[Continued from Part I] My editor called back just as the Orbitz rep picked up. I didn't dare switch over (my flight was about to take off, and with it, I assumed, my $1200), so I let it go to voicemail. I asked the woman on the other end (she sounded French) to cancel the ticket, and she asked me to wait while she verified information and initiated what ended up being a long process. Every couple minutes I tentatively interjected with, "Hello?" After the third time she just put me on hold. Twenty minutes later, after my scheduled takeoff, she said she had successfully cancelled the flight and that I would get a refund (- $100). It was the best I could have hoped for.
I checked my editor's message with as much trepidation as my adrenal glands could muster. Has he ever met as big a schmuck as me? Is he going to cancel my contract outright, or is he going to give me one of those "well, this is disappointing" type messages, leave me dangling above the abyss of complete professional embarrassment? I would prefer the former, like ripping off a band-aid, let's be done with it.
His message was incredible, a lesson in how to be an empathetic and encouraging collaborator, and I will never forget how grateful I felt in that moment. I had sent him a picture of the passport, so he could see the error right there, but I get the sense he would have given me the benefit of the doubt either way. He told me how crazy the situation was, that there was no way I would have caught the error until something like this happened, and that the thing to do now was relax, regroup, and make a plan. They'd get me over there as soon as I could get a new passport, and we could revisit the deadline to make it work.
I could have cried. Here this guy is launching a new magazine, spending tons of money to send me somewhere, presumably so I could bring him a good story for one of his early issues, and his response is to pick me up off the ground, dust me off, and say, "no sweat, get back in there, champ." Swear to God, a different kind of message might have taken me out of the game for months. Instead, I felt so energized to salvage the trip and do great work.
My wife pulled up to the airport to find me in a frantic state. My luggage was piled around me, my cheeks were flushed with anxiety, and I was still wearing those cargo pants (professional journalist!). She had taken off work a little early to pick me up, and bless her, she was all action. She'd found a few companies online that offered same-day passport services. I got two of them on the phone, and I couldn't for the life of me tell if they were legit. We quickly figured out that the question to ask was "Do you have any appointments tomorrow?" That seemed roughly equivalent to asking a drug dealer if he had any "lift tickets" to go "skiing."
The best either of the places could do was an appointment in a week. All things considered, being offered a brand new passport in a week sounded pretty good, but it still meant my trip to Cambodia would have to be completely re-planned, the photographer diverted, the Cambodian senator put off. There had to be a better way. How exactly were those companies able to get their clients same-day service? After some more research, we figured out they were just using the same appointment system at the Bureau of Consular Affairs that's available to the general public, and then charging a shitload of money on top of the normal passport fees to go to the appointment in lieu of the client.
Our research also turned up this blog post: http://www.hirahim.com/blog/2011/08/03/how-to-renew-an-expired-passport-in-nine-hours/
Nine hours, you say? Though the official website of the Bureau of Consular Affairs said an appointment was necessary at all locations in order to renew a passport, it seemed people had had success showing up at the Federal Building in Los Angeles and standing in line. You needed a printed-out itinerary showing an international flight leaving within a couple days, and there were no guarantees, but it was my best shot. On the way home we swung by a CVS, where I got new passport photos taken. Then, saint that my wife is, she took me to a bar.
Next day I hopped on my motorcycle at 4:45 AM and made tracks to the Federal Building. There were already about 15 people waiting when I arrived. A few hours later, when the Will Call window finally opened, the line was about 150 deep. When I got to the window, donning as polite and endearing a smile as I have in my arsenal, I handed over my application forms. I had booked a new flight for the following day, ponying up for flight insurance in case this Hail Mary didn't work. The guy glanced at my itinerary and handed back a ticket with a number on it. I was directed to a cafe just across the plaza, where I was told we would receive further instructions. Inside, I bought a cup of coffee, plopped down with a magazine, and waited about an hour. Eventually a uniformed officer came in and told us to line up. We would need the ticket we received, but the numbers printed on them were meaningless. There was now a mad dash to fill in the line, and it broke my heart to see a woman who had been far in front of me early that morning coming out of the bathroom to find that she was now relegated to the back. She pleaded with the officer, but he wasn't feeling sympathetic.
One by one we marched through a security checkpoint and into the belly of the Federal Building. We presented our forms at another window and got another number. Then we took a seat and waited to be called up, deli style. When I got to a window and handed over my carefully filled-out application, the agent insisted I had a temporary passport, which would have required a different set of forms, and which may not have been renewable that day. My heart sank. As calmly as I could, I explained what happened, told him that this passport was a renewal for a full-fledged, all rights and privileges model, that I'd had my previous passport for ten years, that the date printed on this now-useless booklet was a simple mistake. He told me to hold on, and then disappeared to consult with his manager.
"Okay," he said when he returned at last. "Come back at 3:00."
Paranoid about missing the pickup, I camped out under a tree on the lawn in the courtyard. I had been reading Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, and this seemed like as good a time as any to relax, let my blood pressure settle, and enjoy some peace. In the book, which is a riot, a hapless journalist accidentally gets promoted to international correspondent. I swear to God, Buddha, whomever that this is true: A few pages after picking up where I'd left off, I came to a scene where the bumbling scribe, completely out of his depths, arrives at the airport in high spirits and laden with an excess of ridiculous gear ... only to find that he's neglected to bring, or even apply for, his passport. Plans are altered, emergency arrangements made.
Ten hours after I arrived, I cleared security at the Federal Building once more and lined up with the other passport hopefuls. When I got to a window, a young woman took my name and expertly flipped through a bin full of pink envelopes. She plucked one out and handed it over with a wonderful smile.
"Be sure to check it for accuracy before you go," she advised. Good idea.
I was on a plane for Taiwan the next morning, and would touch down in Cambodia two calendar days later.