Monday, March 9, 2009

We the people (at Motor Vehicles) and generation gaps

Thanksgiving, 1989. We were headed to North Jersey for the holiday to see my grandmother. During the cocktail hour, Nana asked Jenny, "How long does it take you to make your hair look that bad?"

Silence fell over the room. Then there was some awkward laughter. Nana apologized; she didn't mean for it to come out that way. It was the late 80s, and we were in the big hair capital of the world. Jenny had some major-ass big hair, too. Nana clarified by saying the Jenny's look was deliberately wild, compared to the very orderly coifs of my grandmother's generation; that's what she meant. "How long does it take to rough up your hair like that?"

My grandmother and her friends went to the hairdresser once a week; my grandmother, now almost 91, probably still does, bless her. She's certainly accustomed to the work that goes into making one's head style fit in with one's peers.

I was never able to attain the Whitesnake hair heights that my sisters could; we shared a bathroom, but we didn't necessarily share beauty products. At least I didn't use their stuff (too often). So maybe I wasn't using the right product in my hair, or maybe I wasn't using enough of it, or maybe my hair was just a bit incompatible with that style. Don't get my wrong, if we were to look back at pictures from those days, my hair was certainly bigger than it is now. I just didn't have Bon Jovi hair. I claimed, at the time, it was because I thought all that hairspray and mousse was ridiculous, but a little of my scorn was due to jealousy, and the despair of hair failure.

Jenny didn't say much about my grandmother's comment. She was probably a bit hurt, but she also understood what my grandmother meant. And we all realized it was a bit of a generational gap thing, too. It was okay for teenagers and 20-somethings to unload a ton of grape-scented Aussi Mega-Glue Hold atop of their heads, but not so much for the near 70-year-old set.


I found myself at Motor Vehicles on Saturday morning so I could renew my license. I had to get my picture taken, and I felt vulnerable, dismayed, old, fat. Before I left the house, I did not say, "Damn girl, you got it going on." I was filled with dread: about my age, about my weight, my chin, and of course, my hair. My unease made me think about how much older I am than my kid, and caused me to wonder what his friends will think of his honest-to-goodness old lady, when the time comes. So, I was pretty much a wreck by the time I got to the reception area at the office on Front and Stockton Streets.

The DMV, even the one in the city, runs far more smoothly than it used to, for certain; not that I minded the inefficiency of the old DMV, back in the day. On the contrary, the once-every-three years visit, for me, was in many ways, was better than Christmas. Christmas comes way too frequently and doesn't afford me the same people-watching ability, nor does it provide me with as many "holy SHIT, did you see THAT" moments, and I am very fond of of those moments. I like to believe that in any given situation, I am amid a cross-section of society; we all represent America. In the DMV of old, amid the drunks, and the abusive ladies at the counter with ham hocks for arms, I felt "unum" and "pluribus" simultaneously: distinctly alone, and yet, part of something bigger. That "alone but together" experience is kinda like sweet and salty tastes combined, for me: a chocolate covered pretzel, for instance, which I love. So, that sensation, but on a bigger scale, is a good one for me.

With an ability to have "We The People" experiences wherever I go, it's safe to say that I don't judge others by how they look. That's not to say I don't judge them. I just don't judge people right off the bat, and certainly not for their appearances or obvious habits or addictions. But, there at DMV (I will probably always call that place DMV, even though it's MVC now), in Trenton, on a Saturday, I found that I was silently asking myself the same sort of question my grandmother asked my sister, about some of my fellow citizens with whom I shared the morning.

I found myself sitting near the restrooms, and on the door, there was a sign that read:



I was a bit on edge on Saturday morning to begin with, but the thought of doing even one of those things in the restroom at the DMV was terrifying. I chanted, We the People, We the People, a bit more deliberately, to banish the thought that perhaps someone was naked and shaving just on the other side of the wall.

The "Maitre D'" at the desk of my section was quite professional in his uniform, and handed each visitor a card with a number on it, and gestured for everyone to sit down in the bank of chairs to his right; he'd call our number when it was our turn. I was number 46.

It went like this:
"FORTY-ONE!" he hollered, somewhat like a marine drill sergeant, but not quite as loud.
Someone from the bank of seats said, "I'm number 39. You missed me."
"NO," the man in the uniform bellowed, "I did not. I'm going in order, and we're up to FORTY-ONE!" A man, with a big red 41 on his card, reported to the desk, where he was directed to Booth 12.
A moment later, the uniformed man yelled, "TaQUAN! You're up! Taquan, you still here? Get in line at Booth 12!"
A few minutes later, he said, "FORTY-THREE! FORTY-THREE! You still here? FORTY-THREE to Booth 12!"
I kept looking at the 46 in red ink on my card; Number 39, seated in front of me, was agitated. I was concerned, since the host was on a number-only basis with some of us, and a first-name basis with others. He might miss me as well.

A woman in a half-shirt walked in front of me. Her belly was loose, as if she recently had a child, and it was hanging down over her tight jeans. I hate how women are judged, and so, on one hand, I admired her courage for wearing that outfit in public. I admire that she was proud enough to say, "This is who I am, and this is what I look like. Get used to it." My hope is that as more women with bodies like that, dress like that, the more accepting we will all become. But in my heart, I know that's not the case. We The People, are harsh.

"SHIRLEY! SHIRLEY?!?! Where you at, girl? SHIRLEY! You're next! Booth 12!"

A woman — not Shirley — with a newborn in a carriage, and two toddlers in tow, emerged from the bathroom. I wondered if the militant rules on the bathroom door applied to babies. I wondered how on earth a woman with a NEWBORN and not one, but TWO barely walking children could have found herself at DMV on a freakin' Saturday, without another adult to help. I couldn't fathom it: the whole reason I waited until Saturday was so that Glen could stay with Matthew.

A kid in a black and red ensemble sat down next to me. His sneakers were red. His hat was red, and was too big for his head, and was tilted to the side. I found myself asking (silently), I wonder how long it took him to make himself look that freakin' stupid? I forced myself to chant silently, We the people, we the people a few more times and looked at the number on his card (48), and said to him, ever-helpfully, "Not long now."

"Yeah," he replied, with a note of "Whatever," laced in. His shirt had a skull and crossbones on it, and beneath that representation of human decomposition was the word, "Legendary." I wondered what would motivate a person to think that of himself? Was he really the stuff of legend? Of history books? I snuck another glance at him. Not likely, I thought. Such ego. So crass. So not legendary (most likely).

I felt harsh, so I chanted silently again, we the people we the people we the people we the people.

"FORTY-FIVE! FORTY-FIVE!" A woman standing near me walked to the desk, and the man in the uniform directed her to Booth 12.

My heart started to race. I was up next. Would he skip over me? Number 39 was still milling about, trying to complain to another DMV worker, who didn't seem terribly interested. "I've been here since 9 this morning. I've been waiting for almost 2 hours, and HE PASSED OVER ME!!" Number 39 cried. Number 39 was well-dressed, very together, and she had 3 inch long finger nails, painted white, and beginning to curl downward. I wondered how she could do anything. Like pull up a zipper. Or type her blog. I felt the familiar scorn and jealousy I felt back in the 80s when I looked at my sisters' hair. I need the use of my fingers, I tell myself, but I am also ashamed that all of my nails are uneven and unpainted. I always, always, always mess up the paint job when I polish them. I finally came to terms with this, and threw away all of my nail polish, about a month ago.

A well-built guy walked in front of me; and again, I found myself uncharacteristically judging him. But, it was for good reason: he obviously worked so hard SO people would look at him. He had a strange chin covering, and he had shaved stripes into his hair, near the nape of his neck. I couldn't imagine the maintenance involved with the highly decorative goatee and stripey head. The thought of sharing a bathroom with a man who put that much time and thought into each and every one of his hairs was troublesome to me. Sometimes I forget to brush my hair. Plus men with overly groomed faces and heads always make me think of Uday Hussein, and I don't like thinking of Uday, since he was such a prick. The American Uday came closer, and I tried not to look, but couldn't help it: his hard, detailed grooming work paid off, I guess. As he got closer, I could see he had a tattoo on his neck, and his eyebrow and his chin were pierced. He was smiling — at someone probably better groomed than I, behind me — and I winced in pain as he walked by. I rubbed my neck in the corresponding spot where he was tattooed, hypothetically protecting, in particular, my brain-feeding blood vessels. I have always appreciated my carotid artery, and would never put it in jeopardy by bringing a needle anywhere near it. For the love of God.

"FORTY-FIVE!" The uniformed man bellowed. I froze. Shit! He called 45 again! The same thing was going to happen to me as Number 39. But I was going to handle it differently. I wasn't sure how yet, but I would.


"FORTY-FIVE! You gonna miss your turn if you don't get up here NOW!"


Hallelujah, I thought. I jumped up before he could say it again, and practically ran to his desk. "Booth 12," he said.

I got in line, and from that vantage point, I could see four signs which instructed in no uncertain terms:


There was a security guard to my left, on a cell phone, at the counter. I figured maybe that was acceptable, except I could hear her talking, and it wasn't Motor Vehicle business. Some of which went like this, "You ain't gonna dis my cousin and have me just smile and listen. No. No, you don't dis my cousin. Uh-uh. Not around me. I'm gonna have a say in that. And you ain't gonna like it! You know?"

The girl in front of me at Booth 12 had hair that was straightened, and it was plastered to her face. It was so extreme that it made me long for the Big Hair Days of the 1980s. It's all the same, though: very big, or very flat: she probably spent as much time flattening her hair as my sister spent electrifying hers, and to someone outside her generation, it just looked kinda ridiculous. The flat-haired girl posed for the camera, and when her image appeared on the monitor in front of us, she lunged in front of it, apparently horrified about how she looked, blocking it from my view, and asked the woman behind the counter — a small, good-natured woman — if she could retake the picture. "Sure," the employee smiled. I wonder what the great big ham hock ladies of DMV's yesteryear would have said? I was able to catch a glimpse of all four photos taken of the flat-haired girl, and other than that her hair was too flat, I thought she looked cute in each picture. She finally settled on one, stepped aside, and waited for her license to emerge from the license-cooker. She got on her phone to tell someone that she was almost done. She had brought a friend with her as well, who was also standing at the counter, to my right, also on her phone, right next to a "NO CELL PHONES AT COUNTER!!" sign.

I stepped up to the counter, and turned over my paperwork, and Number 39 ran up alongside me, having spotted a manager walking behind the counter. "He skipped over me," she cried, pointing, with her too long fingernail, to the man running our bank of chairs in our section of the facility. "And, he said he didn't. I've been here since 9!!" She showed the manager her card with "39" written in red, and the manager called the uniformed guy to the counter, and reamed him out in front of everyone. This is not supposed to be how it is. It was always Us versus Them at DMV, or so I thought, but the manager was on the side of the customer on Saturday. While I was glad for that, it also made me very uncomfortable, in so many ways. The reaming went for too long, that it crossed into the area of humiliation. I turned away, blocked it out, trying to find my happy place. I ran my fingers through my hair, and checked my lipstick.

The clerk at Booth 12 asked me if I'd like to use the picture I had taken last time. "I can do that?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, helpfully.

I thought about it for a second, and remembered how much I hated my previous photo license. But that was a few years ago, and photos, DMV or otherwise, generally do not get better with time, even if the employees are nicer and let you choose your favorite of four shots. I opted to use the same photo.

I paid up, stepped to the side, and a minute later, got my new license with the old photo. I booked it out of there, and on my way out of the parking lot on Stockton Street, I saw the woman with the newborn in a carriage, and the two toddlers, holding hands behind her. One of the little girls stopped in the middle of the street to pick up something, and her mother did not immediately notice, since she was struggling, one-handed, with the baby carriage. My heart pounded, and I froze, so I could watch for traffic coming down the Rt. 1 ramp, ready to block, if necessary. The man with the tattooed neck and distressing face piercings, jumped into the street on the Front Street side, to block traffic, and screamed at the woman, "Your baby! Your baby! Get your baby out of the street!"

My car windows were open, because it was hot in the car on Saturday, so, I could hear what was going on. Calmly, the woman turned to the little girl, and said, "Oh, honey, we don't stop in the street, okay? It's very dangerous." I found her calm refreshing and confounding, all at the same time, given the amount of traffic in that location. It made me all the more grateful for Glen, back at home with our baby — I'm not sure how I would have navigated Motor Vehicles with even just one child! I turned right and headed for home, and saw the pierced/tattooed man cross back toward the building, and the mother of three make her way to the parking lot.

We the people. We the people. We the people.


Michael Liddy said...

I don't think I will ever tire of your writing style. You freakin' rock, Ott.

Miss Karen said...

Man, I have got to start going to the DMV with you. Or else you have to start going with me. When I went to renew my license last fall it was a totally painless and uninteresting half hour. It was almost disappointing.