In what ranks as one of the dumbest things I have ever done, I left my passport on a plane.
Instead of taking a few seconds to put it away after showing it to the gate agent in Montreal the morning of Dec. 29, I held onto it and, when I reached my seat, tossed the passport onto it, sat on it, fell asleep and slept for the duration of the United Airlines flight to Chicago - then walked blithely off the plane when we arrived without checking to see whether I'd left anything behind.
My friend Yona was at the airport waiting - a small New Year's Eve dinner party, six of us, has been a tradition of ours for a dozen or more years - and almost as soon as we got to her house I knew something was amiss: I removed the passport case from my bag, the one I wear strapped across a shoulder when I travel, and it was too light.
Customer service took us to Mumbai or Dubai or some other place where no one was likely to be especially helpful. Back at the United terminal at O'Hare, a friendly enough fellow whose job it is to track lost luggage told us that, if the passport had been found, it would have been placed into a locked box to which only one person had the key: it was opened only once every week, he didn't know when and the person with the key had gone home for the day. We were given his phone number and instructed to leave him just a single message. If he had the passport, he would get back to us when he opened the box - whenever that was.
I asked whether the plane was still on the ground, but it had left for Albuquerque not long after landing in Chicago and was now in the air. There was a chance the passport was still on the seat, where I'd left it, I said. The friendly enough fellow agreed, but said there was no way to reach the gate in Albuquerque or get a message to the flight crew. We knew this not to be true, of course, but without power one has only so much influence.
There's a streak of Pollyanna in me, in that I almost always think things will work out, but Yona and my beloved, both of whom tend to envision the worst-case scenario in most situations, were looking at me darkly. Yona said I needed a Plan B.
I put a call in to the Canadian consulate in Chicago, where I was told that three business days were required for emergency travel documents to be issued. This was Dec. 29. Since we were scheduled to leave Chicago Jan. 1, this meant I would miss my flight and forfeit my ticket: the earliest return I was looking at was Jan. 4.
I called Passport Canada, where I got the usual maze of "Push 1 to continue in English." A live person came on the line eventually, but she said all she could do was to cancel my passport. And once a passport has been reported lost or stolen, it is no longer valid. The cold sweat of desperation began to wash over Pollyanna.
There are worse places to be trapped than Chicago, of course, at the home of one's dearest childhood friend. Still. How cavalier of me not to have been more watchful - or better prepared. Passport Canada advises travellers to make two photocopies of the personal information page of their passport, to keep one separate from the passport and leave the other with family or friends. I had not done this.
Meanwhile, my beloved had joined the line in the United international departure area, where he stood patiently until he got to the front and told Jesus Ruiz, one of the agents behind the desk, how I had left my passport on the plane that had come in from Montreal and left for Albuquerque, on seat 18F. Ruiz listened, picked up the phone and presumably called someone with United in Albuquerque, where the flight had just landed, and repeated the story.
A few minutes passed and, incredibly, someone called back from the gate: a member of the flight crew had checked the seat - and my passport was inside the seat pocket. I jumped up and down with joy.
In yet another stroke of amazing luck, the plane was scheduled to turn around and return to Chicago. The passport was now in the hands of the pilot, and he was to page Ruiz as soon as he got off the plane back at O'Hare. We told him again and again how grateful we were.
Later that afternoon, Yona and I returned to O'Hare for what was her third trip of the day. Ruiz asked an agent to give us gate passes to meet the pilot, who came off the plane holding my passport. We thanked him, then headed back to the departure desk to thank Ruiz again for caring, for having gone beyond the call of duty, for having made a difference. He told us how much he loved his work, and how he had raised his daughter to treat people the way she herself would like to be treated.
We have become so inured to harried, overworked staff at airports and elsewhere glowering and growling at us that it is understandable that we forget that people can be kind, too, and that, sometimes, they really do want to help.
Source: sschwartz@ montrealgazette.com
Gravity always wins!