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God Bless Cantankerous Old Men
Posted on Aug 1, 2011
When A.J. was thrown out of his little garret in July of 2001, he did not exist on paper. He was an unknown quantity to the earmarkers of the state, and he liked this fact. But it posed a question: The owner of the building, an old man who happened to realize in the bubble economy that he had a pile of money in the four floors of his brownstone, offered A.J. a cut of the proceeds from the sale. The owner had known A.J. most of his life and felt bad about evicting him. Total cut was $50,000—for A.J., an enormous sum. But to receive the gift, A.J. would have to acquiesce to an existence on paper; the money couldn’t just be handed over in cash; it would wait for him in a bank account, and to claim the account, he needed identification. So how to get the money? A.J. had never paid taxes, never voted, never been fingerprinted or had a credit card or a driver’s license or a Social Security card or any other official identification.
“I lived under the radar, and it’s going to stay that way,” he said. “I’ve seen enough of what the government can do when it gets its hands on your identity. You give that up, you might as well march down to the police station and tell ’em to get it over with and arrest you now, and they’ll say, ‘Well, why?’ and you’ll say, ‘You got my identity. You’ll find a reason to arrest me soon enough.’ ”
“You need I.D. to live in this world,” I told him. I had the odd feeling, saying the words, that I was actually a tape-recorded message, and I immediately apologized.
“This world,” he said. “Which world? I’ve known people my whole life and we never knew each other’s last names, and we were good friends and kept it that way. The people who weren’t your closest and most intimate didn’t want to know those things and I knew there was something as knowing too much about a person, and that could get you killed. There were people whose faces I knew, and that was it. And they knew my face, and that was it – it was the trust between us.”
A.J. spat on the sidewalk and said, “Now it’s all about getting your identity down to a science. Devices to track you down and track you out. Everywhere now. The cellphone? Tracking device. This Internet thing? Tracking device. Credit cards, Metrocards, EZ-Passes, bank accounts, saving accounts, mortgages—all keeping a record.”
I laughed at him as paranoid, but this was years before the country learned about the government’s data-mining of exactly those kinds of records.
A.J. never took the $50,000. The price of going on the radar was too much. When he finally parted from my father’s basement, he ended up finding another basement, this one in the Brooklyn brownstone of an old drunkard lady, happy and cursing, who puts him to work keeping the house from falling down.
Christopher Ketcham, a freelance journalist in New York City, writes for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, GQ and many other magazines. Find more of his work at www.christopherketcham.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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