It is New Year’s Eve and I am 35 year’s old for another couple of hours. I had to go get my driver’s license today. I was nervous to get it done and basically avoided it until the last day. Because of what I look like, I have extra anxiety when venturing out into the public for any reason. But particularly when I have to interact directly with someone and trust that they will treat me with enough respect to accomplish whatever my goal is.
I am not a “pretty girl” anymore by normal standards. I have a really great body for a woman but I dress for the weather and for practical reasons and therefore most of my curves happen to be hidden. I am capable of wearing make-up and wearing it well. But why bother? I don’t have time for this nor the reactions I would get if I were to do it, anymore. My hair is longer now than it has been in over a decade I am sure. It hasn’t been cut since August 9th and that is simply too long no matter how good of a cut I got and how well it has been growing out. But I am in that scary phase of needing to find a new hair person. I have been rather devoted to Angela who began doing my hair for the better part of the last 15 years. She moved to Indiana that day and I suppose it is not beyond me to fly down there and have her do my hair still. But we had a bit of a falling out and so we are done. I have not found a new person yet, although I have been spying on all of the staff at the Hair Police working on finding who has the honor of touching my head next.
So my hair is longer. And this makes me look more like a girl than when I have it short. It doesn’t matter though. I have been mistakenly called a boy more often than not in my life. Even during those phases of hard femme work on my part.
The facial hair is the biggest ‘problem’ if you will. I have had it since I was a teenager but been plucking away since then. Waxing went on for a while too. I stopped worrying about it or dealing with it in September of 1998. So I boldly walk down the streets “looking like a man”.
Without even trying.
I am more and more ‘over’ people’s reactions, insults, questioning, and advice. I am more and more OK, proud and even grateful for what I look like. But I deal with being treated differently everyday. Because of what I look like. Because of what perceptions people have when they see me. What assumptions they make about how I deserve to be treated or fear of what I will do to them. In many ways, I am a freak show. I am a monster. I am to be killed or run away from. With a longer haircut, I am treated a little bit better.
I had my head shaved when I got my license four years ago.
Today I have bad hair.
But at least it looks sort of normal enough. Less threatening.
Nonetheless, I began to have an anxiety attack on the way there. I was having difficulty paying attention so as not to get lost. I was having a hard time breathing. I had to smoke a cigarette to stay in my body. The panic attack passed, as I knew it would. I drove around forever, it seemed, looking for parking.
I walked in to the Motor Vehicle place and noted the changes since the last time I was there. It was mostly the same though. The walls are dingy and used to be white, I suppose. There was a center island of workers behind a desk that allowed them to work on three sides if they wanted to. Signs everywhere “Please turn off all cell phones”. One big sign pointing to the line. As if one couldn’t see it. But I was confused and thought about asking if it was the right place. I remember before, that you had to be in one line if you were taking the test and another one if you were just renewing your license. Not the case this time. One line and one line only. And it wound all around, up and down aisles.
It was a little bit after noon and I got into the line right away then and prayed that I would be done in time for my massage at 2 PM. I was behind a black man who, I guess, was about my age or a bit older. He was short and nice looking. I liked his style. He wore clothes that I would wear and kept his stocking cap on. It fit him well. I could tell he takes pride in his clothes and in having his own look. I wanted to say hello to him and tell him I liked his hat but “this isn’t Kansas anymore Dorothy” and so I don’t talk to strangers much. It is too risky. No need to draw attention to myself anymore than my appearance in and of itself already does. He could be just fine and my radar would be functioning correctly as to whether or not this man was safe. Or he could be the kind of guy that would freak out in some way to have a white girl, or a dyke, or a tranny, or whatever he may assume I am talking to him. He could be annoyed, enraged, or bored with me. He could say something that would hurt my feelings, embarrass me or piss me off. None of which I wanted to deal with in line to get my license. I was there for a reason and letting my nice, innocent Iowa girl side show was not in the plans. That usually backfired.
But something told me that he and I were more alike than different in this crowd and that he knew this as well. He stepped up near the desk, waited for the dude working to finish up and catch him before the next person stepped up.
“Excuse me, I only need to renew my license, do I need to wait in this line?”
“Yes, everyone waits in line” dude said in a dull but stern voice, certainly having repeated this line throughout the day.
The black man, whom I will call my friend as he was the most comforting being in that building for me, got back in line in front of me and said “Just wanted to make sure I was in the right line”
“OKayyy” I said, letting him know I knew what he meant and wasn’t all that happy about how long the line was either.
“I was hoping this was the wrong line actually”
“Right,” I added. And we settled into our positions. Moving forward about a foot per 12 minutes it seemed. He and I paid attention and moved forward when spaced up in front of us. He kept a respectable distance between himself and the white chic in front of him. Apparently she can’t read since she was on her mobile phone. I was both annoyed and entertained by her. My friend appeared to be feeling the same way. He was paying as much attention as I was and yet I felt the bristles up the back of his neck at her high pitched voice when she squealed with excitement into her phone. It was hard to eaves drop on any other conversation since none of it was English. So her discussion was all my friend and I had to pay attention to for a while.
“Yeah, I’m in line to get my driver’s license renewed. Can you stand it?” she had that sort of Valley girl tone to her voice. “Like” is one of her favorite words. I couldn’t hear the other person she was talking to but I could still gather the gist of the conversation. I get a lot of practice listening to one-sided conversations in my current job as a manager of a phone line. I gathered that she hadn’t talked to this friend in quite a while. They were catching up. “Yeah, and like since December 9th I have flown 21 times! I know, like, ridiculous isn’t it?!”
She was very excited, talking to her friend. And clearly didn’t care to communicate or exist in the same universe as anyone else in that building. She barely moved. She would be twisting and turning and playing with her hair while she talked on and on and on for well over a half an hour. I think my friend was annoyed whenever she paused instead of picking up the slack in the line.
She was boring me after a while too. I started looking around the room and checking out the situation at the desk to prepare myself for being next in line at some point.
I really, really liked this one dude’s hair who was in front of white chic. He and his buddy were in line together. His hair was shaved close around the bottom, the back of his head up pretty high actually, and around his ears. Then the hair on top was longer and completely slicked back. Again, I wanted to say something about how much I liked his hair. But didn’t think that would go over too well either.
White girl was not the only person who couldn’t read the sign or didn’t care about breaking the rules. At least 10 more people were on the phone. Probably more. One nasty couple kept making out. Seriously. They were groping each other and she was giggling like a little girl. They were probably both in their 40’s or something. How frickin rude? We are all crammed in this hot stuffy place. Nobody wants to be there. Everyone is more or less trapped unless you want to leave and come back for the same crap another day. And here they are sucking face in front of all of us.
In the past I only remember older women, mostly overweight, who seem really, really bitter working behind the counter. And how could they not be? Day after day the never-ending line and pattern of people not being able to, or not caring enough to, read and follow the rules. So the new set-up was to have these two guys handling the front end of the process. They each faced the line and took one person at a time. I began my normal routine of determining who I wanted to help me and praying for the right outcome. In this case, I could handle either guy so I didn’t waste a prayer. Both seemed to treat everyone equally. They both seemed to have never ending, although hard worked for, patience spewing off of them. They both seemed to actually like their jobs. They were both fairly pleasant and never rude. However, you could see it was getting to dude on the right and had been for a while. He was sweating. He was edgy underneath everything.
I had been in line almost an hour when I got called up to the sweating man. I handed him my driver’s license and told him I needed to renew it. “Fill out the highlighted sections and wait over there” he said and pointed to a tall, skinny counter people were crammed up against filling out forms. Wait over where? I would have to pass the making out couple to get to the corner I was directed to.
I filled out my form, not knowing if I should sign the signature line or not. Deciding to do so. Only to hear one of the women working on that end of the counter tell people to fill out the highlighted sections but don’t sign.
The energy was different over in that area. Much more crammed. And the overhead lights must have been burnt out or something – none of them were on. There was really only a small area, more like a hallway between the counter where we were supposed to stand and the line that was winding back and forth up the beginning phase. Not more than five feet ‘through the hallway’ if you will, started the rows of seats where people are actually taking the written test. And all along the testing area and that side of the desk – were the bitter ladies I remembered from previous trips. There were only three of them I think but I honestly couldn’t keep track. They were much more militant than the men working there. They were shouting out the rules regularly and with authority. “No cell phones.”
“You, you can’t be in the testing area if you are not testing” white girl had been busted sitting on the edge of a testing row. “You all, make more room. Move over there. We will call your name.”
I walked behind and past the original line again towards the front of the building. I sat on a pew like bench along the wall. There were kids running around all over the place. And people everywhere. Some stared at me but I ignored the whole lot as much as possible.
I was paranoid I would not hear my name called. I did not see my friend or white chic anywhere. Did I miss my chance? Employee dude on the right must have been watching the clock like a hawk. All of a sudden, he set his pen down, said something to Dude on the left, walked around theng in the desk, through the crowd and into a door marked “personnel only”. He could not have been more focused than the 45 seconds it took him to get through that door and back out to leave the building altogether by 1:01 PM on the wall clock.
Lunch time I am sure.
I would have to run out of there on my breaks too if that were my job.
I moved over to another section that was less populated and gave me a better view of the happenings behind the desk. I watched two small children running around and screaming at each other – playing, not fighting, but loud as ever. I figured one of the ladies would have something to say about that pretty soon. I was impressed though, that she walked over and calmly handed a coloring book and two colors to the kids and asked them to sit down on the benches. I have witnessed pure yelling at kids by the ladies behind that counter in the past so this was easier to handle.
I had watched long enough to realize I would be better off over in the dark. From that corner I could see the ladies and figure out the last phases of the process. I walked past the line, down the skinny ‘hall-way’ area again, past the testers and into the dark section of the building. Along the back wall there, was my friend near the end of a row of chairs. I walked down and sat next to him. White girl was sitting across from us, writing out Christmas cards or thank you cards or something. I again pay attention, seeing who I will have to deal with. It appeared as though there was no way of avoiding one of the three bitter ladies. They were taking turns calling people up or hollering out to the crowd to follow one rule or another.
But at the very end of the process was a new girl working. She was in charge of taking the pictures. She was a trip. She was all exceptionally nice to everyone compared to her three female peers. She was about 100 pounds lighter than them too. She laughed and talked with everyone. It was almost as if she were intentionally planted as the spell on one’s memory. End the experience on a good note and people won’t think this is as bad as it truly is. People left her section with a smile on their face whether it was how she treated them or simply that they were done.
“There is no order to any of this,” said my friend in frustration as someone else got called up to the desk.
White girl got called. And returned a few minutes later.
Two more people get called. We were behind white girl in line. They were taking the people who were taking their tests as they finished. We were in fact having to wait much longer than necessary as the test takers were budging right and left.
And they called me. “Oh, sorry dude, you were ahead of me,” I said to my friend earnestly.
I walked up to one of the trio of bitter ladies who was staring at me.
“$17.50 cash or check,” she asks.
“Cash” I handed her a 20.
“$2.50 is your change. Look into the viewer and read the top line”
Stern she was. She isn’t playin’. I panicked, not wanting to flunk at this point, but took deep breathes and squinted to see the top line and read it out loud.
“Do you see lights blinking?”
“Yes, on both sides.”
“Now which side?”
“Left” And I was done.
“Sit down” and at this her voice softens and she says it clear and calm “for a COUPLE more minutes, we will call your name.”
They all got that softer tone when informing people of the last sit and wait game.
I sat back by my friend. He got called a little bit after that.
White girl got called up by skinny photo taking girl who laughed and talked to her and waited while white girl fixed her hair. White girl even got to look at the photo and took an additional shot.
I was relieved to have survived this far. I was assuming the way skinny photo girl had been acting with everyone, that it might even be a pleasant finish to this stressful hoop one has to jump through to be able to drive legally.
I got called next in her bubbly voice “Lauri Wollner,” giggle giggle.
She did not laugh or talk nicely to me like everyone else I had observed.
She glared at me as I approached her area.
She snapped “look at the camera” and snapped the picture at the same time.
She huffed “Oh, we’ll have to re-take that one.” I don’t even know why we had to take it over. I assume I wasn’t looking in the right direction. “Look at the camera,” even more sternly.
She stapled the papers and said it would be in the mail in 8 to ten days.
She stepped away to ensure that I would not talk to her.
Instantly, I enter the anger and rage and shame spiral that is my life. Why would she be so nice and clearly enjoy working with people from all walks of life and then instantly so rude to me with one glance?
What kind of a world do we live in where a girl like me is treated poorly for simply not playing the game and looking like a girl?
And I am certain that the photo will not be good. Forget about the fact that the skinny used-to-be-nice-until-she-saw-me-but-now-she-is-a-bitch girl had me so flustered and taken off guard that I could hardly breathe. Forget about no instructions on where to look other than the ones I had overheard her telling everyone else before me. Forget about not having time to adjust my extra layers of winter clothes. Forget about it all.
I know the photo won’t be one to show off simply because my hair is a mess. It will be my reminder, too, of Angela for the next four years, whether I want one or not.
Who will cut my hair next?
Excerpted from a forth coming book by Lauri Wollner
Lauri Wollner has become well educated in her 35 years. She lives in the Mid-West with her other half, four cats and a snake. She grew up Catholic and currently has a rosary with her at all times. You can call her religious if you want, or anything else for that matter. She has survived more labels than she can remember. "Daughter" and "sister" are about the only ones she will claim. She is a work in progress.