The DMV and David

An image from Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, not a picture of David.

On Monday I had to go to the DMV to register a vehicle. I had planned for it to take the entire morning. Most depictions of the DMV regard it as a sort of place of misery and torture- it’s comically referred to as hell and the workers there are often cast as uncaring, cold, and lovers or bureaucracy.

But for me, the second I walked into the office door, it was completely different. Yes, there was a long line, but I like lines and I am carefully not to take out my phone during lines (I’m a believer in the right to be bored). The line twists around in a strange way that it required some pacing around to find the end. Once there, I saw other people come in and do the same thing. The line snakes in front of the entryway so people in line had to move for the door to open. As opposed to being annoyed or giving off frustrated sighs, people gladly moved and helped others find the end of the line. When I looked around I saw every sort of person in the City, every color, well-off and not-so-well-off, lots of different nationalities. People were being friendly in line and making each other laugh. 

I think the last time I was in a public place for government business was to vote. The lines and demeanor there was completely different. Everyone tight-lipped. Anxious sighs and glaces at watches. People guarding their space carefully and making sure no one cut the line. 

The DMV was a welcome change. A lady in line in front of me helped a younger gentleman with all of the paperwork he’d need to complete his task. He realized he was missing some items and left the office. The lady called out from the door, “And you’ll have five days to change your insurance!” She’d either just been through the same thing or was an expert in DMV procedure. 
I got to the line and told them why I was there, showed them I had the paperwork, and got a ticket. I took a seat and waited. I was called up and the nice lady at the counter helped me out and asked if I was ready for Valentine’s Day. This is how cancer survivorship can just come up in conversation. I told her I wasn’t sure, we’d been talking about just agreeing to not doing anything given our state at the moment, and it’s been rough going for a bit. She genuinely looked concerned and asked why, and I mentioned survivorship. She was sympathetic for me, but still urged me to do something for my wife like cook a meal or get her something small. She had this conversation with me while working on all my paperwork. She finished and wished me well, as I did to her, and I was on my way. I actually really like the DMV.


The DMV office is strangely located in a building with a large vestibule area. You walk in the building vestibule and then into the DMV office door. On my way out, there was a man sitting slumped in the corner of the vestibule. Our eyes met and I said hello as I walked. I left the vestibule but he came out after me to talk. He introduced himself as David and told me he was a war veteran who was struggling. He’d make his way from the Salvation Army shelter to this place for the moment. He told me he had a job at a restaurant downtown but someone dropped something and made a loud noise and he instinctively covered his head for protection. After that they let him go because they told him he was a distraction to the other workers. He stopped his story to tell me how much he appreciated me talking to him. He let some people walk by and in very hushed tones told me that the hardest part of what he’s going through is that he feels like being black and visibly in a rough place allows people to ignore him all the time. “Like you’re invisible?” I asked. He said that was exactly the feeling. He was so happy just to be talking to someone. Several times he shook my hand and told me that I was cool. He told me he had two kids, one daughter and one son. He said his daughter was taking care of something in the DMV office. He said he didn’t care about what happened to him, he was okay because his kids were being taken care of through welfare. I told him about my two kids. At this point people are walking by us and giving quizzical glances. 

He prefaced it by saying it didn’t matter if I couldn’t do anything, but asked if he could have some money for some food. He assured me he wasn’t going to waste it on alcohol or drugs. So usually I keep a couple of used grocery bags with some snack bars, lotion, first aid stuff, etc in my car. Thing is, I was driving a new-to-me car so I didn’t have my stuff. I told him all of this. He said it was okay but if I had anything, it’d be helpful. I thought about what to do. I really considered driving home and getting one of those packs and driving back. But I did have a lunch with a friend coming up in an hour- I wouldn’t make it. I thought about buying food and taking it to him. I asked him if he knew about Project Host (soup kitchen) and Triune Mercy Center (an open door church with a strong mission to help the homeless and low income). He knew Project Host and gets food there a lot. Triune Mercy Center was new to him. I told him where it was (it’s close to the Salvation Army) and what they do. He said I could go to the gas station to get some cash and come back. Of course, I knew I could do this. I told him I might and said I had to go, but really check out Triune Mercy Center. 

I got back into my new-to-me car and thought about it. I had some cash. So I drove up, handed him a $10 and once again urged him to check out Triune Mercy Center. A part of me wanted to invite him into my car and take him out to lunch somewhere and then drive him to Triune Mercy Center. But I had lunch with a friend I was looking forward to already.

This will probably sound odd, but I wish I had taken a selfie with him to share. I didn’t go for that though because it seemed a little distasteful. This whole conversation reminded me a lot about the work of Chris Arnade and his work interviewing the down-trodden across America. His book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, is perfectly named. No matter how rough it is for David, he has dignity. And for me, more than ever I believe that every person should be acknowledged. I hope I cross paths with David again someday. 

Author: johncatoe

Recovering from brain surgery. Dealing with metastatic melanoma. Hoping to build some community and maybe help people out in someway.

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