down to me after my kid handed it down to her.”
“I’m lookin’ at it,” Lenny said. “And when I look, what I see is the seed of our destruction.”
Silence fell over the joint. That happened a lot, because there was a short in the stereo wire over the bar. Still, heads turned our way, looks of prescient horror described thereon.
“Are you suggesting . . .” Bud began.
“I’m doing more than suggesting,” Lenny said, his eyes narrowing to dark little slits, like the coin slot in a piggy bank. “I’m outright saying, alla youse guys”—and here he leaned back on his bar stool expansively, taking in the whole room with a wave of his arm—“are obsolete. Extinct. Rigor mortis.”
This sort of thing doesn’t go down well with notaries, a proud race of men who can trace their roots back to ancient Rome.
“You better be able to back that up,” a saturnine man with a physique like a Russian nesting doll said as he turned his chair the better to take in the conversation that had caught everyone’s ear. “Cause anything that smacks of the end of the august profession of the notary public is fightin’ words around here.”
“Okay, Mr. Wisenheimer,” Lenny said. “Take a look here at this ‘humorous’ little squib in The Boston Globe.”
“Why did you put the quotation marks of dubiety around ‘humorous’?” Rocco the bartender said.
“Because it ain’t funny—look.”
Guys crowded around and looked over Lenny’s shoulders. It was right there in black and white. Well, not actual white, more the greyish-white color of newsprint.
“So Virginia notaries are trying to muscle in on our business, huh?” Bud said, a note of resigned disbelief in his voice.
“Yep. And the worst part is, we won’t even be able to see ‘em comin’. There’s a team of notaries working round the clock, twenty-four hours a day, stealin’ our business without ever leaving the Old Dominion.”
“The Old what?” the saturnine man said.
“Old Dominion. It’s the state nickname of Virginia, like we’re the Bay State,” Rocco said.
As the gravity of the situation began to sink into the thick skulls that surrounded me, I wondered what manner of men we were, we latter-day descendants of the patriots who—to take just one example—dressed in offensive garb in imitation of an oppressed minority and dumped somebody else’s groceries into the Atlantic Ocean, then made light of the whole affair by calling it The Boston Tea Party. Would the evening end with us sunk in a funk, the way we were the two times we lost a Super Bowl to the New York Giants on incredible circus catches? Or would we rise up as one—maybe two at the most—and assert our God-given right to control the destiny of documents signed within our borders?
I really wasn’t certain. The men who dumped the British East India Company’s tea into Boston Harbor that cold December night imbibed beforehand at the Green Dragon Tavern, but it was only six o’clock, Eastern Standard Time, at The Marliave. Some of these guys had only been drinking for half an hour. I didn’t know if they had it in them.
But there’s something about the cold New England winters that makes for a hardy breed of men. Men who won’t back down, guys who’ll size up the threat of foreign competition and technological innovation and actually do something about it, dammit!
“I ain’t standin’ for this, no way,” Lenny said.
“Me neither,” Bud chimed in.
There followed a chorus of exhortations and exclamations that signaled our willingness to fight. It sounded like “Arrgh!” or maybe “Gluz!”—it was hard to make out—but I was pretty sure it meant we were going to hang together, so that we wouldn’t all hang separately as Virginia notaries swiped the scraps from our table.
“So what are we gonna do?” the saturnine man asked.
“We’re gonna go where the documents are,” I said.
“To the Registry of Deeds!” Lenny answered.
“To the Registry!” our corps of bondsmen replied with a shout.
It was down the steps, out the door and up to Tremont Street, then a bee-line to The Old Courthouse in Pemberton Square. It’s actually the Older Courthouse because the New Courthouse was built in 1937, so its pretty old, and there’s a newer courthouse across the street, but that one’s called the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, so things are a little confused. They shoulda called it the Newer Courthouse.
The Registry of Deeds is in The Old Courthouse, and every document that passes through its doors has to be notarized somewhere. We took up positions out in the marble halls, our little band of irregulars, as we reconnoitered, a word that means “to make a military observation of.” My eighth grade English teacher Mrs. Waite said it would come in handy one day, and boy was she right.
“We all look innocent enough, since we’re notaries,” I said, “so let’s infiltrate enemy lines.”
“What are we lookin’ for?” the saturnine man asked.
“People lookin’ at their phones, trying to authenticate documents remotely,” I said.
“Got it,” the saturnine man said. “One more thing . . .”
“What?” Lenny said, a bit impatiently.
“Can I stop being ‘the saturnine man’—I don’t like the sound of it.”
The rest of us looked at each other; there were a few nods of apparent assent, and some guys screwed their lower lips up into that expression that means “Okay by me.”
“I think that’s probably all right,” I said. “What your real name?”
“Alphonse. Alphonse Squillante.”
“Guys,” I said. “We live in a democracy, so let’s vote on it. All in favor of not calling Alphonse ‘the saturnine man’ anymore say ‘Aye.’”
“Aye,” everyone whispered, trying to remain inconspicuous.
“Anyone opposed? Hearing none, the ayes have it.”
The guys congratulated Alphonse. It was a big deal for him, he’d been in a lot of pieces before, mostly comic sketches and peer-reviewed academic articles, but nobody’d ever called him by his real name.
“Doesn’t somebody need to tell the narrator?” Lenny asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m pretty sure he’s omniscient. Okay—everybody ready?”
“Ready!” came the cry from one and all.
“Then let’s roll. In a dignified way—without unseemly haste.”
“No unseemly haste!” they whispered vigorously.
The guys all filtered into the Registry, which is staffed by a checkered combination of seasoned professionals and patronage hacks. There are rows of tables where lawyers, paralegals and title examiners make notes and sometimes—for convenience—hold actual closings. You get the Party of the First Part to sign a deed, the Party of the Second Part signs a mortgage, then you walk up to the counter. No muss, no fuss—except, the clerks don’t have to take nothin’ you hand ‘em unless it’s notarized.
“Take a look at that guy over there,” Lenny said to me, nodding his head towards a small-time practitioner who’d brought his blowsy secretary along. There were three other people at the table: a man and a woman—probably husband and wife unless I missed my guest–and another man, a real estate speculator who’d probably bought the place a week before and was now going to flip it for fun and profit.
“I think we got our man,” I said.
“If you’ll just sign right here,” the lawyer said, as he took out his phone and held it up in an innocent manner, as if he was just looking at cute pictures of his kids or checking the weather for the walk back to his office.
“Seen enough?” Lenny said to me.
“Let ‘er rip!”
“Hold it right there,” Lenny said as he tried to pull his notary card from his wallet. His move wasn’t as slick as he’d hoped; first thing he produced was a buy-nine-smoothies-get-the-tenth-one-free card, next came an expired half-off-lower-priced entree coupon from Bennigan’s, the Irish pub-themed casual dining chain where they make you feel at home by calling your name over the p.a. system when your table’s ready.
“What’s this?” the real estate speculator said.
“We’re busting this closing wide open,” I said.
“Can he do that?” the secretary asked.
“Now see here,” the lawyer said. “What I’m doing is perfectly legal . . .”
“In Virginia,” Lenny sneered. “Not in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
Our little contretemps had attracted the attention of the Second Assistant Registrar of Deeds, who’d been patrolling the counter like a North Korean border guard, on high alert for any bogusly—if that’s even a word—notarized document.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked as he approached. Probably wanted to get any controversies cleared up before lunch and his post-prandial nap.
“This guy here’s trying to pass off a phony Virginia remote notarization as the real, genuine, God-fearing, witch-burning Massachusetts article.”
“Oh, so a ‘remotary public,’” the patronage hack said. “I been readin’ about youse guys.”
“You won’t report me to the Secretary of State, will you?” the lawyer pleaded, now that he saw his life’s work and profession swirling around the sink drain of disbarment.
“I dunno,” the Second Assistant Registrar said. “How much were you gonna pay that guy in Virginia?”
“And how much would you have to pay these tax-payin’ Massachusetts notaries here?”
“Two dollars per signature.”
“How many signatures you got?”
“Three—one on the deed, two on the mortgage.”
The eyes of the registrar monkey rolled back into his head, as if he were some kind of snake-handling evangelist, as he figured out the toll he’d charge to allow the documents to pass over his counter and into the land records of Massachusetts. “Lemme see,” he said after a moment’s thought, or lack thereof. “Twenty five plus two plus another two plus another. Okay, it’s gonna cost you thirty dollars, the same as you’d be payin’ if I didn’t give you a break.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Lawyers Are People Too–Sort Of.”