I am playing musical chairs in an otherwise serious government office. Here in downtown Manhattan, I’ve come to apply for my IDNYC card, and all of us applicants have to move chairs every time someone gets called to the window. It’s quite amusing; I’m now in the third chair in the fourth row, and my bottom will warm every chair until my name is called.

The IDNYC is a photo identification card for people who need government identification but can’t get it: people like undocumented immigrants, former prisoners, teenagers, older people, those without driving licences, etc. With the IDNYC, you can open a bank account, get medical care, and lots of other necessities for which you need an official ID. It’s a humane and welcome service in a city where 37% of the population was born outside the US.

In between getting up and moving up from chair to chair, I fill out my application. You may ask, why am I getting this card in the first place? Am I not here legally? Yes, I most definitely am. Yet I’m in this office, bouncing eagerly on my way to the window, for two reasons.

The first is vaguely altruistic: When the programme was introduced, all New Yorkers were encouraged to get the card, as a way of avoiding stigma for those who really have no other documentation. That’s fine. But my second, and main, reason is the discounts!

To encourage lots of people to apply, our mayor, who knows we all love a bargain, offered free one-year memberships to 33 cultural institutions like museums and zoos, admission and discounts for music and Broadway, and gardens, along with discounts on food, gym memberships, prescriptions, and a whole lot more. That’s really why I’m here.

About 530,000 New Yorkers already have IDNYCs, according to the magazine Modern Healthcare. It is already the nation’s largest municipal card. And sitting here, filling out my application, I approve of its inclusive and feminist underpinnings.

For instance, under “Gender", I have three choices: Female, Male, and Not Designated. Yes! So trans people are welcome to apply without being stymied by a checkbox.

Furthermore, the city has not forgotten one important group: women who are victims of domestic violence. The IDNYC requires proof of a home address, but if you are a victim of domestic violence, and either on the street or in a shelter, you can still get a card, so you can graduate from high school, visit a public library, apply for a birth certificate—and visit the zoo with your children on Saturday.

Generally I am suspicious of government ID cards. Any thinking person would be, as they have been used throughout history for nefarious purposes—in apartheid-era South Africa and Nazi Germany, to cite just two examples. And even here, the agency saves all the data for two years, which means the police or any other agency can get access to it. If I were undocumented, this would definitely make me nervous. So far, though, it does seem as if our city government has our interests at heart.

As for all the cultural benefits, I try to imagine what I would feel like if I had just arrived with my family after running from death squads, leaving all my possessions and beloved landscapes behind, and someone gave me a card that allowed me to start a new life, and also get into the Bronx Zoo and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Would I sneer at the frivolity of it, or would I grasp at the chance to remember that in this terrifying world there is also art, there is also music, and someone cares about an injured condor? I hope I would.

I was never in danger of death squads, but I know what it’s like to have your papers confiscated at the border. It feels terrible. It is awful to feel you have no right to step on the ground beneath your feet, and it is humiliating to deal with those who enjoy their power as the keepers of borders. In the novel Year Of The Tiger, I wrote about these guardians: “Show me your papers. In this room you are in my cage, show me your papers. The Statue of Liberty is out there, but I am here. I am a citizen and you are not. I am the border officer at the dusty baking crossroads, I am the man with footless socks in the dripping forest hut, I am the person with icicles on my scarf in the mountains where you cannot pass until you show me your papers. Limping in from Croatia, sailing in from Cambodia, dragging in from Guatemala, screaming in from Tibet, show me your papers. I am inside, you are outside, at the border; not yet here, no longer there."

Millions of New Yorkers have millions of reasons to be here—war, violence, economics, or simply to be able to eat a juicy beefsteak in peace without getting beaten to death—and there’s something both ridiculous and sublime about being rewarded with a card that gives you the dignity of belonging as well as a pass to go to the ballet.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter just found water on Mars. Perhaps there’s life there. If any Martians come to live in New York, we will welcome them with the IDNYC card, and hope they enjoy the films at the Museum of the Moving Image.

My IDNYC card will arrive any day, and when it does, I plan to visit every single one of the 33 cultural institutions. Carnegie Hall, here I come.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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