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Ode to the passport cop

Don’t ask why I waited until a week before my Montreal honeymoon to sojourn to the Federal Building in Westwood to get a passport. Perhaps it was the shock of needing papers to travel to Canada, a destination about which comedian Lewis Black said, “Even drunk on a bet, you make it to Canada.”

Driving to Westwood from Glendale on Monday morning, June 25, I repeatedly assured Heidi — then my fiancee, now my wife — that getting a passport before our June 30 wedding wouldn’t be a problem. We were both fully aware of the Great Passport Debacle of 2007 — travelers desperate to make their flights driving overnight from Arizona and Nevada to L.A. to get that passport they sent away for months ago. But that wouldn’t be us, I told Heidi, because I was arriving at the Federal Building with the money, application, birth certificate and appointment necessary to get in and out with a passport — not that I believed my own assurances, of course.

But my self-confident facade melted — and Heidi’s frustration peaked — the moment the Federal Building came into sight off Wilshire Boulevard. Most of the hundreds milling around outside the Federal Building were either tired, frustrated, angry, hopeless, or some combination thereof. Small children exhausted by hours-long waits threw tantrums at the feet of their parents. The more persistent were glued to their cellphones, frantically redialing the automated system that sets up in-person application appointments.

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That Monday at the Federal Building couldn’t have been a more perfect powder keg for anarchy — masses united only by anger at their failing government. The only representatives of that failing government (and the poor saps who bore all that mob anger) were two neatly uniformed State Department police officers. One stood behind a small kiosk, wearing sunglasses in the shade as if to trick you into believing that he had no soul. The queue at his kiosk represented the only hint of order, so I got in line.

“I have an appointment for ….”

“Sit over there and we’ll call for you. Next.”

An inkling of order amid this chaos! Never before had I felt so comforted by an armed, bulletproof -vest-wearing cop too impatient to let anyone finish a simple, second-long question. I did as he ordered, and over the next few hours witnessed a man doing what must be the job most likely to cause drinking problems. Most questions were easy, the answers well rehearsed by previous inquires.

“What forms do I need to fill out?” No vocals, just an index finger directed at a bin filled with passport applications.

“How do I get an appointment?” He handed over a dollar-bill-sized slip of paper, probably with Web addresses and phone numbers. Most inquiries were handled in a few ticks.

Though those of us watching admired the efficiency, a few hard-luck cases initially convinced us that these men were more heartless government cyborg than human. After the first handful of yes-no, simple questions, a woman desperate to make her afternoon flight to France begged to skip to the front of the line.

“Proof of your departure?” None. He handed her a slip as if nothing had happened, “Next.” Cruelty at its finest, I thought.

But after a few more hard-luck cases, a glaring reality became apparent: Travelers who haven’t yet kicked their adolescent procrastination habit are causing some of this summer’s passport crunch, or at least badly aggravating government ineptitude. Granted, several hard-luck cases that day were legit. But for every poor soul who applied several months ago and didn’t have an appointment but came with proof of a nearing trip, there was a clueless vacationer who booked an overseas airline ticket months ago and approached the passport cop with not much more than, “I’m leaving tomorrow. Can I get a passport?” No exaggeration.

The few passport cops — not State Department bureaucrats — were the ones at the Federal Building left to judge which emergencies were legitimate and which travelers who threw convincing fits merely waited until the last minute. In doing so, the cold-hearted cops who turned away throngs of sobbing pretty girls and angry men with deep, throaty voices allowed State Department staffers enough time to see those of us who dutifully made appointments (for the record, I was allowed into the Federal Building hours after my 1:30 appointment).

Two days after applying, Heidi and I returned to Westwood to pick up my passport at the will call window. What we thought would be a cakewalk turned into a four-hour crawl that resembled an amusement park queue on a summer day. Just as I reached the front of the line, a desperate woman speaking broken English begged for my spot. It was 11 a.m., and she had a 1 p.m. flight to Hong Kong. She produced a receipt from United Airlines that didn’t have her flight’s departure time printed on it.

After listening to her appeal, I turned to those waiting behind me in a line that had doubled in length since I had arrived hours earlier. Like the passport cops two days earlier, I was expected by the queued throngs to be the heartless one. I apologized to the woman and said her receipt didn’t prove her 1 p.m. departure time, and that those behind me also had flights leaving today but still bothered to wait. A few folks in line thanked me.

I didn’t have any illusion: I caused that woman to miss her flight — but not any more than she did. But that one denial was enough for me; I can’t imagine doing it several times a day, five days a week. As for the passport cops, I can only hope they’ve endeared themselves to their neighborhood bartender.


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