Like the lady told Corey Haim, you mustn’t fuck with the department of motor vehicles. A few years back, I needed to renew my license. Unlike Corey Haim’s character in License To Drive, I didn’t need to take a test, written or road. All I needed to do was pay the man his due, snap an awful photo, and rejoin the crushing Los Angeles traffic. It should’ve been so easy; naturally, it wasn’t.
About five minutes after the DMV opened, the computers crashed. Thirty minutes after that, a DMV worker with a monotone voice announced that the computers were back up, but “slower than usual.”
Slower than usual is about as slow as slow can get when the baseline metric is DMV efficiency.
I blocked out the wait. Those five hours of my life are what traffic engineers call lost time—the moments during which no vehicles are able to pass through an intersection, despite the traffic signal displaying a green light.
Eventually, it was my turn. I handed in my paperwork, paid my fee, and waited another twenty minutes while a silent DMV employ stared blankly out the window, waiting for his computer to process the information.
Then it was time to say cheese!
“What happened to your face?” the DMV photographer asked. She grimaced, to let me know that whatever had happened, it wasn’t good.
Glancing at her screen, I saw her view of my old driver’s license photo, the one I took when I was a fresh-faced college kid.
“I grew a beard, because I’m a man now,” I snapped.
“Whatever,” she said. “You look like crap.”
The camera doesn’t lie.
In the years that have followed, a parade of bartenders, TSA agents, and anyone else who checks ID have commented freely on my driver’s license photo.
Most popular comment: you look like one of the 9/11 hijackers.
True fact: none of those murderers had beards. Well, none of them had big, bushy beards like mine.
Not that I get profiled. My driver’s license photo is fodder for bigots who prefer fantasy to fact and commentary to action. Mostly, the photo is just a nifty party trick.
“Show them, honey,” Christina says, whenever the subject of bad driver’s license photos comes up. My wife and I have seen some pretty bad driver’s license photos over the years, but mine always wins.
About a year ago, we flew home from Florida. We flew Southwest, so the trip to Los Angeles took nine billion hours. We changed planes twice. Somewhere along the way, Southwest lost our bags.
Weary, and perhaps a tad cranky, I trudge toward the lost luggage desk at the LAX baggage claim. I explain the situation to an indifferent woman named Brenda, who checks her computer and confirms that our bags are definitely not in Los Angeles. A snarky comment comes to mind, but I am too tired to snark in a timely fashion.
“I need to see some ID,” Brenda says.
The little voice inside my head groans. After a long day traveling and a week on the road, I had flashed my ID dozens of times and heard all the usual stupid comments. I have a feeling Brenda is one of those people who will feel the need to say something about my ID. I am not in the mood.
But I need my luggage. So I reach into my wallet and hand my ID to Brenda.
“Oh hell no!” Brenda says.
Brenda presses my ID close to her face, mesmerized.
“Patrice!” Brenda shouts. “Patrice! You gotta come see this!”
Patrice waddles out from the back office.
Brenda hands my ID to Patrice.
“Oh shit!” Patrice declares. “Oh shit!”
Both women roar with laughter. They take turns examining my ID. Then when the laughter subsides, they explain.
Evidently, the job of tracking lost luggage is a dull misery rivaled only by the experience of working at the DMV. But Brenda and Patrice have found an escape—they copy the best (worst) driver’s license photos and hang them on the wall in the back office.
“Whenever we can’t take it anymore, we just look at the photos,” Brenda explains. “They’re always good for a laugh.”
“Can we make a copy?” Patrice asks. “Just of the photo.”
“Sure,” Christina says.
I watch Patrice disappear to make a copy.
Christina tells them the story of the photo, the epic wait at the DMV, the rude woman. She tells Patrice and Brenda that she loves the beard. They agree that it suits me, and that the photo doesn’t really do me justice.
“The DMV fucked with you, honey,” Patrice says.
Brenda nods, emphatic agreement.
Brenda thanks me for making their night. She promises they’ll find our bags and have them delivered in the morning. Our stuff is lost somewhere in the middle of America, but thanks to Brenda and Patrice, we’ve found a little humanity at the LAX baggage claim.