I Can't Get Home! Thanks, Homeland Security!

Heads up: If there are any safe, sane women in the Vacaville area of Northern California planning on driving to L.A. in the next couple of weeks, can you drop me an e-mail so we can work out a ride-along for my girlfriend? I'm serious. You see, thanks to the wonderful machinations of the federal government in this terrorist-obsessed society we still have the nerve to call a 'homeland,' my girlfriend has been grounded. Literally.

Three weeks ago Jill traveled up to Vacaville ' a modest little town 50 miles north of San Francisco ' to help her elderly, recently-widowed mother move into a new rental home. Jill planned on driving back home to Los Angeles sometime around the week of July 12. One little hitch: Her California driver's license has expired. Not a problem, you say? Apparently it can be a major problem in our post-9/11 culture.

First some much-needed backstory. Jill's surname is Matheson. She and I have been together for six years, but for reasons that are too muddy to explore in this limited forum, she has yet to divorce her estranged husband (It doesn't help that we can't find the guy). Her expired driver's license is still in her husband's last name, Shafer.

Jill arrives at the Vacaville Department of Motor Vehicles with her birth certificate (Jill Matheson) and Social Security card (also Matheson). She tells the solicitous clerk that she needs to renew her license. The clerk looks over the documents and frowns.

'You never changed your Social Security over to Shafer?' she asks.

'I didn't realize I had to,' Jill explained. 'But my birth certificate and Social Security card are legitimate.'

Now, the clerk, to her credit, tried to wrap her brain around a way of helping Jill out.

'If you can't help me,' Jill pleaded, 'I'll be stuck here in Vacaville . . . with my mother.'

But she couldn't help Jill because, she explained, new laws enacted after September 11, 2001 require that the name on your Social Security card and your driver's license must correspond.

'What you can do,' the clerk offered, 'is go to the Social Security office and get your card changed to Jill Shafer.'

'I don't want to change my name to Jill Shafer. I want to divorce Mr. Shafer.'

Again the clerk mused the other options available.

'You could petition the court for a name change.'

'To Matheson? My maiden name?'

'To Matheson, to Shafer, to whatever you want so long as the court decrees the name change legal.'

Of course, a legal name change in California takes anywhere from four to eight weeks, and she needs to be home much sooner than that. If she did avail herself of the option to change the name on her Social Security card from her maiden Matheson to her married Shafer, she would want to change it back as soon as possible, and wouldn't that just raise some eyebrows at the federal office?

'You mean to tell me they can't even give you a temporary renewal until this gets straightened out?' I asked when Jill told me this jaw-dropping story.

'Not post-9/11. That's what the clerk kept telling me. I can't rent a car. I can't get on a plane. Do they check ID at the train stations?'

I suppose they probably do.

A friend of mine calls this the Law of Unintended Consequences, and I suppose he is right. But what are we paying the people at the Office of Homeland Security for if not to make the hunt for terrorists on the domestic front as seamless as possible?

Let me make this perfectly clear: This woman is stranded hundreds of miles from home because (1) her divorce is not finalized; (2) she never changed the surname on her Social Security to her estranged husband's; (3) she has all of her legal documents in order, but on the off-chance that she's not really Jill Matheson but rather a deranged terrorist intent on wreaking havoc of one form or another, those documents don't mean spit.

Now, you want to know the really scary thing here? Two weeks ago I did some research on a story for a major national magazine. The subject matter was the black market underground for false ID in Los Angeles . It's a booming market, folks. For five hundred bucks I can go to MacArthur Park and walk away with a full set of false identification. Acquiring this intelligence was a breeze for me. But I guess Homeland Security is more content jerking around legal citizens of this country who are simply trying to return home.

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Rodger Jacobs's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Rodger Jacobs is a screenwriter, freelance journalist, and an award-winning writer and producer of feature documentaries.