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POTOMAC PLACE

A Day at the MVA

We've all had those frustrating days at the MVA either renewing our driver's licenses or getting new license plates. This is the story of Miles Reardon's day at the MVA:


I can’t remember why I chose that Tuesday to visit the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) office to renew my license. I guess I figured it wouldn’t be that crowded. Was I ever wrong? It was packed. And it was slow. It turned out that two of the six people who service, and I use that word loosely, the so-called customers, jerks like me, decided to take sick days, though they might not have been sick. You know the type of employment benefits I’m talking about, you either use them or you lose them. Well they used them, like me, probably figuring it would be one of those slow days.

I learned something else that day. The MVA is now the designated place where resident non-citizens lacking Green Cards go for their state identification cards. And like me and the two MVA employees, they must have also figured it would be a slow day. There was a horde of them packed into the room. I felt like I was at a bus station in Tegucigalpa. Worse yet, the two women who decided to take sick days were the only Spanish speaking employees at that MVA branch office, the so-called “Express Office.”

It was the coincidence of my decision to renew my license that day, the MVA employees decision to take sick days, and the decision of the Central Americans to show up for their state identification cards that affected many lives, mine for the better if only for a few hours.

There I was sitting in this large room holding ticket number 99 and fuming that I didn’t bring along Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, a 750-page door stop, and a great book by the way, that I had checked out of the library over the weekend. I had put it down the night before at the point where Alexander Hamilton had left King’s College (now Columbia University) and accepted a commission as a captain in the Continental Army. As I grumbled to myself, a striking and well-dressed woman sat down next to me. My eyes were immediately drawn to her décolletage and the necklace lodged there. Linked to the end of the thin gold chain was a gold pendant in the shape of a thumb drive. I guessed that she did something with computers. When she smiled at me, I said, “You have nothing to smile about, unless you have a lower number than my 99.”

“Oh, mine’s 112,” she said.

“I hope you have something to read.”

She shook her head. “No, I was told that I’d be in and out of here in a few minutes on a Tuesday.”

“Well, it seems they’re short on people. One of the guys behind the counter said that two people are out sick today.”

She nodded and looked around the room. “There’re a lot of Hispanic people here today. What’s going on?”

“It seems they’re here for their state ID cards.”

“Not licenses?”

“No. Well, to be politically incorrect, they’re illegals.”

“So, what’s with the ID cards?”

I explained that the state legislature passed a law to create ID cards for foreign residents without Green Cards so they could open bank accounts, deposit money, and cash their checks.

“That’s only fair,” she said. She looked around. “They’re hard-working people with families to support. If they get paid in cash, they have to hide it in their crowded apartments and risk being robbed, and if the get paid by check, the check cashing operations rip them off.”

I nodded in agreement. “True. They’re just trying to make it. As far as I know there’re plenty of jobs out there now.”

“Yeah, jobs are going begging,” she said. “I read somewhere the unemployment rate is below five percent.”

“Somewhere down near four percent, I think.”

She nodded. “I don’t understand why our representatives were afraid to allow them to have driver’s licenses.”

“Cautious politicians,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “No courage. Instead they compromised. They eased their guilt by limiting them to ID cards.” Shaking her head, she moved her arms hands back and forth. “What a mess. How do they expect these people to get around?”

“Yeah, guess how they got here?”

She laughed. “Yeah, they drove. They drove without licenses.”

“Yeah, and without insurance,” I said. “That’s a formula for disaster.”

“What other alternative do they have? They have to work. They have to pay rent and feed their families,” she said emphatically getting unsympathetic looks from others sitting around us.

“It’s a crazy system, a real conundrum,” I offered.

Just then, a man came out of the back room and said, “Can anyone here speak Spanish?”

All the non-citizens said in a chorus, “Si, si, senior.”

The guy shook his head, “No, no, I meant is there an English speaking person here who speaks Spanish?”

The woman sitting next to me stood up quickly. “I teach Spanish. How can I help?”

“You can be my interpreter.”

“I’ll gladly interpret, but I can do more than that if it’ll get us out of here faster, I’m good with computers,” she said.

“Ok, come with me,” he said.

“Well, I have my assistant with me. He’d be glad to help.”

“Sure, bring him along.”

She turned to me and smiled. “I’m Connie by the way. Connie Joseph.”

“Miles Reardon.”

“Ok, Miles. Let’s show these people how to work smart and fast,” she said, pulling me by the arm.”

Connie and I were processed first. We had our licenses renewed in five minutes. Then, she sat down at the end window and found out what it was she had to do, essentially type information from a form into the word processor, snap a photo of the license and ID applicants, and take the cash fee or the credit card and hand it to the MVA guy. My job was to have the non-citizens line up, check all their forms to see if they were completed in a legible manner, and tell them to have their ten bucks ready.

Connie moved quickly and so did the line. She processed 50 people in about an hour and a half. She typed efficiently, no chit chatting, and moved things along. Everyone there was happy and when we were finished, she looked at me and said, “I need a damn drink after that.”

We ended up in a bar and burger joint on the Pike. When we walked into the place she told me to order her a double vodka martini and she headed for the ladies room. When she came back to the table I noticed that she had put on fresh makeup, but while admiring her, I noticed that she had taken off the gold chain. We drank and talked about life and by three that afternoon we were in bed in the Motel Six across the parking lot from the bar. As I released myself from our embrace she smiled. “We’re a perfect fit,” she said, “perfect.”

I closed my eyes and thought. Is this my lucky day or what? I had been divorced for a little over a year. You see, I’m a CPA. My former wife couldn’t take my absence or catatonic state for the four month tax preparation season. She packed up and left me a note telling me to file my taxes separately in the coming year. I hadn’t dated since then, and hadn’t been intimate with anyone for almost two years. Now, I had the perfect partner, at least physically. But who the hell is she? And, why has she chosen me?

I came out of the shower with a towel wrapped around me. As I did, she sat up in bed, and the sheet she was under slid down. She opened her arms and beckoned to me. Soon, I was dead to the world. I woke up hours later to an empty bed. Turning on the lamp, I saw her message thanking me for making her day. No phone number, no promise of more perfect fits, I was crestfallen and again wondering, who is she? When I got back to my place, I Googled Connie Joseph and came up with nothing.

I mooned about her for days, but eventually I got over her and went on with my life. In a matter of months, I met the love of my life. We married a year later, and in another year we had a baby girl and the following year a boy. Life at home was going well as was my accounting practice until two guys in blue suits showed up at my office. New clients, I guessed when I went out to the reception room to greet them, only to be presented with their FBI credentials. “Mr. Reardon, I’m Special Agent Tullis and this is Special Agent Coffey, can we talk with you in private?”

I swallowed hard searching my mind. Was it the tax return of one of the firm’s clients? What could be wrong? The alarm bells were going off. What’s going on here? “Sure,” I said, but I quickly thought that I had better call Jack Brooks, an attorney in the building, who had handled a few cases for clients of the firm. I led them to the conference room. “Could you wait here for a few minutes? I want my attorney to sit in on our discussion.”

“That won’t be necessary. You’re not the subject of our investigation and neither are any of your clients,” Agent Tullis said.

Sure, relax. The FBI is here to help me. No, I’ve been in too many audits over the years, something’s not right here. Out of caution, I told them, “I worked for the IRS early in my career. No lawyer, no discussion; it’s that simple.”

They shrugged, I called Jack Brooks to explain the situation and then served the agents coffee. My nerves were getting the best of me waiting for Jack. When he arrived he went through the stipulations or terms for our discussion. The initial minutes of our meeting were taken up by Agent Coffey’s revelations.

Coffey opened his briefcase and began stacking stuff on the table. I leaned towards him focused on what he was doing. There were passports, credit cards, and drivers’ licenses wrapped in rubber bands and tagged. When he was finished, he asked me if I had a passport. What’s this all about? Puzzled, I looked at Jack, who hunched his shoulders. I told Coffey that as strange as it seemed, I never had a reason to apply for a passport since my only trips out of the country had been to Mexico, Canada, and Puerto Rico.

Agent Coffee smiled. “Well, you have one now, though it’s not signed.” He picked it up and waved it back and forth. Pointing to a pile of forms, he said, “We also have a few credit cards applications in your name.”

I was stunned. My credit was exceptional. My FICO score was in the high 800’s the last time I’d checked.

“What are you getting at?” Jack Brooks said.

“Mr. Reardon’s documents are only one set in these piles of documents,” Coffey said. “We have boxes of similar documents back at our office.”

“It’s obvious that my client is a victim of some sort of credit card scam.”

“Not really a victim as far as we can determine, but he could have been,” Agent Tullis opined. “As Agent Coffey said, his passport bears no signature. For some reason it was never used. The passport is still good. It contains his real birth date and place of birth. The information on the inside page for personal data, his address and emergency contact information is still to be filled in. As for the credit card applications, our inquiries with the issuing companies revealed that they were never submitted. We can assure you that his credit rating has not been affected. That’s part of the reason we’re here. We think Mr. Reardon knows more about this matter than he realizes.”

I sat there baffled wondering what he was getting at when Jack Brooks said, “Let’s cut to the chase, guys. How does this involve Mr. Reardon?”

Tullis reached into his briefcase and pulled out a photo and slid it across the table to me along with the question, “Recognize her?”

I looked at the photo and closed my eyes. Oh, my God. It’s the perfect fit. I felt sick to my stomach. My reaction to the photo was telling. Jack Brooks held up his hand. “My client and I are going to step outside for a few minutes.”

Confused and in total shock, somehow I managed to stumble out of the conference room and into the hallway with Jack. We went into my office and closed the door. I was devastated as I struggled to remember the details of that morning at the MVA. Five minutes later he knew the whole story right through to our afternoon soiree in the Motel 6. “Look, she asked me to help her. All I was doing was making sure that the Hispanics had filled in their forms legibly and that they had their money ready to pay the fee. You know, I was speeding up the process. Look, Jack, I’d never seen her before or after that day. Am I in trouble?”

As Jack looked at me his face tightened. He closed his eyes as he bowed his head, the fingers of his right hand moving up and down his nose as he slowly moved his head back and forth as if uncertain. “I don’t think so,” he said, pausing. “I mean how could she know you’d be at the MVA? She had no idea that you’d be there that morning, and by chance there was an empty seat next to you. If you’d been sitting in the middle of the row, then some other guy would’ve ended up as her helper. In fact she might not have needed or selected a helper. She obviously found you to be suitable for what came later. What I have to do is protect your identity from disclosure.”

When he said those words I felt faint. I slumped over in my chair and closed my eyes as I struggled to process his statement. “Oh my God, I haven’t even thought about that. You have to protect me on this. I can’t be named in this mess. I had nothing to do with it. My reputation, my business, and possibly my marriage are at stake.” I cringed visualizing the newspaper and television stories about the Motel 6 love nest and the gullible CPA who unwittingly assisted in the identification theft of the personal information of thousands of people from the MVA data base, which was used in creating false identities for credit card scams. Yeah, just the kind of person you want handling your most sensitive personal information. I was beginning to lose it. I looked over at Jack who was silent in thought and pleaded with him, “Please, you have to keep my name out of this.”

He nodded in agreement. “Look, it’s obvious that if she pleads innocent and her prosecution goes to trial you’ll have to testify in court to prove that she had access to the data and the opportunity to steal it. If that’s the case, we need an agreement that they’ll identify you as witness A, B, or C in the charging documents. If they agree to that now, you tell them what you know today, and possibly later to the Assistant U.S. Attorney handling the case. They obviously have a solid case against her. Cases like this usually result in some sort of plea agreement with a monetary fine and a negotiated prison term subject to a federal judge’s approval.”

“What if they don’t agree to shield my identity?”

“I think they will. Given your innocent involvement, I see no reason why they wouldn’t agree.”

When we went back into the room I was beside myself as I listened to Jack work out the agreement that my identity would not be disclosed. The sweat had been running through my shirt and into the arm pits and down the lining of the sides of my suit jacket. I had the foul smell of fear about me when I pulled off my jacket. Jack patted my shoulder and smiled. “Relax, Miles. Tell them what you recall from that day.”

I took a deep breath and began to tell the story, hesitating only when I got to our soiree in the Motel 6. On Jack’s demand they also agreed that what happened there would not be part of the record. “What happened on the Pike, stays on the Pike,” Agent Tullis said with a smile.

When I was finished with my story, Agent Coffey revealed that inside the pendant on the chain worn by my perfect fit was a real thumb drive that enabled her to download the personal information and photographs of thousands of people who had visited the MVA’s Express Office on the Pike, enabling her to apply for passports and credit cards, and to print driver licenses that she subsequently sold. With all this personal information, she also utilized Turbo Tax software to file bogus tax returns resulting in her receipt of millions of dollars in tax refunds. Coffey also explained that the crowd in the MVA office was part of the scheme. People coming to the office for ID cards the previous week were told to report the following Tuesday at 9 a.m. The two employees taking sick leave was also a contrivance. They were not involved in the scheme, but their supervisor was. He had told them to take the day off. During the previous week he had also enjoyed the same Motel 6 privileges. It appears that he, too, was a perfect fit.

I sat there in silence thinking how lucky I was that she hadn’t left her phone number or had called me. I didn’t want to think about what might’ve happened if we had connected again.  Read More 
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Cinco de Mayo - A Trans-formative Day at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Naples, Italy, Monday, April 27, 1958: I checked out of my Naval Security Group office on the heights of Posillipo and walked to the Personnel office in the adjacent building to pick up my departure orders and personnel and pay records. Gil McDonald, one of my suite mates at the Hotel Tricarico, where we were billeted, was in charge of the transportation office. He gave me my choice of returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for my discharge by either ship, a one-week monotonous voyage on a troop transport, or by plane, via Paris. Naturally, I chose Paris.

I left Naples early the next morning on a Navy diplomatic courier flight and landed at Le Bourget Airport later that morning. I checked into the Hotel Le Littre, a facility managed by the Air Force for U.S. servicemen and their families in transit. I had spent two fun days there earlier that month on my way to the opening of the World’s Fair in Brussels, and things were normal with the usual hustle and bustle in this glorious City of Light. Things had changed in that short span of time. There was tension in the air. Paris was in political turmoil. U.S. military personnel were advised to be careful and return to the hotel no later than 2300.

I quickly found out why. The French Army had taken control of the politically unstable Algerian government and was demanding the return of Charles de Gaulle to lead France. In a few weeks, the French Parliament returned him to power as Prime Minister; and at the end of the year he was elected President of France, and would serve for another ten years. Leaving the hotel that afternoon I found Gendarmes standing at every corner in Paris with automatic weapons at the ready. It would be the only time in my countless trips to Paris over the years that I was anxious to leave.

Late the next day, I boarded a Military Air Transport Command (MATS) DC5 and via the Azores and Newfoundland arrived at Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey at noon the next day. An Air Force bus dropped me and about ten other sailors off at the Brooklyn Navy Yard at four that afternoon. After checking in at the Navy Receiving Station on Flushing Avenue, I was home at our apartment in Woodside at six o’clock with my sea bag and all my gear. After greeting the family, Dad and I had a drink with some of his friends at a neighborhood watering hole before returning home for dinner. Following dinner, I reunited with a girl in Sunnyside who I had dated while on leave in 1957.

Early the next morning, I took the subway to the Navy Yard with an overnight bag packed with working shoes, dungarees, and a foul weather jacket. After turning down an assignment to pick up a prisoner in Buffalo and return him by train to the Navy Brig, I was put in charge of a line handling party to assist the debarkation on an aircraft carrier and its three destroyer escorts. That proved to be a considerable challenge since my working party was replete with lazy misfits.

The following day, Friday, May 2nd, I was called to the Personnel Office and informed that I would be discharged the following Monday, May 5th, nine days ahead of my scheduled May 13th discharge. I also learned that I had passed the test for First Class Petty Officer (E6 rank). It was quite an accomplishment for someone a week shy of 21, but the promotion would not be effective until June 1st. The “Catch 22” was that the promotion would only be awarded if I extended my enlistment for another year. I was willing to extend my service for another three months, but another year, even in Naples, was out of the question. I never doubted my decision. Looking back, in John Greenleaf Whittier’s words, it was never an “it might have been” moment for me. It was an easy decision. I was foregoing the security of a Navy career and taking the opportunity the G.I. Bill offered. I was going to college that fall.

The morning of May 5th proved to be both a serious and amusing moment in my life. The night before, Joe Aigner, a colorful character that my sister Rose was dating, offered to drive me back to the Navy Yard in his 1956 black Pontiac convertible and pick me up the next morning outside the Receiving Station. Joe, 6'2" and weighting about 225 pounds, was a fun-loving, carefree, larger-than-life guy you were immediately drawn to.

After morning chow, I stripped my bunk, turned in my Navy issued and well-worn blanket that had traveled the world with me, to the Quartermaster’s office, and checked out of the Personnel office, where I turned in my ID card was handed my personnel records, final pay, had my photo taken, and was issued an Inactive Navy Reserve ID card.

There were about 25 of us being discharged that morning, most from the New York Metropolitan area. We assembled outside the Personnel office on the main deck and marched to the front entrance and down the steps into a small courtyard surrounded by a chain link fence. The Brooklyn Navy Yard band was playing a medley of marching music as we assembled in two columns. Outside the fence on Flushing Avenue, Joe Aigner was waiting in his convertible with the hood down and the radio blaring.

When the Navy band finished playing, a flustered young lieutenant had to compete with James Brown singing “Good Golly Miss Molly” as he vainly tried to wish us farewell. He paused and turned towards Joe who was leaning back behind the wheel, a cigarette in his mouth and a wide smile on his face as he tapped the steering wheel to the rhythm of the music. “Does anyone know this person?” he asked. We all looked at each other and hunched our shoulders everyone smirking, including me. I wasn’t about to test the lieutenant and admit that Joe was there for me. I wouldn’t be officially discharged until he said dismissed. I waited with baited breath until he did.

Thankfully, there was a brief lull in the music from Joe’s car radio as the lieutenant continued to speak, but he was soon interrupted by the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up Little Suzie.” At that point, the lieutenant gave up, wished us good luck and stormed up the steps and into the building just as the Navy band struck up “Anchors Aweigh.” We all turned and saluted the flag before we walked out onto Flushing Avenue, where I shook hands with a few of the guys and said good bye. As I nodded at Joe to drive to the corner, someone asked me, “Who is that guy?” I smiled and said, “One of the many characters from my neighborhood.” I jogged up the street and threw my gear in the back seat and joined Joe up front. He was laughing. “I hope I didn’t screw things up for you,” he said. I shook my head. Joe was being Joe, and I was setting out in a whole new direction. It was Cinco de Mayo, but at that time I didn’t know the significance of the date, it being the anniversary of the historic Mexican victory over Napoleon’s forces in the 1862 battle of Pueblo. For me, it was a transformative day. My life was beginning anew and that was a significant enough reason for the celebratory drinks that Joe and I would soon be enjoying. Now, when I celebrate Cinco de Mayo I do so with the fond memories of that day in 1958.  Read More 
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