Despite trepidation, a not so bad trip to the DMV

There is no disappointment as perversely anticlimactic as when an expected debacle fails to materialize.

Mention the three little letters, “DMV,” to almost any American and he will blanch, frown, mutter un-Christian language or even fall prostrate to the ground. A trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles in any state of the union – I’ve lived in 11 – is always an exercise in frustration, complete with long lines, antiquated electronic equipment and irritable, humor-impaired clerks. Invariably, you bring every possible piece of paperwork to prove your identity, your ownership of your vehicle, your status as a paroled felon or whatever, and invariably they want more. When I moved to Atlanta back in the 1980s, I called the DMV before driving over for my new license. It was 20 miles away. They told me what paperwork I needed. I brought it all, but when I got to the clerk, she told me I needed an additional item. I was furious, because I had to drive the 20 miles home and 20 miles back to the DMV. The clerk told me I could go to the front of the line when I returned.

Recently, I received a notice in the mail that my driver’s license was about to expire. On the form, there were long, detailed instructions about what documents to bring to obtain a “Real I.D.” That’s the latest high-security iteration of a driver’s license. One is supposed to bring “One item from Column A, one item from Column B and two items from Column C.” It was a complicated list including unexpired passport, unexpired driver’s license, birth certificate – luckily, those expire only when you die – a property tax bill, lease agreement, and so on.

Thus, on the morning on which I planned my expedition to the DMV, I made sure I had a good night’s sleep. I ate a healthful breakfast. Like Santa Claus, I grabbed a highlighter and checked and double-checked my list. I carefully placed my neat packet of easy identity theft into a plastic two-pocket folder (It was raining). I secured it with one of those big, black binder clips. I slid it into a large, zippered tote bag along with an umbrella, 18 ounces of water, a light jacket (in case the office was over-air conditioned), a couple of Time magazines, some paper towels (in case the bathrooms had those annoying air dryers) and my cell phone (in case I needed to call for help).

Ready to leave, heart palpitating, stomach churning, I approached my husband in the kitchen. “Hold me,” I said. “I’m off to the DMV.”

With an empathetic frown, he hugged me and mumbled, “Good luck,” without a trace of hopefulness.

Trembling, I walked out the door. As I got into my car, I noticed the time was 7:07 a.m., and I thought briefly that it might be a lucky sign. It began raining hard.

“This downpour will either keep people home, or it will entice people to do a disagreeable task while the weather is unfit for other more enjoyable activities,” I mused.

Breathing deeply to calm my nerves, I took a convoluted but quiet route over to South Willow Street. Traffic lights were curiously in my favor. I arrived at the DMV at 7:30 a.m. – it opens at 8. There were five people in line ahead of me already. Everyone said hello, which was pleasant. The hall was stiflingly hot, which was not pleasant. People sat on the carpet or stood leaning against the walls. Twenty more people arrived. I kept track of who was in what place, and several times directed the other humans to “take a giant step to your right,” to keep the line in order. I didn’t want to see any fights break out before 8 in the morning (or pretty much any other time either). Plus, I’m a mom and a teacher (and a wife, for all that), and I’m accustomed to giving orders.

Finally, the doors opened and the line snaked into the office, which was cold enough to freeze butter, but it felt wonderful after waiting in the stuffy hallway. Furiously completing a form that I hadn’t known I needed, I made it up to the counter. The clerk was a genial woman with curly red hair. I had not anticipated geniality. It was a lovely surprise … until she asked for my marriage certificate.

“What?” I cried. “None of the paperwork mentioned a marriage certificate.”

“It was on the back of the letter,” she replied.

“And here it is,” I thought. “There’s always something they don’t tell you about.”

“Why do I need my marriage license?” I spluttered. All sorts of protestations about being an independent woman, gender discrimination and civil rights violations hovered on my lips.

“Because since you changed your name to your husband’s, your documents no longer all have the same name on them,” she explained, presumptuously.

“But I never changed my name!” I retorted.

“You never took your husband’s name?” she pressed.

“No, he married me; he didn’t adopt me,” was my rejoinder.

Problem solved. The clerk shuffled through and examined my many documents, and then finally gave me a little paper ticket like you get at a bakery. It read “B 003.” It made me pine for a nice pastry and a cup of iced chai tea. I was told to have a seat and wait for my number to be called. I engaged in casual conversation with a young man who had a horrifying surgery the previous week. He had 27 pins in his shoulder. I wished him good luck in his recovery. Shoulders are the worst.

The wait was not long, and the next clerk was similarly agreeable. She too asked for various documents, examined and scanned a couple and then directed me to step in front of the camera. I was glad I had opted for mascara and lipstick in addition to my morning ablutions. The camera was unimpressed. In fact, the camera wouldn’t work. The nice clerk developed a quizzical brow and asked her partner if the camera had been functioning the day before. Yes, it was fine. Apparently, I had broken the camera.

For a few minutes the clerk clicked some buttons on her computer, and then finally we were in business. She took my photo and then showed it to me. I looked like the reflection of an aardvark in a doorknob.

“How’s that?” she asked.

“It’s probably as good as it’s gonna get,” I answered with the resignation of advanced middle age. It was basically how I look in real life, minus my self-delusions.

Fifty dollars later, I was out the door. It was 8:25 a.m. I had expected a minimum of two hours of waiting and annoyance and maddening inefficiency. None of my fears had been validated. Only my identity.