Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Remember me to Herald Square

Our Whole Foods has a sign in front of each register that says “we card anyone who looks under 40.” I understand the spirit of this policy. People in Wisconsin are concerned about the state’s perpetually lofty numbers of binge drinkers and drunk drivers. I can also see how a young grocery cashier might not be able to distinguish adequately between a thirty-one year old lifeguard in flip flops, and an underage college junior on route to a Coldplay concert. I myself did, on one occasion in high school, dress up in my friend’s mother’s clothes and attempt to buy beer in a liquor store. When I got carded the other day, however, I had to question if they’re going too far. If I’d been trying to buy alcohol illegally, would I walk into a grocery store with two kids and dark circles under my eyes, load up the cart with organic sour cream and fruit bunnies, and use a credit card in my own name? C’mon -- one bottle of wine isn’t enough for one mother to get over a grocery store trip with both her kids, anyway. Standing there with my ID out, I couldn’t resist paraphrasing – quietly, of course, and under my breath -- Craig Robinson’s character from Knocked Up. “You carding old pregnant bitches in here now?”

In your thirties, getting carded can be flattering. But when you’re old as f---, it’s just a nuisance. I’m also starting to feel a little awkward – not to mention unlawful -- about the fact that I haven’t given up my New York state drivers’ license. Before we moved here, Mike had never thought of Wisconsin as a place people move to. If anyone should be clinging to the trappings of our former life, it should be him. He only got a Wisconsin license because his old one expired, it’s true. But it’s still somewhat odd that he’s walking around town with an ID ornamented with a small red barn, while I’m still impersonating an out of towner. Adding insult to injury, I haven’t given up my New York city cell number either, while his blackberry is now a local call.

If I told a New Yorker I was avoiding a trip to the DMV, they’d get right behind my fraudulent choice. Going to the DMV in the city is like going to a third world nation run by a fascist military junta that has kicked both human rights watch, and all of its building mechanics, out of the country. If you can manage to follow the obscure signs through the filthy Herald square building to the section cordoned off for the DMV, you’re rewarded by being packed like sweaty pickles into a single elevator, riding slowing down into the bowels of the building, and getting dumped out right onto a long line of people queued up into the hallway, waiting to be told where to go and wait even longer. Once you’re assigned a number, you go and sit down in a huge cavernous room that feels a bit like a train depot to nowhere, with all the seats facing the same way. All you have to stare at, besides the flashing numbers above the windows, are the angry faces of the DMV people, who only look increasingly enraged with the approach of each new customer.

I had to visit this midtown panopticon once when I was eight months pregnant. I went to register our car, but hadn’t realized that we owed hundreds of dollars in sales tax for buying the car in a neighboring state. I’ll never forget the look on the agent’s face when I finally got to the window, after almost two hours on hot summer’s day. The perceptible glimmer in her eye was one of exhilaration, when she informed me that I didn’t have the correct documentation, and would have to return the next day to endure another round.

The DMV near to our house here is another world altogether. It’s calm, relatively uncrowded, and operated by people who seem to be on the right side of humanity’s survival. I’m not avoiding going there now because I’m lazy, or logistically challenged. A recent New York Times article revealed that some people buy iphones to help organize their lives. But I don’t get behind in my email, overlook appointments, forget my mom’s birthday, or neglect to pick up milk on the way home. For one thing, I don’t have a demanding work life. I’m also too obsessive compulsive to get too caught up in something enjoyable.

I’m just having trouble parting with these last few, remaining markers of my life in Manhattan. I’ve been carrying this ID and phone number with me every day for so many years that they almost feel like part of me. When I look at my pink license with New York State in big aqua letters, and the eight-year old picture of me taken in that Herald Square Hades, I feel nostalgic for a time when I was younger, when I didn’t yet have children, and when I got carded for reasons that make actual sense. When I think of my phone number, I can recall how long it took me – and everyone else -- to get used to the 646 area code, after the phone company ran out of available numbers for 212 and 917. I’ve practically had the same number since I got my first cell phone. There’s even a Seinfeld episode about my area code, which means, I think, that’s it’s now sort of a valuable cultural artifact.

Mike once told me that he held on to his California license for years after he moved to New York. He didn’t drive then, and he didn’t own a car, so it didn’t really matter whether he identified with New York officially or not. But I think a New York license also didn’t fit with his vision of himself at that time. Giving up my pink license for one with a little red barn on it doesn’t really fit with my vision of myself either. But then again – and to paraphrase another scene from Knocked Up -- life doesn’t really care much about your vision. I drive a Subaru now, and buy wine at Whole Foods. I’ll be forty next month, and officially old as f----. How much worse could the red barn really be?

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