Saturday, June 24, 2006

Purgatory's Extreme Makeover

EVEN AFTER THE ROMAN Catholic Church moved to decommission the concept of Limbo some time ago, most people of driving age know that its less desirable relative, Purgatory, is still open for business, if only in its earthly representation. For no force mundane or magical could conceivably banish the flatline-inducing stasis of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Except, perhaps, the DMV itself.

I don't know how things are in your state, but here in New Jersey, we are undergoing a switch to digital licenses. What with the national pubococcygeus muscle clenching over identity theft and crazed terrorists teeming across our borders, New Jersey has mandated that anyone with a conventional license due for renewal had to come in for a new, digitally shot photo license. Gone are the days where enterprising college students, like one guy I eventually roomed with in junior year, could hang a blue cloth, get some vinyl stick-on letters and poster board, and shoot New Jersey "licenses" for their booze-jonesing buddies. Applicants also have to bring a sheaf of identifying documents that prove that they are legitimately themselves. In principle, this provides confirmation in depth. In practice, with the recent scandal over false Hudson County documents being apparently available to anyone with folding green, and before that, the discovery of a document forgery ring operating out of the Wayne, NJ DMV parking lot, whether this actually works in the age of Photoshop is dubious at best.

So I, along with thousands of my fellow Garden Staters, waited until this, the last weekend of the month, to patronize our neighborhood DMV office. I motored up to the Wyckoff office, because I've had fairly painless experiences there in the past, as trips to the DMV go. I got up early for a Saturday, shaved (ordinarily something I neglect over a weekend, but I didn't want to look like I'd been rousted from the drunk tank on my license for the next 4 years), and trekked out. In a plastic folder next to me rested what a Gestapo agent might call my "papers." I probably overplanned: passport, SS card, birth certificate, and a recent power bill to prove address. A fat stack of hundreds and a Browning Hi-Power and I could've been a CIA drug courier cooling his heels between runs and identities.

Wyckoff's DMV is a storefront in a short strip mall just off one of the town's main streets, bordering a dead shopping center. The view from the office is therefore bleak, offering only asphalt, an abandoned Walgreen's and the shell of a grocery store. Nevertheless, the surrounding area is pure suburbs, unlike some of the grittier offices in the state. By the time I arrived, three guys had already lined up outside the door. I became number 4, put on my iPod, and waited. As I listened to music and watched the line grow steadily longer, I was amused to see late-arriving employees of the DMV tapping on the glass to be admitted by those who had gotten in earlier. I guess New Jersey doesn't trust all of its personnel to have access to the machinery necessary to produce state documents.

The wait itself was as pleasant as this sort of experience can get. We were all under the awning of the strip mall, and therefore safe from the threatening rain clouds gathering overhead. Even those in line who lit up cigarettes walked well away from the rest of us to smoke. Evidently they knew the law well: 25 feet from the entrance of a public establishment.

At 8:00, an employee opened up and directed us into two lines: registrations/plates and licenses. This made me first! Wyckoff has a concierge up front to help folks ensure they have all of the proper documentation. This is where the operation began to distinguish itself from the stereotype. I showed the woman up front my materials, and she routed me right up to the window.

There, I was actually greeted pleasantly by a guy just finishing the setup of his station. I surrendered my old license and my documentation, and when I asked to what organization I needed to address the check, he told me right up front, no "I've gotta do this a million times a day" attitude or anything.

One humorous snag to the process came when he tried to ring open the register to stash the check. First, it wouldn't open. He quickly fetched a tiny key, manipulated it awkwardly with his meaty hand, then couldn't get the register to stop beeping in protest when he tried to start it up. He carefully removed the cover, called over one of his mates to determine which setting a hidden switch had to occupy, found it, and then realized the drawer was locked! Apologizing through this as he had through the whole preceding tapdance, he once again fiddled with the key, got the drawer open, and finally dropped my check beneath the completely empty cash rack. "There's not even anything in here to steal!" he said in exasperation.

This comedy done, he had me sit down for my official state portrait. (Having seen a photo on the wall of our plutocrat in chief, Jon Corzine, I amused myself by imagining this, or an office like it, is where he had to have the shot taken.) The picture was displayed on a small LCD screen next to the camera, and the first snap was the keeper. He then stamped my application and began working on the next one while the machine finished the card. Unlike the old days, when someone deft with the ways of a laminating gadget would have to compose the Polaroid, signature card, and everything else over the course of what felt like an hour, my license was ready in 3 minutes tops. Total time in the joint: 15 minutes. All in all, far better than some of the standing-still deathmarches at the Bergenfield or Lodi offices.

What surprised me is that they returned my old license, with a cancellation hole punched in it, along with the new one. So now I can look at them both and compare the stretch of 4 years on my visage. I had gotten the 2002 license in a whirlwind of document-acquisition: From the DMV, I went with my new license and support papers to the county seat, where I applied for a passport — an ID exacta, you might say. I have both licenses in front of me now. The smile on the 2006 license is better, not quite as phony. My temples are still white, as in the 2002 model, but the top is more salt-and-pepper in today's. In both, I am wearing a black Russell T-shirt. Some things never change. The '06 also has a smaller, watermark-like version of the main portrait in the bottom right corner, like my very own Mini-Me.

So now I'm legal as hell for all manner of road mayhem. The days when I had to produce a license for liquor-store patronage are long since past, and I don't go to the sorts of bars or clubs where the management has to be vigilant about underage drinkers. I let the sideburns — in hue, partway between those of Reed Richards and Paulie Walnuts — do the age-checking for me. Other than verifying a financial transaction or signing up for a casino comp card, my two digital doppelgängers — or maybe one doppelgänger and one homonculus – will rest in their dark leather prison, freezing me in time for another 4 years.

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