Thursday, November 07, 2002

Today I journeyed to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and returned with the newest paperwork the state apparatus has deigned to issue me: my Wisconsin driver license. It has been three years since I moved to Wisconsin, and I've hung on to my old Illinois license till now. I'm not sure why. Suffice it to say, no one rushes the Ken Burns. It also seems worth pointing out that this is, if I'm not mistaken, only the second time in life that my driver license has matched my checks.

All told, it was the pleasantest experience I've had at a DOT. The good-government 'sconnies have seen fit to implement a--gasp--take-a-number system. Complete with chairs to sit in. This stands in contrast to the endless lines in which I have stood to obtain Illinois driver licenses, which reminds me of the time I was standing in one of these lines on Chicago's South Side. Unable to contain myself, I farted--silently but, as they say, violently. Two teenage girls stood next to me, and one turned to the other and said, with wrinkled nose, "Somebody farted." I was busted. But I digress.

To the Wisconsin DOT I brought my book, Pat Conroy's The Prince Of Tides (more about the book in a moment, and I promise also to blog on Pat Conroy soon), and I whiled away a not unpleasant hour before my number came up.

For those neither foresighted nor bookish enough to bring a book, the DOT supplies a couple of those red LED displays, the kind used to fine effect by the artist Jenny Holzer. These flashed news and entertainment items, but they moved so slowly I found them excruciating. I took notice when the display flashed that Jonathon Harris had died (I already knew this, but I always liked him), and I learned from a dull quiz that Jennifer Aniston's godfather is Telly Savalas. I'll take Facts That Make You Shrug Resignedly for $200, Alex.

Once it was my turn, the paperwork went smoothly, as did the eye test. I proudly declared that I use neither glasses nor contacts, and I silently thanked whoever invented LASIK. Now is it just me, or is it true that when your face is stuck in that eye-test machine of doubtful cleanliness, and the civil servant administering the test asks on which side the light is flashing, it's always both sides? It seems to me the new has worn off this trick.

I was all set: it was time to get my picture taken and go. And now I encountered the one sad moment of the visit. I watched as time after time, a woman photographed people's faces, and time after time, they looked at their new licenses and groaned. Finally the photographer lamented to me, "People never like my work!" And it's true: the driver-license photo has attained iconic status as a Bad Picture, but it seems to me--and Susan Sontag might have something to say about this--that in portrait photography, more so than in other kinds of portraiture, the subject collaborates with the portraitist in how the photograph turns out. That is to say, smile! Or whatever. On the other hand, at the DOT, you generally only get one chance.

All of which is to say, when she handed me my license, I complimented her, and sincerely. I like the photo. As I made ready to leave, she in turn complimented me on my choice of reading material. It seems that she, too, liked Pat Conroy's The Prince Of Tides. I wanted to ask her which part she liked better, the part where the guy is anally raped by the escaped convict, or the part where angels hang from nooses while their genitals bleed. This didn't seem like a fitting DOT topic, so I said something noncomittal instead. But the exchange points to how Pat Conroy occupies a really peculiar spot in American letters. With Conroy, everyone remembers the Barbara Streisand movies and stuff, but no one talks about the bleeding angel genitals.

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