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Faith in Vermont: A Morning at the DMV

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Posted on September 23, 2014 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



(NOTE: The above photo is not the actual Middlebury DMV.)

I spent the morning of my 39th birthday in the waiting room of the Middlebury DMV.

Here are a few things that you should know:

-The Middlebury DMV is a "mobile" DMV, which means that it's not in operation every day. It's open for business in the Middlebury Courthouse every Thursday, and alternating Wednesdays. That's it.

-I needed to renew my driver's license. And, since my license expired on my 39th birthday, I needed to renew it that day. (I found out later that I had a two-week grace period to renew my license, but I'm a good girl who likes to meet the deadline.)

-My birthday is on September 11.

So on the morning of September 11, 2014, I took my newly 39-year-old self to the parking lot of the Middlebury Courthouse, where I handed off my one-year-old to my parents and reminded them when to pick up the three-year-old from preschool. Then, free at last, I walked past the flags at half-mast and through the metal detectors at the front door. If I could get this over with quickly, I'd have a couple of hours all to myself.

I signed my name on the DMV clipboard and took my seat on a hard wooden bench. I'd brought a book, which made me one of two people who were reading while waiting; everybody else scrolled through their smartphones or stared into space. The dozen or so people already in the DMV waiting room did not appear to represent humanity at its finest, but then nobody looks their best seated on institutional furniture under fluorescent lights. Even Giselle Bundchen probably looks like a long-distance trucker when she visits the DMV.

Moments after my arrival, a nervous-looking DMV employee emerged and announced that the camera and printer had gone down. Which meant that they couldn't process any drivers' licenses at the moment. A call had been placed to the technician. It might be 30 minutes or several hours. "We're open until 3:45 today, and we'll be here next Wednesday and Thursday," she offered, by way of reassurance.

This announcement caused some consternation among those waiting. No doubt, others in that waiting room had arranged their days to accommodate this errand. No doubt, others in that waiting room had traveled some distance to be there. No doubt, others in that waiting room had waited until the last minute to renew their licenses. There were some grumbles.

I decided to await further information; I had childcare, I had my book, and there was nowhere I needed to be. A short time later, another DMV employee emerged with an update: the technician had been contacted, they were working to fix the camera and printer, "keep your fingers crossed."

And then, something almost imperceptible happened: that tiny seed of hope transformed the waiting room into a community. Maybe I was the only one who noticed, but suddenly the ragtag bunch on the hard wooden benches and chairs looked like humanity at its best.

A man in a camouflage baseball cap and a dairy farm t-shirt joked good-naturedly with the DMV employees about their no-cash policy: "Even the DMV doesn't trust the government?"

A white-haired woman with a pink sweater and a chipper British accent announced to the room, "Well, I'm going to stick it out for an hour. Now what we need is coffee or tea. What would you like? Coffee? Tea?"

A man in shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt arrived and greeted an acquaintance. "How you doing?" "Not bad." "They letting you drive again?" When informed of the equipment breakdown, he said, "Aw, that happened the last time I was here!" and laughed.

A woman who was apparently there to settle legal matters after her husband's death received a hug from a friend, and a reassuring hand on her shoulder from a DMV employee.

And four Latino men -- likely farmworkers, and quite possibly undocumented -- came to take their written driving tests, because as of 2014 Vermont began issuing driver's privilege cards to undocumented immigrants.

This sense of common humanity lasted about an hour; then, people started to get restless, to grumble again, to question the DMV employees. The pink-sweatered, British-accented woman left; so did the man in the sleeveless t-shirt, muttering, "This happened the last time I was here!" I finished my book. A DMV employee offered to take our phone numbers and call us if the equipment was fixed. Feeling hopeless, I wrote my mobile phone number on a slip of paper.

As I walked to a local coffee shop, I felt sorry for myself -- a whiny self-pity that I realized was unjustified but just couldn't help. The day was grey and chilly and rain was forecast. I was exhausted, having been woken up the previous night by: 1) numbness in my left leg, 2) my baby crying, 3) my five-year-old needing to use the bathroom. The roses that my husband bought for my birthday had tipped over and flooded the kitchen counter with water. And I'd just spent a fruitless 90 minutes at the DMV. Happy birthday to me.

At the coffee shop, I turned on my laptop and checked Facebook, which was filled with tributes and remembrances of September 11, 2001.

As it happens, I was living in New York City on September 11, 2001. And here's what I remember about that day: Nobody was feeling sorry for themselves. People were mourning, people were scared, people were brave, people were angry. But self pity didn't enter the equation.

I thought back to my experience in the waiting room, at how quickly we humans can move from annoyance to hopeful community and then back to annoyance. And how quickly beautiful, sunny September mornings can turn horrific. Thirty-nine years have taught me that these sudden shifts are life, and your choice is what you'll decide to emphasize, what version of the story you'll tell yourself.

Just then, my cellphone rang. It was Debbie from DMV, calling to tell me that the camera was up and working again.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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