On the eve of my 33rd birthday, I went to the DMV to renew my license which was expiring. In my driveable years, I’ve never lived in a state long enough to have to renew.
I got my learner’s permit and then my license in Florida. I studied for the written test like I was taking the bar exam. I had places to go, things to do, boys to make out with. I could imagine nothing more humiliating than failing a test and not getting your license except not having a boy to make out with, which I didn’t, because I wasn’t allowed to date anyone until I was 16.
Sometimes this rule follower could get her parents to bend their own rules slightly. I wasn’t supposed to get my ears pierced until I was 16 either, but I, with the help of my grandmother, was able to convince them that 16 was archaic and a little too fundamentalist for our Episcopal blood, so I had them pierced when I was 12.
For the record, the woman piercing my ears botched it and had to re-pierce one ear, but ran out of the right size earring, so I walked around for six weeks with mismatched silver studs.
But driving was within my control, unlike piercing guns which, as it turns out, are now considered an archaic piercing tool. The irony.
On my 15th birthday, I was at the DMV with my father 15 minutes before they opened. I insisted that we get out of the car so we could be the first in line. I passed the written test, the vision test, the hearing test, smiled in front of the blue screen, and spent the next 12 months begging my parents to leave the house as much as possible so I could drive them.
In my 15th year, I again convinced my parents to bend their rules slightly and let me begin dating a boy. To ease their consciences, they told me we were allowed exactly one “car” date a month, and the rest of the time we had to hang out at either his parental-supervised house or my parental-supervised house. He was eight months older than I, so he already had his license, and once a month we were able to experience all the freedoms an unsupervised date at Longhorn Steakhouse provides. We always ordered the same thing: Two Flo’s Filets and side salads, hold the cucumbers for him, extra cucumbers for me. What a perfect match. I think the relationship fizzled before my 16th birthday, but the details are a little fuzzy, less the cucumbers, which for some reason have stuck with me. To my recollection, we never made out in a car, but I was still determined to get my license.
The one rule my parents would not bend on was that I had to be an expert parallel parker before I could take the driving test. They didn’t care that the state of Florida didn’t have a parallel parking portion of the driving test. It was a Brust requirement, and I was deeply proud that I could parallel park before most of my friends, even those who already had a license.
On my 16th birthday, I was at the DMV with my father 15 minutes before they opened, once again insisting that we wait right outside of the door. A white-haired man grabbed a clipboard and walk over to my dad who signed the “I give you permission to risk your life with my teenage daughter behind the wheel” forms, and he handed me the keys. The man had a mustache. It wasn’t just any mustache, it was the kind of mustache people who are destined to work at the DMV have. He was probably born with it. He looked hard, mean, intimidating. I think that’s why he was hired.
My dad, never one to be intimidated by men, mustached or otherwise, was determined to both soften the man up and soothe my nerves by making an embarrassing amount of Dad jokes.
Now Sir, I brought a helmet for you just in case. You can find it in the glove box. Take note of emergency exits. Don’t forget to buckle up, Sir. I’ve seen her drive.
It worked. The man loved my dad, and I hoped it would give me extra points. Mustache made incessant notes and marks on his clipboard, giving out disapproving grunts every few minutes. After the street portion of the driving test, I was told to pull into the DMV parking lot and drive around to the back of the building where he gave me a few more instructions and scribbled a few more notes, and then said You’ve completed the driving test. I’ll meet you inside.
He was out of the door, marching with Mustachey purpose before I could whine But, like, don’t you want me to, like, parallel park?
I met my dad back inside and told him I must have failed. He wrote notes the whole time, and I don’t even know what I did wrong. There’s no way I passed.
Mustache called us up to the counter and said to my Dad, Well, she passed. Perfect score. But I wrote a bunch of stuff on my clipboard just to freak her out.
I’d never loved a mustache more.
We moved from Florida to Northern Virginia a few years later, well before my license expired. I was a senior in high school and knew I’d be leaving soon for college, so I never made it to the DMV. I lived under the mantra Oh, I have a valid license, it’s just in another state
There are two kinds of people in this world: people who go to the DMV to change their license within 7 days of a move, finding the six week grace period unnecessary (my parents), and people who go to the DMV when they get around to it (me).
In my experience, when they get around to it people never get around to it until a minimum of six months after a move.
I never had a Virginia license for the entire 18 months we lived there. My parents moved to Atlanta while I was in college, and I went to college in South Carolina. If you’re keeping track, I had a Florida license, a Georgia permanent address by way of Virginia, and lived in South Carolina nine months of the year.
Finally, after at least a year of a Georgia permanent address, I decided I might as well get around to it and go to the DMV.
Despite what the Department of Motor Vehicles would tell you, I’m generally a rule follower. I have my little quirks, of course, like driving over parking lot lines like every single person in the world other than my husband who meticulously drives to the end of a row, turns on his signal, comes to a complete stop, and then turns down the next row. I also hate turn signals. It’s no one’s business where I’m going, I tell my rule-abiding husband. But I always, always, return my grocery cart, because while safety techniques for operating heavy machinery are up for debate, being a decent human being isn’t.
Upon further reflection, I obey rules I like.
Interestingly, the DMV does not have a single rule I like, but I still never want to get caught doing something against the rules, so my heart was pounding and my palms clammy as I approached the clerk in Window Number Seven in an Atlanta DMV to explain to her my saga of many states.
In some sort of compulsive confessional, I told her every last detail, including the Virginia License That Never Was, and told her how very wrong I was for never having gone, and how I promise I won’t do it again, and I sure hope Georgians are as friendly as people say, and I won’t be in trouble.
I detected an eye roll and she snipped Just give me your paperwork, ma’am.
Even at 20, I knew enough to know that her ma’am was utterly ridiculous as she was at least 40 years my senior, and meant with every ounce of Georgia makes me call you that, but you’re a child, and we both know it sarcasm she could muster.
Since my apologies failed and no absolution was given, I turned to the ways of my father. I was determined to charm her when she told me to step in front of the blue curtain for my picture.
I bet you’re the best DMV photographer in here. That’s the real reason I waited. No one in Virginia could have topped your skill.
Take a seat, ma’am. I’ll call you back when it’s printed.
After what she clearly considered sufficient punishment in the form of minutes, she called me back up to the counter. Please review your card to make sure your details are correct.
I looked down and saw my picture which looked like a hungover mugshot though I was neither hungover nor under arrest and next to it, a name.
Not my name.
By my picture, the 20-year-old with too-blonde highlights and early 2000s eyeliner: Mu’inuddeen.
Knowing I’d once again make my “friend” behind the counter angry, I started to tell her she’d made a mistake when I heard a man at Window Number Six say, Cleary she looks like a Mu’inuddeen, but I do not look like a Rebecca.
And just like when Tom Hanks saved Meg Ryan from Rose, the angry cashier in You’ve Got Mail, my Arabic hero, the real Mu’inuddeen, had everyone laughing, even my ma’aming frenemy who gladly reprinted both of our cards and sent us on our way.
I’ve now had a driver’s license in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, California, and Kansas.
We moved to Kansas six years ago, and due to encouragement (read: incessant spousal and parental nagging), I got my license fairly quickly after our move.
But then we moved again. Kansas requires a change of address on your license within six weeks. I take “requires” to mean “friendly suggestion” so I waited.
For a year.
Then a few weeks ago, I saw that my license expired on my birthday: June 5.
On the eve of my 33rd birthday, I once again found myself outside the door of a DMV 15 minutes before they opened, although this time out of desperation, not excitement.
Admittedly, 33 isn’t old. But it’s old enough to wake up early to avoid lines at the DMV. It’s also old enough to remember when you had to grab a paper ticket out of those thingamajiggers at the door and, as they called numbers, know exactly where you are.
But yesterday, I was given a printed sheet by some sort of DMV hostess who informed me that it was time to switch to a “Real ID” to which I said, As opposed to all of the fake government-issued IDs I’ve had in the past?
She laughed sympathetically while I continued my old lady diatribe. Soon we’ll all have microchips.
With people’s growing impatience, the DMV has devised a system where numbers jump all over the place so no one gets fussy. You know what makes a 33 year old fussy? Watching a system work inefficiently.
Also not being able to see the numbers projected on the apartment size TV they have mounted on the wall because she chose a seat too far back, and her eyes aren’t what they used to be.
I watched seven teenagers walk in for their written tests. All of them failed. SEVEN. I was horrified, appalled, disgusted, worried for my life. These people didn’t even bother to study for a test to prove they even understand how to drive in theory.
As I relayed this story via text to my mom, I noted that I called them children. In fairness, they aren’t children, but since when do 15-year-olds look like they aren’t old enough to tie their own shoes? No wonder they failed the test.
Speaking of failed tests, I now have a restricted license and have to legally drive with glasses because my lenses were the only way I could pass the vision exam.
I drove home with my paper license (apparently printing them in the DMV is an archaic practice, kind of like studying for a driving test.
We took the boys on a walk to the lake when I got home. As we passed the neighborhood pool three teenagers started cursing in the pool, or, what we grew up calling taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Without blinking, I whipped my head around and yelled, Hey, y’all need to watch your mouths when there are little ears around.
My kids are still too young to be embarrassed by me, but my husband looked like he was enduring a slow death by humiliation. They’re lucky I didn’t tell them to take me home to their mamas so I could tell them how their sons behave when they’re away from home.
I think he felt superior for one minute, thinking himself a cooler adult than I am, but when we got home, he referred to needing to take care of his correspondence. I told him the youths just call it emailing.
He also calls nail files emery boards and scrubbing pads abrasives.
Thirty-three isn’t old. But it’s old enough to sometimes prefer archaic models. It’s old enough to have lived enough life to learn some lessons, but also to know that you don’t have all the answers. It’s old enough to know which rules to follow and which to break.
It’s old enough to know that it’s all just a blink. Everything but DMV lines.