How to Get a Passport in Three Hours and Somehow Still Make Your Flight

10 Nov

My morning started around 5:30am when I had to wake up and get mildly dressed to drive my girlfriend to LAX to catch her early flight that would put her in Costa Rica a day ahead of my friends and me, who had all booked an insane $267 round-trip ticket that including an 8-hour nighttime layover in Miami that was no longer available by the time she decided to join us.

Having made the trip from downtown to LAX and back in record time, admiring how incredible the LA freeway system is (when no one else is on it), I watched the Daily Show on my laptop and went back to sleep. A bit later on, I had a leisurely morning, packed the last few things I needed, and went out the door at around 11:30am, on my way from our downtown loft to the Pershing Square metro station. The plan was to go on from there to Union Station and then take the flyaway bus to LAX. Once I boarded, at around 11:45am, in between Pershing Square and the next stop, I double-checked my back pocket to make sure my passport was still there.

It wasn’t.

I quickly checked everywhere else it could be, but I knew instantly that if it wasn’t where I knew I’d put it, it wasn’t anywhere. I looked around on the ground and it hadn’t popped out of my pocket when I sat down. It wasn’t anywhere on the train. Frantic, I jumped off at the Civic Center station and ran over to the other side of the platform and boarded a train going back. Back at Pershing Square, I desperately searched the ground, but to no avail. I sprinted back home, checking the ground the whole way, in the crazy hope that somehow my passport would be found sitting unnoticed on the corner of 7th and Broadway, having been pushed out of my pocket by some freak accident involving my duffel bag that I somehow failed entirely to feel. No luck.

At around noon, I was back at the loft. I checked the desk drawer where the passport is usually kept. I checked everywhere else. Ok, my passport was gone. Stolen, probably. My flight was at 3:10pm. My girlfriend of less than a year was already on her way to a foreign country where she would be stuck with 3 of my goofball friends and sister for a week without me.

I had a card with my passport number on it and the number for the US Passport Agency that everyone gets when their passport is issued. It was in a leather pouch along with irrelevant business cards and disused mall store credit cards. I called the number and, shockingly, a human being answered.

“I’m pretty sure my passport just got lifted out of my back pocket and I have an international flight in about three hours. I need a new passport or some kind of travel document right away.”

“Ok sir, well you can apply for a passport…”

“No, listen, I need an immediate solution. My girlfriend is on a plane already. I need to get to Costa Rica. I’ve got 3 hours to make my flight. I can pay whatever the cost is, just tell me the solution. Quickly, please.”

“Where are you?”

“Downtown Los Angeles”

“Ok, I see here there is a passport agency at 11000 Wilshire Boulevard in LA.”

The other side of town. West Los Angeles. Home to UCLA, the 10/405 interchange, and the worst traffic of maybe anywhere in LA.

“I know where that is. I can get there in 20 minutes” (I may have been channeling “The Wolf” slightly, but I wasn’t kidding either).

“I can transfer you to their phone system and it will tell you the next available appointment. If they have one today, you can book the appointment and they can issue you a new passport same-day. But you’re going to need a few documents. Do you have a driver’s license?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have your birth certificate?”

“Yes.” Not kidding. I have my original birth certificate, and I know exactly where it is kept, and it’s easy for me to get to. I would have applauded myself for my organizational skills at this point if I didn’t have more important things to think about.

“Do you have two passport photos?”

All of a sudden, visuals of every shop I’ve noticed up and down Broadway start flashing in my head. One of them must do passport photos, right? Any street like Broadway in any European city would have a shop that does passport photos on every block. Is there one here? I can’t remember seeing any. Fuck it, I know a CVS in West LA. They can do it.

“No but if that’s the only thing I need, I can get them right away.”

“Ok let me transfer you to West LA, good luck”

The lady had told me exactly the number selections to get right to the appointment option, so I furiously dialed them in. At this point, I’m thinking there’s no way there is an appointment sooner than 2 weeks from now, but maybe there is someone in West LA that I can plead my cause to. It’s now about 12:10pm.

“The next available appointment is 12:30pm today.”

Holy shit! Ok, even ignoring the speed limit on every road there’s no way I can actually get there in 15 minutes and stop on the way to get passport photos. I punch through and book the next appointment; 1pm. I can make that if there is no traffic on the 10. Which there always is. Sometimes it is an hour just to get to the 405, and that’s where I’m headed. I look outside. It has started raining. In Los Angeles.

Before I go, at 12:13pm, I text my friends who are making their way to LAX and SFO at this point: “Passport stolen on way to union station. I’m scrambling. Megan is going to be at the best western in Liberia tomorrow. If I don’t make it, FIND HER.”

I grab my bag and sprint, again, to the parking garage, jump in my car and blast out of downtown and onto the 10 freeway as fast as I can. Rain is pouring. All-wheel-drive and 250 horsepower are put to work and driving tactics learned from the Italians are employed in the fastest trip from downtown to West LA in the middle of a downpour that there has ever been. I get on the bluetooth and call the CVS where I tell the girl who answers that I’m coming in hot and need passport photos done in about 60 seconds so fire up the photo printer and whatever-the-hell-else and I’ll see her soon.

Mercifully, traffic is light on the 10. I still have to fight my way through and around left-lane hogs that aren’t doing the 90mph I require of them, but the saving grace is that while the 10 is usually a total parking lot, it’s only because the traffic is so, so terrible that it takes forever to get across town. It’s not actually that far. At freeway speeds (or better, at autobahn speeds), one can get from downtown to the 405 in about 10 minutes. And I did.

The 405 looks jammed so I stay on the 10 and shoot up Bundy to Wilshire, then backtrack east to the CVS at Wilshire and Barrington. Bundy is a great street because there is intermittent parking in the right lane during the day, so no one drives in it even though portions are open to traffic. This lets crazy people like my fly past normal traffic in the right lane, ducking back into the left lane only when necessary to dodge parked cars. I could go on and on about rechtsfahren and how ours is a terrible system, but it worked for me here. Again, the Italian rule sometimes isn’t so bad either: if there is space for a car to fit, an Italian will drive his car there, and no other driver has any right to expect otherwise. Don’t want to get cut off? Don’t leave a gap.

12:40pm. Pulling into the parking garage at CVS. Dash in. Girl sees me running, says “passport photo?”

“Yep. Fast as you can. We’ll see if this works.”

12:45pm, leaving CVS. Down Wilshire, under the 405, cutting around traffic in the left lane this time (everyone backs up on the right to get to the 405 on-ramps), arrive at the Federal building at 1:02pm.

I run up to the entrance and there is a line of 20-30 people waiting for the metal detector. There is a shop that does passport photos right across from the building’s entrance. Whatever. There is a security guard by the door so I go right to him.

“My passport was stolen; I’m trying to get another one in time for a flight I have in 2 hours. Is there any way you can help me out and let me skip the line?”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes.”

“For when?”

“Right now. 1pm.”

“Ok, you’re next.” I have a sneaking suspicion that everyone who is willing to help me also figures I won’t actually succeed, and it’s just less hassle to let me try.

Through the metal detector and into the building, I run over to the passport office where I tell the first clerk my story yet again. I tell her I have all the documents I need. She hands me a couple forms to fill out to report my passport stolen, to apply for a new one, and to pay the expedite fee.

1:15pm. I submit everything to the next clerk who thoroughly checks everything and says, “Ok, we’re going to make you a new passport today. Realistically, you’re going to have about an hour to an hour and a half wait now. There’s nothing we can do to make it any faster than that.” I tell him again I have a flight at 3:10pm. “What are the chances I’m going to make it?”

“This is absolutely as fast as we can process it.”

Ok. I go sit down. The office closes at 3pm. There is no cell phone usage inside the building. I wait. About half an hour later, I start thinking that I can still make my connection as long as I can get to Miami before 8am the next morning. I go into the men’s room and get on my phone. I search flights. There are other flights to Miami that will get me there in time. I’m still not sure any of this will work, but I am somewhat relieved. I text my friends to tell them I am going to make it one way or the other, but don’t know when. I start getting alerts that one of my credit cards has been knocked off. At least this confirms that the passport was in fact stolen, and while I should guard it more carefully, I’m not a complete idiot who just lost his passport three hours before an international flight.

3pm comes and goes, and almost everyone else who was waiting has left. At 3:05, I go up to one of the windows. “I’ve been waiting almost 2 hours, are you guys closing, and am I still going to get a passport today?”

“Just have a seat and wait, sir.”

Two minutes later, my name is called. I grab the fresh new passport and run back to the parking lot. I’m baffled that any of this has worked. I’m simultaneously angry about the crime in my city and impressed as hell with its government services.

IMG_0122

I text my friends, who may get the message right before they take off: “Got a passport.”

Back in my car, I call American Airlines.

It’s 3:15pm. “So I think I’ve missed my first flight as it’s taking off right now, but I just need to get to Miami before 8am tomorrow to make my connection. Can you book me onto a later flight?”

“Ok I’m not showing your flight, well… ok, I see, right, 3:10pm… Well, yes I can put you on a later flight and keep the rest of your itinerary, and you’ll just have to pay the difference between the cost of your flight and the one I’m about to book you on. Looks like you paid… well, ok, it looks like you paid pretty much next to nothing for your flight so the cost is nearly the full ticket price.” It was something just over $1000. I don’t remember the exact amount.

“Ok, put me on that flight.” I give her my credit card info and figure it’s the cost of not stranding my girlfriend in Costa Rica for a week without me. The customer service rep confirms my booking and I hang up the phone.

At which point I get a text from my buddy at LAX: “Our plane was hit by lightning , and now the flight’s delayed till 6:45. We’ll land in Miami at 2:30 and hit the club at 3:30. This night is going to be awesome.” (emphasis mine). No wonder the lady at American Airlines couldn’t tell that I’d missed my flight! I hadn’t! At this point I have over three hours to get to my plane. But, I’ve just spent $1k to change to a different flight.

I call American Airlines again. I’m not hopeful. Of course I’m not going to be able to get back to the same person who just helped me. I don’t, but the different lady who answers my call this time tells me, “oh sure, no problem, I can put you back on your original itinerary. That seat is still available, so I’ll just reset it. We haven’t even charged your card yet for the other flight, so I don’t have to refund you, I’ll just cancel it entirely and it’ll never even show up.” Not even a cancellation charge or a change fee or anything. I’m now really, really happy with American Airlines’ customer service. Oh, and the delay was to get us a different plane entirely. We don’t have to get on the one that was just hit by lightning.

“You probably want to get to the airport right away though.”

Well, no kidding. At this point, there is no way I’m going to drive home and take the flyaway bus. Having, in my mind, just saved $1k, I elect to pay the $200 to park my car at LAX for a week. I take it easy on the drive to LAX. The time crunch is over, as I now have plenty of time to make it there from West LA. The last thing I need now is to get pulled over, so I even stick to the speed limit. I get to the parking garage, valet the car (because fuck it, why not at this point), board the shuttle, get to the terminal, get through security and it’s 5:08pm.

I waltz up to the two friends of mine who were catching the flight from LAX, throw my bag down in front of them. They are absolutely dumbfounded.

“…uhm, how?!”

Read on for Costa Rica.

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