Chapter 1: Kathryn Baker Kott
During the darkest days of Covid times, before vaccines were widely available, I was presented with two identity puzzles. Each of them required creativity and collaboration to resolve. One involved mis-tracked identity documents which caused me to have a complete meltdown before the documents were returned to me. But what else is a retired person going to do during Covid shutdown besides untangle bureaucratic snafus?
The first puzzle emerged as I changed my reservation for the Harlaxton College 50th Reunion which was being postponed from 2021 to 2022. When I received confirmation from the University of Evansville that my reservation had been moved, I noticed that although the confirmation had been sent to my email and included my correct mailing address, my maiden name was listed as Baker. Because my maiden name is Kitto and I didn’t want my initials to be KKK, I kept using the middle name I was given at birth when I married. That name starts with B but is not Baker. And, while I was Kathy in high school, I went by Katherine at Harlaxton.
My librarian friends, especially folks who have been involved in name authority work will be interested in what happened next. In consultation with the alumni database manager, the person handling the Harlaxton registration discovered that I had been conflated with someone named Kathryn Baker Kott who was practicing medicine in Green Bay Wisconsin at the time. OK, you name authority mavens, what are the red flags here? Different spellings of the first name? Living in Oakland, CA and working in Green Bay, WI?
Apparently, the University of Evansville did not track Harlaxton students from other Universities. During the inaugural year, there were quite a few of us, including a cadre from the University of the Pacific. At least two of us were children of University of Evansville faculty. If we were not tracked, how did I get conflated with someone who had actually attended and graduated from the University of Evansville?
When my mother died in 2014, I made a donation to the University of Evansville in her name. She had taught piano and organ there for some time and had stayed in touch with both student and faculty friends from that time so it seemed fitting to recognize her in that way. When the University received the donation, the person doing data entry found Kathryn Kott’s record in their database and assumed we were the same person as they had no record of me as a Harlaxton student.
With the exchange of a mere 17 email messages, the person in charge of Harlaxton registration and the database administrator were able to straighten out the records and give me access to mine. And, I am registered as myself for the Harlaxton reunion next May, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” as my dear departed mother would say.
Chapter 2: Katherine Zeliff Kott
The second puzzle is still a bit of a mystery. It involved two bureaucracies initially, expanding to five eventually. Although the initial (so to speak) issue is resolved, the matter of a replacement passport is still outstanding. Several of my friends thought I should write it up as a short story. That might have been because they found it boring when I related it as a sequence of baffling events.
The challenge will be to figure out exactly when the denouement occurred and to describe it in a way that makes it stand out. Here goes. It all started when I logged in to my Social Security to verify my benefits for a mortgage refinance application. Huh. My name displayed as Katherine Z Kott. Just a typo, I thought. It’s not possible to change one’s own name through the portal so it’s unlikely someone gained unauthorized access by logging in as me. The change had to have been made on the back end. Name changes are made by requesting a new social security card. Although the card I got in 1973 was still fine, I applied for a new one online.
Imagine my surprise when the card arrived in the mail with the name on the card correct: Katherine B Kott but the name on the stub–bearing no resemblance to any of the information I had submitted–Katherine Zeliff Kott. Well, that’s where the Z came from!
This was pre-vaccine Covid time. No opportunity to drop in to the local Social Security office and wait for hours until desperate to use the toilet but afraid to go in case your number is called while you’re in the restroom. It only took a week of calling before my call was not terminated because there were no lines available to provide a recorded hold message that my call was important. When I did get through, the agent advised me to write a letter explaining the situation, print out another application for a new card, and send the letter and application along with identity documents including a birth certificate and either drivers license or passport to the local Social Security office. She had no idea how the error might have occurred in the first place. She could not tell who had made the change or when it had been made. DBAs, what do you think about that? Perhaps a sysadmin could track down that information. It’s scary to think random changes can be made to Social Security records without a trace. Although it made me quite anxious to think of sending my identity documents, I sent my birth certificate, marriage certificate showing the name change from my birth name, and my passport by priority mail on March 9th, 2021.
About a week later, I tracked the package online through USPS. According to the tracking report, the package had been returned to sender as undeliverable on March 10th. After I recovered from a fifteen minute screaming and crying fit, I consulted my neighbor, a long time Oakland resident for advice. She was certain the package was sitting on someone’s desk at the main post office. All I had to do was go there and inquire. WRONG! What I got from my visit to the main post office was sheet of paper with a customer service number to call that had been photocopied so often, the number was almost impossible to read.
It took about the same number of days to get through to the USPS number as it had taken to reach the SSA. When I reached the recording, I was instructed to leave a call back number. The recording informed me that I would get a call back in “more than an hour.” How much more than an hour, I wondered? Fortunately, I was not left to speculate for much longer than an hour and the customer service agent very helpfully offered to investigate, promising another callback within a few days.
While I waited for the callback, I did a bit of research myself. I returned to the USPS branch I had sent the package from to have them verify the address. The address was correct for the local Social Security office. They also thought it odd that the package had been returned as undeliverable as it is likely USPS delivers similar material to that office regularly.
We were having a regular rotation of substitute carriers in our neighborhood and I had been getting mail for neighbors on the next block, so I thought perhaps my returned mail had been mis-delivered to them. I searched the internet and found the phone number of the person living there. She was sympathetic to my plight as she had also been receiving other people’s mail, but not my returned package. In desperation, I tailed the most regular substitute carrier who claimed she had no time to talk to me and as we delivered the mail, I asked her if she remembered seeing a returned priority mail package in the past week or so. While a yes or no answer might have sufficed given how busy she seemed to be, she elaborated on the reason she couldn’t possibly remember–so much mail to deliver. None of this reassured me about the safety and well-being of my identity documents. I was glad I had held onto my drivers license.
Two days after my initial phone conversation with the USPS customer service agent, I got a call from a person at the main post office where I had launched my inquiry. They had looked high and low for the package. She was sorry, but it was well and truly lost. Learning that all my identity documents except my drivers license were navigating the world on their own made me lose it completely. I went mad.
Once I had scraped myself off the ceiling (alcohol may have been involved) I got to work on replacing the lost documents. Louisiana vital records for the birth certificate, Michigan for the marriage certificate, the State Department to declare the passport lost and start the process to apply for a replacement. I was planning to get a California “real ID” when my drivers license expired in July and would need the birth certificate and my social security card for that. I needed to monitor my credit to make sure who ever had my documents was not using them for nefarious purposes.
Having seen no evidence that there had been attempts to open new accounts, I wondered if it was remotely possible that USPS had mis-scanned the package. Perhaps it really had been delivered to the local Social Security office and the tracking information that showed it had been returned to sender was wrong. To pursue this line of thought, I spent another week calling the local Social Security office. On Friday morning, I reached a person. It took some time for her to understand what I was asking. She kept saying they send documents by certified mail. Finally, she understood that the documents had gone missing before they had received them. Of course, she was working remotely and hardly anyone was going into the office. However, she emailed her supervisor with a request that someone look to see if the documents had been delivered, were in the office, and perhaps were even being processed. No one ever called me back, but about two weeks later I got this–by certified mail–with my documents:
What a relief to have the documents back in my possession and know that they were not out in the world, living it up without me. My request was indeed pending, as the letter states. The replacement Social Security card with the correct middle name on the stub was dated 05/24/2021. There was no correspondence with the card–no explanation about how or why I became Katherine Zeliff Kott. Thank goodness I did not have to wait until May 24th to reclaim my identity.
I would like to be able to say, “All’s well that ends well,” but we are not quite there yet. Because I had declared the passport lost, it was no longer valid and I had to apply for a replacement which has not arrived yet. The application process was a little rough and the State Department lost my lost passport declaration so I had to re-submit that last week. I do hope to get the passport soon and avoid collecting enough material for a second installment of failed bureaucracies.