The total thickness of the cover of a U.S. passport is 0.70mm. The cover consists of a durable card stock bonded to an inlay that holds a contactless integrated circuit, "the chip." Now standard in American passports, the chip can store 64 kilobytes of data and contains descriptive passenger information, such as height and eye color. It also stores a digitized passport photo, which may soon be used to perform facial recognition verification at U.S. inspection points. It will likely contain fingerprint information in years ahead.
As the young ticket agent behind the counter inspected my passport, she found nothing wrong with its thickness or any of the numerous security measures designed to deter theft and thwart counterfeiting. Her issue with my intention to travel was simpler. She had on a trainee badge and exuded nervous kindness. She looked at my passport as if it were another quiz in her long apprenticeship. "Oh," she said at last, handing back the hack-proof booklet with the triumph of a star student. "This is expired."
I laughed. "No," I said. "I just renewed it."
I had done so after discovering that my visa pages were nearly filled. I was headed to Cambodia on assignment, and a Thorntree forum suggested that Cambodian officials used two full pages to affix the ornate entry visa. I had three left. The assignment was big for me, a feature for a new magazine. My subject was a colorful self-made millionaire. He had invited me to a dinner of local dignitaries in Phnom Penh. One of the promised dignitaries was a Cambodian senator. Another was the press secretary for the Cambodian prime minister. The magazine was flying in a Spanish photographer from Thailand to capture the scene. I was operating out of an abundance of caution.
"See," the trainee said, "it says so right there." She lunged a helpful index finger over the counter and pointed to the date.
"Huh," I said, not nervous. "That's weird. It's just a mistake, though. I renewed it a few weeks ago. See here? Look at the date it was issued. Who can I speak to?"
She paused. Another test.
"I guess whoever gave it to you," she suggested. "The government?"
I looked at her for a long moment. She smiled.
"Uh-huh, okay." I thought for a moment. "Well, this is a total disaster." I said it in the same tone I might use to describe any real-but-essentially-remote-to-me disaster, like a negative economic forecast or an alarming update on the state of the honeybees. I gave her a chuckle and turned around. The automatic doors whisked open, and then I was curbside at LAX. I leaned against a concrete pillar, took a breath, and slumped down. Then panic swept over me.
Governments use passports to control who gets inside their borders and who is permitted to travel abroad with the full rights and privileges of a citizen. It is a testament to the intrinsic, almost magical value of a passport that so much effort has gone into its authentication. Put a passport against a blacklight and it becomes a psychedelic treasure map. Deconstruct it and you're left with 60 different materials. It is a physically simple object, beautifully designed. But the embedded security features—there are 30 in the current U.S. version, many of them invisible—nod at the power a passport bestows. It is the power to explore and to pursue a prosperity not confined by borders. It is the power to flee. For journalists, the passport is a professional tool, a necessity. It is also a gateway to adventure. In my experience, journalists are all sublimated adventurers, would-be explorers waiting for the right assignment to satisfy a slightly shameful impulse.
I should have checked the expiration date. Obviously. Now I wasn't sure what to do. Here's where I landed:
1) Started punching the stonework on the ground at Terminal B while working the phone with the other hand. I mean punching.
2) Emailed the editor-in-chief. It was our first assignment working together, and a big deal for me.
3) Called Orbitz to cancel my flight. On hold for what seemed like forever. Second-guessed my menu choices, hung up, and called again. On hold for 45 minutes. Watched the clock outside the terminal tick toward my takeoff time. Lost hope of getting on my flight.
4) Called my wife, who was at work, and left a despairing message. To date, she has not replayed that message for me.
My editor called back just as the Orbitz rep picked up. I didn't dare switch over, 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 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 for most of my ticket. That was pretty astonishing.
I checked my editor's message with as much trepidation as a dude tapping a dud grenade. Has he ever met a bigger schmuck?
His message was incredible, a lesson in how to be empathetic and motivating. I had sent him a picture of the passport, so he could see the error, but I got the sense he would have given me the benefit of the doubt. I could have cried. Here this guy is launching a magazine, spending tons of money to send me somewhere so I could bring him a good story, and his response is to pick me up off the ground, dust me off, and say, "Hey, no sweat, get back out there."
My wife pulled up to the airport and found me in a weird state. My luggage was piled around me. I was wearing the cargo pants of a bona fide foreign correspondent. She had taken off work 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, but I couldn't for the life of me tell if they were legit. We quickly figured out the question to ask was "Do you have any appointments tomorrow?" It seemed roughly equivalent to asking a drug dealer if he had any lift tickets.
The best either of the places could do was an appointment in a week. All things considered, a 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 faster 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-day appointment system at the Bureau of Consular Affairs that's available to the general public, and then charging a mint to go in lieu of the client. Aces.
More research. Maybe the best journalism I've done. The official website of the Bureau of Consular Affairs said an appointment was necessary at all locations in order to renew a passport, but it seemed people had been successful showing up at the Federal Building in Los Angeles, standing in line, and praying. 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 a new passport photo taken. It was a lot worse than my previous photo, which I liked a lot.
Then, saint that my wife is, she took me to a bar.
Next day I hopped on my motorcycle at 4:45 AM and set off for the Federal Building. There were already 15 people waiting when I arrived. A few hours later, when the will call window finally opened, the line was easily 150 deep. When I got to the front, I handed over the application forms and donned the politest smile in my arsenal. I had booked a new flight for the following day, ponying up for flight insurance for once. 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 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 a mad dash to fill in the line, and it broke my heart to see a woman who had been in front of me early that morning come out of the bathroom to find that she was relegated to the back. She pleaded with the officer, but he wasn't sympathetic. She glanced around for support, and I lowered my eyes. All animals are equal, I muttered to myself.
One by one we marched through a security checkpoint 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 the wrong forms. My heart sank.
Because the printed duration of my passport was so short, he assumed that I had an expired temporary passport, the kind issued on a conditional basis. If that were indeed the case, I would have to apply for a passport as if I'd never had one. As calmly as I could, I explained what happened, told him the passport was a renewal for a full-fledged, all rights and privileges model, that I'd had my previous passport for 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. "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 the blood pressure ebb, and enjoy some peace. In the book, which is a riot, a hapless journalist accidentally gets promoted to international correspondent. I swear to God this is true: A few pages from the spot 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 again 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 smile that was as bright and life-affirming as any I'm likely to see again.
"Be sure to check it for accuracy before you go," she advised.
Here's the piece that resulted from that trip to Cambodia. Huge debt of thanks to Editor-in-Chief Doug McGray and Photography Director Jacqueline Bates for walking me off a ledge and being so understanding: https://story.californiasunday.com/ted-ngoy-california-doughnut-king