I’ve decided that if I write a book, that the title should be “Misshap-ing through Life,” as it seems that every trip I take has some element of self-induced mishap that makes me chuckle, though not always at the time. This trip is no different. . . and it hasn’t even started yet.
So my friend in Germany, Dave, and some other folks I know over there talked me fairly spontaneously to come to Munich, Prague and wherever else we decide to hop off to once I get there. Not so shockingly, I think it sounds like a great idea and I book a plane ticket into Munich leaving in slightly over two weeks and then back out of Prague after about 10-11 days. In that time frame lies the rub.
I moved from my crappy condo to a new house about three months ago. Knowing that moving is perhaps one of life’s least enjoyable tasks, I pay a friend of mine to pack up most of my stuff and pay movers to move it all. It was probably the best money I’ve spent in years. If I would have thought ahead enough to pull my passport out beforehand, it would have been money even better spent.
Of course, I lost my passport. Been looking for it at my new house and new office for about a week and no luck. Figured I’d find it for sure, so didn’t FedEx an application down for a new passport early enough to insure that I’d get it in time for my departure. The week before I was to leave, I call my friends in Senator Pryor’s office to see if they can expedite an application and the aide in charge of passports tells me its possible, but the best way to insure I’ll get one is to actually drive to the New Orleans or Houston passport office and get it in person. The aide said she’d heard that you could get one the same day, but they were only open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Wednesday is the Fourth of July. Friday is my flight.
OK. Monday sounds good.
I go to my local post office exactly a week before I am to leave, on a Friday, at about 4 in the afternoon to pick up the application for the passport, to make sure that I had everything that I needed before I drove to New Orleans on Sunday to walk into the office on Monday, get my passport, go have some good gumbo and drive back home.
As I’m reading the application, I see I need proof of ID. Check. Money order or check for the fees. Check. Proof of citizenship. Hmmmm. Don’t have my birth certificate. Have my old expired passport from high school that I found in the search. Think that’s good enough from what I’m reading, but not sure. Scroll down the form. . . you can get a passport in person if you have all of that stuff and. . . if you call and make an appointment. Well now, that’s some unwelcome news. What the Senator’s aide didn’t tell me when I was talking to her a few days before then was that I had to call an automated system to set up an appointment at the passport office. Kind of an important detail. It’s now about 4:30 p.m. on Friday. I need this passport on Monday. Bummer.
Call the (800) number. Busy. Busy. Busy. Dial for about a half hour. Recheck the number. Been dialing the TYY/deaf number. That’s not a busy signal. That’s the “put your TYY phone down on the thing that sends the signal and we’ll chat on your typing equipment” sound. Brillant. If there was any doubt before that I was an idiot – the doubt has been extinguished. Recheck the application. Automated line is open till 6:30 p.m. OK.
Dial the correct (877) number. Get through to the automation-computer-voice thing. I hate these. “Dial or say one for English.” One. “Dial or say one to make an appointment at one of the regional passport offices.” One. Go through the various options to actually select a location and select the New Orleans office. “Dial or say one if you want a morning appointment.” One. Long, long hold, while apparently the government supercomputer scrolls through the morning log to see if there are any appointments. A friend that I’m meeting for happy hour shows up at the bar. I fill her in on the basic details. She confirms I’m an idiot. I’m still on hold. Life is pretty sweet.
“No appointments at this location at that time. Please call again to schedule a different appointment time.” That sucks. How many other fools like me are really out there that book a trip with no passport? Dial back in and go through the whole process again. Get through to the New Orleans number again. Say two to see about an afternoon Monday appointment. Long hold again. No luck again.
Actually listen this time when they are going through the various cities that have offices and learn where my Senator’s aide got the Monday, Wednesday, Friday thing. The New Orleans office is only open those days and also only open in the mornings. No wonder they didn’t have an opening on Monday afternoon. Somehow not shocking that the government supercomputer had an option to follow for an office that wasn’t even open at the time they are trying to book me an appointment. Luckily the Houston office is open five days a week.
I give my friend official permission to laugh at me in public. Its almost cathartic when she does. Phone back up to my ear. Try the Houston number this time. Monday morning – no. Monday afternoon – no. Getting a bit worried and more importantly, more and more pissed at myself. Plus after all of these phone calls to the government line showing how desperate I am to get out of the country, I’m sure that some George Bush lackey has picked me out to be strip searched at the airport. Or at least tap my phone. There’s an office in Chicago. I wonder if the Cubs are in town then to see my first game at Wrigley. Check on the blackberry internet. Nope. Serves me right. Why would I deserve any good luck? Get back on the phone. Tuesday morning in Houston? Bingo. 11 a.m. Appointment.
I call my folks to see if they can FedEx my original birth certificate, since I see on the application that you need the clerk’s stamp on one for it to be sufficient. Mom and Dad tell me they don’t have the original, but they’ve got a copy. Tell me that my brother ordered his recently to get his passport and was able to get it in just a couple working days. Ahhhhh – that’s not gunna help me, don’t think. Hang up. Hope the old passport is good enough. They call back shortly and say they found the original and ask where they need to FedEx it. I give them my buddy’s address in Austin that I’ll be staying with Monday night. They tell me that can’t get to it today since they are themselves on the way to the airport to fly to Seattle and get on a cruise ship for an Alaska cruise with my sister, her husband and their kids. They tell me they’ll FedEx it from Seattle the next morning. Sounds good to me. I don’t bother asking why I wasn’t invited. Jen gave them grandkids. And so go the benefits from that.
Now I’m cooking and back on track. I’ll drive to Austin Monday and get to see a couple buddies of mine there. Been needing to discuss a business deal with them anyway. Birth certificate will be there. Drive over to Houston Tuesday morning to the passport office. Meet with my passport agent person at 11 a.m in their little semi-private cubicle. Apologize nicely for being a moron. Make some joke about forgetting my passport a couple trips ago when I was going over to Germany. Condescending laughter from the government employee. Get my passport. Maybe call my friend in Houston and go get some good local Mexican food at noon and be on the road by 12:30 or 1:00. At home by 8 or 9, sipping on a bottle of good red, lit cigar in one hand, passport in the other hand, and have a good chuckle at myself for being a fool. Ahhhhh — life really is pretty sweet.
I worked for almost four years in government in DC, another two years in Little Rock on campaigns and in government service, and been a practicing lawyer in Fayetteville for almost eight years. I’ve seen federal, state, and local government close up and personal for pretty much my entire adult life. I know how government works. I know how the bureaucracy grinds. I’ve been on the inside, for God’s sake. What temporary insanity actually came over me to think that this whole thing would work out smoothly? As I am soon about to hit the magical age of forty, am I really am getting senile?
So I drive down to Austin Monday afternoon and after catching up with my buddies in Austin, I get some sleep, get up early and hit the road. Easy drive over to Houston. Get there around 10 or so, an hour before my appointment. Stop and get a cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake at a Starbucks around the corner. Read a little bit of a travel magazine. At about 10:40, go back to the car, pick up my filled out application, my two passport photos, my expired passport, my travel itinerary (you have to prove you are leaving the country in the next two weeks to use this special appointment process), and my birth certificate and walk over to the federal building. Up the elevator a full 15 minutes before my appointment and when I get off the elevator on the 4th floor. . . simply bedlam. The passport office is to the left. I see lots of windows like you’d see at a bank branch. I also see a bunch of people in seats and benches apparently waiting. I’m sure these are the fools that didn’t make the appointment over the phone like I did. I internally laugh at their ignorance.
Federal security guard at the elevator exit asks me if I have my application filled out and an appointment scheduled. “Yes sir, I’ve got an appointment at 11 a.m.” I want to say, “take your time, I’m here early, I can wait if the person scheduled to help me isn’t ready.” What I get from him is ,”turn to your right and get in line.” To the right is a hallway. There are about 50 people in line in front of me. It dawns on me.
All these fools have ‘appointments.’
Pot meet Kettle. My, my, you are black also.
Apparently, “appointment” just means you are allowed to get in a line. A long line. Now cursing myself under my breath. “Drinking fucking coffee around the corner for 45 minutes, when you could have just come over here and got in line earlier. You don’t deserve to take a good trip. You are too fucking dumb to be allowed on a plane. Your stupidity may be contagious and innocent people might catch it.” How many synonyms are there for ‘moron?’ Well, I’ve got time enough to come up with most of them now.
So the line I’m in across the hall creeps along slowly. No one knows anything. You overhear whispers of conversations. “We are leaving Monday, do you think that will be a problem?” “Looks like that person is walking out with a passport. You think applied today or yesterday and came back for it?’ “I lost my passport, but printed out the special lost passport affidavit you have to fill out when you do that online and have it with me” (Great. Yet another thing I screwed up). Finally get to the front of the hallway line and the security cop/dictator waves me across the hall to the promised land, the passport office. “Turn to your immediate left when you walk in.”
Another long line. Basically the same people that have been in front of me for the last hour or so, just in a different spot. And I see what we are lining up for. We are all in line to get to the “appointments desk.” I see people walking away from that desk with a little slip of paper. It’s their number to get called to go to one of the bank teller windows. We’ve been in line for over an hour to get a number, like at the department of motor vehicles.
It’s the D.M.V. office from hell.
I hear the computer voice say over the loudspeaker say, “now serving number A0054 at counter 3.” Its about 1 p.m. at this point. The office has been open since 8 a.m. They are on number 54. There are about 15 or so teller windows in the room. Two are open. There are approximately 200 people in the room. Yea – this looks promising.
And by the way, after 9/11 anyone traveling abroad must now have a passport. That includes kids. That includes infants. And they have to apply in person. There are about 30-40 very young kids running around the room. They’ve probably all been cooped up here for about 3-4 hours. Their only entertainment is one TV in the corner playing the Disney Family Channel or something. The sound is off. But they have the closed captioning turned on. That’s pretty helpful for the four and five year olds the programming is intended for. Dozens of small children in a room for hours with nothing to entertain them. Kill me now.
Did I say it’s the DMV office from hell? Check that. Its worse. I think I see Sisyphus over in the corner. He’s laughing and pointing at me. Bastard.
The security guys have some obsession about people being on cell phones, including texting. I’ve seen them tell 8-10 to either take themselves down to the lobby or turn the phones off. Apparently they are worried that word might get out to the outside world about the chaos in here. I don’t care. I have to email the aide in the Senator’s office to see if she can do something to help me. I hide my blackberry behind some papers and inform her of my situation. She emails back that she’s called a number of times and finally got a hold of a live person. Reassuring that a Senator’s office has trouble getting an actual human being on the phone. She asks for my date of birth and social security number and tells me that the person she talked to assured her that I’d be able to get my passport today. I’m only mildly placated. Then I remember that I’m in this line because of my own screw-ups. I think about praying, but I think God might just get a good belly laugh outta that. I choose to soldier on without asking for divine intervention. I might need that help later at the teller window – better hold off for now.
I make it to the appointment window. I get my number. A0132. They are now on A074. I’m about 50 away. They appear to be calling about 2 names every 10 minutes. I feel good that I’m not good enough with math to figure out when that means I’m likely to get called.
This whole time I’ve been parked in the Starbuck’s parking lot. I figure that I’ve probably been towed. My laptop and some reading material are in the car. I wonder if I ought to go out and get them just wait. But if my car is towed. . . Whew. Car is there. Phone is running out of batteries. I send a last desperate message to the Senator’s aide. I get my computer and a couple magazines and head back in. I leave the car in the parking lot. Let’s tempt fate. How much bad luck can one person really have in a single day? Lets find out.
I head back up the elevator and back into the room. There isn’t anyone in line in the hallway anymore. Hardly anyone in the appointment line either. Apparently they didn’t schedule any afternoon ‘appointments.’ I sit down in one of the waiting areas. Its about 2 p.m. Read there for a while. Security guard moves some people in my area to another area on the other side of the room. “This area is for pick-ups. Gotta keep my building organized or it’ll never work for anyone.”
“My building.” Yet again showing one of the most constant human traits – the smaller the size of the fiefdom, the more jealously the power is guarded and abused. And I’m certainly glad that his organization is helping everything move smoothly along – it does remind me of a well-oiled machine in here.
And then suddenly about 5-6 more bureaucrats open up the shades behind 5 or 6 more teller windows. Now instead of just having windows 3 and 4 open, we’ve got 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 12 it looks like. Where the hell have all these people been all day? The office is supposed to close at 3 p.m. It’s about 2 or so. Did they just show up for the 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. shift?
In any case, it’s a godsend, because I get called shortly after that. Go up to the window, smile, and give my paperwork over. Ask her politely if I can get my passport today, since I’m flying out on Friday and she tells me that normally the office would be closing shortly, but the hours are going to be extended because of the high volume today. I get a receipt and she tells me my passport will be ready at 4 p.m.
I leave to go pick up a quick sandwich. Come back around 3:30 or so. Sit back in the correct, pick-up area. Read for a bit. Notice shortly after that the main doors are shut and the curtains drawn. Glad I didn’t wait until 4 to come back. Go up to the counter to ask about my passport at pick-up counter. She looks me up. Assures me it’s on its way.
There are a group of 4-5 people huddled around the other pick-up window. They are all joking and talking with each other and the teller-person like they all know each other. I pick up that they are all courier people that are there to pick up expedited passports for people that paid their employers to get their passports in two or three days. Would have been good to know about this service last week. One of the government employees comes out to talk to some of them. They are asking about specific passports that were supposed to be ready yesterday and still aren’t here today, making me feel real good about my passport that is “on the way.”
One of the couriers offers the government guy a case of whatever beer he wants to get the passports done today, because “this one is flying tomorrow.” Another offers up lunch for the whole office. I’m thinking two things. One, I’m glad that overt bribery is still alive and well in America, and two, do I need to jump up and offer my watch or something to get my passport today? They ain’t getting the laptop, but everything else is negotiable.
The one that is complaining about having someone fly tomorrow is apparently named Debbie. She’s creating quite a fuss with the teller person. Other employees find the lost passport applications and tell the couriers that they’ll all be ready tomorrow (the 4th of July), but the office will be closed, so they can pick them up first thing Thursday. Debbie proceeds to go off on the low-level lackey giving this message, saying among other things, “O yea?! Well my flyer is connected. Guess you can talk to her Congressman Thursday about this fuck up.” They all pack up and leave. The office supervisor comes out 2-3 minutes later and asks the security guys whether Debbie left. They say yes. He then makes sure they all know what she looks like and says, “Debbie is banned from this office until she comes and talks to me!”
The teller person calls my name. I’ve got my passport. Everything looks right. I wonder whether I ought to tell him that my Senator (or at least his aide) will be calling him to tell him he did a good job.
No need. He’ll get some better bribe next week. I’ve got my passport. . . and I’m not banned from the Houston passport office. I can come back anytime I want to. And my car hasn’t been towed. Life IS pretty sweet.