Rick Moody’s got a really good memoir coming out called The Long Accomplishment where he writes mostly about parenting, and about his second marriage, and there’s a scene where he and his bride have shown up to the courthouse in NYC, they’re waiting to be labeled man and wife, and Moody’s super restless about it, sweaty on the hallway bench, cuz there’s always this feeling, he says, when you’re showing up to a government building in hopes of getting something done that, no matter how many times you come back, no matter how many people you confer with, you’ll always be short of some crucial document.
I don’t think I’ve ever been summoned to a federal institution and, upon arriving, found myself in possession of everything I needed. I once drove 20 miles to get my license renewed and they sent me home to bring my birth certificate.
90 minutes later, I’m back with my birth certificate. I get back in line, it’s twenty minutes or so, and then I’m up at the counter facing the same dude from before.
Dude behind the counter looks at my birth certificate for a moment, hands it back without eye contact, says, “That’s a copy, we need the original.”
Last week I went to the courthouse to pay a $120 ticket I got for driving with an expired tag.
After an hour, my number was called. I sat down with an attendant and he asked if I’d renewed my tag since getting the ticket.
He balks at me. “Why not?”
I said, “I couldn’t afford to, cuz I had to pay this ticket.”
With no emotion except maybe a gloss of contempt, he hits some keys on his computer and says, “That’s gonna add a $60 penalty.”
“For not having money?”
Again he balks. It’s his thing. “No,” he says, “the $60 is because you refused to renew your tag.”
“Which I couldn’t renew because I didn’t have the money, and the reason I didn’t have the money to renew it is because I had to pay your ticket, so you’re charging me $60 for not having the money that you took from me. That’s gonna perpetuate the cycle of me not being able to afford to renew it.”
He blinked at me and we sat across from each other for a quiet few seconds and I came to understand why there’s a very thick pane of protective plastic between the DMV people and the public. Eventually I sighed and asked if there was an ATM nearby and he leaned back in his chair and clicked his pen a few times and nodded and pointed to the hallway.
One of my colleagues went on a rant the other day about how badly he’s getting fucked by homeowner’s insurance, the hurdles he’s having to jump through to get the money he’s owed, the paradoxes built into the process.
He talked about it for almost thirty minutes.
I was tryna manifest as many signals of disinterest as I could respectfully manage but he wasn’t picking up on em.
Dude didn’t care. Just talked and talked and talked.
So I’m there at the courthouse, I’m dealing with all these frustrations, eager to get home and write some screed about the whole process of paying off the ticket, and suddenly I remember my colleague’s boring story, and how much I’ve always hated hearing about people’s frustration with insurance providers or HR or the IRS (a bit more touchy: I also don’t think I’ve ever heard an engrossing story about somebody’s car accident or illness*), and so I’m resigning myself now to the fact that, for all of the rabid emotions evoked by dealing with bureaucracies, they’re seldom the fodder for good storytelling.
So I’ll spare you.
*I was gonna say that I’ve never heard a good story about someone’s visit to the dentist but that’s not true: my ex had this crazy story about waking up in the middle of her wisdom tooth surgery and panicking, flailing her arms, knocking the dentist away and then choking on her blood and hacking up a jet of it that went roping over her face, into her eyes and hair, which of course inspired more flailing panic, gargling screams, scrambling nurses. That was a good story about someone’s visit to the dentist.