The day before I was scheduled to fly to Ireland, I was photocopying my passport and basking in the short-lived feeling of being a faintly together adult who takes basic precautions before embarking on international travel. Then I glanced down and realized that my passport had expired four months ago.
I was hopelessly screwed. Or was I? I decided to ask the Internet, which told me to ask the U.S. Hotline for International Travelers, where I reached an official who informed me that there was a loophole specifically meant for slackers and woolgatherers and hopers and prayers and magic-bean buyers. If I got in line early enough at the passport agency with the right materials in hand, and if I was willing to pay $170 dollars, a last-minute, do-or-die passport could be mine.
Which is why I rolled out of bed at 5 a.m. on Dec. 31 and prepared to head to New York City’s U.S. Regional Passport Agency, one of 13 branches scattered throughout the states. The doors opened at 7:30 a.m. I wanted to be sure I would be toward the front of the line.
I zipped up my suitcase and did one last check to make sure I had everything I’d need at the passport office: Several sheets of 2 x 2 inch passport photos; a completed DS-82 form for passport renewal, filled out in careful black ink; my expired passport; and a copy of my flight itinerary to prove that I was not just a space cadet, but a desperate one.
By the time I got to a silent stretch of Hudson Street at 6 a.m., a few people were already waiting in line outside the passport agency. It was too dark, early and cold to do anything but try to distract one another. Soon we were swapping tales of travel disaster.
Laurie, a sophomore at Elon College, was waiting in line with her dad. She was scheduled to fly to Athens on Wednesday for a three-week study abroad program focusing on the economies in Greece and Turkey. But the last time she’d seen her passport was when she slipped it into the backseat pocket of her parents’ car.
Ben, dressed in a sporty windbreaker with gloves built into the sleeves, had wanted to keep his passport secret and safe. So he chose a location in his Manhattan apartment so secure that even he couldn’t find it again. His flight to visit family in New Zealand was in two days.
Behind me was a family on their way to Cancun: two exhausted parents shepherding a tiny boy and girl wearing matching pom-pom hats. The parents hadn’t realized that childrens’ passports expire every five years. They were turned back at the airport, and they’d already missed one flight. “It was an expensive mistake,” the father said.
There was a special, sheepish camaraderie in the early-morning line. We all understood that we’d messed up. Now, filled with humility, we were throwing ourselves on the mercy of the U.S. government.
At about 6:30, a man in his late twenties wandered over. “Hey,” he said, “are you guys all waiting to get into the passport office?”
“Nah,” said Ben. “It’s just a cool place to hang out.”
We all cracked up, including the man in the scarf. He joined the back of the line.
I wasn’t the only person with a same-day flight. Jason, a New Jerseyite with an expired passport, had already missed one flight to the Caribbean. His rebooked plane left JFK at 12:40 in the afternoon, which he figured meant that he needed a new passport in hand by 9:30 a.m. He had a cab scheduled to wait for him back at his apartment.
“Everyone’s already written me off,” Jason said.
As opening time neared, the line swelled and stretched to the end of the block. The man in the scarf took pictures with his iPhone. He asked Jason to save his place and ducked out to McDonald’s, returning with a thank-you coffee for Jason and extra hash browns for anyone who wanted them.
“Is it getting colder?” I asked Laurie and Ben, doing a two-step to warm up my feet.
“I think it’s just hope getting closer,” Laurie said.
Shortly before 7:30 a.m., a State Department official with a reassuring dad-like presence appeared to answer our questions and tell us what to expect inside. We would go through an airport-style security scanner, he told us; no food or beverages were allowed inside the building. I had a package of chestnuts and half a burrito with me for the flight. I gobbled down the burrito and stashed the chestnuts behind a nearby fire hydrant.
Past security, there were two lines: Line A, for people who had appointments, and Line B, for people who didn’t. Two women worked at the booths, taking about one person from Line B for every three or four people from Line A.
As long as our paperwork was in order and our plights sufficiently desperate, the women in the booths sent us to the tenth floor with a call number. Upstairs, I sat in a plastic chair and stared at the screen at the front of the room, willing my number to pop up. I watched Laurie and Ben get waved through and trot off with their passport issues resolved. The dad-like government official appeared again to tell the waiting crowd that we could pay for our expedited passports by cash, credit, or money order, but to save our counterfeit bills for McDonald’s. “We get at least one counterfeit bill a week” he said. “This is the worst possible place to try to pass one off. We’ve got detectors in the back.”
While I waited, I ran over the advice my friend Ryan had given me the night before. He was coaching me on the best way to ask people for help.
“Remember,” he said, “you’re asking them for a favor. So never suggest anything specific you want them to do for you. Just say, ‘Hey, I’m in a jam. Here’s the problem. Is there anything you can do to help?’ Most people want to be the good guy. But if you demand something, forget about it.”
Ryan was a wise man! But as it turned out, I didn’t need to use any persuasive tactics. When my number was finally called, I just handed over my folder. A quiet, smiling agent looked over my paperwork and ran my passport photos through a face-detection scanner. Then she handed me a claim number. “Your new passport will be ready for pick up after 12,” she said.
I could have hugged her, but there was a wall of glass between us. So instead I just handed over my debit card.
On my way out, I passed the father of the family heading to Cancun. “Did it all work out?” I asked. He said it had, and wished me luck. We shook hands. Then I passed Jason, who was looking pale.
“They say they’re expediting me right now,” he said. It was 9:35.
While I waited for my new passport, I hid out in Il Cantucco, a bakery in Little Italy that offers free samples of warm, salty bread shaped like grapevines. I sipped a glass of black coffee and thought about all the lessons I’d learned. First, passports are not like magical free Carvel ice cream for life cards. Much like makeup and good girls, they go bad. Second, the State Department is fully aware of the travel pickles that goofballs like me get into and even has a secret unofficial plan to deal with us, which is comforting from a faith-in-government point of view. Third, fire hydrants are not good hiding places for unopened bags of chestnuts. (Somebody took mine.)
But it was my friend Christine, one of several pals on emotional support standby throughout the passport ordeal, who pinpointed the most important lesson of all.
“However frustrating it seems,” she texted me while I waited in the bakery, “it’s still somewhat comforting to have problems that can be solved with money.”
She had a point. I was lucky that I had money to bail myself out, and very lucky to have the money to go abroad in the first place. 2012 was a year that reminded me how many problems, personal and otherwise, won’t go away no matter how much money gets thrown at them. I’d do well to remember that I’m pretty damn lucky anytime my issues are smaller than the size of my checking account.
In fact, that was true of all of us waiting in line outside the Passport Agency. We bonded over our blunders and our shared commitment to talking about travel plans in the conditional tense. But we didn’t talk about how fortunate we were just to be standing on Hudson Street in the pre-dawn cold on the last morning of the year, listening to the clang and rumble of garbage trucks, passing around greasy bags of hash browns. For the moment we had clarity of purpose. In daily life, most people try to wrangle a hundred duck-sized horses. Now our worries were winnowed down to a simple horse-sized duck. We wanted to begin 2013 on a white-sand beach, by the steps to the Parthenon, surrounded by family in Auckland, walking down the cobblestone streets of Galway just as the sun settled into a definite rise. We had hastily assembled forms and runny noses and a last-ditch plan that depended on the benevolence of government workers. We did not have appointments. We had hope that our dumb mistakes might yet prove reversible, that the new year would take us wherever we wanted to go.