Losing my identity was not in our plan. Mary and I came to the big city to celebrate finishing our books—my psychological thriller and her memoir of love and loss in Zimbabwe. Starving on San Diego’s thin cultural gruel, our reward was to be a week of feasting on New York’s finest art, theater, and music. Hellhole police stations were not on the menu.
When we walked into the 18th Precinct in mid-town Manhattan, my first reaction was visceral—get me out of here.
“Reminds me of Zimbabwe,” Mary said.
The place looked like a bomb had gone off inside it. Sheets of dirty plastic were taped around each of the blown-out windows, creating a grayish light as cheerless as the cinder-block walls and grimy linoleum floor. At the reception counter, a blonde with a Slavic accent was yelling at a round pie-faced guy who looked more like a glum Doughboy than a New York cop.
“My ex is threatening to kill me. Do something,” she cried.
Doughboy gave her a blank stare and a form to fill out. “Hey Lenny, what time is it?” called a woman’s voice from behind him. Turning, he mumbled something then nodded to me.
I strode to the counter, my mouth so dry it was hard to speak. “I lost my wallet yesterday at the Museum of Modern Art. Either I left it in the cafe after lunch, or I was pick-pocketed.”
Looking down at a form, Lenny said, “When did you discover the loss?”
“Yesterday, my friend and I were having dinner at the Palm restaurant in the Theater District,” I spoke in a slow, distinct manner, as the gut-churning scene came rushing back.
It was time to pay for my pricey lamb chop dinner. I reached into my travel purse and felt around for my wallet stuffed with all my cash, three credit cards, my driver’s license, and health cards. I groped the bag’s synthetic interior then dumped out the contents on the table: lipstick, mini-hairbrush, opera glasses, pen, and play tickets. I stared at these items for a few frantic moments. No wallet materialized. I looked up at Mary sitting across from me.
“Can you spring for my dinner? My wallet is missing.”
“Sure,” Mary said. “Could you have left it in the apartment?”
I scoured my memory for the last time I saw the wallet. It was after paying for my lunch of wilted lettuce and curried walnuts. “I must have left it in the café at MOMA.”
“Maybe our nice waitress turned it in, to Lost and Found,” Mary said, ever the optimist.
“Or she’s gleefully spending my five hundred dollars.” Pessimism was the better defense I thought. It minimised disappointment.
“Do you have any proof of your identity?” Lenny said, reading from the form.
My hard-won identity now seemed to depend on a few lousy cards. “All of my identification was in that wallet, but my husband emailed me a photocopy of the first page of my passport.” I showed him the full-color copy. “You can see that’s me, right? Sheila Allisan Sharpe, born in Washington D.C. in the U.S.A.” I looked confident in this photograph from nine years ago. I was smiling, my hair sun-streaked, my skin glowing with a California tan.
“Doesn’t this prove who I am?”
Lenny shrugged. He only had eyes for the form in his hand.
Frustration clotted in my throat. “My husband didn’t FedEx my actual passport because he thought it might get misdirected or lost. He said the police could validate the passport number with the passport registry. If you do that, would this photocopy get me through airport security?”
Lenny looked befuddled. “Now where did your wallet get lost?”
I sighed, enunciating, “The Museum of Modern Art.”
I stared at him, speechless. How could he not know that this world-renowned museum was in his precinct? “It’s about three blocks from here. I just came from there. My wallet wasn’t in their Lost and Found. Luckily, I’d canceled my credit cards before anyone used them.”
He said nothing, and I was seething. This overgrown child, my life in his hands, was now absorbed in folding the form into neat rectangles. Then he unfolded the paper. What was wrong with this kid? To keep from losing it, I put on my psychologist’s hat and regarded him as a challenging new patient.
Was this boy suffering from social anxiety, autism, or a low IQ? He seemed unable to hold a single thought or proceed. Instead, he re-folded the paper in half. Lenny seemed to have a way with paper, but he was hopeless with people. He needed basic guidance.
“What’s the next step?” I encouraged. “I was advised to obtain a report from you.”
Two hours earlier over lunch at Connelly’s Pub, Mary and I had argued about going to the police. Having read hundreds of crime novels featuring corrupt cops, I was wary of the police. With a photocopy of my passport, I believed I could talk my way through airport security. Mary looked down her British nose at my Irish malarkey. A savvy attorney, she dealt in legalities and knew more about airports, she often flown overseas. She said that if I didn’t get through security, we could end up here for days. Even if my husband sent my passport, it might never arrive. I shuddered at the thought of the expenses for hotel rooms, food, transport, and my lost income. I’d capitulated, and here we were in Midtown Hell.
“This is the form.” Lenny proudly held up the half-folded form and pinched his finger and thumb along the top to make a sharp crease.
“What about my case?” the blonde wailed from behind me.
A squat, Hispanic lady with a wild nest of dyed blond hair came around the corner. “I’ll take care of her, Lenny.” She smiled at me, crooked her finger, and I followed her into the cluttered reception cubical behind the counter.
Introducing herself as PA Lopez, a police administrator, she sat next to Lenny behind a desk facing the reception counter. I sat in a cracked vinyl chair that was leaking yellowish stuffing. Through the open door, I could see about eight officers in a large room horsing around like kids—pushing, punching, laughing. No one was doing any work.
The blonde was back at the reception window, sobbing.
“Shouldn’t someone be helping her?” I said.
“Lenny is taking care of her,” Lopez assured me.
Lenny was glued to his laptop, playing a computer game.
Lopez handed me a clipboard with a form to fill out and began something resembling an interview. She wrote on another form, the one carefully folded by Lenny. I lost faith in her when I had to repeat dates, times, and places over and over. Her eyes were glassy, and she kept up a vague smile, as though floating in a sweeter place, far away from this hellhole. I suspected she was high on something—who could blame her?
“Hey, Lenny.” She turned toward him. “What’s the date? December the…?”
“I think it’s September the—”
“Actually, it’s April the 10th, 2018,” I said.
They looked at me, heads cocked. Lopez gave me a loopy grin.
I left the Keystone Cops without a police report and with instructions to call Lopez at 9:00 p.m. or later to get the report’s crucial file number after a supervisor approved her work.
That evening Mary and I went to see Edward Albee’s play, “Three Tall Women.” After we found our theater seats, Mary took off to the loo, as she called it. My straitjacket of a chair reminded me of the drawbacks of being tall. My knees hit the seat in front of me. I squirmed, feeling an inexplicable dread. I distracted myself with studying the program. Glenda Jackson, the great British actress, was playing the central role of a dying, dominating bitch.
I glanced at my watch—almost curtain time. Stragglers were hurrying to their seats, but I saw no sign of Mary. My dread intensified. Something was wrong. Mary might be sick in the loo. Should I check on her? Ridiculous. Surely, she was just stuck in a long line outside the Ladies. But reasonable self-talk had no effect. My heart was racing, my breathing shallow. I felt totally alone, like a small child who’d lost her mother in a strange crowd.
What the hell was wrong with me?
Get a grip. You know what’s wrong; you’re a psychologist for God’s sake. This is a panic attack. Work through it. Step one: Slow your breathing. Step two: Imagine a safe place at home, under the quilt, sandwiched between a loving husband and a devoted dog. Step three: Think. Why are you panicking now? It must have something to do with this piss-awful day. For starters, you have no money—your means of survival in this city is gone; you are totally dependent on Mary, and you have no proof of identity. You lose Mary, and you are no one. Nobody. You don’t exist.
I flashed back to my scared, six-year-old self when my mother left me at that cult-like Christian Science camp. My terror there during a severe asthma attack shot up from the deep. Fighting for air and my chest frozen, I heard the camp leader say, “Only bad little girls get sick.”
Tears stung my eyes. The lights, colors, and jabbering people in the theater merged in a swirl. I was swimming in a boundaryless, watery world. I looked inward and conjured up an image of myself—a tall woman obscured in eddies of fog. Then my mother’s voice intruded. “Stand up straight, dear.” I slumped in my chair, now unable to see myself at all.
How could that bright-eyed woman in my passport picture be shaken so easily? Like most people, I didn’t want to accept that my identity was unstable—a delicate construction that should be stamped: Fragile, Handle with Care. But now I had to agree with those researchers who’ve observed that identity takes a lifetime of hard work to create, but it can get lost in an instant.
My analytic brain now turned on; I recognized that the loss of ID documents—the outward, societal trappings of identity—is more likely to disrupt an internal sense-of-self if you’re trapped in a strange environment and stripped of familiar supports. Without Mary, I’d be more of a basket case. Reason told me that feeling like a powerless nobody was temporary, unlike the terror and helplessness thousands of migrants endured over long periods of time. Reminded of the traumatic separation of young children from their parents at our borders put my piddling problems into perspective.
I caught sight of Mary rushing down the aisle, also a tall woman but with perfect posture. She got to her seat just as the lights were going down. Coincidentally, the play was about identity fluidity and women’s fear of becoming their mothers. It spoke volumes to Mary and me.
Back at the apartment, I called the Midtown Precinct. Surprise. Lopez wasn’t there, and the rude cop on duty didn’t know her or anything about my report. “Call tomorrow,” he barked.
The next morning, I longed for my usual venti cappuccino, but I couldn’t go out and buy one at Starbucks. Without a dime in my pocket, I had to ask Mary for money. This beggar position played havoc with my self-image. I was a caregiver, not a taker of care; I was the in-charge doctor, not the needy patient. Even though I’d pay back every cent, I worried that Mary would see me as a burden, much like my martyr mother secretly had.
I called the Precinct twice that day. The morning rude cop said, “Lady, I don’t know who you are or what report you’re talking about or anyone named Lopez.”
The evening bully interrogated me. “Who is this Lopez? Where did you lose said wallet? Or was it theft? Where is the Palm restaurant?”
“The Palm is in the Theater District, in your precinct.”
“How would you know?” his nasal tone mocked.
“What’s your name and rank? I want to speak to your captain.”
“I don’t talk to pushy women.” He hung up.
“You fucking asshole,” I yelled at the dead phone.
Recent research showed that swearing, especially the word fuck, relieved tension, and pain. I was breathing heavily, my head in a vice, waiting for the promised relief.
Mary rushed into my room. “What’s wrong? Can I make you a cup of tea?”
“Hell no. Don’t do anything. You’re already doing too much.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re always cleaning up. You leave nothing for me.”
“I like cleaning up. I’m trying to be helpful.”
“Right. It’s just—”
“You’re stressed, I get it, but please stop barking at me.”
I covered my mouth. “I’m really sorry. I can’t hear myself. I can’t see myself. It’s not your fault, but you’re reminding me of my mother—the Saint.”
Mary looked appalled. “Well, fuck that.”
“I can’t believe you said the f-word.”
“My mother was a bloody martyr, St. Catherine.” She affected a long-suffering sigh.
Holy Mother of Shite, we were in Albee’s play.
The tension came with us to Carnegie Hall that night. World-famous tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, was due to sing, but he had a reputation for canceling, even at the last minute. We’d paid a small fortune for our nosebleed balcony seats. But the gods smiled on us for a change. Kaufmann showed up, and his singing in the love-death duet from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde was spine tingling. I wanted to live inside this music, melt into the orchestra’s crescendos and Kaufmann’s thrilling tones. This loss of self in beautiful music felt empowering in stark contrast to the disempowerment of having pieces of my identity suddenly vanish on the streets of NYC.
Back at the apartment, I called the Midtown Madhouse. When a polite male voice answered, I was stunned. Then came the usual run-around. He knew nothing about my report or Lopez and said, “Try calling again tomorrow.” I groaned loudly, and he came through with, “Or you could go to another precinct.”
“What? I can go somewhere else?”
“You can go to any precinct in the city.”
“Fantastic. Which one would you recommend?”
Sudden silence. I held my breath. Was I asking him to betray the brotherhood?
Throat-clearing noises, then, “The 20th,” he whispered.
After breakfast, the next morning, Mary and I took a cab to the 20th Precinct on the Upper West Side. This station bore no relation to the Midtown Hellhole. A red brick building on a tree-lined street, it was clean and airy inside. A lone black woman sat behind a desk at the end of the reception room. I approached her with a smile, but her stiff, somber expression remained fixed. I imagined she saw a pain-in-the-butt privileged white woman, not an anxious nobody with bad posture. After introducing herself as SPA Thomas, she listened attentively to my trials at the 18th Precinct regarding my lost wallet. Then I sat down while she made some calls.
When Thomas returned, she stood in front of me, her arms crossed. “It’s an outrage. I’ve talked to the people at the 18th Precinct, and you’ve been totally jerked around. There’s no excuse for it. Nobody knows where your report is, or PA Lopez.” She rolled her eyes.
Her validation melted the ice shards in my chest.
After we redid some of the forms, she suggested I go back to the 18th so they could finish up the job properly.
I almost fell to my knees. “Please, don’t send me down that rabbit hole again.”
Thomas relented. Within an hour, she handed me the completed report, the crucial number in bold at the top. I restrained myself from hugging her and said, “I’m very grateful. You’ve gone out of your way for me, vouched for my identity, and restored some of my faith in humanity. Thank you.”
Somber Thomas smiled for the first time—a big, dazzling grin.
At Kennedy Airport two days later, the American agent accepted the photocopy of my passport, and Mary and I checked our bags. We had three hours until our flight. On the long trek to security, I let myself imagine we were escaping. But at the first checkpoint, an officious guard stopped me and called to his supervisor, a bruiser named Bud.
The bald hulk swaggering toward us had huge biceps and meaty hands. I stepped forward and introduced myself. Bud just stood there, dead-eyed. I took a swallow of water from the bottle Mary handed me and stuttered through the story of my lost driver’s license.
“You can’t get on the plane without identification.” He thrust out his pugnacious jaw.
“I have a photocopy of my passport. You can verify the number.” I handed it to him.
He glanced at it and snorted. “This is a piece of crap.” He tossed it on the floor.
I looked down on the smiling image of blonde, blue-eyed, squeaky-clean me, and a blood-curdling scream pressed to get out of my throat. I picked up my picture and took a deep unquiet breath, rising up to my full height of 5 foot, 10 inches in my sharp-toed, Italian boots. I was going to kick this bully in the balls, beat him to a bloody pulp.
“The police report,” Mary whispered in my ear. “In your purse.”
My reason came back enough to fish out Thomas’s report and hand it to the Bud thug. He stared at the first page for a long time.
“Don’t move,” he ordered and stomped off, the report crumpled in his fleshy mitt.
Mary looked ashen. “I thought you were going to clock him.”
“Just give me another chance.”
We waited: ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour and a half. Finally, I was sent through X-Ray and patted down. Then we had to wait for Bud’s final approval. I drank Peet’s coffee and conjured up visions of home—the addictive sunny days, fluorescent sunsets tinting the sea rose, misty morning beach walks, the hokey “Have a nice day” friendliness. Would I go back to being who I was before NYC?
Not quite. Combat and better posture had made me a foot taller.
We heard the announcement of our flight boarding.
“Screw Bud. Let’s roll,” I said.
Mary squared her shoulders, and ten minutes later, two mega-tall women boarded the plane for San Diego.