I happened to take a close look at my driver's license the other day and noticed that four years had passed since I'd first gotten it - and it was due to expire in a month. Which meant a trip to the local DMV.
A few years ago that thought would've put me in utter, cranky despair, sunk me into a deep, black depression. If you have not had the opportunity to spend time at the DMV in our nation's capital you have missed out on one of life's more patience-challenging experiences. It is its own circle of hell. Remember the "waiting room" scene from the movie Beetlejuice?
It is a fact that you will never, ever bring the correct combination of documents with you the first time you go. After eons spent in a long, twisting line filled with grumbling citizens, the sentry at the gate will turn you back, guaranteed. Cajoling and flattery will do nothing to break the impasse: she has a heart of stone. You could have studied up on the accepted list of documents listed on the DMV website, but alas, that will have done you no good. It's nothing less than a shell game. Best to bring along a passport or two, letters of recommendation from friends in high places, various unopened bills, elementary school report cards, a birth certificate, of course (don't even think about bringing a copy), a note from your mother, your Sam's Club membership card and a bouquet of flowers (better hope you bring her favorites) for the sentry. She'll fix you and your pathetic pile of paper with a hard, beady stare and if you're lucky, motion you through. Do not hesitate. Grab the detritus of your life and go.
Once past this first line of defense be prepared to wait. Your tender buttocks will be resting in chairs the hardness of which would challenge the Buddha's peace of mind. You will be waiting with the masses: the tired, the unwashed, the mumbling and the yearning. Numbers and letters - the meaning of which will forever be obscured to you - will flash from time to time from various screens around the waiting area. Although there are plenty of "service" windows, most of them remain devoid of anyone looking remotely work-oriented behind them. Instead you will witness much scurrying just beyond the windows coupled with a determined avoidance of eye contact.
When you finally reach a hallowed window your waiting is not over. Your papers will be scrutinized with a dedication last seen by a scientist peering into his microscope. There will be shuffling. Undoubtedly your attendee will come across something for which he or she has never encountered and so managers, supervisors and co-workers must be summoned for whispered consultation. For a while, it looks as if you will be turned away yet again. Finally, however, papers are stamped, information has been verified, fingerprints scanned and eye tests given. It remains only to exchange legal tender for the small rectangle of plastic.
Thankfully those days are behind me. The DMV in town is located in a small white building with blue shutters. It shares space with a home health care business. A kindly older woman waits behind the counter. She actually smiles and makes small talk. Around the holidays she wears those splashy sweaters sewn with things that sparkle. Photos of her children and grandchildren are taped to the wall behind her. There is a lighted potpourri candle and jars of honey for sale. When she has an errand that calls her away from behind the counter, a handwritten sign is posted on the door, such as: "went to OKC to get stitches out. be back tomorrow." She works with a calm efficiency reminiscent of a mime effortlessly juggling plates and balls. No sentry. No flashing signs with numbers and letters. Just friendly service. Washington, DC could learn a thing or two.