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How JFK Airport Saved My Christmas

“Honey,” I said, in what I hoped was my best loving husband voice, “something happened in New York that I need to tell you about. You are going to find out sooner or later so it’s best if you heard it from me.” It was perhaps also my guilty voice. My wife’s face, which up until that point had been blissfully happy that her husband had returned from his trip, was instantly a conflict of emotions. Was it something good, was it something bad, was I about to confess something that would test the very fabric of our marriage? It was quite possibly all those things.

Ask my office manager to describe me in so many words and the adjective “absent-minded” might be mentioned. Naturally, I bristle at the idea that I’m a forgetful person. However, she would point out the times I lost my company ID card (twice), left my ID card in the food court, left my intern in the office without telling her that we were all going out for lunch, left my phone back in the office (several times), and once, to my horror, misplaced the corporate credit card (it later turned up several months later at the bottom of my desk draw).

My wife might agree with my office manager. Every trip we go on, her every second question is “have you got your passport?” Puh-lease! Like I am ever going to lose such an important document. What am I, five years old?

Last week I was travelling to New York on business. I took an excellent flight with Air India which went via Delhi. If you’re able to sleep on planes it’s the perfect flight because it leaves Delhi at 1am, heads North-North West over China, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and then down the coast of Canada and America. The flight is dark the entire way, almost until you reach New York at 6am. I am not one of those that can sleep on a plane. Sitting in a plane for me is the equivalent of 5 mugs of coffee washed down with equal amounts of Red Bull.

I reached JFK airport in a zombified state, barely cognizant enough to coherently answer the immigration officer’s questions. I collected my baggage, handed over my passport to the customs officer and was told that congratulations, I had been randomly selected for a physical bag search. I think it was the hoodie that I was wearing. Or maybe my sunken, red eyes made me look like I was on something not quite legal.

I was pulled aside and asked if I was responsible for everything in the suitcase. I was. Then, in full view of all the other passengers, my suitcase was opened and the customs officer pulled out every piece of clothing I had neatly packed, including my Star Wars pyjamas. I had carefully folded all my t-shirts and shirts to take up minimal space but the officer diligently unfolded everything. After satisfying himself that I didn’t have anything illegal in my bag, he thanked me and told me that I could pack up and move along – and to not forget to put on the hat and gloves that he had pulled out from the top pocket because it was cold outside. I mumbled my thanks as well (why?! Why did I say thank you to this person for checking my bags?!), and he moved on to the next randomly selected person.

I didn’t bother neatly folding everything this time, I just stuffed it all in my bag and crossed my fingers that the driver had come to pick me up like my boss said he would. I walked out to arrivals and the driver was there waiting for me. Score.

Exhausted, I got in the back of the car and fell asleep for the two hours it took to get to the place I was staying. I then stumbled through the front door and continued to sleep for another six hours, such was my tiredness.

I enjoyed my stay immensely in the few days that I was in New Jersey. The place is dotted with quaint English-like towns and it’s all very beautiful.

A few days later I headed, with the rest of the senior management team, to New York City. We were all staying in a hotel close to our main office in the Financial District of Manhattan. When we arrived at the hotel, a Hampton Inn, we all jumped out and one by one checked in. When it was my turn I opened up my passport wallet to pull out my passport but discovered that it wasn’t there.

How odd.

I rummaged through my backpack, apologising to the front office staff and to those behind me waiting to check in. “No problem,” the staff member told me, if I had another Government issued photo ID, I could use that. I did. I whipped out my newly minted Overseas Citizen of India card (the irony of which is not lost on me given that I’m not Indian nor am I overseas because I live in India), handed it over and crouched down to continue rummaging in my bag. At the back of my mind my wife’s voice came to me, “Do you know where your passport is?” Of course I knew, it would be in my bag somewhere. It was clearly just buried down a pocket or side seam or something. Somewhere above my head, the front office staff member was trying to get my attention.

“Sir, there’s no reservation under this name.”
“What?” I asked, looking up from my bag, “Impossible, I’ve got the receipt just here.” I opened up my passport wallet again – which with the exception of my erstwhile passport, contained all my important pieces of paper. I pulled out the reservation receipt for the Hampton Inn, handed it over and the guy read through it.
“Actually, sir, this reservation is not for this hotel, it’s for another Hampton Inn.”
Blood freeze. My list of worries right now had just doubled and this right at the top. “Huh? This is the Hampton Inn on Pearl Street?”
“Yes, it’s one of the Hampton Inns on Pearl Street. This is 32 Pearl Street and you booked the Hampton Inn on 320 Pearl Street – it’s a 20 minute walk back down the road.”

In addition to my wife’s voice in the back of my head demanding to know where my passport was, another voice appeared. It was my office manager. She was informing me that she would kill me for not double checking which hotel I was supposed to be checking in to.

It’s never great to tell your boss that you’ve made a mistake. It’s even less great to tell him you may have made two mistakes. Imagine how I felt telling him, in front of the entire senior management of the company that I had not only lost temporarily misplaced my passport, I had also booked into a different hotel to everyone else in the group.

“Err, I’ve got some news…” I started off.

To everyone’s credit, the first words out of their mouth were not: “You total ducking moron.” But I certainly felt like one. I couldn’t be the guy who lost his passport on this business trip. I’d never hear the end of it, from my office manager and my wife. I thought hard. I remembered handing over my passport to the US Customs officer because he got a bit annoyed with me for taking so long to hand it over. What I couldn’t remember was ever getting it back. I was so zoned out after more than 24 hours without sleep and focused on putting all my underwear back in my suitcase that now I just couldn’t recall ever getting my passport back.

“I think,” I announced to the group, “I left it with the customs officer at JFK.”

lost passport meme

While everyone else finished checking in, I continued searching through my backpack and suitcase for my passport, but it wasn’t there. We made our way to the office where my CEO had the presence of mind to tweet out to JFK while I rang up the British consulate in New York.

There was a lovely lady on the other end who explained that it wasn’t a problem, I could just toddle along to the consulate in the morning and get myself an emergency travel document back to England.

“England?” I asked, “But I live in India and need to get back there to my wife.”
“Oh, that might be a bit of a problem, you’ll need to check with the consulate staff if you can use that document to travel to India, otherwise you need to come back to the UK and apply for a new passport from there.”

Oh bugger.

I looked around the office and everyone was staring at me.

“Peter, you’ve gone terribly white, is everything OK?”

It wasn’t. I couldn’t imagine calling up my wife to say that I wouldn’t be home for Christmas because I had been a bit silly while in New York.

I opened my mouth to say something, but all that came out was a kind of croaking sound. “Aaaaa.”

“Peter, what did the consulate say?”

I pulled myself together a bit, “It’s not a problem per-se, I have to go to the consulate in the morning and get an emergency travel document, but I might have to go back to England first to get a new passport. I have to check on the internet to see if India will let me in on that document. I might have to leave my wife home alone over Christmas.”

The room was silent for a second, but it was broken by a chirping noise from a phone. It was JFK airport, replying to my boss’ tweet. “They’ve given us some numbers we can call.” He announced, “I’ll try now.” To their credit, it took JFK’s twitter handle just 16 minutes to reply with a solution to my problem.

He called up the numbers, explained the situation and as is often the case in such matters, got bounced from department to department. Finally, he was on the line with the US Customs office at JFK Terminal 4. Our company office was pin drop silent. Everyone’s focus was on my boss as he explained that his British colleague may have left his passport with a customs officer. Finally he looked up, “They are going to check.” It was a very long few minutes. The only sound in the office was my heart forming a dance track bass line.

I was planning the conversation I was about to have with my wife in my head. The colour still hadn’t returned to my face. I went over everything that I could recall from the time I landed. I was convinced I had given my passport, but I just couldn’t remember taking it back. After an eternity of perhaps four minutes, my boss said “Yes, I’m still here. Uh huh. I see. I understand. Well thank you for helping, I will pass you over to my colleague who lost his passport.” My heart sank a little further.

I took the phone and put it to my ear. “Uhhh.” I said. “Sorry, I mean hi.”
“Hello sir, is your name Peter Duncan Claridge.”
Cough. “Yes, it is.”
“OK, we have your passport at the US Customs office in Terminal Four.”
The relief washed over me. Colour returned to my face and my entire body language changed in that single moment. I still couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing though. “You actually have my passport?”
“Yes, that’s correct”

found passport meme

The conversation went on but it does not matter. My passport was safe and even more importantly I was going home for Christmas. I never had to tell my wife that I nearly abandoned her over the biggest holiday of the year and my office manager would never hold this moment over my head for as long as I lived.

On the day of my departure, I turned up to the US Customs office at Terminal Four arrivals, handed over my ID and they handed it back along with my passport. The whole transaction took just minutes.

In the days that followed the discovery of my passport, I knew I had to concoct a story to explain myself. When I arrived back in Chennai and headed to the office the following day, my office manager caught up with me. “Pete, you didn’t think I’d never find out about what you did? Always losing your things, why are you not more careful, I will kill you if you lose anything like this again.”

I smiled, it was a confident smile. I had had the 18 hour flight back from New York to figure out my story. “Look,” I said, in my kindest voice, “It was not like my passport was ever lost,” I put my hand up to stop her interrupting. “I was merely keeping it safe at the airport until I had to leave. Not many people know that US Customs allows you to deposit your passport when you arrive. I mean, how stressed do people get about where their passport is when they are travelling? This way you don’t have any stress, it’s simple. Hand it over to an armed customs officer, they lock it in a safe in their office and when you are ready to leave, pick it up at the airport and go to your check-in. No hassle, no tension and no worries. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of this option? It makes total sense, right?”

My office manager looked at me with a quizzical eye. She then punched me on the arm, announced that she will kill me and went to tell my team the whole story. I think she bought it?

However, now you know the true story, the one that I told my wife. It’s a heartfelt thanks to the community manager running the @JFKAirport twitter account who was so quick to respond and gave us the numbers to call. Without Twitter, I may have been in the doghouse for the rest of 2017. Thank you, JFK, for saving my Christmas!

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Incidentally, that’s exactly the reaction I got from my wife when I suggested we forgo a trip the Great Barrier Reef and go to Uluru instead while on our Australia holiday.

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