Announcer: Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff came to Burlington recently, to tout a new form of identification known as the “enhanced driver’s license.” Commentator Philip Baruth was curious to find out just how “enhanced” his license could get.
Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #205: Enhanced Is As Enhanced Does
You’ve probably heard that starting next summer, Americans will need passports to get in and out of Canada. Even if you just slide over the border for a quick smoked meat sandwich — papers, please.
And honestly, the prospect has left New Englanders heavily bummed. Because let’s face it: we have some issues with authority up here.
So when Michael Chertoff flew in to Burlington last week to offer a compromise, I was all ears.
And the pitch sounded good: instead of a passport, Chertoff said, Vermonters will be able to apply for something called an “enhanced driver’s license” — a license containing a radio-frequency computer chip.
Of course the ACLU has challenged these RFID chips because they allow the wearer to be easily tracked. But Chertoff pointed out that I could save about 40$ bucks using an enhanced license instead of renewing my passport.
Bingo — I was sold.
Now, the enhanced Vermont licenses are part of a very small pilot program. And it turns out that even a small pilot program needs its own micro-pilot program, or at least that’s what Chertoff told me when he called to offer me my very own enhanced license, way before anyone else on the list.
In fact, the only other people getting one were Bernie Sanders and some Quaker anti-war activists, but Chertoff said the pilot-pilot program had to start somewhere.
So last Saturday, I get the enhanced license in the mail, and I’m not gonna lie to you: it was an emotional moment. I’m a guy who’s always wanted his driver’s license to be all it could be, and here it was, shiny, smart, holographic. I drove down North Avenue feeling like the bee’s knees.
And then my back pocket started talking.
At first I couldn’t make out the words, just muffled sounds. But the weird thing was they were sounds with a thick Brooklyn accent.
And that’s when it hit me: somehow Bernie’s radio ID chip had crossed frequencies with mine, and I was picking up his voice with my wallet.
And obviously his wallet was picking up mine, because when I said, “Bernie?” there was a pause, and then I heard Bernie say, “Phil, is that you? Look, apparently they’ve sold us a bill of goods with these driver’s licenses.”
I was about to agree with him, but Bernie went on. “Phil, look out the windows of your car. Do you see any police cruisers?”
Sure enough, when I looked I did see what looked like unmarked police cars, way back in traffic.
“They’re all around me,” I told Bernie, trying to direct my voice toward my back pocket, which — if you’ve never tried to do it while driving — is really hard.
“This is a huge problem,” Bernie said, “huge. I’m also being followed. They’re all over me like white on milk. We only have one hope. And you have to trust me, Phil.”
So when Bernie told me to drive to the King Street Dock, walk onto the commuter ferry for New York, and flush my license down the ship’s toilet, that’s exactly what I did.
By the time I’d snuck back off the ship, the unmarked police cars had all been loaded on, and when the ferry sailed for New York, the men in black sailed with it.
I sat down on the dock, and a minute later, Bernie sat down too, and we watched the ferry angle out toward the Adirondacks.
“Now neither of us has even a normal driver’s license,” I pointed out.
But Bernie held up a finger. “True. But we do have our passports. And you know what that means.”
I shook my head, and Bernie said, “No matter what happens with Montreal, Phil, we’ll always have Paris.”
[This piece ran first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the commentary is available here.]