The best thing about my recent birthday was that my license expired, affording me the opportunity to visit one of my favorite places — the DMV. And if you believe that, then my gift was a bridge, which I’d like to sell to you….
I was hoping no one else would be stupid enough to be willing to spend a beautiful Friday afternoon at such a place, but apparently there are a lot of stupid people in Raleigh other than me — and most of them showed up there just a few minutes before I did.
Is there a location more commonly reviled across this country than the DMV? Its customers and agents alike seem to hate being there — maybe because both know that they’re not likely to meet a more impatient, angry, stubborn or ignorant individual than the one they’re staring at from across the counter. Knowing this, as I pulled into the parking lot of the DMV and took a look at its imposing facade, I immediately heard the voice of Ben Kenobi.
See, my brain has this little soundtrack/database that often engages when something stirs either a strong emotion or my fight-or-flight instinct. It reacts by playing an appropriate quote from a movie or TV show — usually science fiction, comic book, or other geeky fare. For example, whenever I see a particularly contentious or critical person heading my way, I hear Jonathan Frakes shout, “Shields up! Red alert!” And when our six-year-old eagerly jumps in to try to help us with some difficult chore that’s too much for him, Elijah Wood pitifully chimes in, “I will take the ring to Mordor … though I do not know the way.” And I took one look at the DMV building and heard Sir Alec Guinness say, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy … we must be cautious.”
I opened the outer door and walked into sort of an entrance foyer, with a door to my left and a door to my right. The door to my right was for people exiting the inner sanctum; the door to my left was for fools.
I opened it anyway and found a line that had wrapped around four walls and nearly doubled back on itself so far that the end was at the beginning — like some bizarre Möbius strip, or the Ouroboros. I walked in and was close enough to the front of the line to feel encouraged, until I realized I was facing the wrong direction. I slowly turned 180 degrees and faced my horror — the back of a long, winding, unmoving line.
Most of the people standing in it seemed to have already lost hope — except for one. I think she was there with her teen-aged daughter, who looked nervous about her upcoming road test and embarrassed to be seen with her mom. I would have been, too, as the woman seemed to think it was her job to greet every newcomer with a vapid grin.
Really, there are three ways to react when a new sucker walks into a situation like that. My preferred method is to ignore them, giving them the privacy they must surely want when discovering they’ve just arrived in hell. If you feel you must acknowledge and/or interact with them, the acceptable method of doing so is to briefly make eye contact, then shrug or roll your eyes in an unspoken “What can you do?” type of commiseration.
Lastly and least preferable is to grin at them. This indicates: 1) that you aren’t smart enough to hate being there, 2) that you’re mocking other people’s pain, or 3) that you’re planning to eat them while you wait.
Regardless, my best course of action was to try to ignore her — which proved difficult, considering the line wrapped in such a way that I was standing directly opposite her. So I turned my back to her and stared out the door I’d just walked through. This also served to warn me whenever a newcomer was about to open it into me.
That happened pretty soon after I’d arrived, and I jumped back to allow a woman through. At that point, things became awkward, as I’d more or less vacated my spot at the back of the line. After she came through the door, I tried to politely jockey my way back in front of her, in spite of having very little room to maneuver. This placed us in uncomfortable proximity to one another, and she chose to respond by grinning. Terrific. Two cannibals in the same line, coming at me from different directions.
But Grinner 2 added a breathy little “Hey” to her grin, as if she knew me. It was a husky whisper, almost flirtatious, with a chuckling upturn at the end — something that usually indicates familiarity. She looked vaguely familiar, too, but I didn’t feel like puzzling over that. I was too sick.
See, last week I had a rotten case of … something. Flu, cold, whatever; I can never tell. This is another riddle to me. I’ve read numerous lists of symptoms on sites purporting to explain the difference, but I swear the lists are always identical. Whatever. I coughed, sweated, shivered and generally felt like crap all week. But Friday was my last chance.
True, my license wouldn’t expire for another two days, but I was committed to taking care of the boys for those two days. So if you were planning to harass me about going to a busy public place while I was probably contagious — save your breath, Howard Hughes. We don’t live in bubbles.
I’m usually pretty considerate about these things — at least I worked from home while I was at my most contagious — but I’m not going to risk getting points on my freshly expired license just to avoid coughing on someone at the DMV. And I was fairly certain the friendly people in line would rather be subjected to a million tiny germs flying in a short radius around me last week, than to two small boys running every-stinking-where this week.
So I’d dragged my pale, clammy, miserable self to the DMV, where I had to wonder why Grinner 2 was talking to me. She couldn’t have been flirting, as I don’t generally attract women even when I’m healthy, let alone coated in a sweaty sheen. And she couldn’t have been trying to be friendly, as I damn sure didn’t give her any sign that I was looking for a friend.
Yet she kept grinning, which was even more unsettling to my ready-to-faint-if-it-didn’t-get-a-seat-soon body. I’m not anti-social, but I can’t abide by someone who stands there and grins, even when they’re not looking at anyone. If you’re in a holding pattern, your face should be a tabla rosa. At best, you might look mildly worried, as if you’re thinking about something deep. But grinning off into the distance? It’s even worse than grinning at other people.
Years ago, I went with my brothers to see the movie Frantic.
In the opening scene, Harrison Ford’s character is riding with his wife in a cab through the streets of Paris. I think he’s on his way to a conference, and has brought her with him for a kind of second honeymoon while he’s there. In that scene, his character knows nothing of how bad things are about to become for him. Life is good, yet he sits in the back of the cab with an almost worried look on his face as he stares into the distance. I still remember my brother leaning over and whispering, “He always looks worried.”
He was right. Harrison Ford has perfected that vaguely worried, even dazed, look. That’s how a person should look when they’re standing in line at the DMV, letting their mind wander. Grinning is not an acceptable alternative.
So there I stood, looking worried and sick, trying not to make eye contact with either grinner, and hoping the line would move soon. It didn’t. Our line seemed to be waiting for something to happen at an untended counter. Beyond it, I could see a large bank of green chairs — probably about 80 of them — filled with impatient-looking people, gripping little slips of paper. No one in our line had a slip; using my intuitive senses, I figured that’s why we were lined up (or wound up, as the case was) at an untended counter. Sure enough, there was some sort of ticket-producing machine on the counter, like the type you’d find in a busy delicatessen.
After 20 minutes or so, the line shifted imperceptibly. I looked at the counter again and to my delight, saw a DMV agent who had wordlessly appeared and allowed the first person in line to approach the bench. He dismissed that guy, then beckoned with his fingers to the next victim, and so on.
I never heard him speak a word until it was my turn — when I approached, he scowled and asked, “Yes?”
I told him I needed to renew my license, and he silently dispensed my number, handed it to me with a crumpled sheet of road sign illustrations (I could only assume I was supposed to study them, as he never bothered to explain the sheet’s purpose), and pointed toward the green chairs. It was like dealing with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
The green seats were mostly filled, so I started walking toward a set of ten blue chairs, five feet in front of the green bank, but facing a different direction. Counter Man shook his head, then pointed again toward the green chairs. Apparently, the blue chairs are for people who are waiting to have their license photo taken — they’ve already suffered through the indignity of the green crowd before taking their tests, and have earned the right to sit and primp in comfort. I’m surprised they didn’t have a stewardess and a curtain to prevent us greenies in coach from staring at them.
I managed to find an empty seat without stepping on or infecting too many angry people, then waited for my number to be called. At one point, I looked up and noticed Grinner 2, sitting and grinning to herself — in the blue seats! How could this be? She’d been behind me in line; how had she already been summoned to take her test and was now waiting to have her picture taken? I watched in disbelief as she approached the camera, her facial expression never changing, then briefly consulted with the camera lady before heading for the exit. She must have read my mind, because on her way past my row of seats, she grinned even more and said, “It helps if you make an appointment.” Then she giggled and ran out the door before any of 80 angry people could reach her throat.
At long last, an automated voice called my number — ironic, considering I saw no evidence that the live DMV agents were too busy to pick up a mic. The voice instructed me to report to Desk 8, where another agent drummed her fingers and watched as I dragged my rapidly declining body across the floor and slowed down to cough at the people in the blue seats. She was, however, marginally more welcoming than Counter Man, so I tried to hurry and I even smiled and added a “please” after telling her I needed to renew my license. She took my germy sheet of traffic signs from me, pointed toward a reader on her desk and instructed me to read the top line. That’s when the trouble started.
I’m not sure how to describe it, but I have an occasional … issue with my eyes. I don’t like edges. If I see any sort of edge or border in my peripheral vision, I melt down — I squint, squirm, flinch and generally can’t look anymore. This makes it challenging to stare at a small computer screen or look into small eyeholes like the ones found in binoculars, microscopes or DMV readers.
It flares up when I’m tired, the way I felt after staying up coughing several nights last week. It’s not totally debillitating — often I can just walk away, close my eyes, and rest until it stops — but it’s aggravating. It’s especially bad when I’m in a situation where I can’t remove myself, like freaking out over the rearview mirror in my field of vision while I’m driving, having to close my eyes to block out the edges of my glasses, or staring into a reader in front of an impatient DMV agent with 79 people waiting for my spot at her desk.
All I could do was screw up my face and press my forehead painfully hard against the reader as I tried to force my eyes to look past the edges. I rattled off the top line, and she told me to identify the road signs below it.
Somehow the signs looked three-dimensional, resembling those lenticular Viewmaster reels that seemed like such advanced technology in the early 70s (at least that’s how it seemed during the short views I had of them before I threw them across the room and squinted until the pain went away). This was pure torture, and it was only exasperated by the ridiculous premise behind the question — when is a driver ever likely to see a stop sign without the word “STOP” on it? Why do I have to correctly identify a blank red octagon in order to renew my license?
Or the yellow isosceles triangle turned sideways to resemble an arrowhead, pointing right. I know that’s a “No Passing Zone” sign, because another high-schooler warned me about it before I took my first license test. That useless bit of information has stuck with me ever since, because it’s the one sign that tends to trip people up when they see it without text. It’s that uncommon. But we’ve made it common by reminding each other. “Remember — sideways triangle equals no passing zone!”
Think the DMV knows we do that? Kinda like cops who set speed traps — do they know we’re out there, warning each other by flashing our lights? Or are these things our little secrets, constitutionally protected in order to grant us life, liberty and the high-speed pursuit of happiness?
Anyway, it’s ridiculous to ask us to identify that sign without words on it, because you know what? Even if the unthinkable happened and the black paint inexplicably disappeared from a “No Passing Zone” sign, we’d still know it’s not a passing zone, because there’d be a big ol’ double yellow line in the middle of the road.
But I humored her, and identified it. Next came a series of warning signs, with symbols. Traffic light ahead, hill ahead, left turn ahead, lots of stuff ahead immortalized in crudely drawn silhouettes. I still nailed them.
What tripped me up was the signs with actual text. I thought maybe those were trick questions. There was a picture of a sign that said, “Reduced speed ahead” and she wanted me to “identify” the sign.
I had to stop and think — which at least gave me a chance to close my eyes — about whether there was some wacky code name for this sign. It couldn’t be the obvious answer, could it? Not after they’d tried to trick us with things like an empty yellow sign with five sides, shaped sorta like a house. (That one’s a school crossing, btw.)
“Um, yeah, the last one means, umm, reduced speed ahead?”
“You got them all right. Sign this sheet and take it with you to the blue chairs.”
“The blue ones? Sweet!”
I waited in luxury for the photo lady to call me. She was a little more talkative, but only inasmuch as she had to tell me to sit up straight and look at the camera. She also warned me when she was about to take the picture, and at that moment, I realized my glasses were crooked. Then, my eyes freaked out again. I started to squint and tried to say, “Wait” before the camera flashed, to no avail.
She called me to her table and I was hopeful that she was going to let me preview the picture. Nothing doing. Instead, she handed me a Temporary Driving Certificate and a slip of paper with instructions on what to do next. Seriously, that’s how committed the DMV is to not having their agents actually speak to their customers. The slip read as follows:
Your N.C. Driver License by First-Class Mail!
Use your Temporary Driving Certificate for driving purposes only.
Check it for accuracy before you leave the DMV office. You may use
your old license for photo identification until your new license arrives.
If your new license does not arrive within 15 days,
call DMV at (919) 861-3555.
QUESTIONS? Visit http://www.ncdot.gov/dmv or call the number above.
(Psst! Tell your friends to renew early. Make sure they get their new license
on time. They can renew up to six months before their birthday due date!)
1 million copies of this public document were printed at a cost of $6543.44, or .0036¢ each. (07/10)
My favorite part was the enthusiastic paragraph about telling my friends, but just for fun, try the math from that last bit — I know I’m just a mathematically disinclined writer, but I’m fairly certain their calculation doesn’t quite work out.
Anyway, by now I was unsatisfied with my lowly status. Not only would I not be allowed to request a do-over of my photo, I was also going to have to keep a big certificate in my wallet for a couple of weeks while I waited to receive my new license — complete with a picture of me with crooked glasses, squinting eyes, open mouth, sickly complexion, and big red mark across my forehead in the shape of the reader on the second agent’s desk.
And no one was even willing to talk to me — about this or anything else. Well, I’d had it. I knew I couldn’t get what I wanted, but I could at least improve my day a little by having some fun before leaving. I was going to force these people to talk if it killed me.
Camera Lady had already dismissed me in her mind and was calling the next subject to the photo chair, but I wasn’t done with her yet. I went into full Columbo mode. In short, I played dumb.
I let the instruction slip provide me with the questions, and forced her to give the answers that were already printed on it.
“So, my license will come in the mail?”
“But my old one expires Tuesday; what should I do? Can I use this certificate as a temporary license?”
“Yessir. (Sit down in that chair, ma’am.)”
“And my new license should show up in 15 days?”
“Yessir. (Look right here, ma’am.)”
“It will have the picture you just took of me?”
“Yessir. (Okay, ma’am, I’m about to take the picture.)”
“Is there anything else I need to do? Can I go?”
“Yessir. (Okay, ma’am, come over to where this guy is standing, please.)”
By then, even I’d grown tired of my game. Plus, I was about to be pushed aside. But I at least felt a little better emotionally, in spite of physically feeling like I was about to die. I dragged myself toward the exit door, avoiding eye contact with Grinner 1 — who was waiting for her daughter to finish her test — and 78 other people in the green zone.
And as I stepped out into the sunshine, Mel Gibson triumphantly shouted, “Freeeeedommmmmm!” in my head. That’s right, Wallace. The torture is over; now we can each go on to our respective resting place.