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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN WICKERSHAM

Your identity, adrift

What happens when an unwanted name becomes attached to you?

PUI YAN FONG FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

This is a story about identity drift. Not identity theft — we did not steal Emma G.’s identity. It came drifting over, like snow drifting across an empty parking lot. The problem was that once her identity had drifted to us, we had a hard time giving it back.

First came an envelope addressed to someone we’d never heard of — call her Emma G. — with a yellow post office forwarding sticker printed with our address. We handed it back to the mail carrier.

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But envelopes addressed to Emma G. kept coming. I spoke to the mail carrier. I asked neighbors, but no one had heard of her. I Googled her; she was listed as a teacher in yoga studios in several different states. But I didn’t know where she was now, or how to help her get her mail. Did she know there was a problem? Was she sitting in her new apartment wondering why she never got any bills or bank statements? Or was she part of a younger generation that simply received, and expected, a lot less paper?

I called a couple of the yoga studios. No one answered the phone. It was impossible to know if the web pages I’d captured were current or outdated. I left messages hoping someone would let Emma G. know that her mail was being mis-delivered and that she should straighten things out. I hung up feeling partly like a Good Samaritan and partly like a nut.

Her mail kept coming. No more yellow forwarding stickers. Now Emma G.’s bills and bank statements and junk mail were hand-addressed to our house. Somehow our address and her name had become firmly coupled in the computers of numerous companies. We kept writing “NOT AT THIS ADDRESS” and handing envelopes back to the mail carrier. There was no point in calling the companies; if we could even speak to a real person, maybe Emma G.’s mail would stop coming to our house, but it still wouldn’t reach her, wherever she was. We had become invested in her plight, even though — or maybe because — she seemed to have no idea that there was a plight.

Then came an envelope from Arizona, one of those deceptively bland logo-less envelopes that clearly contains a card of some kind — debit or credit. Again we called the yoga studio at the top of Emma G.’s Google hit list. A few days later Emma G. called back and left her number. Contact! We left another message; she never returned the call, but the mail stopped coming.

Then one day the phone rang. There was a long, telemarketing-call kind of pause; I waited for the person to ask for Joanne Wickemshaw. But instead the telemarketer asked for Emma G. “There’s no one here by that name,” I said, but I was beginning to doubt it myself. This was getting Kafkaesque: some higher authority had decided that Emma G. lived with us and shared our phone number, and there was no way to identify the authority or to undo the judgment.

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Then an envelope came addressed to Emma G. from the Internal Revenue Service. Now the US government not only believed, but was perpetuating, the fiction that Emma G.’s identity had merged with ours. I chased the mail carrier down the street. “Whom do I talk to at the post office to get to the bottom of this?”

The mail carrier smiled and took the envelope. “Don’t worry. I’ll just give it to her.” She’d figured out that Emma G. lived across the street, having moved back in with her parents about six months ago. Either Emma G., or some clerk or computer, had transposed a single digit, turning her address into ours. The mystery was solved.

And then I started to feel a deeper unease. At the impersonal nature of modern life. At the frightening speed and inexorability with which someone’s mail, finances, credit cards, and tax information had drifted into our hands. At the way I’d tried to rely on technology and bureaucracy to solve a problem that would not have existed if we all knew the names of our neighbors.

As for Emma G., one of these days I’ll go across the street and introduce myself. For now, all I can say is that she has 10,000 frequent-flyer miles waiting for her, if only she will contact Delta Airlines.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her new book of fiction, “The News from Spain,” will be published this fall.

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