The Ministry

About two and a half years ago…actually two and a half years and 11 days ago was the closing date, Dave Brubeck day I closed on my home (be it ever so humble) and spent the next month moving all my crap up from my Nashville apartment. It was about three trips back and forth in the truck a day for four full weeks, a damned haul. I probably didn’t realize I had QUITE that much stuff or I might have figured out another solution. But it was just before the onset of the Kung Flu and between that and a general state of ass draggery I never got the address changed on my driver’s license.

Well I tried to get that done in late September, early October…ish of this year. I don’t remember anymore. But apparently New York state had my license suspended…there and that was preventing me from getting a new license here in Tennessee. That’s some weapons grade bureaucratic bullshit you ask me.

All that’s to say that I spent about an hour and a half there this morning, a pretty painless process all things considered.

The room was clearly designed by an alien race of government functionaries, the walls a little too dark to be hospital bland grey. One of the things you notice after a few minutes is that nothing in the place is quite…white. The “white” columns are really a dirty beige as if they’d started their existence in a dive bar someplace that still allowed smoking thirty to forty years ago, from which they’d been rescued as the perfect supports for this kind of a place.

The floor is concrete with linoleum tile in three foot by three foot sections of solid colors, but alternating between black, something close but not quite dead on to that same beige and an almost forest green, a little too dark to actually have a duplicate in nature.

It’s really quite amazing. There are screens pulled down in front of each desk station like those we used to pull down in class to project a movie on, complete with their rickety aluminum frames, opposite those peculiarly steampunk looking cameras they use.

A Chinese kid was taking his permit test for the second time. He had on a mask that had been ubiquitous two years ago and a fully stuffed black winter jacket. He insisted on taking the test on paper rather than on the computer, which struck me as odd in this day and age.

I wondered for no particular reason if he was taking the test for someone else.

As I was getting my nonsense dealt with a couple in their late 60s were standing at the window to my left trying to get something similar accomplished. They were thickly accented and talking very quietly.

The guy was just standing there waiting for things to happen, head slung a bit low in his shoulders. He was clearly used to his wife taking care of things for him, but having cajoled him into coming, he condescended to get dressed. There’s no doubt she drove.

The woman behind the counter asked for proof of domicile, which struck me as a weird way to actually say it. But there it is. His wife handed things to her across him as his hands just…hung there, as close to the floor as they could get.

“Do you have anything with your name on it?”

“She my wife.”

And that began a conversation that wasn’t QUITE an argument about needing proof of address with his name on it and, if he didn’t have that available that she’d need their marriage certificate to prove that ….well, you get it.

“We don’t have…”

“Where were you married?”

“Romania.” The poor woman behind the counter exhaled in exasperation.

I was struck, watching them, by the sense that they had this inbuilt mode for dealing with bureaucracy that just didn’t jive with the American functionaries.

He was standing there looking pitiful, waiting for the woman behind the counter to say something like “Well, I mean I SHOULDN’T do this. But it’s obvious you’re married and I can just push this through. Just be sure to have all of your information in order next time.” But she wasn’t biting at all. Nope. Rules are rules. And I don’t disagree in this case.

It struck me almost as though (and I have exactly zero evidence to suggest any of this might be true) the bureaucracy behind the iron curtain were put in place with a sort of nod and a wink to the rules; still able to “be flexible” more or less at their discretion built in to the system.

But then we imported that kind of nonsense over here and took the whole damned thing at face value. “Yep. Rules are rules.” We took it seriously, figured we were going to do it right dammit, nailed it down and that was that. As if we imported the concept of mindless functionary and really hit the throttle, missing the point of it being a fig leaf. If we were going to have mindless functionaries at licensing bureaus then by God they were going to be nothing if not mindless.

He left quite bewildered, in tow of his wife.

Of course it could be a primarily technological development driving the cultural shift. With the information age we’re now in a position where all of this nonsense can be tracked and audited. Indeed when I finally got my nonsense sorted out (and it was a pretty painless process, as I’m in Tennessee and, being from New York know a thing or two about having my ducks in a row when heading to DMV) every piece of supporting documentation I handed him went through the scanner, no doubt attached as a pdf to some goofy archive someplace, attached to it the timestamp, computer id and name of the user logged in at that moment.

I handed the guy all my nonsense and he started sifting through it all.

That’s when someone shit their pants.

Everyone tried to play it off but finally from behind me I heard someone say “Jesus…” under their breath.

When I finally got out of there I drove south, realizing I’d end up here at some point, but fixin’ to pick up something for lunch first.

So, rather than dither endlessly about it I just went to Sam’s and got a burger and fries from a cute waitress who was suspicious until I was more friendly than the lecherous clientele with whom she’d evidently been dealing with thus far.

I sat there at a high top off to the side of the bar with most of the room in front of me, waiting for my ginger beer and burger and watched, as I’m wont to do.

And I really didn’t much like what I saw.

But that’s tomorrow’s post.