Thursday, December 7, 2006

My Identity Crisis: A True Story, Mostly

I’ve heard about people having an identity crisis, but I never thought I would be one of them. I knew I was a left-handed retired steelworker, and that if I had more money I’d be called eccentric. But given the usual state of my bank account let’s just say I’m a little goofy. Wasn’t searching for myself or my real identity, or anything like a metaphysical awaking. But with a simple thing like filing my income taxes, I discovered I really wasn’t who I thought I was.

It started thirty-eight years ago when I was a young lad of sixteen. A young dumb lad. When I got my driver’s license, I gave the wrong birth date. Most kids learn their birth date early on, but I guess accuracy wasn’t very important to me at the time. Got the month and year right, September 1952, but was one day off. I was born the 26th, but gave the 25th. Simple enough mistake, and two out of three isn’t so bad. It was a mistake I rectified when I registered for the military draft when I was eighteen. The lottery system had just been implemented, and I wanted to make sure that if I got called up that it would be on my official birthday, and not a bogus date.

But the birth date continued to be wrong on my driver’s license. Was going to change it, but the driver’s license people told me that it wasn’t a big deal, they only used the birth date for an expiration date. So I thought no more about it. That is, until I tried to file my taxes electronically.

Modern technology is a wonderful thing. There are cell phones you can play arcade games on, surveillance cameras everywhere, and a vast computer network with everyone’s personal and financial information only a keystroke away. And it’s that vast computer network that finally caught up with my thirty four year old mistake. On my tax return was my correct birth date. On my social Security records was my incorrect birth date. Had I been double dumb thirty-four years ago and gave social security the wrong birth date also? Evidently, for the electronic tax filing cross-referenced the information with my social security records and everything was rejected.

My wife does our taxes on the computer. She’s good at it, and she thinks it’s fun. But we all have our quirks. She called social security and they said that I had to take a copy of my birth certificate to their office and have everything corrected. That was a simple enough thing to do to correct an old mistake.

Went to city hall, and it cost six dollars for one copy, two for nine dollars. Never could resist a bargain, so I got two. Then went directly to the social security office, turned in the birth certificate, was told it would take a few days and everything would be changed, corrected, legal and kosher. I drove home with a good feeling. Usually these kinds of things are much more involved than this. For once, I’d gotten off easy.

As soon as I got home, my wife called me back to our computer room. “Social Security just called. Your birth certificate is wrong,” she said.
“Real funny. All those comedians out of work, and you’re being funny!” I said.
“The lady said your birth certificate is wrong,” she repeated.
Aha! I got out my copy of the certificate, brandished it in front of her nose with my finger firmly pointing to the birth date. “See! The right birth date! September 26th, 1952!”
But in the confident voice of a person that knew they were right she said, “It’s not the birth date that’s wrong. It’s the name.”

I read the information on the certificate:


That would be correct if I had been named after my father, but I wasn’t. I was led to believe that I had been named ALAN FORREST BEGGEROW. Couldn’t believe what I was reading. Here I was, a man with a driver’s license that had the right name on it but the wrong birth date, and a birth certificate with the right date on it but the wrong name. I had never noticed before, and no one else had when I applied for my pension or marriage license. It took an efficient employee at social security to catch it and she didn’t catch it right away. So another trip to city hall was called for, but it was 4:45 on Friday afternoon. I didn’t have enough time to get there before closing. So it would have to wait for Monday morning.

When there is a problem in your life, you can depend on your friends to help pull you through. I not only told people about the situation, but I had to show the incorrect certificate for them to believe it. They started to give me moral support. Someone started to call me ‘Willie’, and demanded to know what I did with Alan. Another put forth the theory that I had really been born a set of twins, and in a fit of jealous rage I’d slain the smarter, good-looking one. Another wondered if I was legally married because I’d gotten the marriage certificate with a false document. Yet another had the idea that since my house mortgage and bills were in Alan’s name, and since Alan was not the name on my birth certificate, I might be able to get by without paying any of my bills. Let ‘em look for some guy named Alan! It’s always good to have friends.

When I got to city hall the following Monday, the clerks couldn’t believe it. One of them had been working there a long time, and couldn’t remember ever seeing the wrong name on a birth certificate. I really wasn’t very fond of being so unique, so I asked what I needed to do to correct it. They referred me to a higher authority: The County Court House. They assured me that the county clerk could take care of it with no problem. I was beginning to have my doubts. This was turning into way too much of an adventure to believe that there was a simple fix.

So off I went to the County Clerk’s Office. I had been advised to take along anything that could be used as a form of identification, so I was well prepared. I had insurance cards, credit cards, my old Mickey Mouse Club badge, my driver’s license, (with the wrong date on it) and my birth certificate (with the wrong name on it).

The clerk at the courthouse listened to my story, looked at the birth certificate and my driver’s license more than once. Her eyes went from one to the other as if she were watching game point at a tennis match. Finally she suggested we call the state capitol, Springfield Illinois. Perhaps the records were wrong at city hall but correct at the capitol. She told me as she dialed the phone to keep my fingers crossed. A bad omen if I ever heard one.

But the finger crossing worked. The records in Springfield were correct. They would send a copy to the country courthouse. She asked if I would like the copy sent to my house, and I agreed. She asked me if I wanted more than one copy. I replied, “Let me guess. Six dollars for one, nine dollars for two?” She assured me I guessed correctly, so I took advantage of the bargain again. The copies would be in my mailbox in two weeks. But curiosity got the best of me. “What if the records in Springfield were wrong?" I asked.
“Then it would be up to you to prove who you are,” she replied.
“Just how would I go about doing that?” I asked as I looked at my drivers’ license and false certificate.
“Oh, you’d probably have to go in front of a judge,” she said. I wondered if the judge would have accepted my Mickey Mouse Club badge as a form of identification, and wondered whom I could get to vouch for my identity. Surely not some of my ‘friends’, that’s for sure. “Let’s just say you dodged a bullet on this one,” she said as she smiled. I agreed, and left the courthouse.

After two weeks of being called ‘Willie’ by an increasing number of people, the correct birth certificates arrived. I checked them. Everything was correct. Even had an official stamp from the county clerk with his signature to verify their authenticity. So I took the copies and headed for the social security office. They remembered me at the social security office. For them to remember one person from two weeks prior, after all the other people that had been in the office, verified that I was truly unique. But it was time for me to lose that uniqueness. I turned over the certificate. The lady behind the window said, “We have to send a field representative to Springfield to verify the records. It will be about three weeks before the information is corrected.”
I pointed to the official seal and signature of the county clerk and said, “But look!”
Patiently she said, “Yes I see, but the procedure of the social security administration requires one of our field representatives to do a physical check of the records in Springfield. It will be about three weeks before the information is corrected, whereupon we will send you a new social security card and a written verification that the record has been changed. Thank you. Next number, please!”

End of discussion. Willie would still be my ghostly alter ego a while longer. I got to know him very well and I came to the conclusion that Willie was a bum. He didn’t bring home a paycheck, didn’t own any property, couldn’t get him to do a lick of work around the house. But he sure could eat. But I was confident that Willie’s days were numbered. After four weeks I got the letter stating that my information at social security had been changed, and after another two weeks I got my new card. I didn’t think it would be changed within the three weeks that social security said. When you’re dealing with bureaucracy, you tend to take their timetables with a grain of salt.

We e-filed the taxes, and they were accepted. Willie had been exiled to the nether world from whence he came. I showed a copy of the new birth certificate to everyone, especially the ‘friends’ that still called me Willie. Some people even asked if I was going to hold funeral services for him. I assured them that Willie wasn’t worth the time, effort or expense. A harsh judgment perhaps, but that’s the way I felt.

I have kept a copy of the incorrect birth certificate. People have enough occasions to label me a stretcher of the truth, but not this time. I’ve got the proof for posterity. Years from now when there will be no doubt a more sophisticated method of identifying people, humans of that future era will look at the record keeping we used way back when and no doubt wonder how we kept anything straight. I’m of the present era, and I wonder the same thing.

We all have skeletons in our closet, but a miss-recorded birth date surely isn’t an entire skeleton. More like a single finger bone. But it was a pain to resolve. So the only advice I have is that everyone should double-check his or her ‘vital’ statistics. We can’t do anything about the modern information access age, but we can make sure that the information is correct. For remember, you too may have a doppelganger like Willie, just waiting to be brought to life.

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