I'd been looking forward to this trip for a year. My wife, Katy, already was in Venice, Italy, waiting for me. I get to the airport at 7 a.m. Monday and discover a terrible error on my part: My passport expired days earlier.
I have my first panic attack in years. A woman at United Airlines gives me a Washington, D.C., telephone number: The passport office, U.S. Department of State. "They open at 8. Maybe …?"
I get customer service and a guy in D.C. who says, "Yes, it's possible to get you to your wife. Here's what you've gotta do: Go to the local passport office by 12:30 today, fill out a form DS-82, show them your passport photo." He makes me a 12:30 p.m. appointment and gives me a confirmation number.
The only problem: The office is in Seattle.
8:20 a.m.: I step into a random office, second floor, PDX, and tell a woman my problem — I need a printer.
"Sure," she says. She helps me print the documents.
I ask her what I owe. She laughs. "Safe travels."
8:30 a.m. Monday: I tell my tale to a woman at Alaska Airlines. She gets me on the next piece of metal flying north. It's boarding … now.
11:30 a.m.: I land at SeaTac.
I hail a cab and the guy whisks me to the passport office. Which is in a federal building. I'm carrying a paring knife; I plan to cook for Katy in Venice. The security personnel are totally understanding; they get my knife secured. As they do, I notice a deli downstairs that takes passport photos, so I get one.
12:20 p.m.: Passport office, and I tell my tale. The guy at the desk grins. "Would you believe, you're my third customer of the day with the same story? Your wife pretty angry?"
No, I said. She's totally supportive.
"OK, you're the first guy with that story. But yeah, we can get you a passport by 3 p.m. Have a seat."
Two-plus hours later, I have a passport but no way to get to SeaTac. I load the Lyft app onto my phone, hitch a ride. The driver, who's in his 80s, can see I'm freaked out, so he tells me tales of living in Germany in the '60s and about the differences between Yiddish and Hebrew. The stories work; I calm down.
3:55 p.m.: I get to the United desk and a gruff-looking guy named Dave with a University of Montana Grizzlies lanyard. I tell him my tale. He sighs. Thinks about it. Then starts tapping his keyboard.
He doesn't look up; doesn't speak. Ten minutes in, he eyes me. "You really need to go through Zurich?"
I tell him I don't care about Zurich.
He grunts, types some more.
"I have a seat outta Newark. Bad seat. Way in the back."
I tell him: "Buddy, the seats all land at the same time."
Now he looks up with a ghost of a smile. "That's right." He nods. "That's right."
A woman steps out of the office behind the luggage belt, frowns. "Dave? You still here? Your shifted ended at 4."
I check. It's 4:30. He's been helping me on his own dime.
He prints tickets, hands them over. "SeaTac to Newark, Newark to Marco Polo." Then he offers me his hand and a real smile. "Good luck, man."
When this all started, eight and a half hours and 174 miles to the south, I figured I had one chance in 10 of seeing Venice. It's a six-day visit and, best-case scenario, I make it there but lose only three days.
When I lug my stuff over the humped Quantro Ponte, step onto the Fondamenta Santa Lucia, and collapse in Katy's arms, I check my watch.
I'd arrived about 18 hours after my planned ETA. The entire vacation awaits me.
Each step of the way, every bureaucrat, office worker, security guard and driver who could help me, did. Everyone who needed to perform their job with excellence, did.
I stood in Katy's arms, on the banks of the Grand Canal, in the most romantic city on Earth, by relying on the kindness of strangers.
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