As the birthdays begin to accrue at a more alarming rate, is there any more cruel reminder than a forcible trip to the DMV? Washington State is letting some people renew by mail, now, so that you only have to appear for the photo op once a decade; this might, in fact, be worse, but I wouldn't know because I was sent no online access code. Because I moved in the last five years, or because I wear contacts, whatever, I had to go in person. The local branch of the licensing department has wonky hours, opening at 8:30 some days and 9:30 others. Today was one of the 9:30 days, I discovered when I rolled up at 8:45. Regardless, there were already 10 people lined up outside in the cold. Awesome.
We shuffled from foot to foot, leaning against the rough stuccoed wall with our coffees and books and cell phones. The locked building entrance was right next to the driveway, so watching folks pull in was at least entertaining: they'd stop to peer at the posted DMV hours, cast their eyes down the ever-expanding line, visibly mouth the obscenity of their choice, and then go park. "Is this where we get Led Zeppelin tickets?" asked a jolly bearded guy in a hat with a sparkly sequinned band. He looked like more of a Deadhead to me, but I suppose he's had to switch his affiliations. I was the only one to laugh.
When they at last let us in, we surged around the little take-a-number printer, which offered different options (renewal, exam, Other) and seemed to be spitting out different sequences of numbers. I got 005: yay! Then thirty or so of us filed in amongst the plastic chairs, and they called the first number: 300. A whispered fusillade of curses swept the room until everyone figured out the multiple sequences going on. "Threatening Department of Licensing Employees is a Crime" announced a poster on the wall. "They must have a problem with that," a woman behind me said dubiously...whereupon a loud argument immediately broke out in the next row, between a 20-something dude and a 40-something dude who accused him of "cutting! you cut in line!" as if it were the cafeteria in 4th grade. It was approximately 9:34 a.m. If I worked for the DMV I'd want to be behind bulletproof glass, like at the bank.
Next to me in the chairs, a teen girl fretted over the exam-prep booklet, absently miming the hand signals for her mother: "This is 'right turn.' This is 'left turn.' This is...I don't know." "I don't know either," her mom laughed, noshing on a bagel. "Really, you just have to know it for the test and then you won't need it," she said, drawing me into the conversation with a look. "She's right...90% of it won't ever come up again," I assured the girl, looking over her shoulder at a page full of traffic signs, arrows pointing in wild, unlikely directions.
"I just want the permit," the girl muttered, ignoring us both as the old and gabby and infirm ladies we obviously were. "If I fail again, let's not tell dad we were here this time."
This reminds me that, when I was in high school, my friend Gwyn lived on a street that happened to be part of the road-test circuit for the local DMV branch...and, as it happened, the strip right in front of her house was the designated parallel-parking site for the exam. We spent more than one afternoon, our 16th summer, kneeling backwards on her living-room couch to gawk at one or another of our classmates feverishly sawing their way into a spot, centered directly in front of the picture window. Damn, that was funny.
At last it was my turn in front of the camera. "You may smile if you wish," said the clerk, and I did, not that it matters. Because it's all digital now, they can immediately show you the picture, and they ask you: is this the photo you want to go with? I wonder if they get folks who demand retake after retake...or just burst into tears at the damage wrought by their magical Hag-Cam, because Jesus. I looked like my father in drag. I looked like a Christmas ham wearing a wig. Is this the photo you want to go with? Well, unless you can, like, tape Gillian Anderson's head on here in its place, I suppose so. "Oh, God, whatever," I said miserably, and the clerk, unmoved, pressed Print and handed me the grainy, black-and-white temporary license. You will get the real one within 30 days; if you don't, call the number on the back. Happy birthday, Ass Face! Hope the doctor didn't slap your mama!