For inveterate people watchers like me, the DMV licensing office is like a constantly rotating wildlife exhibit. People of all ages and classes and colors and personalities walk through the same door, take a number, and join themselves to the snaking line of humanity that weaves its way up to the service counter.

My license expired on my birthday. Dutifully, I resigned myself to wasting an hour of my Monday moving through the bureaucratic machinery of blank forms and eye tests to get it renewed. Unfortunately, this involved taking a new license photo, a task I was dreading. You see, four years ago, in this same office, a small miracle had occurred, and I had walked out into the summer sun clutching a driver’s license picture that I actually liked! My first ever. If I’d known it wasn’t going to be the same washed out, double-chinned, stringy-haired nightmare I’d come to expect from I.D. photos, I’d have opted for the eight year license instead of the four and paid the extra twenty bucks for the pleasure. Alas, four years went by too quickly.

There’s not much to do while you’re waiting in line but to look around at all the other people waiting in line, and, if you’re lucky, eavesdrop a little.

I entered the DMV right behind an elderly couple, who sat at the end of the row of seats, sweetly holding hands. Apparently she needed to get her license, but it had been so long since she’d driven that she had lost her old one long ago, back when Idaho was issuing laminated cardboard and the photos were actual photos, trimmed in a square and glued to the top. I couldn’t help but wonder, as her husband slowly ushered her along with his hand on her elbow, if he was preparing her for a time when he wouldn’t be around to drive her to the grocery store or her standing hair appointments.

Across the room, a hairy gentleman wearing a pea-green coat (odd, on a summer day) and sporting a beard down to his navel was trying, in increasingly animated language, to talk his way into a new license despite the fact that he had “lost” his old one and had no other form of identification. The agent behind the desk, using an extra-calm voice I imagine she reserves for dealing with frightened children and possible psychopaths, explained once again why this wasn’t possible. “When did you last see your license?” she asked, trying to be helpful. His bluster evaporated as he finally gave up. “I guess it was when that police officer took it,” he admitted sheepishly.

Over at the dreaded photo desk, a steady parade of applicants posed for pictures in front of a faded blue cloth, sickly smiles and untidy hair preserved for posterity on a 2 by 3-inch piece of plastic. An unsmiling sixteen year old boy with dyed black hair and an abundance of piercings stared holes in the camera lens as the flash captured him in a seeming snarl. The photo tech turned the monitor around so he could see his picture. “Do you want to try that again?” she asked. He looked at it. “Why?” She paused before carefully saying, “Well…it makes you look like…a criminal. Kinda scary.” He opted for no retake. He and his equally pierced and mournful girlfriend linked arms and waited silently while the machine spit out his new license. When the photographer handed it to him, he chirped, “Thanks!” and flashed a beatific smile at her, its light momentarily illuminating the whole room before he turned and stalked out into the parking lot.

Over the hour that I spent waiting for my number to be called, mankind in all flavors came and went through the swinging glass door. Teenage boys and girls bending studiously over the Idaho driver’s manual, cramming for the computerized test ahead; a musclebound Hulk Hogan look-alike who perched tiny wire-framed reading glasses on his nose before filling out his forms; a rather frenzied middle-aged bald man who skipped taking a number, strode up to the counter, and demanded a list of the names and addresses of the driving test administrators (perhaps to send them flowers?) before being soundly rebuffed and leaving in a snit.

It wasn’t a bad way to spend an hour, really. Nothing entertains and amazes like the human race.

Oh! And my new driver’s license photo? I hate it. The natural order has been restored.


15 responses »

  1. I always wear red. For some reason that helps me not looked washed out against that DMV blue. Also, the picture that my brother took for his driver’s license makes him look like a thug. he loves it. What is with that. He is not a thug but a little prepster from horse country who wears pink polos and plaid shorts…strange.

  2. What I hate is when the digital camera “squishes” your head – thereby rendering it much, much fatter than in reality!

  3. And you didn’t post the picture for comment why, exactly? I mean, you can blur out the #’s and personal info, but you should at least do us the courtesy of showing us your picture 🙂

    Here in Texas we have the joyful opportunity to renew our licenses on the internet. You use the same picture, so if you don’t like it, you can always to go wait in that stupid line for hours on end. Or, do like I do and suck it up – I renew on-line and do everything I can to avoid showing my picture to people! Waiting in that line isn’t really an option for me, 3 kids in-tow!

  4. THe DMV photo is designed to look great on America’s Most Wanted…you know, just in case you commit some horrible crime, the news has a photo at the ready to plaster all over tv. Because the one with you holding your kids wouldn’t seem right for the story.

  5. What I hate is when they tell me I have to “stand shorter” because the camera doesn’t pan that high.

    I, too, enjoy the parade of the paranormal (or is it abby-normal?)

  6. a retake at the DMV?!! i can’t imagine that level of kindness. i think our DMV people take pride in making us all look like criminals.

  7. Oh so true. I once made sure to have my hair down for my DL photo, so I could note how long it had been at that point in my life but when the photo was placed on the id, the clever State of Illinois puts the photo into the SHAPE of Illinois and it didn’t show my hair length at all. What a waste. Now I go looking like a shcmuck and when they ask if I want to take it over, I just laugh and say, “it’s not like it’s going to be on there for years!!” Ha ha ha. I guess it just doesn’t matter to me what the pic looks like, just let me driveeeee!!!

  8. I am a people watcher, too. I think I get it from my dad. He’s the best at making fun of strangers. But the mom in me came out when I read about the pierced boy. Why was he getting his first driver’s license with his girlfriend? Where was his mother?!? I hope in 10 years, I’m there to tell Josh, “Get the retake!”

  9. Yeah, I’m due for a photo retake this year. Bummer since last time my license expired I renewed on line and kept the picture I had. So I’ve got a really nice eight-year-old picture right now that I’ll replace with — well — reality.

    Did you know the aging process speeds up after the age of 48?

  10. Im dreading the trip to the TN state DMV. I took my test 3 times in OR. They were nice. I failed the written test cuz I didnt study and thought I knew it all. They were tricksy. SO the third time I was ready to succeed and dressed up for the pic. It came out ok – I still have the OR license as it does not expire for a while – I think 2010. anyway Ill have to get a TN one soon and they are not nice here. not nice at all. Im sure the pic will be a horrid reflection of my time spent at the DMV.

  11. Good stuff. I love to people-watch. I thoroughly amused a good college friend of mine when we were driving somewhere together through Columbus and I saw a man with one crutch. When I realized that we both saw him, I asked her why did he have only one crutch do you think? No idea. And then I gave her four imaginative reasons that astounded her. The way my mind worked intrigued her. She ended up married to my ex-boyfriend. I introduced them hoping they would marry so that he would get over me and stop bothering me. Wow. And this has nothing to do with your post I guess. I just wanted you to know that I continue to stop by and often cry but never say why (leave no comments). I love to read THICK books because I know it will be a long time before it ends. Your blog has the qualities of a good, thick book . . . one tiny chapter at a time.

  12. We have a DMV location here in town that no one seems to know about! I’ve never waited more than five or ten minutes!

    It’s wonderful after spending years at other locations standing in line for hours.

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