My birthday in early October was not particularly noteworthy until I realized it was the day that my North Carolina driver’s license was to expire. For years, I renewed my license with simple traffic sign tests, paid the fee and left with a new picture of an older me, a colorful mug shot set on a background of Carolina blue. Our relocation obliterated the easy routine.
I did not want any official documentation that labeled me a Californian, but it was already too late for that. The November election forced me onto the California registry of voters; I wanted to cast my vote for Mr. Obama in person, fully present, immersed in the gravity of the occasion. Although I would like to have celebrated his victory in the company of fellow Tar Heels, I will never forget the moment I marked the ballot at my assigned polling place—a designated garage down the street from our rented house, far removed from the civil rights movement of my sultry youth—with tears streaming down my face and a heart so full of the truth of my mission that I could find no words to explain.
Not long after that, The New York Times chose my letter to the editor to run in their Inauguration Day edition and, much to my dismay, there it was in black and white, fact checked and entirely accurate: “San Diego, January 19, 2009.” Ah, yes. I live there now.
If I had not voted, I might have been able to hold onto my North Carolina license, despite the deception of my former address. But once that vote was cast, residency was established and that changed everything. There was no point in fighting it. I needed a California license to function locally—to get a library card, to volunteer in the public schools (which is impossible these days without a criminal background check), to avoid having to explain constantly why the address on my license didn’t match my address anywhere else.
I knew that the wait would be long; the Department of Motor Vehicles in San Diego has few field locations to serve its burgeoning population, and the budget crunch has forced limited days and hours of operation. I therefore had plenty of time to observe the hundreds of others, many new to this country, nervously bowing to a nitpicking bureaucracy (requiring attestation that my name is my true name, even with a passport and birth certificate and social security card as proof).
I pondered the topic of two great equalizers: the powerful right to vote and the regulatory mazes that make us feel powerless in getting where we want to go. Peon. Drudge. Serf. No amount of wealth or beauty or fame or name dropping was going to put me at the front of that line. With our assigned numbers, each of us—the newly arrived Japanese woman (B 88) standing with her elderly parents, the Mexican mother (B 90) with three children in tow, and I, a Daughter of the American Revolution (B 89)—knew that our freedom, our ability to function legally, hinged on the non-negotiable points of the governmental trinity: filling out forms, providing documentation, passing the written test. It’s regulation that, in the long run, protects us.
The San Diego DMV was not too bad, actually. It’s airports that have become torture chambers for me.
First-class, priority, Admiral’s Club or economy, you still have to pass through security. Shoes, coat, sweater, scarf off; computer out; boarding pass in hand; quart-size bag of toiletries on display. Then, uh-oh, something looks suspicious, perhaps the jewelry bag in my purse; or something beeps as I move through the detector, probably the underwire in my bra. “Ma’am? Would you step over here please?”
I can’t help but think this is a power trip. I don’t want these strangers going through my things, fingering my grandmother’s pearls. Do I really look like a threat? No, but I might look like someone who needs to be taught a lesson. A bad attitude only delays the delay.
I understand the need for regulation. What I dislike is the irrational, indiscriminate, often laughable rule, which throws common sense out the window.
A few months ago, I arrived at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field two hours early for a domestic flight and still nearly missed the plane. The security line wound around the terminal and out the door. Then this past Monday, at Boston’s Logan Airport after a wonderful weekend with my daughter, not only did security take forever, but I was told by airport personnel that my luggage was a quarter-inch too tall for the overhead compartment. I’ve been putting that same luggage in the overhead for two years now, no problem.
I must commend my now-local Department of Motor Vehicles: They efficiently and politely dealt with the crowd, an impressive feat seeing as they offer testing in 30 different languages, including Armenian, Indonesian, Hungarian and Vietnamese. The examiner showed remarkable common sense in letting me keep my expired North Carolina license. It’s a nice memento, a good photo. I passed the vision test with flying colors, the written test (in English) by the skin of my teeth, and now carry in my wallet an official California driver’s license. On it, I see my smiling face: not the most flattering picture, but nicely done on a background of Carolina blue.