Somewhere in the world there’s another guy with my exact name and
birth date whom the authorities would like to ask a few questions. How
do I know? For the last five years, each time I’ve returned to the
United States from an annual trip to Europe with my friends, the U.S.
Customs – now part of the newly created Department of Homeland
Security – has sent me "down the hall" to a room with cheap carpeting,
a few folding metal chairs, and plasterboard walls decorated with the
iconography of select fugitives.
The first time it happened, in February, 2002, we were returning from
a gustatory bravura in Italy’s Piedmont region. Five months earlier,
air travel had taken on profoundly grim possibilities. At the
airports, a wariness bordering on paranoia informed the stern looks
and rapid glances of officials and travelers alike. Not a good time to
be sent down the hall, even in one’s own country. To make matters
worse, a heavy snow was falling on Newark Airport and I still had to
excavate my car and drive home.
As I sat and waited, my initial reaction was travel-weary annoyance.
Each minute I wasted in this bureaucratic morass, the worse the snow
and traffic would be. Then my ire grew more abstract. Why was I, a
natural-born citizen, an Irish-American kid who grew up in New York
and voluntarily served four years in the Army – the infantry, no less
– being jerked around? But then, just when my anger had begun to
percolate, an officer called me forward with a dull, flat intonation
of my last name, a distinctly military tone that reminded me of mail
call: "Walsh." I took my passport, executed an about face, and moved
The following year, my friends and I enjoyed a sherry-laced excursion
around Andalusia. Once again, an expressionless Customs officer
scanned cryptic data on a computer screen, bundled my passport and
declarations card into a green plastic folder, and told me to go down
the hall to the last door on the right. I waited beside two African
foreign nationals clamoring loudly on cell phones. After five minutes,
I was summoned to the front desk, or rather a small parapet from
behind which three seated officials peered down at me. One of them
stamped my declarations card and tucked it into my passport. As he
handed me the papers that revalidated my liberty and Constitutional
rights, I mentioned how this had happened last year. I received as
reply the first piece of the puzzle: "There’s another guy with your
name who we’d like to talk to."
So, I thought, it was an Irish thing. I bet this fugitive Patrick
Walsh belonged to a three-lettered organization other than the U.S.
Army. I could only think that Customs had their hands full; look up
how many "Walsh, Patrick" listings there are in the phone book some
In February 2004, I was coming home from Corsica after a week of
hiking the island’s rugged hills, as well as partaking heartily of its
local wines and cheeses. While I stood in the Customs check-out and
had my passport swiped like a credit card, I never took my eyes off
the officer. I wanted to scrutinize his reaction, the facial gestures
he made when that screen started flashing its warnings. Would his eyes
widen? Would he smile at having possibly netted one of the F.B.I.’s
most wanted? Nothing. Not even a twitch. Just the passport and
declarations card dropped into a plastic folder (aqua this time) and
off with me to the purgatory of Immigration.
By now I had adopted the same smile and defiant swagger that Steve
McQueen displays on his return to the P.O.W. camp in The Great Escape.
And like the year before, I asked my temporary captors what this was
all about. The gentleman (and that’s what he was) who checked my
credentials kindly informed me that I should probably get used to this
inconvenience: "There’s another man out there who not only has your
name but your exact birthday." While he couldn’t specify what my alter
ego had done or for whom he’d done it, he said that I shouldn’t have
too much trouble figuring it out. And then he winked in a friendly
way, handed me my papers, and wished me well.
The odds that another man shares my birthday as well as name are
higher than average since I’m "Patrick" for a reason: I was born on
St. Patrick’s Day. That my diabolical double also emerged in the same
year as me can only be ascribed to the luck of the Irish.
So now it’s 2005. The group of us went to Provence, where we visited
two master winemakers who also produce gourmet olive oils and honey.
At the end of our Mediterranean idyll we found ourselves back at
J.F.K., descending the escalator from arrivals to the Customs queues,
an administrative level of hell Dante neglected to describe. The line
crawled forward. When it was our turn to approach the processing
booths, I joked to the boys that I’d see them later. But to my
surprise, I found myself actually hoping that I would be temporarily
sundered from my pals – it was usually no more than ten minutes anyway
– because of the implication: another year and my nefarious namesake
was still dodging the net. Another year and "Patrick Walsh" had evaded
the Big Brother-like array of computers, cameras, and checkpoints
spanning the globe. I had begun to root for my alter ego.
And with strangely reassuring dependability, down the hall I went.
This year was no different. After capping off a week of Barcelona’s
mellow climes with a visit to one of the region’s best Cava producers,
the bubbles dissolved, replaced by a conical paper cup of water I
sipped as I waited in the passport screening room. But while the
defenders of homeland security sat upon their dais sorting out the
difference between me and my renegade twin, I began to question my
blind support of this man. Sure, he has my name. He was born on the
very same day as me. We may even be related. Certainly we share a
heritage: he’s either Irish or Irish-American. Like me, he may be
both, a dual citizen, since anyone born to an Irish citizen anywhere
in the world automatically qualifies. But should I really be pulling
for a guy just because we share a few coincidental details of
identity? Isn’t all that really arbitrary?
It’s hard to root against yourself. I’d like to think that he’s a
dedicated freedom fighter who refused to come in from the cold.
But one side’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist: so goes the
platitude. Maybe he’s an entrepreneur of evil. Or maybe, most likely
of all possibilities, he’s nothing so romantic or extreme. Perhaps he
smuggles drugs, he ran a Ponzi scheme, or he’s just a tax-evader.
Tawdry likelihoods are harder to imagine when it’s you – or rather
someone exactly like you in name, age, and ethnicity. A detective’s
mind moves immediately to the sordid. My mind always scripts a movie,
even if it calls for an anti-hero.
I suppose there’s some lesson about taking sides in any cause that can
be drawn from me and my alter ego and our arbitrary similarities. I
only know that next year, when I come home from abroad, I’ll surrender
my passport to a Customs officer whose face will exhibit a grimace of
mild annoyance: portrait of a civil servant. While I wait, I’ll let
one of those new Cycloptic cameras mounted on its flexible stalk
ravish my unique, human countenance. And when the official chucks my
passport into a mauve plastic folder and gives me my marching orders,
I’ll do my best not to grin.
Patrick Walsh’s poetry has frequently appeared in the U.S. 1 Summer
Fiction issue. This is his first published article.