Here's a scenario: You've had a good year. You've reported the hell out of more story ideas than you can remember, written more pitches than you care to admit, and a small handful have borne fruit. One of those got accepted by the biggest magazine you've written for to date. Outstanding. You're reporting the story. There are lots of moving pieces, but there's definitely a main character, and he happens to live in Cambodia. Phone calls are productive, but not quite enough for that animating spark, the thing that takes a reader somewhere new, lifts a piece out of the humdrum bin that humdrum pieces get tossed into. Tentatively at first, to yourself, you start to think: fuck, this piece would be better if I could see this guy in Cambodia, really sit down with him. And that thought festers, it stews. The slow, doltish mechanism that is the inheritance of the striving writer kicks into gear. In a moment of [inebriated] confidence, you send an email to your new editor. You're just requesting a meeting, asking for a chance to explain why this ambitious plan would make the piece better. Obviously he'll never go for it. But you get a one line reply: Book the ticket, I think it's a good idea.
Let's skip ahead. You've researched Cambodia, have had several conversations with your subject, planned an itinerary guaranteed to make for lively copy. The magazine is sending a photographer at no small expense, and he's planning to meet you. You have reservations and dinners are planned and a Cambodian senator has been invited to one of those dinners. You've Facebooked your departure, and oh how happy it makes you. At the airport you're wearing cargo pants, because you're a professional, goddamn it. You've already checked in online, have an aisle seat. You get to the counter quickly, and then ... the wheels fall off the bus.
The young woman at the China Air desk is wearing a "trainee" name tag. She looks at your passport for a full 30 seconds. Then she informs you it's expired. You're charmed by her noobishness, of course. You just renewed your passport in January. Doesn't she know you've lived abroad? Doesn't she know your old passport, before you had to retire it, had more window dressing than an FAO Schwarz at Christmas? She'll chalk this up to a learning experience, no doubt. Never mind, dear, try again, you're doing great.
She presents you with irrefutable evidence, and now you're half convinced that this is a training exercise, that you're part of the evaluation team. Be a sport, play along. Because it does seem like your passport expired last month, May 2014. That's not logical, of course, so it takes you a minute, but yes, that's what it says. Again, your instinct is to pat the trainee on the head, tell her she's done a good job, now please print the boarding pass. Please? At a certain point, quite detached, you make this summation: if this were really happening, I sure would be fucked. Slowly, you come to adopt your fuckedness.
My new passport's renew date: 24 Jan 2014
My new passport's expiration date: 14 May 2014
Maybe I made a mistake during renewal. It's possible. But unless there was a box for a "three months and change" passport, I'm pretty sure I got the .0001% of typos that invariably go out in any large and otherwise well-organized system. This is how good liberal boys turn into gun-burying libertarians. Obama!
So here's what I did ...
1) Walked outside, shell shocked. That feeling soon turned to a distress that, let me tell you, was pretty distressed. I slumped down against a concrete barrier outside and started punching the stonework on the ground at Terminal B of LAX while working the phone with the other hand. And I mean punching.
2) Emailed my [NEW] editor, sent a picture of my passport, and conveyed my profound and boundless humiliation for not noticing the error. I took (and take) complete blame for not having checked the expiration date, which is now the only thing I can see when I look at the accursed thing. I should have spotted the error when I took the passport out of the envelope. It's always the little things.
3) Called Orbitz to cancel my flight. On hold for what seemed like forever. Second-guessed myself about my menu choices, so hung up and called again. On hold for a full 45 minutes. Watched the clock outside the terminal approach my takeoff time and wondered if this wasn't a ploy, as if the Orbitz system knew I would be calling and wanted to make me wait until it was too late to cancel my flight. Feeling of mortal dread pretty all-encompassing.
4) Called my wife, who was at work, and left a message. She kindly did not replay that message for me after the fact. It surely would have been too despairing and defeated to bear.
To sum up: This is my first big assignment with a big deal magazine (that's not what I mean, big deal, but where circulation is concerned this is the biggest I've written for). On the line is a $1200 plane ticket and travel expenses approved by an editor whose literary and reportorial world I want to rock. Also on the line is a story that everyone at the magazine seems excited about. A former adviser to the Prime Minister of Cambodia is taking time off to show me around his country, and a photographer is flying in to meet me in Southeast Asia. No pressure.
Bleak, to be sure, but you'll never guess what happened the next day.
Check out PART II here