E-mails From America


In America, beauty queens wear Styrofoam crowns to lunch at Hibachi restaurants.

This might sound like trite Hollywood mythology, or something from the imagination of a child in a remote jungle village. But it’s the truth — I saw it in my e-mail. Not spam e-mail or an e-mail newsletter. An e-mail addressed specifically to me. Five e-mails, actually, each containing several digital snapshots. They came one day two summers ago, along with this message: “Ladies have a great time at your pageants and go kick some KEISTER!”

In one, a brunette wears a lime-green crown decorated with hearts and purple glitter letters that spell RACHEL. She poses, purse-lipped, with a prepubescent boy in glasses and a button-down shirt. Both are flashing the finger-symbol which translates from American “street” finger-parlance as “WESTSIDE.” Broader shots reveal them to be part of a group gathered around a large table in an otherwise vacant restaurant. The inlaid table-top grill is still clean. Waters are still fresh. There are five other women present, four wearing hot pink tank-tops. In one shot, Rachel poses alone in the prototypical “Walk Like an Egyptian” stance. In another she has traded her makeshift crown for a crystal tiara and is smiling broadly with her arm over the shoulder of one of the pink-tanked ladies, who has donned a sash that reads “Miss North Central [Something].”

I am not now, and have never been, a beauty queen. I have never kicked “keister” of any kind. I was not made privy to this trove of archaeological data about the North American pageant dweller circa 2009 because I am one of them, or know any of them, or know anything about them. I received it because my name begins with a “Jess.” And because other people’s do too.

In 2004, the launch of Gmail swept out a tide of unwieldy e-mail IDs — calicokittypaw1979, xbriar_rosex, jessanne320234 — and with them, the kind of digital identity that was, out of necessity, so hyperspecific as to be practically unmistakable. The coveted Gmail beta invitation, at the time, promised a fresh start. It promised to change e-mail forever, and it did. Conversations. A very good spam filter. And, at least for the “early adopter,” a much simpler identity. Suddenly, my email address was my name, and, instead of sagging under the weight of pharmaceutical poetry and Canadian mortgage rates, my inbox was light and free of anything not meant specifically for the actual me.

Until it wasn’t. As Gmail went from beta to behemoth, I started getting messages that were addressed to me, but not meant for me. The simpler your digital identity, it seems, the more likely you are to be mistaken for someone you are not. Fascinated by the misdirected party pics and serenity meditations that began rolling in — dozens, if not hundreds, over the years — I filed them away in a color-coded folder in my inbox labeled “Wrong Number.” I thought someday they might amass into something that told me something. And if my amateur sociology was creepy, I figured, well, there were worse ways one could be creepy with this information in this day and age.

(I was moved by ethics to respond only once — to alert an earnest but lusty repeat offender of his mistake — after deciding I didn’t want to bear the karmic weight of passively foiling a young love before it got off the ground. He didn’t say thanks, which I attributed to humility, but later it occurred to me that perhaps some cold-hearted Jess had “accidentally” given the poor guy the wrong address and it was my unsolicited truth-telling that crushed a harmless, if futile, dream. You can see why I decided it was better if I just stayed out of it.)