It’s 2:00 PM on Tuesday when I join the end of the long line that stretches out along the front of the building. Although it’s the middle of the summer, fortunately, it’s not too hot.
Everyone must join the line in order just to enter the Department of Motor Vehicles. People around me chuckle, complain, and comment about what’s going on. They share how long they’ve been waiting on the sidewalk, but in a light-hearted manner. No one’s really angry.
I’d anticipated that there might be a wait, so brought my special notebook with me. It’s deep purple, studded with fake gems and a magnetic flap to keep it closed – a Christmas gift I’ve had for years. Holding it open with my left hand, I scribble notes about what’s going on and the people who mull around me. Nobody seems to notice. The only other activity of that sort is people checking their phones and sending text messages.
Behind me, a friendly woman, waiting with her teenage daughter, jokes with me, while the girl complains and rearranges her mother’s black hair. Our encounter is brief, but I feel a real bond. The girl is attractive with perfectly smooth skin. Her mother’s face shows severe acne scars that tarnish her appearance. But the joy in her eyes rises above this imperfection and her beauty radiates larger than her daughter’s, with her sullen, youthful impatience.
A tall, lanky man in his late twenties arrives by cab.
“What’s this fucking line for?” he asks.
A couple of people inform him, “It’s just to get into the DMV.”
He flings his arms into the air, holding tight to his papers and then stomps into the building. He exits a short time later, his face more despondent than when the cab left him off and then trudges to the end of the line.
A talkative woman, with muscular arms, covered with color tattoos marches into the building, going around everyone in line. I wonder why she selected color for the pictures. It’s hard to see them against her light-brown skin. Like the man before her who arrived by taxi, she returns to the procession. Her voice is manic and she waves her arms around, shouting negative opinions about the DMV.
Many people walk out of the building holding forms, which gives me hope that this experience will eventually end. A young Hispanic woman with bright hair clips, carefully applied makeup and pink flip-flops chats in English with her friend.
The line moves slowly. It’s only been twenty minutes, but seems longer. I feel myself practicing patience as I watch the people around me, following rules, being respectful to one another. I feel as if I’m in the melting pot of Norwalk, Connecticut, the melting pot of America. I think I’m the only white, English speaking woman over sixty in the group.
Finally, my place in the line reaches the double door. The man in front of me badly needs deodorant, so I hold back until he’s actually inside the main room and the air isn’t as close. I assume everyone can smell him and so no one seems annoyed with the space that grows in front of me. At this point, everyone’s facial expression is blank, in part, from mental fatigue. I’m pleased I feel no irritation about anything. My plan be relaxed and tolerant has worked.
After forty-five minutes in line, fifteen people still mill around in front of me and there’s only one person at the Information Window, a black woman with strawberry-blond hair. Irritation starts to bubble up in me. Only one person for more than a hundred in the line! Five minutes later there’s a second employee at the window, next to the woman with the strawberry-blond hair. Neither looks happy with her job. I imagine some people in line won’t be polite to them.
A young father walks around the room bouncing his screaming infant, who is inconsolable.
Finally, a man walks down the line handing out numbers to those of us who want to register a car. Mine is D843. I hurry to the other side of the building, where those who have numbers wait. Sitting in the front row, in a hard, white plastic chair, I listen as numbers for the different windows are called.
Public service announcements and advertisements play on television screens. The ads are annoying, an invasion of my space and there’s no mute button. I learn that only Puerto Rico birth certificates re-issued after 2010 will be accepted as proof of residency. I find out that a western storm is now a tropical depression and is expected to exit Hawaii on Tuesday.
Seconds inch along. I wiggle around in my uncomfortable chair. An attractive middle-aged man with a smoker’s voice and shoulder length blond hair sits next to me. He’s flirtatious and tells me he’s registering a Firebird, that he has a lot of cars and he knows all about them. I smile back at him and we chat.
“Now serving A146 at Window 19. Now serving D828 at Window 9,” the recorded woman’s voice states. Finally, at 3:30 PM my number is announced. The young man serving at Window 4 has a lifeless look that says, “I don’t want to work here.” He appears competent, but makes no connection with me at all, no eye contact, no expression on his face. I attempt to be friendly, but it’s as if he doesn’t notice.
When I leave with my temporary license plate, I thank him for his help. He carefully meets my eye, as if even my feeble communication might be dangerous or perhaps too much trouble and the corners of his mouth creep up an infinitesimal amount, surprised that someone appreciates his work. I feel good, like I’ve acted toward someone the way I’d want to be dealt with myself.
It’s over. The hour and a half at the DMV was fascinating and I captured it all in my jeweled purple notebook.