Q: When did you work at a DMV?
A: I was 19 years old and it was the summer after my freshman year of college. All of my friends were going off to work as bankers. I was hoping to get a job as a flagger for state roads but at the time they had so many problems with women and sexual harassment that I thought it might not be the best idea. So I got a job as the receptionist at the DMV.
Q: What was it like?
A: It was definitely interesting, though parts were really sad. There were 15-year-olds who couldn’t pass the vision exam because their eyesight was so poor and they’d never been to an optometrist.
And there were older people who were losing their independence. One older woman came in and failed the test every week for a year and a half.
Q: Do you remember what happened to her?
A: I have no clue what happened to that old lady. As far as I know, she’s probably still trying to pass the test. Or she’s dead.
Q: I don’t remember ever recently having to take a driving test—they just send me an updated license in the mail. Other than new drivers, who was taking the test?
A: After a certain age you have to take it periodically. Or if you allow your license to expire, you have something like a one-to-three month grace period but then you have to take the test again.
One older man, we took his license away, and he went to the bathroom, had a bowel movement, and smeared it all over the walls.
Q: No he did not.
A: Yes he did. He tried to write something like F YOU. I don’t know if he was coherent enough to even write that. But my job was to Clorox it off.
Q: Oh my.
A: Yeah, another time I had a man spit in my face. He lived way out in the country and you need lots of documentation and he had forgotten something like his cable bill.
Q: What kind of things did you do as the receptionist?
A: I was the receptionist on the first day. But I think they got the sense that I’d be better with licenses—that I’d be good with kids. It is very busy in the summer, with lots of kids getting their licenses. So that’s what I did.
We would switch stations every four or six weeks and there were three stations: reception, processing licenses, and cashier. They rotated so you wouldn’t get soured on one station.
They had one other intern that summer—she stayed about a week and a half. The beginning was the hardest part.
But I was fascinated by it. I was wondering who decides, “I’ll do this job for the rest of my life.” You’d think there would be a type but they were all so different.
And you see such a cross section of the US.
I spent a lot of time reading.
Q: I don’t think I’ve ever been to the DMV when there wasn’t a long wait. How did that work?
A: We’d have some off time. Our first hour and last hour were pretty slow. It was a very rural DMV office.
I remember my boyfriend at the time was a staunch libertarian and he was disgusted that I took that job. He made me read Atlas Shrugged that summer.
Q: Any other weird characters?
A: There was a homeless man who was always threatening to blow up the place.
Q: Did that bother you at all?
A: We knew he wasn’t going to do it. He carried a shotgun, but he also had a load of bags, and he probably brought along the gun simply because he needed to carry all of his possessions wherever he went. He would’ve had to put them down to pick up the gun.
People also loved to bring in exotic pets, like tarantulas and snakes. One guy had a bearded dragon—he wore long gold chains…
Q: I assume you mean the guy wore chains, not the dragon, right?
A: The man wore the gold chains. The bearded dragon clung to his shoulder and licked the air.
Q: Any other interesting people?
A: Let’s see… there were people for whom English is not their first language and they were allowed to bring their own translator. You could pick up when the translator was telling them the answers.
We never threw anyone out who cheated on the driving test but we would get into big arguments when we made those accusations.
Everyone lied about their weight. More people lie than not.
Another thing that struck me as weird—you’d think they’d shred licenses they took away but they had these HUGE tubs of licenses. There are cameras all over the place. You’d get fired. I thought, “I could totally get several thousand dollars for these!”
They were expired licenses but nine out of 10 you could flash it at a bar and get served.
Q: Have you been back to the DMV since that summer?
A: I did have to go back when I turned 21 and they all remembered me.
Q: Did it make you sad to leave?
A: I miss not knowing what weird things were going to happen. But it made me take my education more seriously.