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The Mobile Lawyer -- One Lap, No Jetlag: October 2007

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


July 18, 2007 – O’Hare

I’m jinxed. Was going to say cursed, but that word doesn’t have the right feel. Cursed feels more severe, more substantial. This is not some affliction that somehow handicaps me substantially in my life. My jinx only seems to happen when I travel alone internationally – and many would say the mere opportunity to take these trips itself makes up for my slight travel mishaps, but whatever.

I apparently cannot travel abroad without some leg of every international solo trip I take screwing up somehow. I’m now four for four in European trips.

On this latest trip, I didn’t have any problems at all going over. Didn’t sleep on the plane much, which makes for a pretty hellish first day in Europe, but the flights went perfectly fine and I met up with Steve and Dave when I got in Munich with no complications. I was actually thinking to myself on the plane over, “is this to be the first flawless trip?”

On the way back, I thought my mishap was going to be on the first leg of the trip, from Prague to London.

Prague has a really nice airport that appears to have been built recently. Not surprising, since the Czech Republic was Soviet controlled and a non-tourist destination until fifteen or so years ago. Now it’s a hot spot and need a bigger airport to handle all the tourists. When I got there and got up to the counter to get my ticket, the airline person looked me up on the computer and then spent about five minutes clicking through various screens. That’s not a good sign. She ended up telling me that she had to get her supervisor to come over and help her and she asked me to step to the side and wait for him or her. Yea – that’s not a good sign either. Ten minutes later the supervisor came over. Gave me the ticket from Prague to London and said that I’d have to recheck in London, but that I was confirmed on the flight from there to Chicago and then on to Northwest Arkansas. I had little faith that would work as planned, but I was going to make it to London at least.

Made it to London. Wrote a little blog about Heathrow Airport that should appear down underneath this one somewhere. Rechecked my flight to O’Hare and got on my flight to Chicago with no problems. I was almost in the clear.

I’ve really always liked O’Hare. It could have something to do with the fact that I was born in Chicago. Might just have a soft spot for it because I can lay some tenuous personal claim that it was my original airport. I remember years and years ago reading that O’Hare was the busiest airport in the world and taking some sort of pleasure in it. When Atlanta or Kennedy Airport or whichever it was took over the top spot in the mid-80s, I was kinda pissed off. Strange how you can have irrational attachments like that survive for such a long time.

We had a little problem landing in O’Hare because of some weather pattern in the area. In the back of my head, a little nagging feeling began to start. I was somewhat assuaged when we landed after only a short delay. We ended up landing only 15 or so minutes late. Plenty of time to get to my last leg, the flight to northwest Arkansas. I got my bags. Seamlessly made it through customs (does anyone really get checked in customs, even post-9-11?). As I was walking out with my luggage to the area where you had to recheck it to get to your next flight after going through customs, the person waiting there asked me what my next destination was. I told her and she pointed me over to the customer service desk. I walked over and asked about my flight.

Cancelled. Not delayed. Flat cancelled because of the weather. Damn it. The jinx strikes again.

Was it raining? No. They could land in this weather, but couldn’t take off? O well – not going to argue with anyone about it because (1) its not going to do any good and (2) better safe than sorry, I suppose.

Although I was annoyed I went ahead and needed to see about getting them to set me up at a room somewhere and get rebooked for a morning flight. Although it’s really worthless to argue with the airline people at the counter for cancelled flights because of weather there were a damn large number of people venting on the poor ticket counter people.

“I have a vitally important meeting in the morning. What am I supposed to do?”
“Do you see that I have 3 small children traveling with me? Cannot believe you cancelled this flight. Arrrgggg.”
“I will never fly this airline again.”

Incredible. It’s the weather. Get down on a knee and start cussing the big Man/Woman/It upstairs. Sam the ticket agent didn’t cancel your damn flight. He’s just making $11 an hour to listen to you be a jack-ass.

I handed over my boarding pass to XNA. They quickly rebooked me on a flight that left around eight the next morning. I asked about them setting me up with a room and was told that the airline didn’t have to get you a room if your flight was cancelled because of weather, since it was out of their control. Bummer. They did hand me some coupon or voucher and said that the airline had some deal with this hotel to get a reasonably cheap room. They said the shuttle to this hotel would be outside the northernmost baggage claim.

So I follow directions and head out to get my shuttle. Figured I’d get a crappy meal at the hotel restaurant, get some reading down and maybe write out some of my thoughts from the trip. When I got outside and started walking around to find the shuttle, the rain started. And picked up quickly to semi-monsoon status. At least I knew they weren’t lying about the weather.

I walked back and forth out around where they told me to catch the shuttle. No sign of it. There were a bunch of people milling around catching cabs and shuttles to various local hotels, but no sign of this shuttle at all. I start asking other shuttle drivers if I’m in the right spot to get this one and no one has heard of the hotel. Not a good sign. I decide to just hop a cab there. I get in the cab line, which went pretty quickly, and get into a cab. Hand him the voucher before I get in and ask if the hotel is nearby, since I don’t feel like getting raped by another cabbie. He’s never heard of the hotel either. He asks another cabbie nearby and that guy hasn’t heard of it either. Not a good sign. He then gets into the cab and pulls out some pamphlet with directions to hotels near the airport and can’t find it there either. He looks at the voucher again, which doesn’t have the address, sees the name of the hotel is something like Addison Comfy Inn and says “I think I can find it – I know where that town is.” Hmmmm – I don’t think so. I decide to just hop one of these other shuttles to another room.

It’s raining hard.

I ask the first shuttle guy if there are any vacancies at his hotel. No luck. Second guy has the same answer. I’m getting the drift. This could be ugly. Never have slept in an airport before.

I go back inside to use the hotel phone thing they have at every airport. List of hotels with pictures and such and phone where you dial 32 to get the Marriott listed there. I try to find a relatively cheap hotel. Pretty quickly, I understand that there are no cheap hotels near major airports where there are thousands of people stranded by cancelled flights. Most are booked. The ones that aren’t are running around $300 a night. Doesn’t that make me feel special. I finally break down and book one. Go outside and their shuttle actually shows up.

O yea. And after paying $300 for a fricking bed. . . the hotel food did, in fact, suck.



Heathrow is a hellish experience. On signs and flat screen monitors throughout the various terminals it bills itself as “the busiest airport in the world.” While that might be great for whoever owns it, it certainly isn’t that great for anyone that has to use it.

I seriously doubt today was an overly busy day in this human conveyer belt. This was a mere normal weekday afternoon and there were still hordes of people going though the various lines you have to navigate. I don’t like most people to start with, but I really dislike them when they are all bunched all up together somewhere. And people in lines are very rarely in the type of mood to make them more appealing.

Last year, my sister, her husband and their two daughters, ages 5 and 8, flew back from Heathrow direct to LAX the day after the big bomb scare in Britain. It was the one when some Islamic radicals were supposedly going to try to blow up some planes with bombs compiled from ingredients contained in small carry-on containers for various liquids. It was a very public coup for the British government – one that the U.S. government immediately tried to take more its fair share of credit. A good bit of the plot was later discovered to be overblown by the Blair and Bush administrations in political trouble at home and both needing a ‘victory’ on the War against Terror, but its unpatriotic for us to question the War. I wonder if this blog is going to be added to my FBI file?

Regardless, for my sister and her husband, it was a long, long day of travel. They spent around twelve hours in various security lines and then just sitting waiting around to board their plane. They were then were rewarded with a ten hour flight to LAX. Almost a twenty-four hour travel day --- and that’s with a direct flight.

While the time spent just waiting around doing nothing must have been bad enough, the time spent grounded was compounded ten fold by the added security precautions slapped in place that day. The officials at Heathrow declared that day that you could not take anything onto the planes. No laptops, no Ipods, no books, no toys to keep kids distracted for what ended up being close to a 24 hour day. Nothing. Nada. Not even finger puppets. Before you went through the security gates, you had to check everyone you had into your checked baggage. Thank god that those two kids are truly some of the best and most well behaved I’ve ever met.

My mother called me a few times that day to determine whether I thought my sister and her hubby should just cancel the flight because of safety concerns. I reassured her that the safest flight that her daughter and grandkids would ever be on in their entire lives was a flight out of Heathrow on that day. They went through something like 5-6 different full security checks. If you were ever going to blow up on a plane. . . it wasn’t going to be that day, at least from that airport.

In any case, back to my little day at lovely Heathrow. After going through the winding security line to get up the metal detectors for Terminal 3 (they suggest setting aside 45 minutes – that’s about right on a weekday afternoon like I was traveling on – God knows what it is on a busy travel day), I then follow the signs that supposedly lead me to the gates. Suddenly it appears that I’m in a line to enter a huge duty free shop. I back up, turn around and walk back, looking for another sign leading me to a different area that leads to the gates, because I obviously hadn’t gone in the right direction. Don’t see another option. Everyone coming out of the metal detector/security area seems to be going through these people who are relooking at your passport (in case you somehow metamorphosed into someone different after you passed through the other half-dozen or so places you have to show your passport and ticket) and then into what certainly looks to be a huge duty free shop. I’m not interested in shopping, but it appears I have to.

I enter the line, show my ticket and passport, and get waved in. It’s a combination of Disney World and Vegas. Just the bad parts.

Disney World and Vegas are eerily similar to each other in one very important respect – they are almost perfectly crafted to get every possible penny out of your pocket. Truly amazing. Vegas has been written about frequently. The sounds of the slot machines when they pay out, which they place throughout the casino and not just in one area, leads to an internalized feeling that everyone is winning. It’s funny now that even when coins aren’t used, the sound of hundreds of coins hitting the payout slot still sound when you electronically hit a jackpot. The way the floor layouts are set so that you have to walk through the casino every time to get to the elevators up to your room. Or that you then have to walk back through the casino to the restaurant from the elevator section. Disney World is the same way. Take the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and when you exit your little boat, you then exit through the Pirates of the Caribbean shop, where small children scream, “I want that sword!!” or “Mommy, gimme that hat” that they just saw on the ride. Brilliant. Of course the modern marketing perfection also ruined my childhood memories of that ride from years back, but ‘o well. Fond childhood memories are overrated, I suppose. Buy more stuff.

The placement of the duty free shop so reminded me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. This time instead of small children loudly clammering for cheap, plastic toys, you got to enjoy the sight of grown ups quietly scooping up grown-up toys. And there were some expensive grown-up toys. “Honey, how does this Bvlgari watch look on me?” “Hmmm. The Chanel purse or the Dior one?” You couldn’t avoid the massive shop, even if you wanted to.

I successful navigate the aisles of the duty free shop without being sucked into a spontaneous purchase and find my way out of there. The layout of the terminals in Heathrow is quite unique, not that I’ve seen a lot of the world yet. There is a large central area where all the shops and restaurants are located. This is the area you enter after you exit the huge duty-free shop. Plenty of seating and televisions and the like. Shops of all sorts and restaurants all around the place.

Rolex, Harrods, Cartier, Hermes, Mount Blanc, Ferragamo, Versace. High-end stores everywhere. An excess of excess. A guy raffling off a yellow Lamborghini. In an airport terminal. That car looked a bit of place, to say the least. 20 pounds to enter. Was shipping and handling included for the winner? Cigars, jewelry, men’s and women’s clothing, fine wines and foods. Rodeo Drive in an airport.

There are large screens that have the lists of flights and the respective gates. If you get there far enough in advance of your flight (as you basically have to these days), your flight doesn’t have an assigned gate when you get to this collection area. As such, you are forced to wait around in this shopping area.

I’m sure there is a logic to this layout that those in charge claim is related to efficiency of the airport, but to my eyes, it looks more like another reason to keep you in the areas where you are supposed to buy stuff. Even if you wanted to go to a gate and wait you couldn’t. There aren’t any seating areas up in the gate area, until you go through the check-in line at your gate – and you obviously can’t do that until you know which gate your flight is going to be at.

I’ve got three or so hours to kill, so I decide to get a nice lunch. I grab a seat in Brasserie Chez Gerard. Pretty fancy for an airport. Ended up sipping on a half-bottle of pinot noir from Burgundy eating a tasty lamb burger with goat cheese. Yea – turns out that life ain’t all that bad after all. The bill is in British pounds sterling. I pretend to forget the exchange rate as I sign the credit card receipt so I don’t have to ponder the cost of the meal. I silently curse George W. Bush for the exchange rate. Thanks for taking us from a budget surplus to a huge deficit, Georgie.

After I finish lunch, I go out and see that my flight has been assigned to a gate. As I walk to the gate, I see sign that says, “no shops or restaurants past this sign – make sure you have got everything you need.” This seems to confirm my belief regarding the reason they organized the terminal the way they did. Walked to the gate area, which was Spartan to be generous. No frills at all, probably because there is nothing to buy here. All the time and money on the consumer section. I felt good that I didn’t have to pay to go to the bathroom.

Through another security area at the gate. Another search of my carry-on bag. On the flight for the trip back across the pond.

Love going away, but also love coming home.


Train Travel

July 17, 2007 – Old School Training from Salzburg to Prague

50 Euro and 40 cents. I think that translates to about $70 or so. Train leaves Salzburg at 9:10 a.m and arrives in Prague at 4:40 p.m., with train changes in Linz, Summerau, and Ceske Budejovice. The trains between Linz and Summerau and then Summerau to Ceske Budejovice are both Regionalzugs – regional trains. You should find time to spend some time on an equivalent train somewhere.

Regional trains are old school travel. No air conditioning. Big windows you can open up and feel the air rush through the train. The first train had normal rows of benches facing each other, two seaters facing each other on each side of the aisle down the middle. The second train had all compartments on one side of the train with the passageway down the other side. You’ve seen them in Bond movies, Sean Connery Bond movies that is. Sliding door opens into each them from the narrow hallway. Two high backed bench-type seats facing each other. Room to lie down and sleep if you’ve got a whole bench to yourself.

On a very warm summer day like today, when the train is chugging along and the wind is blowing through the cabin, its quite comfortable. When it stops at a station or out in the middle of nowhere inexplicably, it gets mighty hot, mighty fast. These are the trains that locals are using to go two or three towns over and travelers are usually carrying backpacks, not nice luggage.

And they are great.

I sat and stood in front of the open window for the entire first regional train part of the trip and just looked out the window and saw life pass by. Five minutes on one side of the train, ten minutes on the other. Small little towns passing by, and most times the term town is being generous. These tracks cut through farmland and pastures. Neatly organized rectangles of wheat, corn and hay with patches of trees interspersed in there. Most every open patch is cultivated with something, more so in Austria than the Czech Republic. Colorful two story farmhouses with deeply pitched roofs and always a nicely mowed lawn all around. Massive, neatly stacked piles of wood, tops covered with tarps to keep them dry, usually on the edge of the trees, but sometimes closer to the house. An occasional dog running around or a farmer on top of a tractor. A woman in the garden. Rolls of hay out in the fields, ready to get picked up and stacked somewhere.

And about every 15 minutes or so, the train station stops in these towns and villages. Mostly locals getting off with their bag or two in hand. I assume they’d been to some nearby shop or store a town or two down the tracks or went to visit friends and brought back some local produce and cheese. And occasional younger backpacker hopping off, for reasons unknown, as it doesn’t appear there is anything of interest around here, though it does look peaceful. The rest of us staying on the train, until it eventually stops at one of the bigger stations, so we can transfer to the next train.

And the official station person always standing out front when the train arrives, usually right under the sign telling the train passengers what station we’ve stopped at. All wearing identical red caps with black brims, navy blue pants, black shoes, a lighter blue shirt, with a red tie, which for some reason was universally tied too short and only made it down to the widest point on their belly, well short of their belt. One station, two, five stations go by and they are all there, at their post, all roughly the same age and appearance and all with identical clothes, down to the same shirt and tie, every time. It was like they’d been cloned.

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But only in Austria. In the Czech Republic the stations’ condition was more run down and more disheveled. No station masters out front. I wondered whether the stations’ condition was because there wasn’t a station master – no one was there to greet the train -- maybe they didn’t have someone in a uniform in charge of the place. Maybe they needed an officious little soul that took the station under his wing (as they were all men, of course) and get it all ship shape for the passengers coming through every day and who stood out front when the trains arrived with a look on his face like this was his place, his station. The best little station in Austria. The Czech Republic needed some of those types, it looked like.

I imagine walking up and saying hello in one of the Austrian stops.

“Welcome to Gaisbach-Wartberg. My town. If you need anything, I’m the person to come talk to.”

Almost John Wayne style. With a German accent.

O well. Probably better I didn’t.

Only so many days left in your life to just get out and let life wash over you a bit. Waste as few of them as possible in an office, at a desk, or behind a counter. Those days happen 300 times a year. How many days to you get to spend on a train rolling down the tracks with all the windows wide open to the world??

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German Ingenunity

There are a variety of things in Western Europe that should immediately be imported into the United States. Some of the stuff they are doing over here just makes sense in so many ways.

For instance, the about-to-turn green signal is genius. A couple seconds before your streetlight is going to turn from red to green, the yellow light comes on along with the red light. It’s the signal that the light is about to turn green. It so expedites traffic at intersections. Also, a good number of the hotel rooms do not allow you to turn on the lights or air conditioning or whatever until you put your

room key (the credit card type) into a device on the inside of your room. When you leave, you take your key and everything in your room turns off. Pretty simple and ingenious way to cut down on electrical usage, and given our addiction to fossil fuels, global warming and the such, anything they come up with that saves fuel is welcome in my book. Most of the places I’ve been have street signs that direct you to local parking lots. That part isn’t anything new or interesting, but what is a great idea is that the signs have a digital and live read-out of how many open spots are in the parking lot. If the lot is full, you know before turning left to head there, which in the world of one-way streets and confusing signs is a godsend.

Not all of the little innovations work as well as that though. In hotels and some other public areas, the lights in the hallways are motion-activated. It is a little strange to have an elevator door open up on a dark hallway in a hotel, but when you get off, the lights pop on pretty much immediately. Again, a nice little way to save on electricity.

My slight problem with the motion-activated lights wasn’t in the context of a hotel hallway. It was in a restaurant bathroom. Seems they decided to put the lights in the bathroom on a motion sensor and timer. No motion for a couple minutes and the lights go off. Normally not a bathroom problem, but the motion doesn’t sense movement in the closed stalls. How do I put this appropriately? Hmmmm. Sometimes I take more than two minutes doing “stall duty.”

Finish in the dark? Get up off the pot, open the stall door and wave a hand out there in the hope of getting a light back on? Wait for someone else to come in? I’m gunna leave the resolution a mystery, but I did make it back to the table, alive, well and otherwise ok. And was a little less certain about German ingenuity.


German trains

German Trains July 14th

I forget the exact saying, but something along the lines of “running on time like a German train.” Nothing could be closer to the truth.

Taking a train back from Vienna today to Amberg, Germany, to hook up with my friends Steve, Dave and Melynn to hit another beer festival. As a sidenote, swapped a couple good emails yesterday with Dave about the evening. The key one being, “still looking for another designated driver to drive back from the festival.” This festival isn’t in town and is apparently a 30-45 minute drive away. The important thing I took from the message was that he at least had one designated driver, most likely Melynn, which meant to me that the festival is a go. Crowded single car is fine by me; I’ll leave it up to him if he can find a second driver. It should go without saying that I did not volunteer.

So when I buy my train ticket in Vienna, the ticket agent was nice enough to print out the itinerary, since I’d neglected to write down the connection cities and times and such when I looked it up online earlier that day to see when I was leaving. Problem was that the printout was all muddled because she had some printer problem. Some of the letters and such were printed over each other. I had a pretty good idea of the two cities I needed to change trains in, but was a little unclear what time the trains arrived and departed. After the first train stop, I figured out that the numbers were juxtaposed. On the printout I had, the departure was listed as 12:03, when in fact the real departure was 12:30. The last two numbers were inverted.

That’s all well and good -- figured it out and such – the platform numbers appeared to be correct, but I look down and see the arrival time and the departure time for the first town I need to change trains in: Regensburg Hauptbanhof, arrival 16:72 on platform 5, departure on the train to Schwandorf at 16:13 from platform 1. Switch the numbers and you get arrival at 4:27 p.m. and departure at 4:31 p.m. A smooth 4 minutes to get from the first train to the next. Admittedly, the train stations aren’t that big and getting from platform 5 to platform 1 at these places, but any platform whose number isn’t immediately adjacent to yours (platform 5 and 6 or 5 and 4 share the same area, depending on the train station), means you have to go up or down a flight of stairs, down a hallway or tunnel and then up or down another set of stairs to get to your platform. A diagram would be handy, but I’m not computer literate enough to put one in here.

I’ve missed plane connections when they’ve scheduled an hour for the transfer AND the plane I was on landed on-time (long, long bus ride in the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris – I think I’ve written about it). The four minute allotted time that was scheduled for this exchange did not fill me with confidence. If the first train was just a little late. . .

But German trains really don’t ever run late. It is amazing. When they say they are going to arrive at 4:27 p.m. and depart at 4:31 p.m., they mean exactly that. It’s not an estimate, it’s a guarantee. Off the train, up the stairs, over the walkway, down the stairs, on the next train – with at least 90 seconds to spare. Piece of cake. Only an hour and a half away from another beer fest. Frankly, I deserve it.

Of course, I say this and then the next train is actually late. Its not like I’ve taken a ton of trains over here, but this is the first one that was more than a couple minutes late. It was actually about five minutes late. It must be a reasonably unusual circumstance, because right around when the train was supposed to arrive, the Germans all started looking at their watches, and then each other. Got up off the benches, if they were seated. Slung their knapsacks or whatever over their shoulders. Walked right up to the painted white line that marked the area you were supposed to stay out of when the train was arriving and started looking up and down the tracks – back and forth – good God, where could that train be? An orderly little German life thrown a minor

copywrited, 2007, by
Michael S. Hodon

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Mishap-ing through Life

I’ve decided that if I write a book, that the title should be “Misshap-ing through Life,” as it seems that every trip I take has some element of self-induced mishap that makes me chuckle, though not always at the time. This trip is no different. . . and it hasn’t even started yet.

So my friend in Germany, Dave, and some other folks I know over there talked me fairly spontaneously to come to Munich, Prague and wherever else we decide to hop off to once I get there. Not so shockingly, I think it sounds like a great idea and I book a plane ticket into Munich leaving in slightly over two weeks and then back out of Prague after about 10-11 days. In that time frame lies the rub.

I moved from my crappy condo to a new house about three months ago. Knowing that moving is perhaps one of life’s least enjoyable tasks, I pay a friend of mine to pack up most of my stuff and pay movers to move it all. It was probably the best money I’ve spent in years. If I would have thought ahead enough to pull my passport out beforehand, it would have been money even better spent.

Of course, I lost my passport. Been looking for it at my new house and new office for about a week and no luck. Figured I’d find it for sure, so didn’t FedEx an application down for a new passport early enough to insure that I’d get it in time for my departure. The week before I was to leave, I call my friends in Senator Pryor’s office to see if they can expedite an application and the aide in charge of passports tells me its possible, but the best way to insure I’ll get one is to actually drive to the New Orleans or Houston passport office and get it in person. The aide said she’d heard that you could get one the same day, but they were only open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Wednesday is the Fourth of July. Friday is my flight.

OK. Monday sounds good.

I go to my local post office exactly a week before I am to leave, on a Friday, at about 4 in the afternoon to pick up the application for the passport, to make sure that I had everything that I needed before I drove to New Orleans on Sunday to walk into the office on Monday, get my passport, go have some good gumbo and drive back home.

As I’m reading the application, I see I need proof of ID. Check. Money order or check for the fees. Check. Proof of citizenship. Hmmmm. Don’t have my birth certificate. Have my old expired passport from high school that I found in the search. Think that’s good enough from what I’m reading, but not sure. Scroll down the form. . . you can get a passport in person if you have all of that stuff and. . . if you call and make an appointment. Well now, that’s some unwelcome news. What the Senator’s aide didn’t tell me when I was talking to her a few days before then was that I had to call an automated system to set up an appointment at the passport office. Kind of an important detail. It’s now about 4:30 p.m. on Friday. I need this passport on Monday. Bummer.

Call the (800) number. Busy. Busy. Busy. Dial for about a half hour. Recheck the number. Been dialing the TYY/deaf number. That’s not a busy signal. That’s the “put your TYY phone down on the thing that sends the signal and we’ll chat on your typing equipment” sound. Brillant. If there was any doubt before that I was an idiot – the doubt has been extinguished. Recheck the application. Automated line is open till 6:30 p.m. OK.

Dial the correct (877) number. Get through to the automation-computer-voice thing. I hate these. “Dial or say one for English.” One. “Dial or say one to make an appointment at one of the regional passport offices.” One. Go through the various options to actually select a location and select the New Orleans office. “Dial or say one if you want a morning appointment.” One. Long, long hold, while apparently the government supercomputer scrolls through the morning log to see if there are any appointments. A friend that I’m meeting for happy hour shows up at the bar. I fill her in on the basic details. She confirms I’m an idiot. I’m still on hold. Life is pretty sweet.

“No appointments at this location at that time. Please call again to schedule a different appointment time.” That sucks. How many other fools like me are really out there that book a trip with no passport? Dial back in and go through the whole process again. Get through to the New Orleans number again. Say two to see about an afternoon Monday appointment. Long hold again. No luck again.

Actually listen this time when they are going through the various cities that have offices and learn where my Senator’s aide got the Monday, Wednesday, Friday thing. The New Orleans office is only open those days and also only open in the mornings. No wonder they didn’t have an opening on Monday afternoon. Somehow not shocking that the government supercomputer had an option to follow for an office that wasn’t even open at the time they are trying to book me an appointment. Luckily the Houston office is open five days a week.

I give my friend official permission to laugh at me in public. Its almost cathartic when she does. Phone back up to my ear. Try the Houston number this time. Monday morning – no. Monday afternoon – no. Getting a bit worried and more importantly, more and more pissed at myself. Plus after all of these phone calls to the government line showing how desperate I am to get out of the country, I’m sure that some George Bush lackey has picked me out to be strip searched at the airport. Or at least tap my phone. There’s an office in Chicago. I wonder if the Cubs are in town then to see my first game at Wrigley. Check on the blackberry internet. Nope. Serves me right. Why would I deserve any good luck? Get back on the phone. Tuesday morning in Houston? Bingo. 11 a.m. Appointment.

I call my folks to see if they can FedEx my original birth certificate, since I see on the application that you need the clerk’s stamp on one for it to be sufficient. Mom and Dad tell me they don’t have the original, but they’ve got a copy. Tell me that my brother ordered his recently to get his passport and was able to get it in just a couple working days. Ahhhhh – that’s not gunna help me, don’t think. Hang up. Hope the old passport is good enough. They call back shortly and say they found the original and ask where they need to FedEx it. I give them my buddy’s address in Austin that I’ll be staying with Monday night. They tell me that can’t get to it today since they are themselves on the way to the airport to fly to Seattle and get on a cruise ship for an Alaska cruise with my sister, her husband and their kids. They tell me they’ll FedEx it from Seattle the next morning. Sounds good to me. I don’t bother asking why I wasn’t invited. Jen gave them grandkids. And so go the benefits from that.

Now I’m cooking and back on track. I’ll drive to Austin Monday and get to see a couple buddies of mine there. Been needing to discuss a business deal with them anyway. Birth certificate will be there. Drive over to Houston Tuesday morning to the passport office. Meet with my passport agent person at 11 a.m in their little semi-private cubicle. Apologize nicely for being a moron. Make some joke about forgetting my passport a couple trips ago when I was going over to Germany. Condescending laughter from the government employee. Get my passport. Maybe call my friend in Houston and go get some good local Mexican food at noon and be on the road by 12:30 or 1:00. At home by 8 or 9, sipping on a bottle of good red, lit cigar in one hand, passport in the other hand, and have a good chuckle at myself for being a fool. Ahhhhh --- life really is pretty sweet.

I worked for almost four years in government in DC, another two years in Little Rock on campaigns and in government service, and been a practicing lawyer in Fayetteville for almost eight years. I’ve seen federal, state, and local government close up and personal for pretty much my entire adult life. I know how government works. I know how the bureaucracy grinds. I’ve been on the inside, for God’s sake. What temporary insanity actually came over me to think that this whole thing would work out smoothly? As I am soon about to hit the magical age of forty, am I really am getting senile?

So I drive down to Austin Monday afternoon and after catching up with my buddies in Austin, I get some sleep, get up early and hit the road. Easy drive over to Houston. Get there around 10 or so, an hour before my appointment. Stop and get a cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake at a Starbucks around the corner. Read a little bit of a travel magazine. At about 10:40, go back to the car, pick up my filled out application, my two passport photos, my expired passport, my travel itinerary (you have to prove you are leaving the country in the next two weeks to use this special appointment process), and my birth certificate and walk over to the federal building. Up the elevator a full 15 minutes before my appointment and when I get off the elevator on the 4th floor. . . simply bedlam. The passport office is to the left. I see lots of windows like you’d see at a bank branch. I also see a bunch of people in seats and benches apparently waiting. I’m sure these are the fools that didn’t make the appointment over the phone like I did. I internally laugh at their ignorance.

Federal security guard at the elevator exit asks me if I have my application filled out and an appointment scheduled. “Yes sir, I’ve got an appointment at 11 a.m.” I want to say, “take your time, I’m here early, I can wait if the person scheduled to help me isn’t ready.” What I get from him is ,”turn to your right and get in line.” To the right is a hallway. There are about 50 people in line in front of me. It dawns on me.

All these fools have ‘appointments.’

Pot meet Kettle. My, my, you are black also.

Apparently, “appointment” just means you are allowed to get in a line. A long line. Now cursing myself under my breath. “Drinking fucking coffee around the corner for 45 minutes, when you could have just come over here and got in line earlier. You don’t deserve to take a good trip. You are too fucking dumb to be allowed on a plane. Your stupidity may be contagious and innocent people might catch it.” How many synonyms are there for ‘moron?’ Well, I’ve got time enough to come up with most of them now.

So the line I’m in across the hall creeps along slowly. No one knows anything. You overhear whispers of conversations. “We are leaving Monday, do you think that will be a problem?” “Looks like that person is walking out with a passport. You think applied today or yesterday and came back for it?’ “I lost my passport, but printed out the special lost passport affidavit you have to fill out when you do that online and have it with me” (Great. Yet another thing I screwed up). Finally get to the front of the hallway line and the security cop/dictator waves me across the hall to the promised land, the passport office. “Turn to your immediate left when you walk in.”

Another long line. Basically the same people that have been in front of me for the last hour or so, just in a different spot. And I see what we are lining up for. We are all in line to get to the “appointments desk.” I see people walking away from that desk with a little slip of paper. It’s their number to get called to go to one of the bank teller windows. We’ve been in line for over an hour to get a number, like at the department of motor vehicles.

It’s the D.M.V. office from hell.

I hear the computer voice say over the loudspeaker say, “now serving number A0054 at counter 3.” Its about 1 p.m. at this point. The office has been open since 8 a.m. They are on number 54. There are about 15 or so teller windows in the room. Two are open. There are approximately 200 people in the room. Yea – this looks promising.

And by the way, after 9/11 anyone traveling abroad must now have a passport. That includes kids. That includes infants. And they have to apply in person. There are about 30-40 very young kids running around the room. They’ve probably all been cooped up here for about 3-4 hours. Their only entertainment is one TV in the corner playing the Disney Family Channel or something. The sound is off. But they have the closed captioning turned on. That’s pretty helpful for the four and five year olds the programming is intended for. Dozens of small children in a room for hours with nothing to entertain them. Kill me now.

Did I say it’s the DMV office from hell? Check that. Its worse. I think I see Sisyphus over in the corner. He’s laughing and pointing at me. Bastard.

The security guys have some obsession about people being on cell phones, including texting. I’ve seen them tell 8-10 to either take themselves down to the lobby or turn the phones off. Apparently they are worried that word might get out to the outside world about the chaos in here. I don’t care. I have to email the aide in the Senator’s office to see if she can do something to help me. I hide my blackberry behind some papers and inform her of my situation. She emails back that she’s called a number of times and finally got a hold of a live person. Reassuring that a Senator’s office has trouble getting an actual human being on the phone. She asks for my date of birth and social security number and tells me that the person she talked to assured her that I’d be able to get my passport today. I’m only mildly placated. Then I remember that I’m in this line because of my own screw-ups. I think about praying, but I think God might just get a good belly laugh outta that. I choose to soldier on without asking for divine intervention. I might need that help later at the teller window – better hold off for now.

I make it to the appointment window. I get my number. A0132. They are now on A074. I’m about 50 away. They appear to be calling about 2 names every 10 minutes. I feel good that I’m not good enough with math to figure out when that means I’m likely to get called.

This whole time I’ve been parked in the Starbuck’s parking lot. I figure that I’ve probably been towed. My laptop and some reading material are in the car. I wonder if I ought to go out and get them just wait. But if my car is towed. . . Whew. Car is there. Phone is running out of batteries. I send a last desperate message to the Senator’s aide. I get my computer and a couple magazines and head back in. I leave the car in the parking lot. Let’s tempt fate. How much bad luck can one person really have in a single day? Lets find out.

I head back up the elevator and back into the room. There isn’t anyone in line in the hallway anymore. Hardly anyone in the appointment line either. Apparently they didn’t schedule any afternoon ‘appointments.’ I sit down in one of the waiting areas. Its about 2 p.m. Read there for a while. Security guard moves some people in my area to another area on the other side of the room. “This area is for pick-ups. Gotta keep my building organized or it’ll never work for anyone.”

“My building.” Yet again showing one of the most constant human traits – the smaller the size of the fiefdom, the more jealously the power is guarded and abused. And I’m certainly glad that his organization is helping everything move smoothly along – it does remind me of a well-oiled machine in here.

And then suddenly about 5-6 more bureaucrats open up the shades behind 5 or 6 more teller windows. Now instead of just having windows 3 and 4 open, we’ve got 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 12 it looks like. Where the hell have all these people been all day? The office is supposed to close at 3 p.m. It’s about 2 or so. Did they just show up for the 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. shift?

In any case, it’s a godsend, because I get called shortly after that. Go up to the window, smile, and give my paperwork over. Ask her politely if I can get my passport today, since I’m flying out on Friday and she tells me that normally the office would be closing shortly, but the hours are going to be extended because of the high volume today. I get a receipt and she tells me my passport will be ready at 4 p.m.

I leave to go pick up a quick sandwich. Come back around 3:30 or so. Sit back in the correct, pick-up area. Read for a bit. Notice shortly after that the main doors are shut and the curtains drawn. Glad I didn’t wait until 4 to come back. Go up to the counter to ask about my passport at pick-up counter. She looks me up. Assures me it’s on its way.

There are a group of 4-5 people huddled around the other pick-up window. They are all joking and talking with each other and the teller-person like they all know each other. I pick up that they are all courier people that are there to pick up expedited passports for people that paid their employers to get their passports in two or three days. Would have been good to know about this service last week. One of the government employees comes out to talk to some of them. They are asking about specific passports that were supposed to be ready yesterday and still aren’t here today, making me feel real good about my passport that is “on the way.”

One of the couriers offers the government guy a case of whatever beer he wants to get the passports done today, because “this one is flying tomorrow.” Another offers up lunch for the whole office. I’m thinking two things. One, I’m glad that overt bribery is still alive and well in America, and two, do I need to jump up and offer my watch or something to get my passport today? They ain’t getting the laptop, but everything else is negotiable.

The one that is complaining about having someone fly tomorrow is apparently named Debbie. She’s creating quite a fuss with the teller person. Other employees find the lost passport applications and tell the couriers that they’ll all be ready tomorrow (the 4th of July), but the office will be closed, so they can pick them up first thing Thursday. Debbie proceeds to go off on the low-level lackey giving this message, saying among other things, “O yea?! Well my flyer is connected. Guess you can talk to her Congressman Thursday about this fuck up.” They all pack up and leave. The office supervisor comes out 2-3 minutes later and asks the security guys whether Debbie left. They say yes. He then makes sure they all know what she looks like and says, “Debbie is banned from this office until she comes and talks to me!”

The teller person calls my name. I’ve got my passport. Everything looks right. I wonder whether I ought to tell him that my Senator (or at least his aide) will be calling him to tell him he did a good job.

No need. He’ll get some better bribe next week. I’ve got my passport. . . and I’m not banned from the Houston passport office. I can come back anytime I want to. And my car hasn’t been towed. Life IS pretty sweet.

copywrited, 2007 by
Michael S. Hodson