The Department of Motor Vehicles…
Soon after I got to Pasadena, I went to “Wheels” a free play put on at the Humane Society by Encompass. The play was a one-man show about Immigration, Xenophobia, citizenship, and belonging and was centered around one 15 1/2 year old Mexican teen; the actor also played about ten other characters. The central theme was this kid trying to get his learner’s permit to start driving. Since it took place in Southern California, it was meaningful because public transporation here basically isolates you from the “flow”.
It was incredibly well scripted, intelligently written, and so true to life..everything from the bus rides, the employees at the various DMV counters, the cell phone conversations, the unhelpful advice, the ambient confusion, the returning home empty-handed and frustrated.
I sat, alternately confounded by the exactitude and laughing at the delivery. The hilarious thing was that I had just spent the entire DAY at the DMV that very day, going on the same buses, with the same people, hearing the same monologues by bus-riders, talking to the same employees, taking the same test, running into the same situations. Taking the same bus home with my license. When I told this to the audience, they all laughed. I don’t think any of them–after I quizzed a number of them–had actually been to the DMV in person in a number of years, and it was so fresh to me.
It made me realize that the trip in person to the DMV is the initiation ritual to American life. Prior to that last trip that same morning, I had gone at least three or four times, to get information and a booklet, to register my car–a lovely 1996 white Nissan Maxima– and finally to take the final written test and get my driver’s license.
Compared to French bureaucracy, the American version is like “Diet Bureaucracy”, the light version. As a comparison, to get my French ID card (mind you, I already had the French Passport and Birth Certificate, and my mother is French) I had to provide copies of all of these papers, PLUS a current phone bill, two ID photos with strict criteria (I had to retake them three times) and the birth certificates of my mother, grandmother and great-grandfather, which I had to obtain from three different parts of France. I had to go back three generations and wait about six weeks for the paperwork to come in! At least here, I got it done in the course of a week.
But still, the DMV is definitely a fascinating experience. I’m not going to miss my trips there, but it was a microcosm of California society in the perennially grey walls with the loudspeakers announcing the numbers served at which counters. Chinese, Mexican, African Americans, all the ethnicities united by paperwork. The sheer absolute diversity of the people there just never ceased to amaze me. You can take the written test in any language! I had ample time to catalog it, and I saw Persian, Cambodian, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Korean versions of the test available..and thought wow…only in America can you take a test in Persian to drive…I thought it was pretty amazing.
I was wearing a beautiful Pakistani shawl given to me by my great friend Shahina, and was wrapped in it during my two hour wait on my second visit there. The Asian woman next to me, I think she was from the Philippines, reached over and touched my arm. I jumped and turned to her–I’d only been in the states a few days, and someone touching me was still a bit unusual, coming from Paris–and she was just touching my shawl. She pulled it closer to her and commented on how nice it was, and where did I get it, and how beautiful it looked…and we chit-chatted as much as we could communicate. Unsollicited interaction, a moment of connection at the DMV. I think her number got called right after that and I looked at her walk away and smiled. I had forgotten how people can just talk to you here. It’s still not like back home, but lovely nonetheless.