This is what happens when you get that call right before you go to bed.
Every year I set a list of goals that I want to do in Dude Week, the week I don’t have to be a Dad. This year I set out to eat several pounds of pork chops and watch lots of WWII movies. The first week goes well and I perform some of the tasks on my assignedHoney Do listbut I slack off and start watching too many movies and eating too many pork chops. I am due to meet the kids in two days and I need to get it together.
As I’m hauling a box of old books out to the car, I hear her ringtone, the blues piano riff—no ignoring that. I answer her call while opening the door and balancing the box of books on my shoulder. I say “Hello” as the cat runs in and the dog chases her.
“Your car just got jacked!” my wife blurts out.
Jacked?Sometimes my wife reverts to a past self when she worked with skaters and musicians. Jacked?Makes me think of a bad movie but I get past her odd vernacular and ask, What? My car?
“Ya. And I need you to send me the VIN number. My phone is dying. We have our passports. I’m headed to find the police.”
CLICK. She hangs up on me.
Shit.It’s Tuesday night at 9 and I’m supposed to be on a plane to Maine on Thursday to meet them. I sit down. This is looking like the start of an adventure and I really love having an adventure.
I find the RAV4’s VIN number, text it to my wife, then pull up the insurance on the internet and call them. While I am waiting on hold I type in “Car Theft Montreal”. Tons of hits about people who had their cars stolen in Montreal.
What?It’s Canada for Christ’s sake.They’re a rather boring people who have little crime but lots of snow; really, just cold Americans. I live in Texas next to the more dangerous border and I’ve never had a car stolen. Canada?
I google some more and discover that white Toyota SUVs, specifically RAV4, are very popular in Africa and most of them are stolen from North America and shipped through the port of Montreal. I think back to every movie I’ve seen where the good guys are fighting African Rebels. The rebels are always driving a white Toyota SUV or small pick-up truck.
The insurance lady finally answers. I add a lot of dramatic effect to our situation, by the end of my recorded statement, I have insurance lady crying. She has kids and thinking about it terrifies her. That is a good thing—the insurance lady on my side. Bonus.
I put the word out on Facebook that my wife and kids are stuck in a parking lot in Montreal and within minutes I have offers of help. I call her but get her voicemail—her phone must be dead. Next, I research the rental car companies and arrange a rental for tomorrow morning in Montreal to be dropped off in St. John’s, New Brunswick—across the border from Maine. I book another to be picked up in Portland, Maine, that we will drop off back in Texas when we are home.
Ignore the comma in the price and hit Reserve. I don’t want the kids to remember this as the worst vacation ever.
I forward the reservation to my wife’s email. I try and call her again—voicemail. It’s been hours.What next?
Shit.Myclothes are probably on their way to Africa. She would have left them in the car. I dig through the closet—work clothes and winter stuff. All the decent stuff was packed in a suitcase in the back of the RAV4.
I heard her ringtone; I answer it on the second riff.
“Hey, I filed a report, I found a cab, we are back in the room, the kids are exhausted. But there is one thing we remembered on the way back here.” My wife hesitates.
I hate it when my wife hesitates.
“Your passport was in the car and it got stolen,” she continues.
She’s done for the day, who can blame her. She mentions she knows people who got a passport in 24-hours. We hang up.
I was feeling confident I had fixed our vacation but a STOLEN PASSPORT.SHIT.
I call a high school buddy who works the night shift for the Department of Homeland Security and tell him my predicament.
“How can I get a passport on the fly?” I ask. I don’t want to even think about what we would do I couldn’t get one.
His first idea is just show up at the border and he would talk me through how to get across.
“That sounds fishy,” I go on to tell him that after the family road trip vacation, me and the wife are going on a work trip to Quebec.
“So you need to replace it in 24-hours?” my friend asks.
“Yep,” I answer. “What do you think?” I afraid to hear what he has to say.
“So you want to try and convince a low-paid government employee, who sees thousands of people each with their own story, to give you a special passport? When it’s left up to their and only their discretion? To leave their window and go through the extra effort to help you? JustYou?”
“Yep,” I answer.
He chuckles. “Look at passport agency website and see what their requirements are for special express passports. Call the passport office closest to you and go through their phone tree. Find the one with the earliest appointment and fly there. Be sure to have every piece of documentation that is required plus anything that could be used to prove your case. They are sticklers for documentation. Good luck, dude.” With that, he hangs up.
I start calling the closest passport agency offices to Austin. Houston—early next week, Dallas—later. I look outside of Texas—Hot Springs, Arkansas, or New Orleans? Beignets might be good. I call them and get an appointment for 8 a.m. Thursday, day after tomorrow. Great.
My original flight from Austin to Maine isn’t until Thursday afternoon.Hum, not going to make that, but it’s a supersaver so no use canceling it. I book a flight to New Orleans Wednesday evening. I find a hotel and then a rental car. I reserve both.
The passport website says that I should bring evidence to support my claim for a special expedited passport. I don’t have any evidence. It says I can get a letter from my employer that I need a new passport for a business trip. I can get that—tomorrow. I need proof of international travel within two weeks. I have the itinerary that my wife emailed me, unread in my mailbox. Bingo—I print it out. Look there’s links to reservations, damn she’s organized. I print those too.
My phone says 1 a.m., I force myself to do all the dishes, vacuum the floor and make the house somewhat tidy. I throw a golf shirt, toothbrush and boxers in my computer bag along with the file labeledPassport.
I wake up early and call the house sitter on the way to get new passport pictures. I text my boss I need to see him ASAP. Somehow, the word has spread and the office knows my story before I get there—thanks to Facebook. I tie up some loose work ends, grab the letter from my boss, the fax from the Montreal Police with my claim number that my wife faxed to me. I head to the airport.
I get there at 2:00 for a 3:00 p.m. flight, only to find out that the cheap flight I booked last night is a no-go. In my late night excitement, I put in the credit card information and apparently forgot to press Reserve. Could anything else go wrong? I head to the bench and pull out the trusty laptop. I find another one—cheaper,score. I hit Reserve this time.
I text the wife the new information.
Before I know it, I’m landing in New Orleans. I get my rental car and point it to the French Quarter. I’m hungry and I might as well have some good food while I’m here. I type “Acme Oyster House”into my phone. I head in that direction thinking about chargrilled oysters, maybe some oysters on the half-shell and a cold Abita Turbo Dog.
Acme Oyster House has been serving up oysters and beer in the French Quarters since 1910; if you want to do it right, sit at the bar right in front of the guy shucking the oysters. They shuck 10,000 per day at Acme. I order some raw with a beer and eat those with lemon while I wait for the chargrilled ones. They start with oysters on the half shell, top them with a parmesan and mozzarella cheese topping, then grilled them and finish them off with a garlic herb butter. When it’s done right, you can taste the natural brine of the sea and the mineral taste of the oyster shell in the background.
I always have to have beignets when I’m in New Orleans so I head over to Café Du Monde, a French Quarter icon. They can seat 400 and are nearly full 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, except when they’re closed for Christmas and the occasional hurricane. I place my order and eat them with a relaxing cup of chicory coffee as I try to fade into the chaos that is New Orleans. As much as I love Café Du Monde, I think back to the conversation I had with the shucker at Acme. Apparently there’s a locals place for beignets that I didn’t know about. But first bed, I need to bring my A game to the passport office, first thing in the morning.
The US Passport Agency in New Orleans is upstairs in a high-end shopping mall; it looks a high-security DMV office. There are plenty of security officers. I walk in with my folder full of my documentation and my briefcase. The first thing that catches my eye is all the bullet-proof glass with a metal detector and a X-Ray machine. I put my briefcase on the X-Ray’s belt and see a frown on the guard’s face. He scowls and looks up to inform me that I have a lot of wires and cords in my laptop bag.
I smile and offer him my bag to look in, after all I need everyone to like me so I have a chance at getting a passport. I tell him that I should’ve thought of that before I came but I had flown from Austin to come to this office. He looks annoyed and waves me through. The second guard asks if I have an appointment and I answer “8 a.m.” The guard looks his list but doesn’t see my name. I smile and try to channel Gomer Pile as I pull everything out of my bag looking for my confirmation number. Finally the guard just waves me through. I smile some more and stuff the cords, wires and papers back in my bag and move on.
My next stop is the line, where I stand for 20 minutes to get to a window. Behind me there is a young man, claiming to be a Muslim convert, trying to get an emergency passport to get to Algeria to study Islam. He wants to leave in two weeks and has to bring a paper from his parole officer to try and get an emergency passport. I nod because I just found the guy with smaller chance of getting a passport than I do.
A few minutes later, I’m called to the window. I start at the beginning and tell her how my wife and three kids have driven to Canada in our car where it and my passport got stolen. They are scared and I need to get there to rescue my family. I give it all I have as I push my passport photos, photocopy of my old passport, letter from my employer, my wife’s itinerary, the report from the Montreal Police Department and my personal letter stating why I really need to get a passport immediately. I tell my epic story of woe, I try to tear up. It’s even better than when I made the insurance lady cry. Finished, I look at her and expect something—some display of emotion. What I get—someone who completely ignores me. She inserts my paperwork neatly into a folder and hands me a number.
So I strike out on getting any interest but at least I’m past the gatekeeper and moving up the cue. I text my wife a simple,Made it through the first step and now waiting. They’re out of the service area today in some park in Canada. I wait for my number to be called to see another lady at another window.
At 9:10 a.m., my number is called. I look through the window and see a woman with a head full of gold-streaked braids staring back at me. She’s my age so I’m guessing she might have a family. Time to pull out the family-in-distress card. As I approach I see her nameplateMiss Amber—not just, Amber, but Miss Amber. I kick in a little of the mindless Texas accent that I reserve for special occasions as I show her my paperwork.
I start at the beginning and tell her how my wife and kids are stuck in Montreal, they got their car stolen, they don’t know what to do and they need me. The people up there speak French and in Texas we don’t speak French, like they do in Louisiana, and I need to get there and help them. I need to get there today to help my children. You know the boys are trying to help their mother but they are ten and six, I say.
At first, I think I’m done for and she’s going to tell me that I’ll have to wait until next week. Then, looks at me and asks me how many kids I have. “I have three, Miss Amber,” I answer. I show her my kids on my phone. Miss Amber looks at my youngest, my 6 year old. I tell her how our car was stolen and with all of their things. I tell her about how my kids saved their money to buy their own Ipods and now those were stolen too. That my son’s beloved skateboard was stolen and all my daughters Harry Potter books. I tell her that we’re not a rich family and that we save our money all year to take road trips with our kids.
Miss Amber shakes head full of gold-streaked braids and says, “MMMMMM…that’s terrible. I tell you Satan don’t just live in N’Orleans. He lives in Canada, too.”
“I know Miss Amber. I just need to get to my family.” I hear myself and hear the Baptist preacher from my childhood.
Miss Amber staples my papers together and announces, “You come back at 2:30 this afternoon and I’ll have a passport for you. Gawwwd is gonna help you to get to your family.”
I close my eyes, I shake my head and say “Thank you Miss Amber.”
If it wasn’t for the two-inches of bullet-proof glass separating me from Miss Amber, I would hug her. As I leave, I see her shaking her head, thinking of her own kids stuck in a foreign country with no car and loosing all of the things they worked so hard for.
Time to celebrate N’Orleans style, I need more beignets. I look up the place that the oyster shucker had told me about—Café Beignet, on Royal Street, where the locals go. I find a quaint open-air café with a curved ceiling painted with banana leaves. It has a larger menu than Café Du Monde but still sticks to the basics of po’ boys, omelettes and beignets. The beignets at Café Beignet are slightly larger and a little flatter with less powdered sugar than their counterparts at Café du Monde. While I eat my beignets and sip my coffee, I check on the flights to Maine.
First, I find out that my original flight from Austin to Portland, Maine, is postponed for two days because HurricaneArthuris destroying flight itineraries up and down the East Coast. Hum, I check around and I can’t even get to Maine today. The Portland International Jetport is postponing all flights. I start looking around and I find that Logan in Boston is still open. Miraculously, I’m able to book a flight to Logan that leaves New Orleans at 5:33 p.m. but I will have to travel through Detroit. Not the best, but I book it.
I find another rental on the internet at Boston’s Logan and cancel the one for Portland, Maine. I discover that renting a car at the only operating airport, during a hurricane, the same day I need it, over the 4thof July weekend and returning it sixteen hundred miles away from where I rented it…well, that’s expensive. I book it too. I have no choice.
I leave Café Beignet and head to the mall next to the passport agency to buy some new clothes. I walk into J Crew, look at the sporty-looking mannequin and tell the sales girl, “I’ll take that, all of it—the shirt, the shorts, the shoes, the socks and the belt.” A few minutes later, I’m dressed and ready to start vacation. I throw the work shoes away.
A quick trip upstairs to get my passport at the passport agency. I wave at the same guard at the X-Ray machine, he recognizes me and smiles back. I go through with no problems this time then I go right up to the window to get my brand new passport—it still warm and smells like the laminating machine. I look for Miss Amber but she’s at lunch, too bad, I wanted to thank her again.
I look at my brand new passport with nearly as much love as my kids, I snap a picture and send it to the wife.
Next stop, airport. I get there and drop off my rental car. I sense a shift in the universe and things are going my way. When I get to security and they smile, wave and open the rope in the long security line and I get to go through Express. I don’t even have to take off my shoes, just walk through a small metal detector. It’s my lucky day. I arrive at my gate at 4:15, board my plane and we’re airborne as soon as we push back.
I feel like I’m in the clear—sure, in the back of my mind I remember there’s a hurricane running up the eastern seaboard, hell-bent on destroying the Fourth of July weekend, but right now, I’m happy. I have a bag of pretzels and a whole can of Coke to myself.
We arrive in Detroit on time and they make us disembark the plane. That’s funny, this is suppose to be a direct flight, no leaving the airplane. The crew members mutter something about offline operations. I glance at the departures monitor and see that my flight to Boston has been delayed from its original 9:45 p.m. to 10:30. OK, not too bad, I grab a seat and check in with the wife.
I look up a few minutes later and see it’s been delayed to 11:00 p.m. I grab a box of sushi at the food court, when I get back to the gate, it’s 11:30. We’re circling the toilet, I’m going to get stuck in Detroit. The gate agent assures me that this flight is a go, even though our original plane left and headed west. I dig out my book and start reading, sure enough, another delay.
I think to myself,I thought Miss Amber had some pull and got me in good with the big guy.Still no plane in sight. I text my wife the latest departure time and see that she has texted their room number in Portland, Maine–too late to call.
I look down at my book again and hope for the best. Before long, something catches my eye and I see the gate agent leave her post. She’s headed for the jet bridge and as I look over, I see the most beautiful thing ever—a Boeing 737 pulling into the gate.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are committed to get you to Boston tonight…”
I put my book into my bag and do a little travel math. If we get into the air at midnight, I’ll get into Boston around 2 a.m., pick up the rental and be on I-95 North little later, if I’m lucky I’ll make it to Portland, Maine, by 4:30. Better get a nap onboard.
This plane must know it’s headed to Boston, because it has the luck of the Irish with it. All the other flights that were headed east have cancelled after numerous delays. We’re on board and airborne shortly after.
We land a little after 2 a.m. and the landing is a little dicey but I look out my window to see the wind has picked up. I rush to the rental car booth. There are only a few people in line ahead of me and I’m looking good. The other lines are at least twice as long as mine. This, unfortunately, is where my luck runs out.
There must be some kind of problem with the customer at the desk because she had been there 20 minutes. The lines on either side of ours are moving along. It’s 2:45 a.m. and we’re still standing here. People start to grumble. Twenty minutes later we’re on the second customer and the lines on either side of ours are empty. The people in line go from grumpy, sleepy travelers to downright disrespectful by the time the third customer gets to the counter. At 4 a.m. I get my turn, this is after the rental car agent left his post and took a smoke break.
I try to go as fast as humanly possible. I give him my name quickly, show him my confirmation and have my credit card ready. He does the normal bit of trying to sell me add-ons and hands me a bill that is $500 more than the original, outrageous price. I show him my confirmation. His response? Absolutely no interest. I’ve been waiting for 2 hours for the dumbest man on earth to try and cheat me out of $500. I ask to speak to someone else. He says come back tomorrow—there is no one else. I look around and start evaluating my options. At 4:15 a.m., I hand over my credit card and pay the extra $500. He gives me the keys and I go to find my car. When I get to the lot, I see just a couple of cars left. I do the math, one of the comrades in line with me is not going to get a car.
I get in my outrageously priced rental and head out of Logan at 4:30. Portland is two hours north of Boston on Interstate 95. I’m not going to make it so I pull into the Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and donut holes. Perfect for an early morning road trip in unfamiliar territory with almost no sleep. It’s 4:45 and they’re busy. I drive and 30 minutes later, I get another coffee and more donut holes. Another 30 minutes go by, I get more coffee and more donut holes. I repeat this all the way to Maine. At 6:35 a.m. I pull into the Best Western in Portland, the floorboard of the rental is littered with pink and orange logoed coffee cups. I head to the front desk strung out on sugar, caffeine and no sleep. I ask for the key that my wife left for me. The front desk agent refuses to give it to me even though the room is in my name, like she reserved it. I try to show him my ID but no cigar. I just turn and walk pass him to the room number she texted to me earlier in the night. She’s probably up already.
I walk down the hall looking at the burgundy and blue leaf-patterned carpet and think,could there be uglier carpet?I turn the final corner and see the room.