Me and Hemingway at the DMV


(A Site-Specific Book Review)

I went three different times during the week, and twice I turned away, but today I was determined and prepared. I had brought Hemingway with me. Yes, it was Monday, their busiest day, and yes, there was that line half a block long, leading into the parking lot. But today I had no other commitments, and I wouldn’t have another day like this soon, so it had to be today. It was 9:30 a.m. I had decided that however long it took, I was going to wait for my turn, and get my license renewed before it expired.

The thermometer at home said 51º. But this was Daly City. As I approached my spot at the end of the line, I was aware of the brisk chill in the gray air. No problem: I had a turtleneck on, underneath my wool tweed Galway jacket, and a hooded rainshell over that. I had considered the elements. The leather gloves were still in my car, as I had judged that they would be overkill. But after about five minutes out there, I wished I had put them on. I was holding The Sun Also Rises in my left hand, reading while keeping my right hand in my pocket. When my left hand started to feel numb with cold, I switched the book to my right, warming the left in my pocket. I switched off several times before noticing that my head was cold, too. I put up the hood of my rainshell. It afforded a good amount of protection from the chilling breeze that insisted and seeped nonetheless.

The small throng ahead of me mostly had that waiting-in-line look about them: bored, but resigned. They shifted their feet, looking back and forward, at everything and at nothing in particular, as if there were something they could do to mitigate the tedium. Some made small talk with their line neighbors. The man in front of me, medium-build, Asian, was paging through his netbook. He seemed intent and absorbed, and actually looked happy. As I turned around, I began to notice that I was no longer last in line; a handful of people took up their places behind me. I continued my perusal of Hemingway, in order to pass the time, all the while becoming more erudite.

I found Hemingway’s dialogue amazingly dated. It reflected the 20s, nouveau-riche pseudo-bohemian American expat view of life, obsessed with its own cleverness and provincial view on life (anyone “foreign,” for example, was the immediate butt of some inside joke), which I suppose seemed wonderfully witty at the time it was written, but which sort of appalled me. There was blatant anti-semitism against the character Robert Cohn, the lovesick puppy. I really found a lot of the characters’ chit-chat repetitious and meaningless, although I suppose it correctly characterized them as the vapid self-obsessed people they were.

One thing I will say for Hemingway, though. He writes in a straight-forward and simple manner, descriptive of the action, if tiresomely so. You have to be paying attention, since the action is practically all contained in the dialogue. If you forget who’s speaking, you miss a lot of the little intrigues that Brett and all her beaus get into. I kind of felt as though I were watching an old movie with Cary Grant and some starlet, nonchalantly bandying about witty repartee, designed to make the characters seem cool and admirable, rather than enlighten the audience with pithy truths or entertain them with bold action. By today’s standards, those old movies are slow and boring. We don’t have time for all that talk.

That’s not to say that Hemingway doesn’t paint a good picture of the American in Paris in the 20s, imbuing it with all the prejudices, self-absorption, and then-contemporary world view. He represents what Gertrude Stein labeled “the lost generation,” an idealistic group of atmosphere-absorbing, adventurous bon vivants. What he wrote about seemed terribly glamorous at the time.

The line moved forward by fits and starts. We would advance toward the building a few people at a time, and then stand another 10 minutes and wait. A tall young sandy-blond man about 3 ahead of me had started a conversation with a dark-haired, late middle-aged secretary-looking woman wearing glasses. She seemed to enjoy his attentions and conversation. He stepped to the side of the line several times to have a smoke. The cigarette fumes invaded my nostrils and I breathed them in, thinking about cancer and lung disease, but somehow also enjoying the sensation—it had been a long time since I had smelled cigarette smoke. The smell took me back immediately to a past era, when I was in love, and in love with my youth. But even then, I had not been in love with cigarettes or their smoke.

I remained blissfully entrenched in my book. Even when the prose seemed inane, it was still better than starting false small talk with my fellow line-waiters. It also helped me ignore the cold, which bit through all of my layers and made me shiver uncontrollably. I guess my introvert is the part of me that waits in lines. In this culture, it seems you are expected to make someone you’ve never met before your best friend simply by virtue of your proximity to him or her in a line-waiting situation. I don’t buy it. For me to talk with someone, there needs to be something intrinsic in that person that I find interesting. A look, an air, an aura of self knowledge … something. There are, of course, exceptions. But it feels disingenuous for me to base my knowledge of a person on how we interact in a forced situation, where no one acts normally, and people start conversations for no other reason than to relieve their boredom. I would rather not waste my time being superficial with someone I might otherwise have no interest in talking to. I prefer to observe for a period of time before deciding if I want to interact with someone. This is a truth I carry around in myself, that, when said aloud, makes me judge myself as shy, introverted, even antisocial. It’s true, I have that element in me, and some might even think I’m a snob. And in some ways, I suppose I am, if judging whom I want to let into my life, and when and where, is considered snobbery. But we all have a degree of that. There is a time and a place for socializing, for meeting and relating to people. Everyone has to determine when and where, and at what level they are willing to engage.

So I kept my eyes and my mind focused on my book. I guess this existential juncture—waiting in line, or waiting for Godot, or whomever else—is precisely the opening in which people can semi-anonymously relate to others on whatever level they choose. Happenstance can be the magical backdrop that brings people together, making them aware, in their holding-pattern mentality, that through uncertainty there is human vulnerability and a need to connect …

Yet it all seemed like cheap interaction to me. I had brought Hemingway as my companion, for better or for worse, and I was going to hear what he had to say to me, hear it through to the end, reserving final judgment for the end of the book. I have to admit, he made me work through a lot of frippery and nonsensical dialogue to get to the deeper meaning. What if there was no deeper meaning? What if he just wanted to show how he and his fellow expats were living, in the moment, without placing any judgments or greater truths into the picture? I kept shivering, doing the cold dance, persevering through the dialogue. Then a loud-voiced African American man was heard, making observations to a few other line-waiters behind me. He was someone who said what was on his mind, even if it had sharp edges on it, and made sure that everyone around him heard. His comments became so loud and animated that the line-waiters snapped out of their torpor to look at him. This gave them something to do. I kept up the dialogue with Hemingway, mostly because I didn’t see any reason to gawk at the speaker.

I finally made it to the open double doors of the entrance to the DMV. Heat radiated out and warmed me, even though I was still standing just outside the building. I was thinking about what a waste of energy it was to have so much heat in the building escape out the double front doors. Even so, I took off my hood and felt relieved. I looked at my watch—it was now a few minutes before noon. It had been an hour-and-a-half wait in the cold, just to get to the entrance. I had earned my warmth. I looked back to the end of the line—it was just where I had started. Others were just beginning the arduous, stagnant journey. I kind of pitied them, but realized that they, as I, had made the commitment to tough it out and wait for as long as it took.

Once inside, I waited about another 20 minutes to get to the window, where I showed my renewal form, and got a number to wait for. I was able to sit in one of the plastic molded chairs facing the TV monitor that tells you when your number is up. I still had Hemingway comfortably in my lap, describing the Basque peasants in their country. His characters, who had gone to Spain on a fishing trip, were making fun of them.

Upon the announcement on the video monitor of my number (G 165), I proceeded to window 11, where a young lady took my money, gave me a perfunctory eye exam, and directed me to the picture-taking booth. There was, of course, another line there. I continued to read, though I noticed that the sandy-haired young man who had been smoking earlier was directly ahead of me in line. He was turning around frequently, looking in my direction, as if to catch my eye. I did all I could to avoid him, but eventually, he asked, “Would you mind saving my place while I go to the bathroom?” I said I would, and he left. When he returned a few minutes later, he said thank you, his breath reeking of cigarettes.

Once it was my turn, I didn’t wait to be told what to do. I approached the backdrop, took off my rainshell and put it on the floor, next to my purse, placed my toes in the outlines drawn on the floor, “smiled”, and was off like a hare out of hell.

Looking at my watch on the way back to my car in the lot, I noticed that it was 11:45. Hemingway, for better or for worse, had helped me survive an almost 3-hour ordeal at the DMV. I had yet to learn what was to become of Brett and all of the men so hopelessly in love with her.

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