Walking into the DMV to register our car, I consider the Buddhist belief that enlightenment requires a “joyful embrace of the sorrows of the world.” If there’s one perfect place to test this hypothesis, it’s the DMV.
I plod past a motivational poster beckoning me to “Achieve!” and grab a ticket. My number is #206. I look up at the number board and see #182. I grab a seat on a hard plastic chair and wait, reminding myself that kids are starving in China. Then I wait some more. I grab a pamphlet on airbag safety, mostly to fend off boredom, but also because this car is the first I’ve owned with airbags. According to the literature, some people new to airbags avoid seatbelts because they now have advanced safety equipment. This kind of makes sense – until the airbag fails.
I luck onto a string a numbers held by people who just gave up, and #206 is called. I jog down the counter to the woman who called out my number – I’ve been here an hour and don’t want to chance getting bypassed. I flash a smile, offer a cheery “hello,” and slide my paperwork across the counter.
The woman glances down at my application, which is blank. She gives me a slack-faced look and says, “Didn’t have enough time to fill it out while you were waiting?”
My wife left me the form before heading out of town and I didn’t bother to check it before heading to Emissions. I apologize and offer to step aside to fill it out.
The woman sighs and then grabs a pen. Looking down at the counter, she says, “Name?”
We proceed through the form. When she gets to the end the woman says, “Wife’s birthday?”
The woman lifts her eyes and stares at me.
I fumble and then spurt out, “March 7th.”
I pause again, trying to remember the year.
The woman exhales, holding the pen on the page, waiting.
I pick a year out of thin air and blurt out “1973.”
When the woman finishes writing down the date I say, “Wait, does that come out to seventeen?”
Trying to melt some very thick ice here.
The woman turns to her computer, hits a button, and a form rolls out of the printer. I reach into a pocket, pulling out a credit card.
“That’ll be $121,” she says, “payable by cash or check.” I laugh, thinking about Emissions only taking cash or card. I mention that my checkbook is in the car and then apologize for the hundredth time.
The woman’s face goes tight. She sighs, slumps her shoulders, and says, “Just go.”
Jogging through the reception area I wonder if she meant that I should just go home. I sprint to my car, grab the checkbook, and run back into the building, fast-walking to the counter. I snap open the register and start scribbling, writing “DMV” on the line for the dollar amount. I rip out the check, stuff it in my pocket, and whip through another. I tear the check out and hand it to the woman, avoiding eye contact.
Plates in hand, I march through the reception area. A crying child unleashes a brutal shriek that makes me jump. I race to my car and sit inside for a moment, secure in my place of refuge. I’m safe for another two years.
* * * *
A week later I get a letter from the DMV. My license has expired and I can’t renew online, given that my photo is outdated. The thought of returning to the DMV feels like being told to get a second opinion from another proctologist.
I arrive just before opening time, using a plan for crowd avoidance that fails miserably. Others have the same idea, and the scene near the front doors resembles a bank run. When an employee approaches the door, the crowd gets twitchy. The employee gazes balefully through the glass, inserts a key into the lock, and turns it. Two guys surge forward, cutting off an elderly man, and race down the hall to the ticket machine. I can see why people relinquish their right to vote to avoid this place. The ID-less are the smart ones.
I work through the lines, get my number, and wait to be called. A half hour later a woman calls out my name. I approach the photo booth and listen to her instructions. She tells me to stand in front of a black curtain hung twenty feet from a stand-mounted camera. Leaning toward the lens, she breathes out audibly and says, “Okay, smile.”
I comply, but also cross my eyes slightly. This photo will be with me for six years, so I want it to be fun and not some sterile portrait, like the ones you get from a shopping mall photographer.
The woman whips upward and barks, “That is not going to work.” An ice storm settles over our tiny world. I look up sheepishly and say, “My bad…tell ya what, I’ll just come back.”
Two hours later I’m back at the DMV. The lower half of my goatee is gone, leaving a sleazy, pre-teen mustache over my upper lip. Heading into the building I hold the door for a young, fashionably dressed woman. She glances at my face with a look that says “Jesus, shave that thing off.”
I grab a seat in the Heart of Glumness and wait my turn. The same DMV woman calls me up to the curtain once again. When she says, “Smile,” I simply obey. I’ve learned my lesson about this place.
I manage to eke out a small victory, however (you never want to let the humorless win completely). When my ID arrives I look at the photo with pride. It’s absolutely horrible. Above my mandatory smile is a thin moustache that looks like it accompanied its owner on a twenty year drinking binge that he barely remembers.
* * * *
One year later, after moving back to Seattle, I return to the DMV to replace my Oregon license with a Washington one. Given drastic budget cuts, most neighborhood offices have been shuttered and license seekers are now funneled downtown like sheep heading toward the stun gun.
Arriving downtown, I push through a crowd of smokers on the sidewalk and enter a small room packed with people. I grab ticket #120 and look at the electric board with all the confidence of a racetrack gambler who’s certain he’s lost big. I see the number 180 and head off to a coffee shop.
Somebody should capitalize on this situation. In the vacant store next door they could open a bar called Dewey’s and have monitors displaying real-time ticket numbers for the DMV. For fun, the owners could offer two-for-one priced drinks to anyone scheduled for a driving test.
I return to the office an hour later and squeeze into a plastic chair. Watching the numbers on the board slowly tick by, I ponder the possibility of loading up on tickets and scalping them out front.
My number gets called and I jog up to the counter. The guy behind the desk looks at my passport and starts paging through my documentation. He glances at a form and then looks up at me.
“Okay,” he says, “You need a utility bill or something else proving that you live at your current address. This car insurance form doesn’t work, since you could’ve moved. You’ll need to come back.”
I stare at the guy. I’m tempted to stick a finger down my throat and hurl on the counter in protest. But I laugh instead, realizing that the DMV is just like Vegas. It’s beautiful in its shabby misery and sorrow. It must somehow be embraced.