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  • Maj-Britt Johnson

Lodi Meditation or, How I Learned Humility at a New Jersey DMV

Updated: Jun 14, 2019


One of the worst aspects of moving to a new state is having to get a new driver's license. I always put if off. The first time I drove down to the Lodi Department of Motor Vehicles to take the New Jersey driver’s license test, it didn’t occur to me to study. What could be so different about the traffic rules in New Jersey from Virginia's, where I had lived for the past seven years? I know this stuff, I’ve been driving for decades. Traffic signs are the same from coast to coast, what’s to know? I asked myself. I sniffed at the rack of pudgy, square, little informational booklets prominently placed inside the front door, and decided to instead make a project out of reading the faces of the DMV clerks, since the place was full, they were calling number 46, let's say, and I had something like number 500.

Lodi is in the heart of what you might call the “Soprano Section” of New Jersey, as in the HBO Mafia Sopranos, not the Metropolitan Opera sopranos who were more likely to be living in upper Bergen County, where I was living, if temporarily. Here in Lodi I was in the real New Jersey, possibly the most diverse state in the union. We citizens sitting in our orange, plastic bucket chairs, waiting for our passes to freedom, were from everywhere, and spoke dozens of different languages; but after a short time I realized that what we all had in common was a desperate need to please those clerks who sat on their high perches, looking out at us, from behind bullet proof glass.

Because the glass was also virtually sound proof each supplicant had to lower their head and speak through a small oval opening in the glass, very loudly, meaning everyone could know their business, which worried me, being what you might call a private person. I watched as speakers of Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Yiddish struggled to understand the clerks, whose voices sounded like people chatting around a pool, when you’re listening from underwater, even when they spoke loudly, which many of these clerks did. Except when they spoke far too softly. It was hard to decide which they might be enjoying more, being rude or passive aggressive.

They have to be forgiven their attitudes, I preached to myself, watching the clerks faces. How interesting can it be to say the same things over and over?

“I don’t care how long you’ve been waiting I need three documents.

I don’t care how many miles you had to drive I need three documents.

I don’t care if your GREAT GREAT grandmother was born here I need three documents.

I said three documents.

Get out of my line, can’t you see how many other people are waiting? What? Ya think you’re more special than the rest of them out there?”

Whenever the dialogue reached that point, and it happened maybe every fifth or sixth person, we in the waiting crowd emitted a collective growl, self-righteously, as if we weren’t likely to be the next candidate for scorn. The victim's shoulders then slumped, and they turned, eyes cast down on the floor, nursing some old wound, perhaps from a childhood playground incident, re-stimulated by this act of public shaming. The clerks would then cut their eyes at each other, and a look of self-satisfaction slithered like the shadow of a snake over the row of faces behind the plate glass. It was very hard to love them.

Because I was a minister I was always coming up with little spiritual practices to help me love people. Unlike these clerks, my job as a minister meant I must strive to be the Nicest Person in the Room at All Times. This was extremely difficult for me. Daily. Yet, never one to do anything halfway, I had recently set a goal for myself to love all beings no exceptions. So I told myself, as hour succeeded hour at the Lodi DMV, that this was not a wasted afternoon, that it was an opportunity for good spiritual practice.

After a couple of hours of close observation I had discerned something I could admire about these uncivil civil servants. And that was their essential stillness. A paradox, in that the stillness somehow lay at the ground of their being, despite their episodic histrionics. With a boredom-induced sense of awe I realized this core stillness was the same quality I had witnessed in bank tellers, some retail clerks, and many Starbucks baristas, though without the overlay of malice. I completely envied these clerks what appeared to be an utter lack of anxiety. They could be rude, bellicose even, but they were profoundly “centered” people.

Facing eternally long lines they had no illusion that if they sped up they would get more done. Peering out at the anxious congregation before them, knowing that there would always be more people pressing down upon them than they could ever possibly serve well, they simply worked apace, enjoying the camaraderie with their colleagues in the trenches. The numbers would continue to turn over on the LED. display, the long line of humanity would always be there, and so would their jobs. So why hurry? Why worry? I was, in the midst of the infamous, frenetic, East Coast culture, witnessing the most basic of spiritual practices, Acceptance Of What Is.

I envy them, I said to myself. Me, I always feel overwhelmed by the fact that the line never ends, that the work will never be done, that by the time the fifteenth person come through the line at coffee hour I’m about ready to snap.

When my number was called up yonder I shuffled forward, relieved that the LED was calling me to #4, the most taciturn clerk, not #5 the most bellicose. I was also smugly grateful I had carefully read the DMV website before driving all the way down here, and had therefore known to bring those damn three proofs of residency, which I had been compulsively checking and re-checking, every fifteen minutes for the past three hours.

“Over there.” The clerk who verified my three documents directed me to a man in uniform, who took me to a cubicle in a windowless gray room, where he sat me down in front of a gray computer screen. Did I mention I hadn't bothered to study for the test?

How many inches do you have to leave between you and the curb, or you and a fire hydrant? 15? 16? 24? How the heck should I know? And does an inch really make that much difference? There were dozens of such cosmically irrelevant, hair splitting, how many angels can tango on the head of a pin type questions. Needless to say, I failed the test.

Chastened, I took one of the friendly little instructional books back to my apartment in North Bergen County. As it was very thick, and I was a busy minister, I told myself I need only study the sections that I now knew, having taken the test, were the necessary ones. The rest I'd skip.

My second visit to the Lodi DMV took place on October 31st. Halloween. This time I sat in a different section of the room, behind a large Russian speaking man, hoping none of the clerks would recognize me as a returnee. With great stealth I stole a glance at them from around the large man’s back, and was astonished. Every last one of them, five women and one man, was dressed up as a witch. Black hats that, in this context, looked like traffic cones balanced on the tops of their heads. Some of their faces were painted green, others sported hairy moles, one had a long bumpy chin, perhaps made out of papier-mache. I moved over from behind the Russian man's massive back, and into full view, the better to study them.

Again I had hours to engage in deep reflection. What is it about them? I asked myself, after absorbing the new vibe going on behind the bullet proof glass. The clerks had been transformed somehow, as a group, and not just superficially. What is different about the energy back there today? Irrepressible, that's what it was. The thin veneer of malice I had witnessed during my previous, pre-Halloween visit had been lifted. It was as if it was the malice that had been the mask all along. A lightness of spirit now rippled down the line of clerks. They were like a pew full of teenagers working hard to act cool in a church service, but always on the verge of cracking up, and loving the feeling of that, the joy of stifling their glee. These clerks knew very well what kind of reputation they had in New Jersey, that they were universally scorned and hated, and this holiday was allowing them to embrace that identity, to own it, even to glory in it.

And then, I “got it.”

What I had seen the last time I was here was only a surface rudeness! In Virginia a surface politeness had been required of the DMV clerks. And underneath that, no doubt lurked their shadow selves, the witches, the demons of all those polite southern women. Here rudeness was the social norm, the coping mechanism. And the shadow side of that was joy. How could I have forgotten this! I was once a New Yorker myself, if way back in childhood.

During my second hour I meditated on the following question: Which is a more evolved collective cultural response to the inevitable stresses of living a daily life in human community: Surface rudeness? Or surface politeness? And which is more likely to keep the human species from going extinct?

An hour later I was punted into the gray computer cubicle for the second time.

Whaaaat? I screamed inside my head. Whaaat, I should actually know the answer to these dumb-ass questions? A Bronx sales clerk from the shop where my mother used to buy her hosiery had completely taken over my brain. How many weeks does a married woman have after her marriage to inform the DMV of a name change? Are you friggin’ kidding me! Who the hell cares bozo! And what a sexist frickin' question anyway!

Apparently the witches had the power to change the categories on the computer screen into an infinite number of permutations and combinations of traffic factoids. There was no finite set of categories. This test was all new territory.

I failed by one question. One!

“It can’t be. Please show me what I got wrong,” I said with polite, restrained, yet undoubtedly frightening intensity to the clerk who gave me the bad news.

The clerk was unafraid. She laughed abruptly, then economized her own energy with a simple, “No can do.”

“One answer? One f-ing answer?” I screamed, out loud, in my car, as I raced up the New Jersey Turnpike. Then I remembered the time my mother had called to warn me that a person could be arrested for screaming in her car. “It happened to Dory Previn,” she said, “she wrote a song about it.”

But where could that have happened to Dory Previn? Minnesota maybe? Iowa? Where was Dory Previn from anyway? This was New Jersey. People were supposed to be loud in Jersey. “No f-ing way! I screamed at my windshield as loudly as possible. “I studied that book, I memorized it! It’s not possible I flunked!”

When I drove down to the Lodi DMV for the third time, I was ready this time. I had memorized every fact in that ugly-ass, chunky, overly-detailed instructional tome. Unable to admit to anyone on the church staff of my hyper intellectual, upper-middle class, overly-educated congregation that I had flunked not once, but twice, I told the office manager I was going to a meeting at the ass end of New Jersey. That I’d be away all day.

I took a number, again chose a new section of orange plastic buckets, and again scanned the row of clerks. Back in their civvies. Back behind their masks of bored disdain for the cowed crowd. I was completely out of love with them. The work of loving all beings no exceptions was, I decided, and haven't so many wise people written about this, going to be a life time endeavor. As with any long slog one had to periodically rest up and replenish one's reserves.

Thankfully I'd brought a book. A novel. To which I gave my complete, mindful attention until I was called, for the third time, into the gray room with its gray screens.

When I finished the test a clerk who sat at a little desk near the picture-taking machine, a person I haven’t bothered to mention yet, but she'd been there both times to witness my shame, bawled out my name, extremely loudly. I walked over, wary of her eyes, feral with glee.

“You passed,” she said.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, cautiously. “I know.”

“This time,” she added.

Oh my God, I realized, she has a record right there on that screen of how many times I flunked. And she thinks it’s funny!

And then she couldn’t help herself. She tried to contain it. That joy. That self same shadow joy I had admired in her sisters, the witches serving on The Front on Halloween. It spilled out of her and onto to a nearby clerk.

“And you passed by only one!” she crowed. Her sister clerk-witch emitted a loud, delighted cackle.

“No way!” I yelled. And then it was like I’d run a red light and was speeding up to evade a cop car. “No way! No friggin' way," except I didn't say friggin. "By only one answer? Unh unh. I studied that book. I knew so much more than last time, I knew so much more than just one more thing. That can’t be right! Show me which one I missed!”

“Look here,” the clerk snapped. She pointed to the bottom right of the camera. I looked. A big sign in bold black letters said, “LOOK HERE.”

The other clerks in the room, likely only three or four, but it sounded like dozens, cackled like a coven warming their hearts at the collective fire.

“Look here.” The clerk said again. Her voice had slid into benign detachment so swiftly it was startling, her attention already shifting to the next in line.

"And you might want to close your mouth,” she said.

But only after she'd snapped the photo.

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Copyright 2019, Maj-Britt Johnson Broker/REALTOR ®, Keller Williams Crystal Coast. All rights reserved.