Danger at the DMV

On my birthday this year I had to go in to renew my driver’s license.  I was turning 60 and the state of Tennessee decided that I needed to check in physically rather than just mail it in.  An appearance was mandated.   

A trip to the DMV will reveal something about our character.  Do we face it with delight?  Not likely.  Do we face it with dread?  More common reaction.  But do we face it with fear?  Perhaps.

After one unsuccessful attempt, I had to make a return trip to the DMV—yet another chance to observe reactions to a common civic duty. 

This time things are going much smoother.  A few folks are sitting and waiting.  The staff is doing their best to be patient and provide the best of service.  They do not have an easy task by any means.  All those emotions that people bring in the door are put on display at the counters where the staff encounters a broad cross section of our culture.  It must take a tremendous amount of patience to handle such a task.  

At one point an elderly couple comes in.  He does not have much hair (look who’s talking, I actually had to put ‘bald’ on the form—that was a first!).  He seems to be following her directions as to where to sit.  He is a large man, but he seems a bit timid.  

She, on the other hand, does not have a hair out of place.  She obviously gets her hair done religiously.  It may not be a formal tenet of her professed faith, but it is an appointment that she obviously does not miss.  Maybe she has other elements of her life that are that controlled and predictable.  Her coiffure seems to display the kind of control and compulsion that she expects in life.  There does not appear to be much about her that has not been pressed through a tight filter.    She and her husband do not exchange much in the way of conversation.  

Shortly thereafter a young man comes in.  He is maybe in his thirties.  He is wearing a black toque that covers most of his dark hair which is long, full, and going in all directions.  His face is a bit scruffy as he has not shaved or trimmed anything in recent days.  He is dressed  casually and does not appear to be interested in engaging anyone in coversation.  Quietly he takes his number and his place in the waiting area with the rest of us.  

At this point I hear the woman with the perfect hair lean over to her husband and whisper, “This is a scary place.”  He nods his silent agreement.  She keeps an eye on the young man and his motions, even though he is doing nothing out of the ordinary.  

It struck me that she had not felt scared before this young man’s appearance.  What she was really saying but using other words was “that guy scares me.”  Why?  Why should she be scared?  

Because he is different?  Because he does not dress according to her standards?  Because his hair is a bit unruly?  Truth be told, I do not know the answer to that.  What is it that scares us about others?  These are not questions that had arisen in my mind until her statement.  

Maybe it is scary to have to interact, or even feel the threat that she would have to rub shoulders, with someone so different.  In her insulated little world such people do not typically make an appearance.  Her normal circles are closed too tightly to allow such intruders, which is the sense I got from her comment.  This young man would never darken the door of her salon; he would perhaps not feel welcomed in some of the spaces that make her comfortable.  Her sense of order and his sense of freedom clash to some degree.  She finds that scary enough to speak out about it.  Perhaps she feels that letting her husband know of her discomfort will put him on protective alert.  

The DMV is one of those dangerous places where our paths have to cross; it is a dangerous place in that we find ourselves in close proximity to those who are different from us.  There are not that many public spaces in our lives where we have to confront one another this way.  We have lots of little private spaces that we keep ‘neat and tidy’; we know who is there and we feel comfortable and confident in them.  But the DMV is just a foretaste of what we will experience when we are all out there together on the highways and byways we will all be driving.  A trip to the DMV might fill us with conflicting emotions.  Coming in to get a license is a way to be reminded that it is not just how we look on the license—it’s how we look at one another.  She found it ‘scary.’  He may have found it dull.  I find it intriguing.  


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