Matching tattoos stroll by as the man with a walking stick works his way though the aluminum automatic doors. The smell of antiseptic wipes wielded by an attentive employee wisps by my nose each time the door opens and closes as she attempts in vain to remove all the fingerprints from the glass.
An Asian gentleman sleeps quietly in the corner, a bad harbinger for today’s wait time. A room full of empty faces and occasional yawns fill the formica chairs scattered haphazardly throughout the drab grey room with buzzing fluorescent lights. I have selected a number, which seems not to correlate with the current numeric system, this concerns me greatly.
“Now serving K722 at window #4.”
The cacophony of overhead repetitive blaring is inescapable and to be expected. After all, it is the Department of Motor Vehicles.
This is the third time in two weeks I have had the pleasure of visiting this great institution of public gathering. “It’s a cosmic payback for past life indiscretions,” I say to myself as I plop down on a hard chair near the sleeping man’s domain and pull up a second for the inevitable long haul that awaits.
I immediately fix my gaze on a woman in her nineties slowly pushing a walker in a staccato rhythm toward a line of numbered cubicles manned by DMV workers. Her catatonic movements are mesmerizing. I asked myself why a woman of such advanced age and diminished physicality would be here. Then it hits me: “To get a driver’s license!”
For the first time I start to hope my daughter fails her test giving her motor reflexes extra time to develop in hopes of avoiding this geriatric driver. (Something of course I will applaud in 25 years).
I have spent four hours of my life at the DMV over the last two weeks in anticipation that my daughter will pass her driver’s permit test; today is retake test number three. I return positive, but now accept that failure is in my daughter’s favor. As I do the math calculating the longevity of the lady in the walker by a cursory visual exam from 50 feet away, something tells me the odds are in her favor. By the time my child gets her actual driver’s license, my fellow ancient motorist probably won’t be driving. So hit the road my blue haired risk taker, but please keep it to one year.
“Now serving E342 at window #18.”
Thirty minutes have passed and I’m desperately looking for something, anything to help pass time. No Wi-Fi, no music, no newspapers (they still print them right?), my phone has one bar, thanks AT&T. I suddenly become aware that my legs have goose bumps (piloerection for the medically interested). “I should have worn long pants,” a phrase often repeated during Tucson’s hot summer months. Air-conditioning has only one setting, full blast, even at the DMV. It’s a seasonal battle of hot vs. cold and today’s arctic blast of refrigerant air is winning handily.
Finally I see something that catches my drifting eye, no not the girl in the purple polka dot tube top draining a 32-ounce Big Gulp, but a multicolored water stained roof. I never noticed the lines of disfigured tiles my last two visits. Those days had wait times less arduous. It helped that I had adroitly come mid-week, mid-afternoon, but time was running out for my daughter to get her driver’s permit before heading out for Santa Fe’s mild summer haunts. So it’s a Monday visit, not ideal for those who hate waiting like myself.
The DMV’s cheap panel roof had seen better days, surprisingly the insides were not old by public building standards, the tiles were shot, yes, but beautiful. The random circles somehow worked for me as some offbeat art project, or at least the best I could hope for under the circumstances. “This is better than my early morning dental visit,” I reminded myself looking for any glimmer of joy in an otherwise dismal day.
“Now serving J372 at window #18.”
Suddenly I’m back in the present. I want to meet this remarkable DMV person at window #18 I am hearing so much about on the overhead speaker. This wizard of data, mover of people. A magician disposing of weary visitors in a flash using some futuristic time warp. The inspiration of hope fades as I surmise it must be a recent hire, a newbie who has yet to be jaded by the spell of the diabolical mechanical voice’s overhead whining. “I hope my daughter get’s that person’s cubicle anyway,” I say to myself knowing luck is not on our side today, as the lady with the walker finally makes it to her allotted cubicle, #18. Time grinds to a halt.
The wait for the retake exam is excruciating. The old “third time’s the charm,” is the proverbial ace in the hole I’m hoping for. I’m not sure I can bare one more trip to Tucson’s south side. It’s not the environment outside that bothers me, it’s a fifteen year old’s angst that has me frazzled with her immense hope of becoming a driver during the thirty minute ride down and then the tearful silence on the return trip. “Why can’t they just make driverless cars now? “There should be an award given to any person who can visit the DMV three times in two weeks,” I say to myself realizing immediately this is too much to ask considering it’s only the day after Father’s Day and I’ve already been presented with “You’re the best Dad ever” card, signed even!
An hour has passed and the roof tiles have lost my interest, even abstract art can only hold my attention for so long. Presently I’m focused on windows, 12 identical structures all in a perfect line, 4 x 4 foot squares through which I can see outside. There is a large 10-foot high concrete wall lined with 2-foot razor sharp barbwire, yet somehow there is graffiti sprawl lurking behind the intense metal barrier. The garish color combination tweaks an aesthetic nerve. It’s this spray paint meaning of life and creativity which help balance the immense boredom that has taken root. Art I have found, regardless of my surroundings, is the panacea that ails the suffering soul, even at the DMV. I wonder how others around me cope in this world of human bondage; they probably have Verizon.
“Now serving K723 at window #4.”
“You go #4!” I say in a semi-hushed voice trying not to wake my neighbor, peering over the huddled masses at a middle age woman partially obscured behind a monstrous outdated PC, a large #4 plastered to her cubicle. Her static sickly smile in stark contrast to her frenetic finger movements pounding out some secret code, I begin to smile.
For it becomes clear at that moment that I’m a witness to a grand coliseum of DMV jousting. #18 is no novice as I had assumed, but a well-seasoned employee with an ability to process a nonagenarian in less than ten minutes attesting to his immense skill set and knowledge. Indeed #18 is a wiley veteran of the department, a giant killer, and #4 is his prey for the day, a race to see who can process the most human detritus in an eight-hour time limit (breaks not included). It makes sense, a way to have fun in a world of: “Wait, go here,” and “Wrong line please move along.” Doing the opposite one would expect, being the David in a world of Goliaths, fast and happy, instead of slow and cross, bravo to #4,and #18! You are the wind beneath my wings, or in this case shivering thighs.
Time slows once more as I see my daughter approaching me, my heart rate picks up speed and I seem to float above the room. “Is she smiling? I can’t tell.” She’s good at masking her emotions. (I wonder where she learned that). I think she might be sad or is she happy? The anticipation is agonizing as she shuffles towards my two chairs thrown together. It doesn’t take long to get the fatal answer, and I fall hard back to the reality of the moment. I will once again return to the Kingdom of the DMV.
“Agh,” she sighs, “failed again… and by one question!” Her shoulders slump to her sides as she confesses her failure.
I try to provide absolution using a pat on the back as one of my chairs ungraciously slips out from underneath me, but the effort is lame. It’s hard to be encouraging. Father’s Day is another year away, and I have plenty of time to rack up points before next year’s Safeway greeting card dash.
“Don’t sweat it kid, I love the DMV,” returning a weak smile that betrays my disappointment. “Let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough fun for one day.” I screech my chair waking my nearby companion. “Sorry,” I say, “I think they already called your number.” I feel a slight bit of joy as he makes a frowning face, “cosmic payback,” I think, smiling knowing I’m at least free for now.
With a swoosh from the doors, I walk out and glance back fondly at #4 as her anorexic fingers still pound away. “I hope you’re working tomorrow,” I say loudly to no one in particular, not an unusual occurrence at the DMV. The Sonoran desert heat slaps my face, and I realize that I really will be back tomorrow. For now, however, I must focus on the task at hand, the hard drive back home.