Born third-generation American in New York City (the Bronx), I have been privileged to be able to move about at will in this country and never have to show papers. If Providence had rolled the dice to a different outcome, I could have been born in another time, another caste, and, although tenth-generation American, been burdened with displaying a slave pass or after a re-roll of the dice a certificate of freedom. In yet another alternative existence, set present day, I might be an unpapered immigrant forever watching my back.

The autonomy I have been fortunate to enjoy has suddenly vanished. I now experience in a daily way the necessity of having the right document without which access and entry are sharply restricted. The Covid-19 Vaccine Card has become an essential paper.

It has been added to a stack of similar documents. Starting in infancy, I acquired, as rites of passage, a birth certificate, social security card, working papers, draft card, driver’s license, car registration form, automobile insurance card, medical insurance card, and passport. Each of them was dutifully presented when needed, whether to a Human Resources Department, a cop on the highway (more than once, more than twice), or a medical facility. Most of the time the items were out of sight and out of mind. Daily life did not require them.

From books and films, I learned that papers could have a whole other dimension, existential in order, and not only in the United States. It’s Occupied France, 1942, on the movie screen. In a crowded Parisian café, a Gestapo officer meticulously examines the papers of an attractive jeune fille with a Browning pistol in her undergarment and ice water in her veins. I hold my breath.  Will the forgery be detected?  

I, myself, take care when in France, or on any other foreign soil, to always have on my person the proper papers while in public, sans pistolet.  The first time on the continent, traveling on the cheap with a female friend after graduating college, I had an inkling of what it could be like otherwise. Our train, the poor man’s version of the legendary Orient Express, had pulled out of the Gare de l’Est a day or two before bound for Athens, taking its time chugging across eastern France, a corner of Switzerland, and northern Italy. The train was now stopped at what in those days was the Yugoslavian border. The authorities from this Communist dictatorship dutifully collected the passports of everyone in our compartment. A few minutes later, they brought them back. Except mine

After a tense wait which seemed three times longer than it actually was, they returned my passport, visa stamped, without explanation for the delay. During the interlude, my overactive imagination had projected a dozen dire scenarios. Seeing too much Resistance cinema will have that effect. Unlike the jeune fille in the café, I do not have ice water in my veins.

This episode happily turned out to be the exception. In subsequent years, at an international airport or on entering a border-crossing train or boat, my passport has been glanced at routinely and quickly stamped if required.  Gendarmes, bobbies, and polizia did not aggressively approach in cafés to demand my papers nor did entry to monuments, museums, and other attractions require the showing of a passport. But the little booklet was reassuringly there in a pocket—my papers— in the event it was requested.

The Covid-19 Vaccine Card will provide similar assurance. I may have to show it to get into a movie theatre, baseball game, doctor’s office, supermarket, train station. and a host of other places. Our country’s conspiracy crowd will see the requirement as a surreptitious way for the government to keep track of the citizenry’s comings and goings, but, according to the crowd’s own premises, why would a labor-intensive method be needed since the vaccine has already embedded in my body a computer chip.

I remove the Covid-19 Vaccine Card from my wallet and place it on the table. For a document of such import, the effect is most underwhelming. It’s printed on card stock, not plastic. The CDC logo, lacking color, is unimpressive. No photo ID. Except for a stamped “Moderna” with a lot number (which the conspiracy crowd will be sure to perceive as the government’s surveillance file number), the filled-in information is handwritten. It includes my date of birth which means that every ticket collector and door guard will know my age. This is a document begging to be forged, evidenced by the lively internet black market in fake cards.

Should I laminate my card to guard again liquid spills, the ink running and the paper crumbling? That would cause a problem when additional shots have to be recorded. Besides, vaccination records are also online. No need then to worry too much about the fragility of the card or of losing it. Online though has its own perils. My account could be hacked!

In a worst-case scenario (I’m good at coming up with them), I desperately need medical attention, say for an excruciating toothache that calls for an immediate root canal. I can’t find the damn vaccine card—did the reception desk at the restaurant give it back? —and my online records have been wiped out. My papers are missing

This hypothetical plight brings to mind the most moving passage I have ever read about someone in desperate straits because of personal documents, from Philip Caputo’s classic Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War. A sweep by American Marines and South Vietnamese Army soldiers has captured a few Viet Cong and a large number of Viet Cong suspects, most of whom are simple villagers. One of them, a very old man, furtively shuffles with his withered fingers through the pile of documents that have been confiscated from the prisoners, peering through an ineffective diaphanous blindfold, searching nervously for his papers, “the most precious thing the old man owned,” insurance against being sent to a POW camp, or worse. At last, after carefully raising and holding numerous slips of paper in front of his masked eyes, the old man finds his papers and contentedly sticks them into his shirt pocket. 

Picking up my vaccine card and clutching it tightly, I can sense, more than ever, his anxiety and his relief. From now on, I will make sure that morning, noon, and night, I know exactly where this paper is.

Peter Gregg Slater is a professor emeritus of history whose scholarship in intellectual and cultural history is often referenced in both academic and popular publications. His poetry, fiction, parody, and essays have appeared in Dash, The Satirist, Workers Write!, The Westchester Review, and Twentieth Century Literature among other publications.