By the time the cop called "Lisa Davis", I'd been sitting in the hard wooden pew in New York City criminal court for two hours. The courthouse swirled with diminished beauty: cracked marble, tarnished brass. It seemed so unlikely that it could feel like an actual hall of justice, that hope could find its way past the bulletproof glass and the metal detectors.
I stood and smoothed my shirt, adjusted the 18 years' worth of papers in my manila file folder, and tried to catch my breath. Please let today be the day it ends, I silently prayed. Let today be the day I clear my name.
It started at the West Palm Beach airport in 1998. I was 26, finally old enough to rent a car on my own, and had headed down to Florida with my younger sister to see our grandparents, who lived in a modest condo complex full of other ageing middle-class Jews from New York, eight miles from the ocean.
But when I handed the clerk at the Dollar Rent-a-Car counter my driver's license, she ran it through the system and handed it back.
"It's suspended," she said.
"What? How?" I lived in New York City, and didn't own a car. I drove only when work - I made props for a kids' TV show - required it.
The clerk said that I'd have to go the department of motor vehicles (DMV). So, slightly humiliated, I called Gramma from the payphone to pick us up.
At the DMV the next week, I was told that I'd gotten a ticket for driving down 138th Street in the Bronx with a busted headlight. "That can't be," I said. "I've never even driven down that street."
They showed me a copy of the ticket. It was made out to Lisa Selin Davis. But the address wasn't mine. The car wasn't mine. And the neat, bubbly signature on the bottom - Lisa Davis, in cursive - wasn't my all-caps scrawl. It must be identity theft, I thought.
I had to plead guilty and pay the fine to restore my license, then try to repeal the guilty plea at traffic court. I also filled out a "Report of Unauthorized Use of License/Registration" form, to launch an investigation.
Five months later, after receiving a report that I "may have been criminally impersonated", I trudged from my rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope to traffic court in the Bronx and told the judge, an avuncular fellow with a ring of gray hair: "I never got this ticket. That's not me." He looked at the name on the ticket: Lisa Selin Davis. He looked at the birthdate. Mine. Then he shook his head. "It's just a busted headlight," he said. "I'm dismissing it." He ignored the whole "That's not me" part, the criminal impersonation part. And so it kept happening. For years. Someone would get tickets and they would go on my record.
Weirdly, my "identity thief" seemed to have a strong sense of civic duty. At least four times, from the late 1990s until 2013, I showed up at my Brooklyn polling place to find that I wasn't on the roster because, according to the poll workers, I'd re-registered in the Bronx. "But that's not me!" I'd cry, showing them the address on my license. They'd give me an absentee ballot and a new voter registration form.
Who was this woman who had slipped on the sheath of my identity, who had assumed my birthday, and even my middle name, I often wondered? How did she get it, and what did she want with it?
In 2013, my license was suspended again, this time for an unpaid ticket from 2012, for "Drive Cell Phone", as the officer wrote. Like an addict, I cycled through every tactic with the DMV: charm, threats, shame; I tried begging and berating them. Once again, I pleaded guilty and paid a fine to get my license back, and once again I filled out the "Unauthorized Use" form.
Finally, the DMV told me that I wasn't the victim of identity theft; there was simply another Lisa S Davis with the same birthday in New York City. Our records were crossed. When cops run a license, they don't check the person's address, signature, or social security numbers. They check the name and the birthday, and both the other Lisa S Davis's and mine were the same. We were, in the eyes of the law, one person, caught in a perfect storm of DMV and NYPD idiocy.
When I visited the board of elections office in downtown Brooklyn, they told me the same thing. Lisa S Davis and I: we were one.
I cajoled the DMV into giving me her middle name. From her profile picture on Facebook, I could see she was tall, African American, with high cheekbones, well-toned arms and a huge smile. I am short, white, decidedly untoned and predisposed to frowns - clearly we were not the same person. I sent her a note on Facebook: "I'd love to talk to you about this, to see if our records have gotten further mixed up and how to undo it. You may have had some of the same troubles." I never heard back.
Every once in a while in the years that followed, I would look at Lisa's profile. Twice more I sent notes through Facebook Messenger. I assumed she'd gotten my messages and ignored them. I assumed she knew what was happening and didn't care. After all, it was really only a problem for me.
In 2015, I failed a background check for a new job because, according to the NYPD, I hadn't paid the ticket "I" had gotten for walking in a park in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn after hours, at 10pm. Now there was a misdemeanor on my record, and I had 60 days to clear it up if I wanted to keep the job, which meant trekking to lower Manhattan to criminal court.
I had never been to any other kind of court except traffic court (at which, both times, the police officers had flat-out lied). While I was familiar with the statistics -75.6% of arrestees for misdemeanor crimes are African Americans or Hispanic - the reality took my breath away. Like any other privileged white person living in the protected segregation of New York, who isn't directly dealing with the New York criminal justice system, I hadn't seen it first hand. The room was almost entirely filled with people of color, other than the judge, the court-appointed lawyer, and me. Most of them had summonses for smoking pot, one of the city's least offensive offenses.
When it was my turn, a court-appointed lawyer, whose name I didn't get, stood beside me at the lectern. I held up the ticket that I'd gotten a copy of only that morning.
"This is not me," I said.
"Don't address me, address your lawyer," the judge said, motioning with his head to the balding man in the cheap suit standing beside me.
"This is not her," he said. I slid the lawyer the folder I'd kept of my correspondence with the DMV, the tickets fought or paid, the investigations, the discovery of my name and birthday doppelganger. He glanced inside it then passed it on.
"How do I know it's not you?" the judge asked gruffly, the circumspection on his face morphing into cynicism, impatience.
I tried to explain the long history of mix-ups, but the judge wouldn't listen. He told me I'd have to go to trial, which could take months. By that time the job would be long gone. I left the courtroom and burst into tears.
A cop followed me out of the room. "You came on the worst day," he said to me, sympathizing that my case had been heard by a particularly unsympathetic judge. The cop had such kind eyes. Everyone was kind except the judge, who was an unbelievable asshole.
The cop told me to go back in and plead guilty, and then I'd pay a fine and the judge would dismiss the charge and let me off with a warning. It's called "adjournment in contemplation of dismissal", or ACD. As long as I didn't get in trouble again for six months, the charge would be erased.
"I never got in trouble in the first place," I said. Sniffling, pulling myself together, I returned to the courtroom and pleaded guilty, for the third time, to something I didn't do. For me, this was an inconvenience and an aberration. But I was beginning to understand that, for most of the people there, injustice was a given.
When I went to pay my fine, they couldn't find a copy of my record, so they sent me to the clerk's office. They couldn't find my warrant, either, but the woman at the counter told me, "You have 13 other warrants."
I blinked. "How can that be?"
"I don't know," she said. "There's just one Lisa Davis folder, and there are 13 warrants in it."
Somehow, the clerk told me - perhaps because of my false admission of guilt - I could be held accountable for those other unpaid fines. "Don't get pulled over," the clerk said. "You might get arrested."
I convinced her to give me copies of all the unpaid tickets and scoured them for clues. Who were these Lisa Davises and why were they in trouble? Lisa Davis in East New York had jaywalked, but never paid the fine. Lisa Davis on the Bed Stuy/Bushwick border had an unleashed dog. Lisa Davis in Clinton Hill had an open container. So did two different Lisa Davises with different home addresses in the Soundview area of the South Bronx, as did a Lisa Davis near the Gun Hill Houses in the Bronx. Lisa Davis in East Harlem got a disorderly conduct citation for fighting. So did Lisa Davis in Bed-Stuy. Lisa Davis in Harlem was trespassing (code for shoplifting), though the cop's handwriting was so hard to read that I couldn't discern the details. I could read the defendant's statement, though: "I just needed some soap."
In all but one case, the paperwork was woefully inadequate. The tickets were shoddily and hastily filled out. At the bottom, where the perpetrator was supposed to sign the ticket, one simply had the word "refused". And, aside from the fighting, they were for small infractions.
The tickets had something else in common. Brownsville, the South Bronx, East Harlem, Bed-Stuy (at least eight years ago, when the ticket was issued), all of them are neighborhoods with large black or Hispanic, and very small white, populations.
It was then that it became clear to me: the reason for the tickets wasn't that these Lisa Davises were petty criminals. The reason was likely that they lived in highly policed areas where even the smallest infractions are ticketed, the sites of "Broken Windows" policing. The reason, I thought, was that they weren't white.
That could have been the "proof" I offered to the judge. Brownsville's population is less than 1% white. It almost couldn't have been me. My neighborhood, though fairly diverse (and cheap) when I moved there in the early 90s, is now 76% white. I have never heard of anyone getting tickets in my neighborhood for any of the infractions committed by the Lisa Davises in neighborhoods of color.
I felt there was only one thing to do. I had to find the Lisa Davises, to untangle myself from them, to talk to them about being Lisa Davises, and to see if they agreed with my supposition: that the real "crime" they had committed was being non-white.
I went first to Brownsville, where the park-after-hours ticket had been issued, to a nondescript public housing tower with cloudy blue tiles and cracked Plexiglas at the entrance. I stood in at the front door, pressing the buzzer. "It doesn't work," one resident informed me, letting me in.
I got to the third floor and stood there a minute. I hadn't figured on what to say. New York City is not a town where people stop by.
I knocked, tepidly. I heard a faint rumbling in the apartment. I waited. No one came to the door. I knocked, louder, assuredly. A voice answered, though I couldn't hear what she said. I called out, "It's kind of a funny story."
The door opened a crack and a tall African American woman with short hair stuck her head out. She was wearing a long tank dress and had elaborately painted nails and broad, muscular shoulders.
"Um, are you Lisa Davis?" I asked.
"Yes," she said hesitantly.
"I am, too."
She narrowed her eyes, cocked her head. I mentioned the ticket she'd gotten that had been assigned to me.
"I was wondering what happened with that," she said.
I asked her, "Have you had this happen to you, that you've been mixed up with other Lisa Davises?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "There's another Lisa S Davis with the same birthday."
I looked at her more closely then, placed her face against my memory of her Facebook page. It was her. It was the Lisa Davis, the one I'd been looking for all these years. "That's me!" I said.
Almost immediately, Lisa S Davis reached out and hugged me. She'd heard about me, too, every time she had to renew her license, and they'd tell her she was me. Then she said, "How was your birthday?" and we both laughed.
She was embarrassed, apologetic about the tickets. She'd never understood what happened to them, and it hadn't occurred to her that they'd gone on my record. She didn't have the Facebook Messenger app; she'd never seen my messages.
After a while she invited me inside. A woman was sitting in a recliner chair, wearing a halter top with a sheet around her: Gerri, Lisa's best friend.
"I wouldn't have let you in," Gerri said, when I interviewed the two of them the next week. "A Caucasian knocking at the door like that." They told me that when I first knocked, softly, they assumed I was a Jehovah's Witness, because they roam these halls politely tapping on doors.
But when I knocked louder, "I was like, OK, white people knocking hard like that: ACS [Administration for Children's Services], or police," Lisa told me. "Somebody's gotta open the door."
I had a good laugh at that. There were few people less qualified to be religious proselytizers or police officers than me.
I asked Lisa if she'd wondered about me over the years. "Oh, yes," she said. "I never would have thought you were Caucasian."
Lisa S Davis and Lisa S Davis. Photograph: Lisa Davis
It was strange, and also not, how connected I felt to her. We have little in common, starting with our races. We were both raised by single parents, but Lisa's mom died of lupus when she was three; Lisa went into the foster care system, to the infamous Hale House. (For many years it was a haven for babies born to moms with Aids or drug addictions, but it closed in 2008 after a scandal over money and neglected children. Lisa calls it "Hell House".)
Lisa's a single mom with three boys, ages 14 to 23, while I'm married, with two young children whom I had very late in life. She was so excited to know that I'd had a baby at 40, since she had a new fiance and hoped to get pregnant, too, as if our common names and birthdays extended to fertility, too.
Lisa put herself through college, studying psychology, and then graduate school, earning a master's in education. She lived in Mississippi and the Bronx and North Carolina until inheriting her grandmother's rent-stabilized apartment a few years back. Recently she'd become a personal trainer. She laughed and smiled almost all the time, and, Jesus, her muscle tone was good.
The previous 17 years had been marred by a persistent, annoying mystery, but I was starting to think it was worth it just to meet her.
When she went to pay that first ticket in the Bronx in 1998, she told me, "It wasn't there. I didn't put too much thought into it. I was just happy it wasn't here." She figured it was a mix-up and a blessing.
The next time she got a ticket, for using a cellphone while driving - she was looking up directions - the same thing happened. "When they said 'it's not here,' I was like 'What do you mean it's not here?' This is the second time it's happened. What are you talking about?"
It never occurred to her that her tickets had gone to me, but she knew I existed. In 1997, when she went to switch her license from Mississippi to New York, the DMV told her she was already in the system. She'd gone to vote and they'd told her she was registered at a different precinct. And when she underwent a background check for a job, they told her she lived at my address. The same thing happened to her that had been happening to me all those years: they were telling her that we were the same person.
She showed me all her driver's licenses, from New York and from down south, and her benefits cards and IDs.
"Why do you keep all those?" I asked her.
"It helps me kind of stay focused," she said, "to see where I came from. I don't have history. My mother died, there are no pictures of me when I was a baby. So there are little things I want to hold on to that I can show, like, I exist, I'm here, I'm here." She spoke in rapid-fire sentences, only pausing to laugh.
I'd spent so many years thinking that she was some kind of identity thief. The more I listened to her story, the more I realized that, all this time, Lisa wasn't trying to steal my identity. She was trying to find her own.
Then the strangest thing of all started to happen: Lisa S Davis and I became friends.
She gives me advice on my wardrobe (and sends me pictures of her glittery, tight outfits that I desperately wish I could rock) and tells me how to work on my muscle tone. I give her encouragement for her to write her life story. She came to a book party for my novel that came out last year. We are part of each other's lives in some way we don't quite understand but both cherish.
In some ways, the best part of our friendship is our unvarnished conversations about race, about the reality of life in the projects and the utter ridiculousness of upper-middle-class white people, of the intense differences between Brownsville and Park Slope, very different Brooklyn neighborhoods but both suffering from a severe lack of diversity. About the ticket that she got for stepping into a park at 10pm on the way home from work, and about how that would never happen to me - the crooked criminal justice system that brought us together.
Lisa often calls me her "ivory", and sometimes: her "white twin".
On a cold and sunny April day, I went in search of the others.
The Lisa Davis with a citation for disorderly conduct in Bed-Stuy didn't live there any more, and no one in the building knew of her. There was no one by that name at the housing project on the Bushwick/Bed-Stuy border that Lisa Davis had given as her address, either.
In the South Bronx, the same Lisa Davis had gotten open container tickets within two years, at two separate apartments, but didn't live at either of them now. One woman at a housing project in Harlem said her granddaughter had gotten that ticket for public fighting 10 years ago, when she was bipolar and unmedicated. "But she's better now. She's married and has a baby and lives in Queens," she told me. She took my number, but it seemed unlikely that she'd pass it on.
At another housing project in Harlem a shirtless man in his late 50s opened the door. "Hi. I'm looking for Lisa Davis," I said.
Last year she'd gotten the ticket for trespassing and gave this as her address. "I've lived here for 30 years. No one named Lisa Davis has ever lived here," he said.
Now I understood why the tickets were never paid: most of these Lisa Davises had, in some way, disappeared. They had given fake addresses or moved, and they were skirting the law - their own version of justice - however they could. I would never find them.
But my disappointment dissipated quickly. I'd found the only Lisa Davis who really mattered.
Two weeks before I found Lisa, I'd gotten a letter from the DMV that my license was being suspended because I hadn't insured my 2015 Honda. I don't have a 2015 Honda.
After - I'm not joking - one hour and 20 minutes on hold with the DMV, I was tossed around from department to department, then told to fax my social security card, my birth certificate, my license, a copy of the letter and a note that said, literally, "This isn't me."
Instead, at a Facebook friend's suggestion, I contacted the office of my then state assemblyman, Jim Brennan. His staff asked me to send my documents showing the history of my travails. Finally, somebody wanted to look at the contents of my folder.
A week later, I got a call from the fraud department at the DMV. The system had worked for me; someone I voted for had intervened on my behalf.
The woman from the DMV said, "Oh, I remember you - I worked on your case two other times."
So there was nothing, I asked her, not a single thing that I could do to prevent this from happening in the future?
No, she said. But she was still a few years from retiring. She gave me the forbidden fruit - her direct phone number - and said if I called back again she'd remember me. Once I told Lisa about the latest suspension (which only I knew about, as the recipient of the letter), she gave the DMV proof of insurance and the problem went away.
And maybe that's how it will be from now on, Lisa and I taking care of the NYPD/DMV limits and liabilities ourselves. Likely those 13 other warrants won't affect me, since those Lisa Davises don't share my birthday. But my and Lisa S Davis's records are fused, permanently.
We are conjoined twins at the DMV and NYPD. Forever. And neither of us minds.