Pam’s Pictorama Post: It’s another personal post today. Full disclaimer – it is quite long winded, but an interesting yarn I think. I am editing it and finishing it on the a bus with the Jazz at Lincoln Center band, brutally early on this Saturday morning. I smell of hotel soap, a constant olfactory reminder that I am far from home.
It is snowing hard in Atlanta and our flights are canceled, so we are on an eight hour odyssey by bus to Chapel Hill for our final gig of the season. It is the last stop on a brutal two week tour for these guys, but more about that another time.
Meanwhile, my recent travel has brought another tale to mind which I typed up on the Arkansas leg of my trip a few days ago. Several years ago, I guess maybe eight or more, I was coming home exhausted from an international flight, standing in the neverending line, snaking the through JFK passport control and arrivals terminal. There is always some sort of insult to injury of having to stand in in that damn line when arriving to your own country, although admittedly some smug satisfaction that you aren’t in the much slower line for non-US passport holders.
I was a worse flyer then than now, not that I like it any better, but experience and more business travel has forced me into coping better and planning ahead to find ways to make long flights a bit less awful. On that occasion however, I was frowsy from lack of sleep, tousled in crumb festooned clothes, all the worse for being the last of what had been worn in rotation throughout my trip.
Anyway, it was the middle of the night or the early morning which felt like the middle of the night, or whatever further disorienting thing happens to you when the time difference kicks in to come back east. I handed my passport to the stern looking person behind the desk and much to my shock and displeasure he pulled me aside and marched me to what appeared to be the Immigration holding room. I was told to sit and wait, which I did for quite awhile.
The officials sat behind high desks with plexi (bullet proof?) glass separating us from them. When my name was finally called they interviewed me with a series of questions, off a computer screen which evidently contained my information. They seemed to know a lot about me and were in seeing if I could confirm it. After telling them who my husband was, my date of birth, the color of my eyes and some other pertinent facts, they returned my passport to me in what seemed to be a reluctant way and dismissed me.
In our crazy world of documents, random searches and whatnot I was peevish, but didn’t think a huge amount about it. I fly domestically fairly often, but overseas less frequently. Around that time the Met started sending me abroad a bit more often though. I found myself in Germany probably not much more than a year later. Once again lined up at JFK, handing over my passport and, yep, you guessed it. Back to the immigration room. I began to see a pattern, always on international flights never domestic, and never on the way out of the country, but invariably on the way home. The trips to the room were generally faster than the first time. I would sit there with my copy of Vogue or the trashy novel I had bought on the plane surrounded by unfortunate compatriots who had their own woes in this arena. The officers appeared to take my passport, look at it, look at their computer, look at me and hand it back to me.
Somewhere around the third time, after an especially exhausting flight home from Italy, I found myself almost in tears with frustration and, without thinking through the consequences, I blurted out to the agent who took my passport and took me out of line, “Why does this keep happening to me?!” To my surprise, he said he didn’t know, but if I asked in the folks in the room they may be willing to tell me.
So, I asked. Much to my surprise, they told me that a woman with my exact name and birth day, had been missing for a period of time and they were looking for her. Now, it remains utterly curious to me why if they were looking for this other Pam Butler they didn’t flag my departure from the country. Instead they seemed to care I was re-entering the US. I told my mom the whole tale of woe and she began Googling.
According to Betty, it turns out that this other Pam Butler had worked for the government and had gone missing awhile ago. And, perhaps most significantly, she was black. Clearly this meant that as soon as they got to the point of looking at pictures they realized I was indeed not the Pamela Butler they were looking for.
I was intrigued – was she a spy who had left the country? What nefarious things was this Pam Butler up to – in our shared name? I grew to expect and plan around the inconvenience. Recently, considering TSA Pre I decided to ask one of the agents upon my return from Shanghai if they thought it would make a difference if I got pre-approval. They said no. Meanwhile, they revealed that now Pam Butler was also wanted for breaking the law. She was now associated with fraud of some kind.
Needless to say I was not pleased about this Pam Butler turn of events. When the agent told me about this he was handing back my passport. For some reason he took what appeared to be a parting shot at me, “How tall are you?” he asked. “5’9” I replied, without thinking (I mean – I am!) and he paused and looked at the passport and then smiled at me in what seemed to be a suspicious way, but all he said, “ Ah yes, you are quite tall.”
It was only a couple of months later, when a close friend on the west coast emailed me a link to a newspaper article. Much to my shock, someone had just confessed to killing the other Pam Butler, a number of years ago. She had actually been a straight arrow, a few years years younger than me, she had worked for the EPA, lived in Washington DC. In the photo she looked smart and nice. Evidently she was on a date with the man who killed her. Met him online. Her parents have been searching for her for years and at least the confession seems to have given them some closure. I assume, without knowing, that the man who killed her also sold her identity which lead to the criminal complaints of fraud I heard about.
It is hard to describe how I felt reading about her death. Without realizing it, she had become a part of my life, a sort of travel doppelganger whose path I crossed upon my return from each and every international trip. There’s something very strange about reading about someone with your name and date of birth being murdered. I feel awful for her family and sad for her.
I have wondered if her death will resolve my international travel woes with Immigration. I am cynical enough to doubt that the wires in our systems will uncross so easily. Her memory may be with me for a lot longer. Or maybe not. Now I will think of her with sadness instead of a bit of a thrill of international intrigue and mystery.
Postscript: Snow continues to stop and start here as we drive through South Carolina. We made a second breakfast stop at Cracker Barrel where I ate pancakes AND a biscuit. (No dieting on the road – I have been eating like I am studying for finals in college.) Three or more hours to go. Will try to nap again. Thanks for taking the time to read this.