How to get a passport in three hours in Los Angeles on the day before Thanksgiving
Sometimes, a six-hour layover can be a good thing. Checking my family’s luggage through from Sacramento to Fiji required an act of faith, but we did it. We arrived at LAX with only our carry-on luggage and six hours to kill before catching our 4 p.m. Air New Zealand flight to Nadi, Fiji. After a mid-morning $35 dollar pizza snack, Alice and Shane pulled the minipuzzles from their backpacks.
Their packs also contained games, coloring books, school books and a deck of Crazy Eights – all designed to keep a 7 and 10-year old occupied during the 10-hour flight to Fiji. My wife headed up the child entertainment committee, and I congratulated her on a job well done. The important stuff, like tickets and passports, was my job.
The ticket agent’s badge identified her as Julia, and the supervisor standing next to her explained that this was Julia’s first day on the job. This sent a shiver of dread through me, but then I thought, what the heck, what could go wrong with the supervisor standing right here? Julia’s rhinestone-studded glasses sparkled like stars as she flipped through the pages of Alice’s passport. When she flipped through the pages a second time, I shifted my weight from one leg to the other. Julia showed Alice’s passport to her supervisor, who said, “Oh, isn’t she just adorable.” Julia whispered something in the supervisor’s ear and the supervisor began to page through Alice’s passport like a bank teller counting a stack of bills.
“Is there a problem?” I asked, leaning into the counter.
“Your daughter’s passport has expired,” said the supervisor, “and we can’t find where it has been extended.”
“Expired?” I said. “What do you mean, expired? We got that passport just a couple of years ago. They’re good for 10 years, aren’t they?”
“Well, no,” said the supervisor. “Children’s passports are only valid for five years because their appearances change so fast.”
“Well, hey, my bad? No big deal, right? We’ll get her a new one when we get back.”
“I’m afraid we can’t issue her boarding pass without a valid passport,” said the supervisor.
“But she’s just a little girl,” I said, turning to Alice. “Come over here and say hello to the nice lady, Alice.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the supervisor.
“But we’ve got our tickets and our reservations and everything,” I whined, as the image of our Fiji vacation began to fade.
“Wait here a minute,” said the supervisor. A few minutes later she reappeared with the address of the passport office written on a scrap of paper.
“The Federal Building?” I said. “That’s downtown, isn’t it? Don’t they have a satellite office here at the airport somewhere?”
“I’m afraid not,” said the supervisor.
“Well, why not? I mean, what better place is there to have a passport office than at the airport, right?”
“I’m not even sure the passport office is open today,” said the supervisor. “No one answers the phones.” It is the day before Thanksgiving.
We hurried down the escalator to the street and hopped into a cab that was idling at the curb. “How long will it take to get to the passport office?” I asked the driver, an Ethiopian called Mulu.
“Normally it would take 20 minutes,” said Mulu. “But today there is much traffic and maybe it will take an hour.”
Mulu’s old Chevy bounced through the bumper-to-bumper traffic like a low-rider cruising Alvarado Street. The buildings seemed to lean in toward the freeway, and the cars start to look like jellybeans. We were driving through Toon Town, and I was Goofy. I caught a glimpse in the rearview mirror of my wife in the back seat, staring out the window, contemplating divorce, I was sure. “Isn’t there another freeway we can take?” I asked Mulu.
“This is only way, man, only way.”
“Does this mean Alice won’t get to go to Fiji?” asked Shane.
“Shane, just be quiet,” said my wife.
We pulled up to the Federal Building at 12:30 p.m. and I was relieved to see people going in and out of the door.
I tipped Mulu 20 bucks. He jotted down his cell phone number and promised he’d be back to pick us up at 2:30. While my wife and Shane went into the cafeteria, I whisked Alice into the Federal Building.
“Do you have an appointment?” the guard asked.
“Uh … yes,” I told him. “Got to pick up a passport.”
“Um, right now.”
“OK, go ahead,” said the guard.
The woman behind the double glass partition laughed out loud when I told her my problem. “It takes at least 10 days to get a passport,” she told me, “and that’s if everything goes right.”
“But we’ve already got our tickets,” I said, pressing them against the bullet-proof glass. “Can’t you just, you know, stamp an extension in it or something?”
“You can’t extend a passport once it’s expired,” she said.
“I’ll pay extra,” I said. “Please?”
She sighed and asked if I had any photographs of Alice.
“Got one right here in my wallet.”
“Passport photographs,” she said. “There’s a photo studio downstairs. That’d be a good place to start.”
“OK, I’ve got the photos,” I told the woman behind the glass 20 minutes later.
“You’ll have to fill out one of those applications behind you, then take a number,” she said.
“Can I take a number first and then fill out the application?”
The interior of the passport office and the interior of an unemployment office are indistinguishable. There were about 50 people sitting in chairs, and every one of them had their eyes glued to a marquee that flashed a number when it was their turn to go to the window. After 20 agonizing minutes, my number blinked. “Just stand next to me and look pathetic,” I told Alice.
“Your flight leaves when?” said the man behind the counter, shaking his head. “Passports have to pass through at least six pairs of hands in this office.”
“Is there any hope at all? I’ll pay extra,” I said, hoping my offer didn’t sound too much like the bribe it was.
“Go back and sit down,” he said, clipping Alice’s photo to the application, “and listen for your name to be called.”
Half an hour later, a dozen names were called and told to go to the will-call window. Even though my name wasn’t one of the ones mentioned, I went to the window anyway.
“Name?” said the man at the window, who looked like he had maybe a week left before he retired.
“Smith. Alice Smith.”
“You’re name is Alice Smith?”
“No, that’s my daughter’s name.”
He shuffled through the passports he held in his hand. “Was her name called?”
“Well, actually, no,” I said. “I thought maybe you forgot to call it.”
“Go sit down until you hear her name,” he told me, without a shred of compassion.
“But we have to catch a plane at four o’clock,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s what they all say.”
My eyes are fixed on the man who took our application and when the harried blond woman who has been talking to him for 15 minutes leaves, I rush to the window. “My name hasn’t been called yet,” I tell him. “Would you mind please checking on the status of my daughter’s passport?”
I can’t tell whether he feels sorry for me or thinks I am some kind of pathetic loser. He slides off his stool and disappears into a back room, which I presume is the actual passport factory. A few minutes later he comes out and tells me to meet him at the will-call window. Suddenly, I have Alice’s new passport in my hand. I thank everyone profusely, and bolt for the door. It’s now 3:10, 50 minutes till take-off.
I scan the curbside for Mulu’s cab, then wave to the driver behind the wheel of the familiar green and white Chevy. But it is not Mulu, it’s Mustafa, Mulu’s cousin. Mulu couldn’t make it, Mustafa explains, so he came instead.
The afternoon traffic is stacked up even more than the morning traffic.
Mustafa leans on the horn, switches lanes and loses three car lengths.
It’s five minutes to four when we pull up to the airport curb. I give Mustafa a handful of bills and tell him he shouldn’t worry about clipping the concrete piling on the way into the terminal because the car is pretty trashed anyway. Mulu probably won’t even notice the new bumper-to-bumper crease, I assure him.
I take the escalator two steps at a time. The sign next to our flight is blinking: Boarding, boarding. The only obstacle in our way is the young woman in front of us who wants to change her seat in a flight she is taking next week. I explain with all the politeness left in me that we are late checking in for a flight THAT IS LEAVING RIGHT NOW! She just shrugs.
Then the supervisor spots us and waves us to the counter. A few minutes later we are at the gate with our boarding passes in hand, and a few minutes after that we are settling into our seats.
I don’t know if it’s the way I look or what, but as soon as the plane is airborne the flight attendant wants to know if I’d like a drink. I answer her by singing a verse from an old Rolling Stones song that pops suddenly into my head: “With the whole world right at my feet, of course I’ll have a drink.”
Dale Smith lives in Nevada City and enjoys traveling – most of the time.
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