Following is an excerpt from a chapter in my second novel, Status Schmo. You get a good idea what a shit-show Joe’s (protagonist) life is about to become as he tries to register a car purchased in New Mexico at a Kentucky DMV. This stuff really happens, folks.
Joe opened the door to the DMV and confronted a massive, unruly crowd. It was worse than a gaggle of the worst of humanity and grumpy senior citizens at Golden Buffet on one of those all-you-can-eat seafood nights when the staff brings out a new tub of crab legs. His immediate thought was regret for not having gotten a concealed carry permit or at least bringing a flask of vodka. There was a broad, seasoned representation of the population including car dealers, businessmen, construction workers, and moms struggling with children. And of course there was the ever-present contingent from that priceless slice of Americana known as The People of Walmart, sometimes referred to by Joe as the “great unwashed.” Some wore pajamas with worn out seams over spiked heels, and not just the women. Some women displayed cleavage in unnatural places with sagging tattoos pointing to their private parts that nobody wanted to see. And of course there were a smattering of men sporting their latest mullets and beer guts. Kentucky was known for quickly catching on to fashion trends.
There were lines everywhere, all with signs at the front saying, “Do not step beyond the red line without being called.” The lines were pieces of yellow tape. He saw a security guard who resembled Barney Fife, with a holstered can of pepper spray watching the crowd as if about to pounce on the first to break the immutable rules of the DMV. He suspected the fine print he couldn’t read said “Violators will be fumigated”. This didn’t seem like a bad idea considering the clientele. Signs hung over the counter windows, none of which indicated a line for car registration. There was an information desk toward the back, with no one there. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see a sign that read, “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.”
There was a line of people holding what appeared to be car registration documents. He was about to plant himself at the end of the line when he discovered a take-a-number ticket dispenser on a nearby wall.
Ahh, I see now.
Relieved there might just be some method to the madness, he snatched a ticket. Number 207. The digital sign high above the dispenser showed 13.
What the hell?
Looking back at the crowd, he met the eyes of a man in one of the lines who was watching him, smiling as if he were in on a secret he wasn’t about to share, no doubt the type who enjoyed watching people do stupid things. He half expected the entire room to erupt in laughter.
Deciding to cover all his bases, he returned to the end of the line he thought was for car registration. He stood there for close to fifteen minutes without moving, irritation beginning to set in. The digital sign still showed 13. He looked ahead at the various lines and watched one of the clerks reach up and close his window even though the line was still long.
“What the…What would make somebody do something like that?”
A young woman who was the last to be served in that line, brushed aside a swatch of stringy blue hair, stuck her chin in the air and spoke to the entire line Joe was in. “Good luck, losers. Ya shoulda come early like me.”
Groans and gasps came from the people in that line, but at least it wasn’t his line. Joe had an odd sense of satisfaction in their misery.
Good Lord. I’ve turned into a monster. I hope it’s not that contagious asshole virus. Apparently, the damn thing has a gestation period of only fifteen minutes. He imagined pleading with the judge, “Your honor, it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t mean to kill ’em. I was infected with the asshole virus!” and getting the case dismissed as justifiable homicide.
It took another forty minutes for Joe to get his turn. “Good morning, ma’am. I need to register a car I just bought,” said Joe as he attempted to hand the clerk his papers. She looked like Oprah Winfrey, if Oprah Winfrey were in the midst of a gender-reassignment surgery, had chin stubble and wore makeup like Frank N. Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“Sir, this isn’t the line for registration. This window is for renewals only. You’ll need to go to that line over there,” she responded, pointing to a window two lines over.
“Seriously? I’ve been in this line for over an hour. Do I really have to get at the end of that line?” said Joe, hoping a little exaggeration might garner some sympathy. “It might be nice if you guys put up some signs or instructions somewhere so people knew which line to get in.”
“Guys? Do I look like a guy to you?”
Don’t say it, Joe, he told himself. “Uh, no. That’s not what I meant. How about ‘you people?’”
“You people? Listen, sir, you’ll have to move over to the other line.”
Joe‘s patience was waning. “Since I’ve stood in this line for so long, can’t you move me to the head of that line?”
“Do I need to call security on you?” she replied.
Joe glanced over his shoulder at Barney Fife, whose hero alarm had gone off upon hearing Oprah’s elevated tone. He was glaring at him with his hand hovering over his pepper-spray holster, clearly imagining himself as Clint Eastwood and longing to use the line, “Go ahead, punk, make my day.”
Oh no! Don’t reach for the pepper spray! I’m scared now. Especially since you were trained at DMV security officer school. Joe scolded himself for being so sarcastic, even if he was just thinking it. It wasn’t his real nature. She was probably having a bad day. Joe moved two lines over and assumed the position at the end of the line. By this time the line had dwindled and there were only three people in front of him. The digital waiting list sign had changed to 14.
Fifteen minutes passed before he got his turn at the clerk’s window. A skinny little black man, mostly bald with a wisp of a comb-over peered at him. He was wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt with a bow tie.
Steve Urkel. It’s Steve Urkel. So, this is what happens when reincarnations go bad. I always liked Steve. I wonder what he did to deserve this?
“May I help you, sir?” asked Steve. His nasal tone was barely audible.
“Uh, yes. I need to register a car I just bought from out of state,” replied Joe. “I have the title, registration, and the bill of sale.”
“Where did you buy the car, sir?”
Steve frowned and paused. Apparently he’d injured Steve’s brain. Telepathic Concussion Syndrome.
“I’m sorry, sir, we can’t register cars from other countries here. That has to be done through a specialized transfer system, and that can only be done in the state capital.”
Joe tried to hold back a chuckle. “Oh, I’m sorry. You must have misunderstood me. I bought it in New Mexico.”
“Yes, I heard you, sir. Like I said, we can’t register a car from another country here. The DMV offices aren’t staffed with translators. That’s why it has to be done at the state capital. The good news is you can make an appointment. That will give them time to find someone who can read Spanish to help with the registration.”
“I don’t think you understand. I bought the car in New Mexico. New Mexico’s not a foreign country. And these papers are written in English.”
“Just a moment, sir,” said Steve. “I need to talk to my supervisor.” He turned and walked to a man at a desk further back in the office. They had a short conversation while both looked at Joe as if he’d presented Steve a give-me-all-your-cash-and-nobody-gets-hurt note. Joe wondered if there was a button under the supervisor’s desk that would summon Barney. The supervisor and Steve were consulting with a few other people in the office, apparently trying to work out this problem.
The supervisor approached Joe at the window with Steve standing behind him. “Sir, we can’t register your car here. You’ll have to take it to department headquarters in Frankfort.”
Joe was speechless. Had something happened that he’d missed while at the DMV? Had a bunch of angry Mexicans toppled the border and managed to reclaim New Mexico since he left there? He stood there, stunned, expecting them all to break out in a hearty laugh any second, all having had a good time at the little joke they were having at his expense.
Wait, this is the DMV. How can I expect intelligence, let alone a sense of humor? He stood there, staring at Steve and his supervisor. It occurred to him that everything was backward at government-run organizations – the further up the chain of command the more stupid the employee, illustrating the inevitable power of the Peter Principle.
“Sir, if you continue to be difficult, we’ll be forced to have security escort you from the building,” the supervisor said.
Joe didn’t know whether to burst out laughing or to scream when an idea popped into his head. He raised his hand with his forefinger extended. “Give me a moment, please.” He reached into his pocket to retrieve his iPhone, brought up his browser and searched for U.S. maps. Finding one that was sufficiently labeled, he pinched out the image to zoom toward the southwest corner of the U.S.
“Excuse me, sir. Can I show you something? If you’ll just look at this map of the United States, you’ll notice there is a large space between the states of Arizona and Texas. There. Right there. See that? That’s another state. It’s called New Mexico. That’s where I bought my car. Really. It’s not a foreign country. I’m not sure when it became a state, but I’m pretty sure it’s been a while.” He felt like a damn kindergarten teacher.
Steve and his supervisor were competing to stare at Joe’s phone. It hit them at the same time as they both raised their heads in a classic, double aha-moment..
So, this is what the face of someone eating crow looks like.
“I’m sorry, sir. You should have told us it was that Mexico. We get a lot of immigrants in here trying to get their cars registered from their country.”
Yeah, probably from places like Old York.