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Washington Voices

DMV offers American experience

I’ve never visited the Statue of Liberty, but I think I know what inspired Emma Lazarus when she wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. …” She’d probably just spent a Saturday morning at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Last month I received a license renewal notice in the mail. I placed the letter in a safe spot so I could renew online. That spot is so secure I haven’t been able to find the notice since. And then I forgot about it – until another letter came in the mail.

This one came from the organization that collects fees for those red light cameras. Apparently, a photo of my van had been snapped at 8:11 a.m. on a Wednesday. The photo purportedly showed my van proceeding through a red light without stopping. “Who can tell from that murky, grainy picture?” I objected. My spouse led me to the computer where he’d set up the video of my alleged infraction. He and my sons had already enjoyed the movie of my misdeed several times.

“You are so busted!” said my 17-year-old. He shook his head. “And to think I let you teach me to drive!”

My husband was more concerned by the fact that I hadn’t yet renewed my license. “You could get a big ticket,” he said.

“I just did!” I replied. But I knew he was right, and that’s how I came to spend a sunny Saturday morning at the DMV with approximately 150 other good citizens.

I pushed open the door and my nostrils were immediately assailed by the stale, funky odor unique to the DMV. A hand-sanitizer dispenser stood as an ominous sentry at the entrance.

With a sinking heart, I surveyed the standing-room-only crowd. Some folks had chosen to slouch along the wall, while others huddled miserably on vinyl-covered chairs. All wore the look of resigned desperation usually seen on the faces of the incarcerated.

After a half-hour, a DMV employee announced, “For those getting tired of waiting” – oh, the irony – “we are four people short today. The estimated wait time is one hour.” Muted groans and a few random sobs emanated from her captive audience. “However …” she continued. And we all perked up and slid to the edge of our seats. “The Valley office has only a six-minute wait.”

No one budged. Not one person appeared willing to take the risk of relinquishing his or her place in order to drive to the Valley office. I opened my 900-page novel and the fellow next to me said, “You just may finish that book.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” I said and pointedly turned a page. I didn’t want to visit. I was afraid I’d miss the announcement of my magic number.

“When I get up there, I’m ordering a cheeseburger,” he confided, apparently undaunted by my page-turning.

I said nothing. “Phew!” he continued. “Someone is wearing a lot of perfume.” The lady in front of him turned around and glared. I wanted to say, “Look, pal, I don’t think most folks here are even wearing deodorant,” but I refrained.

“Good book?” he tried again. And while I pondered just how rude I should be when seated next to someone I may be spending the rest of my afternoon with, a sweet sound assailed my ears.

“Number 72,” the voice announced.

“That’s me!” I said and leapt to my feet. Well, actually, I may have shouted, because a small smattering of applause broke out as I approached the window.

“I need to renew my license,” I said. “But I lost the renewal notice and I think you need a PIN number or something to do it online.”

“Yes, you do,” said the helpful DMV employee.

I aced the vision test and then came the part most women dread. “What’s your current weight?” Oh, the dilemma. Do I tell him what I weigh on a good day? Do I tell him what I wished I weighed? Or do I just tell the truth.

I sighed. “I weigh 5 to 10 pounds more than what my license says.”

He smiled kindly at me. “You look good. We’ll leave it the same.” The DMV is known for hiring remarkably intelligent employees.

Then he asked, “Do you have any mental or physical impairment that would interfere with your ability to operate a motor vehicle?” He paused and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “Aside from your losing the letter?”

I narrowed my eyes and shook my head. One small check and one ghastly photo later, I walked out into the sunshine and left the poor, tired, huddled masses behind.

Breathing free had never felt so good.

Contact Cindy Hval at Her previous columns are available online at columnists.