February 15, 2019

HAPPY HOUR AT THE DMV

This story first appeared in the Avalon Literary Review, Winter 2019 edition


Can you remember the last time you had a really good day at the DMV? Me neither, and I work there. At first light, the hungry hoards press against the double glass doors clamoring to get in, mercilessly seeking photo ID’s, drivers’ tests, auto title changes, and learners’ permits. Mondays are the worst, particularly in June when every sixteen-year-old in California is hell-bent to get behind the wheel.

On and on they come all day long. And there I am, the bitch sheepdog charged with herding these lambs and goats into their proper lines, with paperwork filled out completely and correctly. In truth, my real task is keeping the wolves from eating the livestock.

There are some dedicated public servants here at my DMV office. Well, actually only one, Maria Cortez who helps driver’s license applicants take their written test on our fancy new electronic system. She’s a saint. On the other hand, Bob, Mercy, and Melanie are as enthused as a deflated tire, waiting out their years until retirement. Melanie’s response to customer complaints is always, “This ain’t Nordstrom’s, honey.” Most of the rest of us do our jobs as best we can, but little more.

My first inquiry on this one particular day came from a middle-aged woman who obviously felt it important to wear her favorite flowered yellow dress to come to the DMV, complete with pearls, spiked black heels and a heavy coat of hairspray. “Por favor,” she said, in a sugary half-assed attempt at Spanish. “Cama hay yamo.”

“Good morning,” I said nicely. “May I help you?” She must have thought that because I look Hispanic I mustn’t be able to speak English well, even though I was clearly an employee of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Otherwise, why would she expect me to know the answer to her question about whether it was legal to haul green bananas in the trunk of her car? Well, that might not be exactly what she asked, but something just as wacky.

Now that I think about it, maybe I do look a little Latin with my dark skin, dark hair, and long Salena Gomez bangs. But I’m actually Greek. Or at least my grandparents are. My name is Yolanda Giannapolous.

Our reputation at the DMV precedes us. So the crowd behaved, civilized, though most of them figured out they were going to be here a long while, including those with appointments for a specified time. A muffled buzz arose as those in line got acquainted with each other, sharing their still-tolerable frustration. A confused gray-haired Asian woman who spoke limited English engaged in conversation with a young Indian woman in an artichoke-green sari and a vermilion dot on her forehead. Their command of English was mutually mangled. The only thing they could seem to connect on was that the DMV sucked.

A hot young blond in clingy gray running shorts and a violet tank top tried to help them out. In between, she took slurps of coffee from her Starbucks Grande cappuccino. I was close enough to catch a whiff of her dank odor. By the time she reached the front of the line, those around her might wish she had stopped to take a shower after her morning jog. But then she would have missed her assigned appointment time, an offense the DMV does not take lightly.

An interesting looking grease monkey from one of the nearby auto repair shops joined the back of the line. I handed him a clipboard with a form to fill out stating his name and the purpose of his visit to the DMV. His lips gave me a charming smile while his eyes gave me the once-over. That always builds up a girl’s ego, particularly at nine o’clock in the morning. The DMV is a good place to work for a young woman who’s looking for some action. The younger men are always on the prowl, with pickup lines nearly as suave as George Clooney. Not! For laughs, my best friend, Nura, and I share the top ones every day over lunch. But I have a boyfriend, Josh, who keeps me well-satisfied. We’re getting married as soon as he finishes college next spring. Nura is a different story. She’s mostly saving herself for a Muslim man her parents will approve of, but once in a while, she scores and then shares every breathless detail with me.

 The people who walk through our glass double-doors every day come in a scad of colors, sexes, shapes, and flavors. Most of them are nice. But every once in a while, there’s an asshole. The assholes also come in all shades, sexes, shapes, and flavors. I’ve been here long enough to sniff a skunk before I even see him. Just such a mammal strutted in the door now, a boringly-brown-haired middle-aged man in a classy business suit. He wasn’t wearing just any off-the-rack suit. No, this one was definitely a custom-fit navy blue gabardine from someplace like Nieman Marcus. He glamorized his get-up with a power purple tie and a blue pin-striped shirt.

This guy took one look at the long unmoving line and made a beeline for me, the clipboard on my arm a sure sign of authority. “I have a nine-thirty appointment, miss,” he fumed.

“End of the line, please,” I said, pointing with my finger, never looking up from my clipboard. This was not going to be fun.

“You don’t understand. I have an appointment.” He enunciated slowly, clear and loud, suspecting my English wasn’t too good. Or my hearing.

Si se├▒or,” I answered. “End of the line.”

“I have a board meeting in an hour. I’m only here to remove the lien from my car title.”

He touched my arm, threatening or pleading. I couldn’t tell which. He dropped his hand when my hot glare moved from his flushed face to his unwelcomed fingers. “All these people ahead of you have appointments,” I said.

“But I have a nine-thirty appointment, and it’s nine-thirty now.” He looked down at his large, expensive watch, tapping its blue face.

I turned away from him and walked over to a confused Hispanic woman. I used every word of Spanish I knew to explain how to fill out the form she would need to get her driving permit. When I meandered back, Mr. Blue Suit came at me again. He took out his wallet from his back pocket and held up a twenty-dollar bill. “Will this help?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, sir. We’re not allowed to accept tips.”

“Let me speak to your supervisor,” he demanded, stuffing the money back into his pocket.

“I am the supervisor,” I lied. His cheeks turned so red I thought he was going to have a coronary. Something like that had never happened in my line before.

“Do you know who I am? I’m Larry Winkle, president of Smiley Ice.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Winkle,” I responded, trying my hardest to look fearless, chomping harder on my spearmint chewing gum.

“We’re the largest distributor of ice cream in the Bay Area.” The strength of his voice asserted the importance of his position. I nodded, unimpressed. Then I turned back to help a confused teenager.

My friend Nura manned the in-take desk these people in the long line were queued up to see. She checked their paperwork and assigned them to one of the twelve customer service desks. Some people around the office called her Judge Judy because she passed judgment on every customer as though they were defendants at trial. Others called her the Grim Reaper because of the punishment she inflicted on those she found wanting, usually in the form of eternal entanglement in the bureaucratic swamp. I hated to think what she would do to my new friend Larry Winkle if he didn’t change his attitude in a hurry.

The line was moving only a little faster, but there were still seven people in front of him. I caught a last whiff of the blond female jogger with the ponytail before Nura finished with her and she moved on to her assigned service desk.

“Hey Nura,” I said before the next customer got to her. “Don’t look up, but see that guy in the classy dark suit?”

“Ah, another asshole?” she asked. I nodded. She gave me the fetchingly twisted smile I so adored. Nura ate self-important assholes alive.

The line had grown and now circled out the door onto the sidewalk. Halfway back, a beautiful coal-dark woman in blue jeans held a whimpering infant in her arms, trying to comfort it. I’m a sucker for cute little babies. I want one of my own, but that’ll have to wait. Going to school nights at San Mateo JC keeps me busy trying to get my associate degree. I want to be a radiology technician and earn enough money to give my parents the new Prius they’ve always wanted but can never afford. After that, Josh and I will start saving for a house.

“Anything I can do to help?” I asked the woman with the whimpering baby.

“She’s teething, I’m sorry she’s making such a fuss.”

“No problem,” I said. “What are you here for?”

“A photo ID.”

“Follow me,” I led her to the front of the line. Her abundant gratitude alone would have made my day. But even better, the frustrated Mr. Winkle glowered at me, showing his snarling teeth, helpless. I went around the other way so I wouldn’t have to contend with him. He was no happier when he saw me lead a frail old man to the head of the line. He shoved a small Hispanic man aside and advanced toward me again.

“Do you realize thousands of children depend on me and my company to deliver happiness to them every day?” Spittle sprayed from his rabid tongue. He sounded as though he was quoting from the company’s advertising brochure. “Do you people have any idea how sad they will be if they don’t have their ice cream because I’ve been held hostage by the DMV?”

I hated to think I would be personally responsible for making every kid in the Bay Area unhappy, but rules are rules. What could I do but pray that Nura would bring justice?

The column inched forward minute by excruciating minute. Larry Winkle stood apart, isolated, wanting no part of the humanity swarming around him. He jiggled his iPhone in one hand and jiggled his car keys in his pants pocket with the other. He bounced back and forth on his toes as though he had to visit the men’s room. Finally, Nura motioned to the person in line right before Winkle, a teenaged boy on crutches with a grungy cast on his right leg. He made his way painfully, slowly toward Nura.

Winkle was next. I wanted to cover my eyes, but like a car wreck, it’s hard to turn away. The moment Nura finished up with the teenager, Winkle dashed toward her. “Wait!” she barked, holding up the palm of her hand. He stopped dead. Then she took her time arranging some papers on her desk and checking some imaginary forms. She pushed a few loose brown hairs back under her hijab. “Next,” she finally called, beckoning impatiently at Winkle with her extended hand.

Wouldn’t you know it. Just at the moment of reckoning, an urgent call came over the loudspeaker for me to report to the other end of the hall to pick up a bunch of unimportant new customer forms. I was only gone for five minutes, but by the time I sprinted back, Nura had another client at her desk. I raced to the double glass doors in time to see Winkle charge by, cursing out loud, arms waving, sweating abundantly, threatening to call the governor.

Hasta luego,” I called after him. “Have a nice day.”

He kept walking until he reached the curb out front. That’s when he saw his big shiny black Cadillac being towed from the No Parking zone. Nura had passed her sentence. The pitiful wail emanating from Mr. Blue Suit sounded like a lamb trapped in the jaws of a ravenous wolf.

When will they learn? You don’t mess with the DMV no matter who you are.



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