“This is you?”
The TSA agent at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is holding my driver’s license between two fingers, looking from the photo to me, then back to the photo. She isn’t buying it.
“Sure, it is!” I say brightly, because the person smiling warily from the plastic card sure is me, or at least was me almost 15 years ago when the picture was taken. It’s a younger me. A thinner me. A me with a less-adventurous hair color. But it’s me.
“Doesn’t look like you,” the agent says, and I wonder if she really thinks that I’m using someone else’s license or just trying to say, in a subtle, if not-nice way, that it’s time for a new photo. I just keep smiling my best “Nice, honest lady just wanting to make my flight” smile until she rolls her eyes, raises her eyebrow like “Girl, if you say so,” and hands the license back to me, gesturing for me through to security.
I had Suspicious TSA Agent on my mind this week as I sat at the Palm Beach County Tax Collector’s office with other citizens, waiting to update my license and, apparently importantly, a new photo. (I went in without an appointment, got out 10 minutes earlier than projected, so at least it was pleasant.)
I’d had the same license since I moved here to take this job at The Palm Beach Post in 2002, and though it’s old, I’d gotten used to it. I’d even had a few versions of it, updating it every time I moved and that time I threw it away in a Starbucks bag at the airport.
But as I waited for my number to be called, I kept looking at the photo, which was taken in Halloween 2002, right before going to work and entering the annual Palm Beach Post Halloween costume contest. I was dressed as Britney Spears, white shirt, plaid Catholic school girl skirt and all. (And not wearing whiteface, in case you’re wondering.) I kept looking at that face that looked like me, mostly, and thinking about what was going on with that 31-year-old, about all the stuff she had to look forward to and all the stuff she didn’t know.
And I wondered ... Is that me?
It’s Easter season, so I guess the subject of renewal is on my mind. When I look at that picture, that I always thought was so cute and that I, at times, have looked back on nostalgically, I think about Old License Leslie. She was 15 years younger, less than a month into a new job in a glamorous new city with the Intracoastal Waterway just steps outside of her tiny but stylish new apartment.
She was all promise, all shiny hope that this new gig was gonna be the beginning of the rest of her fabulous life, and I admit that over the last 15 years, I’d looked back at that photo and wished I was as skinny, as cute, as young, as that girl. She just didn’t know everything that was ahead of her between the time her image would be pressed into service and the time it would be retired, with thanks from a grateful nation, or at least a grateful reporter who occasionally threw the license the image was on into a used scone bag.
To wit: That picture was taken four homes, one marriage, and several pounds ago. It’s seen the death of one spouse, one parent, one mother-in-law, three aunts, two uncles, two grandparents and two cats. It has been offered as identification for flights as far north as Boston, as far west as Los Angeles, and to renew the passport that took me all over the Caribbean. It’s been used to confirm reservations at the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton, as well as crappy motels on all-night road trips when we just couldn’t drive anymore, but where we slept on top of the sheets.
I used it as ID to get inside the Maryland courthouse where my son was finally legally announced as mine, to get into the MTV Awards, to get into my audition for “The Voice” and for my gig as an extra on “Law and Order.” That image has endured through mass changes in my industry, to the ways we communicate with each other, through MySpace and Facebook and camera phones. It’s been the image that assisted me in buying three cars and one condo. It’s been my trusty, reliable companion through a decade and a half and into a life that the girl in that photo might not recognize.
The woman in that photo thought she knew herself, but she had no clue what she was capable of, that she was stronger than she’d ever imagined because she was going through stuff she couldn’t imagine then. She didn’t know all the stuff she’d get to do, all the people she’d get to meet, both famous heroes from her childhood and everyday heroes who everyone needs to know about.
That was me. Sure it was. But when I look at the photo on my new license, I see this face is more accurate. Her age and weight are more accurate, but it’s more than that — Old License Leslie looked drawn. Her smile was tentative, less confident, like she wasn’t sure where to look. New License Leslie is beaming. Her cheeks are flush. Her only makeup is lipstick applied 10 minutes ago and a rare full night’s sleep. She’s lived what seems like 50 lives, and there’s a new one on the horizon, but there’s nothing tentative about her. She’s seen too much, lost too much, gained too much to be shy. Her smile says “Bring it, Life!”
And for what it’s worth, this picture’s even cuter than the old one.