My appointment at the regional passport agency in Boston was scheduled for 10:30am. The receptionist gave me a number around 11am.
I found a seat and watched as couples, families, and individuals stood at the different bays talking through the glass to the agents. The regional passport agency in Boston reminded me of a doctor’s office without the magazines, toys, or tank full of guppies and angelfish. Instead, anxious people sit in inexpensive chairs, make small talk, and worry about their passport requests.
One woman with frazzled hair, a baggy sweater, and a bulging cotton tote bickered with the agent in my direct line of vision. Actually, she was doing the bickering, and the agent was trying to be patient and conceal her frustration. From what I could gather, one of their relatives had died in Norway, and she needed her passport to attend the funeral.
The woman’s brother was with her. He hadn’t shaved in several weeks, and his long, greasy hair fell onto a stained jacket. His nose had a red, swollen look, as if he’d fallen asleep face down on a sidewalk. The brother listened for a few minutes before he started pacing and muttering to himself.
She lived in a town a couple of hours away and had a doctor’s appointment at 3pm. She needed her passport right then, she told the agent, an attractive Hispanic woman about my own age.
“The earliest we can get your passport to you is 4pm,” the agent told her.
At this point, the older woman went off on a tirade about how she had a doctor’s appointment at 3pm, and it had to be right now, and she was going to miss the funeral, and his was her last time to see so-and-so, and why was no one willing to help her.
She started blubbering. Everyone in the room was watching now.
“Ma’am, we are trying to help you, but you have to help us too,” the agent said. “Is there any way you can reschedule your doctor’s appointment?”
She continued to cry and said that changing her doctor’s appointment was impossible. The agent went and found her manager, but her manager told the woman the same story: the earliest they could do was 4pm. Could she not call the doctor’s office and ask about another appointment?
The brother stormed out.
Finally, the woman hung her shoulders, gave them her address, and told them to mail the passport. She would just have to miss the funeral. She certainly wouldn’t have driven all the way to Boston if she’d known she wasn’t going to get it
She walked out, still dabbing her eyes. I guess her doctor’s appointment was more important.
The agent stared at her computer screen and took a deep breath. I felt sorry for her.
No one likes a bully, especially one who start crying and makes you look like the jerk. Intimidation may work for a time, but the negatives eventually outweigh the benefits. People resent you, and after they recover from their initial shock or overcome their fear, they look for ways not to help you or avoid you altogether.
Guilt trips have a similar effect: at first they seem to work. “Why don’t you ever call me anymore? Don’t you want to hang out with me?” I might apologize to extricate myself from an awkward situation, but you can bet your grandmother’s cameo brooch that I’ll be even less eager in the future to invest in our relationship.
I can think of no one I respect who uses guilt trips. People who use them are like people who eat too much garlic. They begin to stink. You smell them from across the room and begin to look for exits from potential conversation, and the relationship.
Kindness and empathy are much more persuasive. We go out of our way to help people who make no assault on our dignity or professionalism. Acknowledge that these agents have a difficult job to do. Assume that they are for you, on your side. Ask them to do their best to help you, and graciously accept the results, regardless of whether they are ideal.
My number came up at 11am, and I decided to keep my composure and be respectful at all costs. When you’ve missed a night’s rest, you begin to feel like a beaten dog, like whole world is against you. You anticipate more blows, not help.
Once I began speaking with the agent, I felt no defensiveness. She was young, younger than I perhaps, with red hair, and judging by the supervisor seated behind her and scrutinizing our interaction, she was new at the job.
I told her my story while she looked over my documents.
“Your travel itinerary says that you were supposed to leave Knoxville for Providenciales this morning,” she observed.
“I was, but then I realized that my passport was expired, so I had to come here first. Believe me, I’d love to be on a plane to Turks and Caicos right now.”
“Well, Mr. Church,” she said. “The earliest we can have your new passport is 4pm.”
My heart skipped a few beats—unbelievably good news. The weight of nineteen hours’ worth of anxiety lifted.
“Oh, that would be great,” I grinned. “I can’t tell you how thankful I am for your help.”
She smiled back. “You’re very welcome.”
$135 later, I was headed out of the building toward Canal Street, where she said I could find some decent restaurants.
Over the next four hours, I enjoyed myself. I ate at a Japanese restaurant called Wagamama near Faneuil Hall. I called friends and family to tell them the good news. I saw more of the city I had visited for the first time just two weeks earlier.
I got lost, walked in circles, developed a blister, and eventually found my way to Modern Bakery in the north end, Boston’s Little Italy.
I talked to a grandmotherly woman behind the counter who encouraged me to move to Boston. She brought cannoli and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.
Later, while I was talking to Mark Thurman and then to a representative at U.S. Airways, she came to my table. I hadn’t seen the pigeon wander in and waddle underneath my table. When she tried to shoo it away, it made angry pigeon blurbles and flew up and burst into flight, which meant smacking into the glass a foot away from my face.
This was a day filled with first-evers. I laughed like a lunatic as she tried to swat it with a rolled-up newspaper while its feathers were brushing my shoulder and hair.
She finally corralled the thing, and got it out the door, and a representative at U.S. Airways helped me book a ticket using my cancelled itinerary from the day before—Boston to Charlotte to Provo; Provo to Charlotte to Knoxville.
Cost? Only the $150 change fee. Thank you, U.S. Airways.
How is it that life can go from so bad to so good in a few hours?
I texted my cousin Van. For the last fifteen years, he has been telling me that I need to come up and visit him and his family.
My friends Travis, Joe, and I finally spent a long weekend there in early November, which meant that less than two weeks later, his phone rang and his cousin wrote, “I’m back.”
What is family for?
He put me in touch with his wife Marina, and after I picked up my new passport without incident, I took the subway to Harvard Square and walked to their house in Cambridge. Van was working in New York, but the rest of the family and I ate sushi at Whole Foods and rented G.I. Joe.
Emma and Julian are sharp kids, and we had fun pointing out the ludicrousness of a trillion dollar underwater arch villain’s lair beneath the polar ice cap, along with all the other improbabilities in the movie.
Bad action movies are my favorite. Wooden dialogue, one-line zingers, car chases, superhuman feats of strength and dexterity, explosions, cartoonish caricatures of evil, advanced weaponry—what’s not to love? If you disliked The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, then you probably love smog and the taste of human flesh.
I went to bed a little after 9, and slept the sleep of the dead.
The Tuscany on Grace Bay, here I come.