Sometimes I think about how much simpler life was when I was a kid. There were so many things back then that I didn’t have to worry about. Paying taxes, watching the height of my cholesterol rise, getting hair on my nipples, impotence, and, most importantly, having to remember a million passwords. When you’re a kid, a password is just some random noun that you have to mutter to get your friend to let you in his tree house.
“You want in? What’s the secret password?”
Bam. You’re in. That’s all it took. But then I got older, and passwords got increasingly more complicated. I started needing passwords for just about everything. My email, my WordPress account, online banking, my ATM card, the electronic lock on my door, stopping Gort from destroying the earth. Everything. And not only were passwords becoming more prevalent, they were getting more involved as well. A simple noun or a sequence numbers didn’t cut it anymore. Nope, for my own protection, passwords must include capital letters, numbers, and at least 8 characters, so that hacking into my Facebook page has become as difficult as cracking the Da Vinci Code or getting a girl’s phone number (for me anyways). In the future, one can only guess that passwords will get even more complex, requiring everything from punctuation to emoticons to strange symbols.
“You want in? What’s the secret password?”
“Oh. It’s Bill/198228/!?!/ ; ) /The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”
All of this is to preface how I recently lost my mind in the bank, and all because I forgot a stupid password. I’d been living in Beijing for about a month when it happened. After getting my first paycheck from my new job, I ran off to the ATM to cash in, thrilled, ready to pull money out and do something awesome with it, like go to McDonald’s or buy a mop. I switched the ATM from Chinese to English and followed the instructions, not realizing that soon the horrors of modern security would entrap me, like a fat man who puts an alarm system on his jar of Slim Jims.
“Invalid Pin,” the machine said. I got two more chances, and then the machine cut me off.
“What? I only get three shots?” I said to myself. “I was just warming up.”
The next day, the same scene repeated. Thus, I found myself sitting in Bank of China, a paper slip in my hand with a number on it, waiting to see a bank teller who probably spoke no English. Three hours passed. Finally they called me up. “Hi,” the bank teller said, “Please show me your passport.”
“Oh,” I said, “I, um, don’t have it.”
And that was the end of that. Back on the bus, a total failure. But I returned to the bank the next day, this time equipped with my passport. Make me sit there pointlessly for 3 hours once, shame on you. Make me sit there pointlessly for 3 hours twice, then you have a lot in common with the last two Lord of the Rings movies. Anyways, I ended up waiting a mere hour and a half on the second trip, before finally being called up to the teller.
(Apparently banks in China have notoriously poor service, due to the fact that they’re all government run. This leads to them being seriously understaffed and not particularly motivated by the ‘customer is always right’ mantra.)
“Nee Hao!” I said, enthusiastically. Then I tried to explain what was going on.
The teller was baffled. She called over the manager, who could speak some English. “What is the problem?” she asked.
“Well, it’s my fault, really. I can’t seem to remember my pin number.”
“I see,” she said, motioning to a keypad on the counter in front of me. “We can help you change it. Just type your pin number on the keypad.”
“Um, but that’s the problem. I don’t know it.”
She looked confused. “You don’t know it? Try to guess.”
I typed in a few numbers, again failing miserably. “Can’t you look it up in the computer or something?”
The manager practically burst out laughing at this suggestion. “It is your secret number. How are we supposed to know what it is?”
I stared at her like she was crazy, and she stared at me like I was crazy. “Because you’re the bank. You’ve got to have the number on file someplace…”
The teller twisted the computer screen to show me. “See?” the manager said. “In our computer system, in the password spot, it just says xxxxxx.”
“So how do I change it?”
“You can only change your password by typing in the original password.”
“What? This can’t be happening. Don’t you have a procedure for what happens when someone forgets their password?”
“But this has to have happened before? Are you telling me that nobody has ever forgotten their password before?”
“No,” she said. “You are the only one.”
She really said that, and she was serious. It was not a sarcastic statement. We decided, finally, that I would have to fill out a form declaring my card lost (or something to that effect), and in one week the bank would be able to wipe the pin number out of the system and replace it. “Fine,” I said. “While I’m here, though, I’ll need to withdraw some money.”
“It is impossible to withdraw money without putting your pin number in.”
“But I’m here,” I said, my voice wavering with desperation. “I have my ID. Here’s my passport. You know it’s me. Are you seriously saying I can’t have my own money because I forgot the pin number?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I cannot let you withdraw from your account unless you type in correct number. It is for security.”
The next twenty minutes were not the proudest moments of my life. I yelled. I demanded my money. I lectured the manager on the nature of passwords, how they’re supposed to stand in for identification when there’s just a machine there, nothing that can look at a person’s proper ID, and how this was insanity, the importance of the pin surpassing my being there, in physical form, me, my body and face, my real identity. Who was I? Had I become some number in a computer that nobody knew? I shouted until the security people came over. Five o’clock came and the bank closed. I refused to leave. I accused them of stealing my money. I had to eat and they were killing me. Again and again I waved my passport around and stated my name.
What did it matter? I’d lost the key, forgotten the combination to my locker, and I eventually left the bank with my head held low. Defeated. Rejected. Over a month would pass before the bank finally resolved the forgotten pin number problem. In that time I did what any person living in the modern world would do, and I put every last living expense I incurred on my credit card. See, MasterCard believes it’s really me…as long as someone keeps paying them every month.
I sat in my apartment after the bank incident and thought about things. I could lose my passport, have my face sawed off in a terrible carpentry accident, change my name to Cap’n Crunch, and none of that would make much of a difference, not as long as I kept track of all my usernames and passwords. A digital version of me had taken my place, like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as if I woke up one morning and I was gone, replaced, by some sort of computerized file.
What if the entire universe is based on code, and most of us just don’t know it? The cure for cancer, the key to finding love after forty, the secret to losing back fat – they probably all exist, somewhere, and are just very powerfully password protected.