Fake Nation: Debauched youth and fake IDs (1st in a 4-part series)

Fake ID’s, long considered the province of underage college students, aren’t just for getting drunk anymore. Illegal immigrants are getting them, too, to help secure papers. Many fake-ID producers are attached to legitimate businesses — photo booths, copy centers, even some tattoo parlors. In this series, Next American City investigates the world of phony identification, from immigration to good old-fashioned anthropology (i.e. an excuse for our interns to go club-hopping) and an exploration of how urban spaces are subtly and not-so-subtly segregated by age.

“I’m not saying you want to kill someone. Everybody wants to kill somebody,” she said. “What I’m saying is, Black people and Italian people, we’re all bipolar. Except those kids.” That meant me.

“I’m Italian,” I ventured.

“Oh! Then you know what I’m talking about!”

I didn’t. The entire premise of the truck was absurd. It parks on a side street near the Philadelphia bureau of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, supposedly a place to get your photo taken before you walk down the street for your papers.

But that’s not what most people come for. A doughy bald Parking Authority cop opened the door as we walked up, jiggled his unlit cigarette and casually asked us if we wanted fakes. He was so offhand about it I decided to risk it, despite his uniform, and say yes.

My fellow intern Dave and I sat down on the bench inside and were tossed a little leather-bound binder full of mock-ups of state ID’s. None looked at all plausible, but I’d heard that they fooled the card readers that some hard-ass liquor stores use and a friend had used her Michigan ID from here to buy vodka, no questions asked, so I suspended my disbelief.

A quiet Asian woman, barely old enough to drink herself, had me sign a form stating that I knew making a fake ID was a crime (did the truck have to file one of these, and with whom?) and that I promised not to use it for anything illegal. I signed myself away (with a fake name) and sat for my picture.

The stool was vibrating. The printers and computers, camera, lights and heater were generator-powered, making the whole truck shake and reek of kerosene. The lights flickered as the camera flashed and I realized that I’d been staring at a large poster of the Declaration of Independence.

I sat back down and waited for the ID, but the quiet woman was having spelling issues, so I had time to look around.

Pictures of babies, this white guy who resembled Vladimir Putin, and a few tidy-looking black women were stuck on the shelving above the equipment, two cans of spray air freshener to chase out the kerosene stench, several liters of rubbing alcohol and huge bottles of generic-brand hand sanitizer.

There was another man in the truck, a big guy in a baseball cap and Tims leaning on a golf umbrella. He had provoked the meditation on mental illness earlier, telling the woman that cameras were watching them from the street.

He leaned over to the window and looked at their rival across the street. The other van didn’t look much different, but luckily my truck had a warning sign up: You could get the same number of photos for the same price at the other place, it said, but this truck also offered them in digital for free. It was a deal I wouldn’t have passed up, had I been in the market for passport photos…

Finally, the woman making the ID hit “print” and the leftmost printer spit out my card. It’s erratically punctuated—colons appear after “Sex,” “Height,” “Issued” and “Expires” but not after “DOB” or “Eye”—and the back pulls no punches: MARY LAND IDENTIFICATION, continuing with “This ID was issued based on information provided.” A bar code, a black strip and that’s it. Clean, simple and evidently counterfeit as all hell. I gave the lady two twenties—which she threw into the shelf, underneath the babies, Black women and Vladimir Putin—and left.

NEXT WEEK: Illegal immigrants and fakes — they’re not just for college kids anymore.