As if the year didn’t already suck badly enough, my wallet with all my ID and credit cards was stolen out of my purse at a favorite family restaurant. I didn’t notice. The credit card companies detected fraud within an hour and a half, but by that time, “I,” or, rather, a fiscal facsimile of “I,” had rung up $180 in Bay Area Rapid Transit tickets, $700 at gas station convenience stores, and close to $2,000 in athletic shoes.
And as I spent hours on hold filing police reports and insurance claims, I fell into a dream. A philosophical, perhaps spiritual, reverie. Somebody (or somebodies) was out there in the world, using my identity. I felt a small frisson of curiosity when I thought of it. Other people masquerading as me for nefarious purposes. If somebody else was “Me,” what a damn relief, because then, for a moment, I didn’t have to be.
What a week. My accounts were frozen, my checks destroyed. I wasn’t supposed to drive without a license (though I did anyway). And I spent hours on the phone dealing with the theft.
The hold music for the bank’s Fraud Division was one step down from elevator Muzak. Every twenty seconds a voice interrupted the scratchy renditions of bad seventies songs: “Hello!” (then a brief pause), “Please continue to hold for an operator. Your call is very important to us!” Every time that recording said “Hello,” my adrenaline surged.
So because I couldn’t focus on anything else, I spun metaphor and pondered identity. Who was I, anyway, without my ID and buying power? There was a lesson here about Power and Society, Class, Racial Construct, Education, and Privilege, but that’s not what intrigued me most. No, I was fascinated by that reaction I’d had, the thrill of not having to be “Me” anymore, if only for a few hours.
I am a product of this celebrity-driven individualistic society, and of a family that celebrates accomplishment. So, a big part of me yearns to be Seen! Recognized! Famous! Admired! Notorious! This is the performer “Me,” the exhibitionist, the self-promoter who wore roller skates and pasties to high school parties, did performance art naked in ’80s San Francisco, sang and danced on the night streets of Japan. This is the part of me that explores my life and psyche publicly in this column, checks my website stats daily, compulsively Googles my name. Am I famous yet? No, damn it! Well then, how about . . . known? And if I’m anonymous, do I really exist?
Yet, the older I get the more I realize the fame I crave is like a costume, a slinky dress and heels to wear to a party for a few hours. I want a fame I can take off, then slide into something more comfortable, something more fluid, something less rigidly “Me.”
Perhaps from my father, the world’s last living Stalinist, I learned the importance of living stealthily in plain view. To be clean, invisible, and unsuspected, a Sleeper Cell of One for the Revolution. In the mid-nineties, I drove a mid-eighties maroon Honda Accord. “Great for committing crimes!” I’d say. “I can rob a bank, and they’ll say, ‘The getaway car is a maroon Honda Accord,’ and the police will look around, guns drawn, maroon Honda Accords everywhere and I’ll get away!” Not that I robbed a bank. Not that I wanted to. But I liked driving below the radar.
This “Me” still tries to live this way a little bit, following the law now, but ready to act should the Revolution come. I keep my FasTrak toll-pay responder in its little Mylar bag when I’m not going over a bridge so the traffic cameras can’t track my movements. I keep enough space on my credit cards that I could, presumably, cash it all in and flee to a country without extradition, and have enough money for a year or so.
This is lame thinking, I know. It’s not easy to disappear without a trace (I’ve done the research). I carry a satellite-tracked cell phone. They’d stop my cards before I got all my advances. Real expected-fugitives hold Swiss or off-shore bank accounts and collect diamonds; gold is too heavy, monetary systems crash, but diamonds always have value. I have no diamonds. And I drive a black Mini Cooper with a personalized license plate. Real anonymous. If I parked in front of, say, Good Vibrations and a friend drove by, they’d know I was up to something spicy.
And really, by pretending to be a firm, upstanding citizen all these years, I’ve become (despite romantic Che Guevara-induced fantasies) exactly that: a firm, upstanding, middle-class, professional, largely-self-centered, comfortable-in-my-rut, Citizen.
Still, this week as I sat on the molded-plastic chairs at the DMV (“Now serving J18 at Window 21,”) I considered the metaphors that “My identity is missing” and “I am on hold” and “I am in line” and “I am waiting my turn” and “I have been given provisional credit” elicited in me.
I, I, I, Me, Me, Me. If I wasn’t “Me,” my face lined by the scars of my personality, my credit score (wonderfully high!) established, my family and social ties deep and wide, who would I be?
I’d study baboons or elephants in the jungle, walk on coals, work in a hospice, achieve enlightenment in an ashram. I’d put my family into deep freeze while I run off for a while to live in Italy with a beautiful man — not my husband — or maybe a beautiful woman who’d whisper to me in words I wouldn’t understand. All these fantasies, typical as they may be, have one thing in common. They’re free of ambition, of identity, of the need to Succeed. They’re pure experience. They don’t require an identity as mother, daughter, wife, teacher, writer. They don’t require me to be “Me.”
My number at the DMV finally came up. (“Now serving F27 at Window 22.”) I paid my $21, signed my form for a replacement driver’s license.
“Do you want to take a new photo, or use the one on file?” the man serving me asked.
I thought about it. A new identity. “Use the one on file,” I said. “It’s not completely flattering, but it could be a lot worse.”
The same can be said for the rest of my identity.