This is the first column I've ever started without a clear idea of how it would end. As I write these words, I'm sitting in the lobby of the Maui County Department of Motor Vehicles and Licensing Service Center at the Maui Mall. Yup, the dreaded DMV.
You see, I misplaced my driver's license over the weekend, and when I realized that I'd have to spend part of my Monday at the DMV to get a replacement, I figured I might as well make it a productive hour or two or four. It's been a couple of years since I was last here, and I've heard mixed reviews about the service. So I put off writing this week's column until now, thinking that it would be fun to write about today's experience, kind of like being a reporter again. Besides, I need to wean myself off the word games on my phone; I'm pretty sure this trigger-finger problem I've had for the past few months is due to excessive and intense Scrabbling.
When I walked in, I counted 18 people waiting in the lobby, with another eight or nine already being served at the windows. The first thing I noticed was how cool and comfortable the lobby felt, not just in terms of air conditioning, but in the general atmosphere. I thought maybe the subdued mood was due to the somber news of the Boston bomb attacks being shown on one of the two large flat-screen TV monitors, but hardly anyone appeared to watching the CNN news feed. Whatever the reason, there was none of the tension I remembered from previous visits.
The ladies at the first counter were cheerful and courteous as they checked our documents and issued us numbers. They're probably more responsible for the relaxed state of the lobby than the very efficient AC system or the ergonomic chairs. Being the first point of contact, they can put us at ease or on edge. Fortunately, they seemed to genuinely care about our customer experience and sent each of us into the limbo - I mean, lobby - with a smile.
I've been waiting for more than an hour, but between the CNN footage and my daydreaming, the time has flown by. During the last 15 minutes, I've traveled 40 years in my head, back to my very first visit to the DMV. The office was located inside the War Memorial Gym and driver's license applicants moved from counter to counter for each step of the process. I didn't have to concern myself with vehicle registration; I just drove my parents' cars, so I'm not sure when that office moved to the other side of the gym, facing the pool.
I do remember what an uncomfortable ordeal it was, especially during the midmorning when the sun enjoyed direct access to the waiting area. We sat on hard wooden benches, our backs against the wall, squinting into the sunlight. Proper protocol called for everyone to get up and move down the line each time the first person left the bench. Even if you were lucky enough to land in the occasional sliver of shade, you had to move to the left as soon as space became available, or you'd get the stink eye from everyone on your right. And then there were those menehune-sized windows. The counter was placed at the right height for the workers seated behind it, but those of us on the outside, even 5-foot-tall folks like me, had to contort our bodies to conduct business. Eventually the county installed seats, but it still looked like parents' night at preschool. And those benches were still hard. And hot.
I suppose the discomfort might have been intended as an incentive to renew by mail. For me, those visits were made more unpleasant by the knowledge that I could have avoided the bench, had I not procrastinated . . . again. But no, each year I found myself sweating and swearing at myself for missing the mail-in deadline.
Fast forward to the end of this visit. My number came up an hour and 45 minutes after I arrived. The clerk at counter 10 was friendly, and she remembered those windows and benches too, although she hadn't worked at the old office. The young woman at my final stop, the photo counter, was just as pleasant and efficient. I appreciated her retaking my photo several times until she caught me between blinks.
It took less than 15 minutes to complete the whole transaction, and I walked out happily with my temporary license (with the best ID photo I've ever had) and most of this column written. Not bad for a Monday afternoon at the DMV. And I didn't shed a drop of sweat.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.