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 out smartly.
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 time.
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.