Road Map

When I first started writing this week’s column I thought it was going to be about my daughter, Clementine, getting her driver’s permit. One of those, “Look out! The girl who is stymied by the geometry of folding a t-shirt is about to learn how to parallel park!” type things. And I may still write that column one day. After all, getting your driver’s license is, for most Americans, as much of a rite of passage as graduating from high school or getting arrested for the first time (or maybe that’s just my family.)

However, as it turns out I was completely wrong about what type of experience getting her learner’s permit would be for Clementine. Yes, it was a rite of passage. And yes, it was a necessary step on her road to adulthood, but not in the way I thought it would be. Here’s the thing: I thought this particular rite of passage would be all about learning following distances and other difficult but necessary rules, but instead it was about something completely different. It was about how to deal with bureaucracy: specifically, how to deal with the people who have been working in a bureaucracy for so long that their souls have been sucked up inside the little machine that issues the numbers.

You’re probably rolling your eyes as you’re reading this. “What?” you’re saying. “You had an unpleasant experience at the DMV? How unique.” But to tell you the truth, this really was my first truly unpleasant experience there. (I’m not counting the time I had to explain that the ’79 Pinto I owned wasn’t insured because it had grass growing up through the floor boards. To be fair, I was the moron in that exchange.)

On my most recent encounter, however, the problem wasn’t so much that I was a moron, as that I was under the mistaken impression that a passport, original birth certificate and school ID was enough proof of citizenship to get a driver’s license. I mean, you can become President of the United States with less, right? Still, I was wrong, and so, like the majority of people who had been in line in front of me, was sent home to get even more proof of citizenship. This was the moment when Clementine got her first real lesson on the perils bureaucracy.

“You know,” the nameless woman behind the desk said to Clementine. (Nameless at least as far as she knew: apparently unknown to her, some previously disgruntled client had scratched a name into the “Welcome” plaque on her desk. I don’t, however, think that it was her given name—unless her parents had a wicked sense of humor.) “If you had read the entire study guide, like you were supposed to, then you would have known what forms of identification to bring.”

I considered pointing out to her that her job title was “Customer Service” and not “Customer Chastisement.” I considered telling her that personal commentary of that sort was best saved until she got home, when she could tell her sixteen cats all about it. I considered asking her if she had been born bitter, or if it was only something that happened once she got really old. I considered all of these things, and then bit my tongue and turned away, took Clementine back home and located the rest of the documents (luckily, a sworn statement from the Hawaiian Secretary of State wasn’t involved—this time).

“Wow,” said Clementine as we left. “What a (name scratched on ‘Welcome” plaque).”

“Yes,” I agreed. “And you’re going to meet her (or her twin) at least once a year for the rest of your life. Welcome to adulthood. Now let’s hurry back so we can take another number before they close.”

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