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Judith Larsen is a District lawyer.
Ironically, all the names in this story about names have been changed to protect the privacy of the subjects.
Is identity a name?
Consider Marty, who sometimes lived in a car. It was her mother’s car, really. Years ago it had been abandoned about eight blocks from Clifton Terrace in Northwest, and Marty’s mother had taken up residence in it. When Marty and her son and daughter had no other place to go, they would spend a night in the car with her mother.
Marty was in love with a local pimp. To anyone else he was ridiculous: a small man, swaggering, with loud suits, big-brimmed hats, a gold watch on a chain, and shiny shoes. He called himself Pierre du Temps. His invented history, including Parisian parents, was quite different from his rap sheet, which recorded extended time at Lorton.
Pierre du Temps was the father of Marty’s children; of that, Marty was convinced. She did a lively business as a prostitute, but she had complete command of the details. She would know a thing like who the father of her children was. Marty’s mother had turned her over to Pierre to learn the trade when Marty was 12. Marty never got over Pierre. But he was disgusted by the thought of a woman who would sleep in a car, and he no longer wanted anything to do with her. He had long ago dropped her from his roster of girls.
Marty and I were struggling through the details of one of her legal cases when she suddenly said to me that she wanted to change the names of her children. She wanted her son to be called Pierre du Temps, and her daughter to be called Pierrette du Temps.
I was a little embarrassed. “Pierrette?”
Marty had stars in her eyes. If she couldn’t have Him, her children could have Him, forever. “Can you do this?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “It can be done.” Marty kept after me. She was unshakable. So we changed the children’s names. At first I would slip up and call them by their perfectly good former names—but Marty would snap at me. “It’s Pierrette,” she would say, with a dark stare. “Call her Pierrette du Temps.”
An anxious moment occurred when the mother of Pierre du Temps—the children’s grandmother—appeared in court. She was making a stand for decency, trying to wrest the children away from their incapable parents. She was definitely not Parisian. Her name was Mrs. Gray. When the court clerk asked the parties to introduce themselves, and her son jauntily called out, “Pierre du Temps,” Mrs. Gray could not withhold her dismay.
She said, “I don’t know who this Pierre du Temps is, your honor. When did my son start calling himself Pierre du Temps? I named him Toby Gray, and, as far as I am concerned, he is Toby Gray today.
“I think how he got started on this Pierre du Temps business is that I used to have some perfume called L’Air du Temps. When he was a boy he would watch me put on L’Air du Temps. And now look at him. He’s named himself after a perfume!”
Marty was tense and excited during this exchange. The judge looked hard at Pierre and announced that the court would take a short recess. He called the marshal over, whispered in his ear, and then asked the parties not to leave the courtroom while he went to his chambers.
When the judge returned he was grave. He looked right at Pierre and said, “I agree with your mother. I have researched the record and discovered that you are in fact Toby Gray, and there is a bench warrant out for your arrest. Step back with the marshal, Mr. Gray.”
We were silent as we watched Toby Gray being steered out the back door in handcuffs. Out of the side of my eyes I saw Marty’s body shaking. Alarmed, I reached out to catch her, but saw that she was laughing. She was right in the middle of what she saw as a Life Joke. She whispered loudly to me, “Then who are my children?”
That was hard to answer. What did Marty have but this invented life? A few scraps of clothes and a night’s lodging in a car. All else was mutable: a man who did not love her and whose name she did not know, children with romantic names that scarcely fit their destinies, and no idea where her next meal would come from.
Marty’s children remained Pierre and Pierrette du Temps—perhaps the only ones now to bear that name. Sadly for Marty, she was unable to share in their growing up, as a car was not thought by the judge to be the best environment for rearing children. While little Pierre and Pierrette tackled their studies, went to summer camp, and reveled in childhood under someone else’s care, Marty’s life diminished. Knife scars dimmed her lively beauty, diseases riddled her body, drugs muddled her mind.
Somewhere on the long slide down, Marty needed official confirmation of her birth. A hospital social worker helped Marty obtain her birth certificate. For the first time, Marty held in her hands evidence, formal evidence, of her existence. There was her name—not Marty but:
This her mother had never told her. Why? Could her mother have forgotten? Or perhaps a doctor misunderstood the answer when he asked, “What name shall I put down?” Who knows? With this lucky stroke, Marty was born again. She felt different. She felt better. She felt like who she always really was. Monique du Temps, perhaps?
Not all possessions on the street are words. Some people tote their identity around in a little pack, as a turtle does. For instance, Carrie.
I tracked Carrie down at the respite center for terminally ill homeless women. I pulled a chair next to her cot. “Carrie, it’s so good to see you again,” I said softly, so that the women in nearby beds couldn’t hear me. “I’ve been looking all over D.C. for you.”
“They took my purse.” Her voice was bitter.
“In D.C. General. I know who done it.” Carrie turned to look at me, the old familiar fire in her eyes. “The woman who comes in to clean. She done it.”
“When did this happen?”
“Three weeks ago. I don’t have my Social Security card, my ID, nothing. It’s all gone.”
We looked helplessly at each other. Carrie’s world was in her purse. She had no other possessions. It is almost impossible for someone with no address and no money to put together an official identity. Even if you are lucky enough to have someone to drive you from office to far-flung office, you always need the document you don’t yet have to prove who you are. Without an official picture ID, Carrie couldn’t get a Social Security card or food stamps. But in order to get an official picture ID from the police department, she would need a Social Security card and a certified birth certificate. Each stop required her to trek to a different corner of the city, and now she was so sick that there was no way she could make the rounds to re-establish her official identity.
A dozen years ago, in the early days of our acquaintance, we had tried to persuade a judge that in order for Carrie to collect all of these documents, sign up for welfare, and obtain housing, she needed money for bus tokens. It would take many days and many buses, we said, to crisscross the city from agency to agency.
The judge refused to order money for bus tokens, then explained his decision: “It appears to me that she is poor, and always will be poor. I don’t want to sound cold-hearted, but she had better get used to it.”
Carrie, insulted, yelled, “You can’t get any kind of justice here,” and stalked out of the courtroom. I excused myself as soon as I could and followed her into the hall.
While Carrie was still simmering, the judge’s clerk came out and said, “The judge will wait in the courtroom a few more minutes to receive your apology.” We stared at the clerk, dumbfounded. No way would Carrie apologize for something truly spoken from her heart, whatever the legal consequences. She was poor, yes, and would always be poor, probably, but there was never any getting used to being poor. It was…well, deeply discourteous to talk about poverty like that.
Carrie left the court that day never to return.
So the day I visited her at the respite center, Carrie and I sat gloomily together on her cot. After a while, she said, “Look. I got this.” She pulled an envelope out of the drawer in the small cotside table. It was a letter addressed to her at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter. A letter with an address is gold on the street. Sometimes the Social Security office will accept a letter addressed to you in lieu of photo ID to prove your identity. (They don’t accept birth certificates, which are considered too easy to buy or fake.) I looked curiously at the envelope. It came from the Metropolitan Police Department.
“May I look inside?”
“Go ahead.” Carrie and I knew, after all these years, that she didn’t read. She knew how to look as if she were reading, but she didn’t bother to play that game today. Life gets more simple when you are dying. I slipped the official form out of the envelope.
“Carrie! It’s from Missing Property. They have something of yours. Do you think it could be your purse?”
Fifteen minutes later I was in my car, puzzling over the address and the map. I headed across the Anacostia River, by Good Hope Road SE, and up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Near the Anacostia Metro station, I drove in an ever-tightening spiral, fruitlessly trying to locate the address. Giving up on that, I finally tried to find a building that looked police-connected. That worked. There it was, for sure, a structure that looked like the offspring of a warehouse and a prison. Even the parking lot filled with mismatched cars looked menacing. Which of two mean, lowering doors should I enter? I waited a few minutes to see where people were going in and out. No one was going in or out.
Trying first one door and then the next, I made my way into a narrow hall. There were two small windows covered with wire mesh. Five or six police officers gathered in back, joking, talking. Impassively, one separated himself from the group to see what I wanted. After a half-hour’s vigorous advocacy of my right to claim the purse on Carrie’s behalf, I walked out with a big drawstring bag that was as heavy as my briefcase.
By now I had been animated by Carrie’s feeling that the purse was the heartbeat, the engine that would make further life possible. Gingerly, I carried it back to the respite center and handed it to a now-blissful Carrie. She invited me to sit on her cot as each precious item was laid out, stroked, its history told. The handful of official documents that she had received during her life were there—mostly court summonses and welfare notices; there were combs and cloths to help wash and groom on the street, and school pictures of Carrie’s children. The photo ID and Social Security card held pride of place, for they were the keys to the kingdom. Carrie pored over them, reading her past, divining her future.
Twenty-four hours later a nun called to say that Carrie had walked out of the respite center, headed for parts unknown, purse in hand.
But lack of an official identity can be a good thing on the street, a way to catch your breath while ducking reality. It may be easier to find your next meal in a garbage can than to hand over to a hard-eyed bureaucrat your real name and your privacy.
Buta taught me that.
The court interpreter pointed her out. “They asked me to come down and talk to her because they thought she was speaking Spanish, but she’s not,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t know what she speaks. Hungarian?”
Buta sat quite alone among the buzzing, weeping, angry families in the court waiting room. I sat down next to her and said hello. Her eyes did not meet mine. I felt her will herself away. “Hello,” I said again, trying to take her measure with my eyes. Latina? Long black hair; a ripe, plump shape; a pink blouse and flowery skirt; maybe in her 30s. Her expression was frozen.
“Yo no hablo español,” I tried.
Her glance was so swift I almost didn’t catch it. She took my measure!
“Gwish ta bluka sempuli tra,” she replied.
“Pardon me?” But her eyes were straight ahead, jaw set. “I’m your lawyer. The judge asked me to help you in court. Do you know what’s happening here today? Do you speak English?”
“Tra da lapa dent o bitsy kay.” Gypsy? I wondered.
So began my two-year partnership with Buta, a vibrant nomadic woman who chose to be from nowhere, with nothing but an invented language to her name. Her name, did I say? Buta. A made-up name. Perhaps to throw people off the track, to lead them away from the secret place where she really was.
Buta lived in a House of Ruth shelter, and then the great, echoing, anonymous Community for Creative Non-Violence, and then someplace else, and then another place. When I, tied to the formalities of court process, tracked her down at each new home, she hid in a shower stall or pressed against a dark wall in the hope that I would pass her by. When found, her eyes would be wild and she would hurl words, trying to ward me off. “Blah ta menski toopen tay.” I bit my nails and worried.
The heart of my concern was this: Who was Buta? I did not know if she knew who she “really” was. Was I defending an actual person or some aspect of a person, a sort of personality? Should I assume that she was sick because I could not understand her? Or did she have a right to be obscure, private, and strange?
Casting about for answers, I encountered a paper written in the late ’80s by James W. Voell, M.D., who was at that time chair of the Washington Psychiatric Society’s Committee on the Homeless. He had met people like Buta in the shelters over and over. She was characteristic of one kind of mentally ill homeless person. For Buta, language was magical, and she used it defensively. It was a wall behind which she maintained a small garden of privacy. With an invented, impenetrable language, she could raise a barrier against the “helpers,” whom she perceived as hostile powers intent on controlling her world. “Language for the chronic mentally ill becomes their security object,” said Voell. “They are fearful that power given over to others will only lead to betrayal and abuse.”
Somehow I found a crevice in Buta’s language wall. It didn’t let me enter her garden of privacy, but it did permit me to have exchanges with her that were nearly comprehensible. Within two months, we conversed quite amiably.
“Buta, would you like to have some breakfast before court?”
“Tokay tenderblonz jah bimbi.”
“OK. We’ll get a good breakfast before we start. Eggs and bacon?”
“Good. And some coffee.”
Colleagues asked, “How do you know what she’s saying?”
“I don’t know how I know. I just know.”
Buta’s trial was held in one of the smallest courtrooms in D.C. Superior Court—a kind of expanded closet. “We’re done in,” I thought. “The judge is sure to catch on that something is deeply amiss.” But Buta was splendid: Her alert expression, the intent way that she listened to each witness, the enthusiasm of her whispered consultations with me seemed to contradict everything that was said about her. Social workers from the various shelters talked about how screwy she was. How unconnected. Yet there was Buta, just beyond the judge’s earshot, actively participating in her defense. The judge leaned over the bench toward us, trying to catch the drift of what was going on.
“Twah tenka toply too.”
“OK. That’s what we’ll do.”
He was clearly puzzled, and although he did not rule in Buta’s favor, her proud manner and her intelligent expression caused him to treat her with respect. So Buta won something.
Puzzled about whether my ethical obligation was to let her drift along being Buta or to connect her with some past identity, I picked up the telephone. Calls across North and Central America revealed that she had been the most charming of three sisters in a large Panamanian family. In those days she was happy Rosa. She married an American serviceman, and they had two children. One day when she was bicycling with her children, she took a spill. Her behavior became increasingly weird from that time on, “although really,” one sister said, “she might have been changing all along, and we might not have noticed.”
Husband had a short fuse. Rosa’s odd new ways shamed him. He packed the children up and moved to California, then divorced her long-distance. Rosa drifted from Panama to the U.S. with her mother and sisters. She obtained and then flung over two or three jobs, spent months in psychiatric wards, and finally moved to the street, becoming Buta. Her mother and sisters could not understand either her ways or her words.
Should I force help on Buta? I hesitated, but finally called the former husband’s California household in search of insurance money to cover prospective psychiatric costs. The telephone was answered in English by a fresh-voiced teen-ager. My courage failed. I knew I was in a place where I should not be. Gently, I apologized for reaching the wrong number, and hung up.
I stopped my quest there. I felt enough in touch with Buta’s wishes to know that she would repulse help. My advocacy must serve her wishes.
The last time I saw Buta I was driving up North Capitol Street about 6 a.m. There, between Florida and Rhode Island Avenues, Buta moved luxuriously across the street in front of my car. She was glowing; she was dressed in fabrics of many colors that rippled in the breeze. The rising sun backlit her. She was smiling and talking to a man at the edge of the road. I rolled down the window and leaned my head toward them as I passed, trying to catch the drift of what they were saying.
Are we who the records say we are? Or who we say we are?
I know a woman whose baby son was found in a wastebasket. She hadn’t meant to abandon him, but at the last moment she got scared—she was a teen-ager at the time—and when she suddenly was seized by labor she ducked into a public lavatory, gave birth, and gently laid the baby on top of a heap of paper towels. Then she fled. Within 10 minutes she rushed back in—but the baby had been discovered, and while she was trying to claim him, the police arrived.
Baby was rushed off to one hospital, and mother to another. Somehow the names got all mixed up. Baby’s birth certificate listed as his name just a pastiche of sounds: Dwond Gread.
The certificate said that his mother’s name was Sarah Grande.
Actually, mother’s name was Sarena Grant, and she had named her son Dion Grant. Perhaps the odd names on the birth certificate were an encryption of what a policewoman heard from a frightened teen-ager in a public lavatory. When Sarena and Dion were reunited, she was too exhausted to raise any objection. She just wanted to get out of there and begin all over again with her son. Years went by, and Dion grew sturdily and happily in Sarena’s large, loving, extended family.
But then came the time when the birth certificate had to be shown. It was strange how clerks in offices thought that the real people were in the birth certificate, not in the radiant folk who stood before them. They did not recognize Dion as their citizen, and would not extend any services to him. They demanded to meet Dwond Gread and Sarah Grande.
Sarena went round and round to the hospitals, the vital records bureau, schools, and social service agencies, saying, in effect, “Look at the evidence of my life. See how tender we are with each other. Listen to the stories that my brothers and parents tell about Dion growing up among them”—to no avail.
At the vital records bureau, Sarena was told, “We don’t decide who people really are—we just put whatever name the hospital gives us into the birth certificate. And we can’t change the birth certificate unless the hospital gives us a different name.” The hospital staff had no actual memory of the baby and mother. They had only the official memory in the form of the erroneous names—multiplied across all of their lab reports, nursing notes, and bills. That was good enough for the hospitals. Their own records proved to their satisfaction who people really were.
Sarena was in agony. Each time, she had to relive her Great Mistake, describe the police, the ambulance, and how it happened that she and her son ended up in different hospitals, and why she had been too shy to challenge the certificate, and how it was that she had pushed the nightmare away for years. But it was Sarena’s passion to join Dion to his identity. It was that heart’s desire that made her throw the covers aside each morning and trot out into the world to face down the cold looks, the churchiness of people who had never messed up in a public way. One day she had accumulated so many pieces of paper and photographs and testimonials, such a grand collage of shared events, that the city gave up. The birth certificate was changed to state:
At long last she had forced congruity between person and paper.
Her idea became the ID.