Without a paper trail, you ain’t nobody

“Papers, papers, you must show your papers.”

“You have no papers? You’re under arrest.”

The scene always seems to take place in some country that features busy bazaars with lots of unshaven guys trying to make deals and the police using high-pitched whistles to signal that someone is trying to get away. I think Humphrey Bogart might have been in the scene at least once.

It’s all about the papers, the documents _ the things that identify and verify and let people move on to where they want to go.

Now, right here in the United States, where paper-free passage used to be taken for granted, people are discovering that it is best to carry proof of personal existence.

Consider Zach Giallongo. He has fallen into the paper void. He can’t get one paper for lack of another.

Giallongo is 26 and lives in Providence, R.I., and is a teacher and director of the after-school program at Friends Academy in Dartmouth. He is also an illustrator and comic book writer and he just might be living his next piece of work.

Officially, Giallongo did mess up in maintaining proof positive that he does in fact exist under the name Zach Giallongo. When he moved to Rhode Island from Massachusetts and went to get a driver’s license, his Massachusetts’ license had expired. And that is part of the tale.

When he went to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, he was told he had to have a Social Security card to get a license. Like probably most of the adult population of the United States, he has a Social Security number but doesn’t carry a card. He thinks that in his parents’ recent move from Massachusetts to Indiana, his card might have gone with them. He called. They couldn’t find it.

So he went to get a new Social Security card. He went to the office in New Bedford, Mass., figuring it might be helpful to be in the state in which he was born. He went with his birth certificate. He figured it made him official. He was told he needed a picture ID. He presented his driver’s license. He was told it had expired.

“I said ‘I know, that’s why I need a Social Security card.’ ”

And so it has gone as Giallongo slips into the identity void. You need this to get that. And you need that to get this.

When he drives to work, he keeps his speed under 60.

“I just hope I don’t get pulled over,” he says. Because that would mean, of course, having to explain why he doesn’t have a current driver’s license and that would be a story not well told on the shoulder of Route 195.

On one trip to the DMV, he took two bills, a copy of his lease and his Selective Service card. He even had his Social Security number, just not the card.

It was his complete “This is who I am” presentation. And it wasn’t enough.

He took a mad leap. He tried to appeal to reason, to common sense, as in “Look, it’s obvious this is who I am and all I want … ”

It didn’t work. He was told about Homeland Security, the Patriot Act and identity theft.

He learned that this is no time not to have your papers in order. He learned that it is difficult, maybe impossible, to just talk out the problem. These are times when fear and suspicion often determine official policy, and the requirements to prove identity are not negotiable.

Others will share Giallongo’s experience. People who are absolutely sure who they are will come up against some roadblock to getting through the day. And they will discover that it is no longer enough to know who they are. They’re going to have to be able to prove it.

(Bob Kerr is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Email bkerr(at)projo.com.)

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