Monday, October 4, 2010

Four hours in Purgatory

Heidi Buyak  September 2010

Have you read that story about that guy who died and was in Heaven for forty minutes and came back?  I did and I thought it was pretty hopeful.  I bought another book a man wrote about his twenty three minutes in Hell, but was too scared to read it.  I guess I was afraid it might seem familiar.  Lots of people believe that Heaven and Hell can be right here where you are right now but when it comes to Purgatory you have to go someplace else, some place made by the drones of man to punish and grind us down into something worthy of moving on to the next level, if there’s anything left when they’re done.

In Texas they call it the Department of Public Safety, as if giving all the people in this room licenses to drive was something safe to do. I remember when it was called DMV and maybe in some places it’s still called that.  Either way, whatever you call it, it really is, our secular Purgatory.  I don’t know what you did but it must have been something in need of true punishment and purging if you end up here.  By the time I got there the line was 26 deep just to get to the cheery cherub who would give me a number for the privilege to hopefully sit in a molded plastic chair and wait my turn for the chance to stand in another line.

They just called number 83 and just handed out number 105.

The room is filled with people who either have no access to a computer or have to be here because it can’t be helped, avoided, paid off or delegated.  The visually impaired along with those who just never bothered to learn to read are also here.  Skinny teenagers too dumb to fake looking anything but arrogant are here waiting for their first license which I’m sure they’ll use like an entitlement.  Until then they’re sitting here partially pinched under the overflowing corpulence sitting next to them waiting for their forklift assisted handicapped sticker for their reinforced mini vans.

In the 29 people who have now gathered in line behind me I can hear two women talking about the anti depressants and anti psychotics that they’re on.   They’re here to get their licenses renewed, thank God.   Driving around impaired and without a license? Think what that’d do to their insurance rates.  Or worse yet a revoked license.  How would they ever get their little precious twins Flance and Tymothé to Fun, Fair, Safe, Soccer where everybody’s a winner?   With so many parents raiding their children’s behavior modification meds, it’s a wonder as to how they found this lush, ripe slice of Hell’s vestibule.  Then again, they probably don’t even know they’re waiting in line.

Purgatory was starting to work on me and I had only been there about 30 minutes.  My future bunions were only about an hour away and my knees were pretty much done.  Even if I got a chance to sit, the pain would probably never go away.  The desk with the lady cheerfully handing out numbers telescoped away the closer I slowly swayed in her direction, knees locked, feet burning.  I could’ve left but instead I decided to stay.  It was going to be my strange social experiment: I was curious. How long could this possibly take?  Why do so many people stay and wait it out?  Standing here nose to nape like Darwin’s rejects, waiting with dead eyes to get our souls back from the scales.   

My crime against man and nature was that I was divorced and I wanted my old name back, and for that I must be punished.  He was a good man.  Just ask him, he’ll tell you, “I’m a nice guy.”  Just because he didn’t stop dating after we got married doesn’t make him ‘bad’. No, just made me a little stupid for not figuring it out sooner.  As he told me, “All guys do it and if they don’t they’re either lying or pussies”.  Right there, there’s proof of what a good man he was to give me the truth like that.  “Do you want me to lie to you, sneak around behind your back?  Is that what you want?”  How ‘nice’ to give me the option.  Yeah, if he really had those qualities, wouldn’t other people already be saying so, saving him the time of saying it himself?

The pale teenage pinhead in front of me keeps sitting every chance he gets.  His outward laziness must be the envy of his other driver-to-be buddies, if they even had the energy, themselves, for something as strenuous and specific as envy. 

Why is this place so crowded? Where do they all come from?  You’d think by the size of this crowd this must be the only under staffed office around for a thousand miles. 

Skinny kid in front of me just took a break from his block stacking game to pull up his jeans.  It makes me feel old to think we’re giving licenses to kids who still play with blocks.  Of course his blocks are on the phone his mommy and daddy bought for him which of course only confirms my age because I don’t even know if my phone does that kind of thing and I don’t care to find out.   

Over half an hour and I’m only three people away from getting my number.  I can’t wait.

This guy in front of me is going to look like an even bigger dork when his has to take off his ghetto turned baseball cap and reveal a flippy do hair style underneath.  Isn’t it supposed to be angled at about 3:15 or maybe 6:30 so you can get your face up real close to the prison bars in order to talk to your prison husbands?  His was off at about a 2:10 angle.  What’s 2:10 get you?

He’s up.  As it turns out it’s time for him to turn in his vertical learners permit in exchange for his big boy horizontal license.  I can hear the smiling comrade on the raised platform tell him something about mandatory selective service: would he like to register?  Well, if it’s mandatory, why is she asking him?  Or maybe she said, “Mandatory selective service, you like, da?”  He told her he was thinking about enlisting in the Navy anyway.  Standing there, in pain up to my knees, I felt a blunted guilt at judging him so poorly.  If this was purgatory, we were here to be judged but not by me.

Thirty five minutes and now it’s my turn.  I heard about this interrogation technique once where they leave the prisoner alone for a few weeks without any human contact and then they send someone friendly in to talk to them and they’re usually so happy for the company they tell them anything they want to know.  Getting my number feels a like that.  I get my papers out for the good comrade.  I want to please her she takes it, slowly, and is pleased with me.  I am relieved.  She seems efficient and surprisingly friendly.  She must be new.  Or maybe she can feel the overwhelming and collective despair in the room and it gives her pleasure.  I explain to her what I’m doing, show her all the right documentation and ask her with all the remaining hope of a novice if I will be getting my picture retaken.  She’s happily informs that of course they’ll be retaking my picture.  Hope leaves me as I realize that, of course, they have to keep me here longer.  It pleases them to do so plus they obviously haven’t finished weighing my soul.   

My number is 119 and I am sent to the chairs to look for one of the freshly mummified that I can push out and replace.  No one qualifies so I shuffle to the back of the waiting area.  At the corner between the waiting area and the testing area there is an office with a door open.  I look in.  It’s a standard office with cheap government furniture bought at a premium.  I hear no other voice in my head that makes me hesitate, having been temporarily relieved of my soul.  I reach in right inside the door.  I grab a chair and sit down, hiding behind another soulless drone standing in front of me.  It’s padded and not clipped to anyone else’s chair.   I slip out of my shoes.   The floor is cool on my feet.

Like those people who suddenly found themselves temporarily and unexpectedly dead and in either Heaven or Hell, I hadn’t expected to find myself here either.  I started out the day going to a potential job interview.  It was at a temp agency and I had already applied online, plus I had walked in my resume the day before and made the appointment.  In all my arrogance I fully expected to be offered a job in house doing what I had done before at another agency I worked for.  I was disappointed.  After refilling all of the forms I filled out online and after giving them my resume again I was ready to take their computer tests confirming that I can’t do anything but sales.  I already knew I was both over and under qualified to be a receptionist, so why not just get this process done and over with? 

No, the girl at the window who was young enough to be wearing those braces for the first time around told me to go ahead and give her numbers of my past employers, the most recent of which was about five years before she was born.  I smiled and informed her that I was pretty sure by now some of the people I had worked for were dead.  She didn’t mind.  She just informed me of their policy.  I very nicely asked if I should just go ahead and take the tests and do the interview, since I was already there, all dressed up and in heels. 

No, I should go and get the numbers first and come back.  I said sure.  No problem.  I just live down the street and I’ll be back with those numbers for her. 

Now, I need a job and I know I can get a job but I was pretty sure I couldn’t get the number of the oldest employer on my list, a shipping company I worked for in 1988 that moved from the United States back to Bergen, Norway, much less any hope of finding anyone who remembered me or even the man I worked for who by now should be very comfortably retired.  On walking in there, two things were obvious, I was not twenty and I hadn’t worked in an office in fifteen years.

So, I thanked her and very nicely and politely excused myself and left.  Her blind adherence to policy and complete lack of free thought struck me as stupid but inspired me not to go home but to rush over to the social security office, before she got a job there avoiding customers and the work they represented.

Prejudging her, of course, was wrong.  When I got to the social security office I could clearly see she would have been over-qualified to work here.  It was a nice, new, clean building, well laid out with lots of service windows, all of which had people working in them.  Numbers were being called quickly and people were moving through efficiently.  It wasn’t what I imagined.  A nice police officer not only helped me with my forms but actually expended energy in going and getting me the one I needed that they were all out of, and he didn’t seem to resent doing it at all.  By the time I finished filling out my form, my number was being called and I was sitting across from another nice helpful guy. 

I was unprepared and told him so.  He told me to run up to the court house and get a certified copy of my divorce decree and to just come back to his window.  It was an uncommon statement of common sense and good customer service.  I didn’t think that people who worked in the post office, social security office, DPS, or welfare office were allowed to act so efficiently and kind.  I think there’s a policy against it.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Off I went to the court house and thirty eight dollars later I was out and back again at the window.  We had a nice chat and he asked me why I was going back to my old name and why I would want to get divorced.  Rampant infidelity, his, not mine.  I left out the part about the drug abuse.  No one has the time to listen to that, plus, I didn’t need anyone going after my ex’s job; I needed the alimony.  He just smiled and nodded.   Then he did a cruel thing.  He suggested that while I was out, I should go to DPS, since I now had all the paper work I needed.  So, I went.

When I got here it was Wednesday, 11:15 a.m.  Not that time matters here.  Time is a human construct.  Time and hope are two things all those who enter here must abandon because here they do not exist.  So, I was finally clutching my number, 119, sitting in the back of the room in a contraband padded chair (one surely reserved for any of these fine hard working and speedy employees to sit in) in the office I took it from, where they are undoubtedly reprimanded severely, should they ever be caught actually being fine, hard working and speedy.  That kind of deviant behavior would never be allowed.  It would only make the other employees feel bad, and it might make the general public feel good, and we can’t have that.
Sitting there, cooling my bare feet on the floor, I further imagine the office a place of refuge during peak hours for all of the employees to go and hide in, but there’s probably a lounge in the back for that, away from the smell of desiccating corpses and near audible moans of despair.

There are no metal detectors here and I wonder why as we all stand here like cattle.  There are six 8x10 employees’ photos in cheap metal frames on the wall behind the check in desk.  You’re forced to look at them the whole time you’re waiting in line.  I assume these honored workers were ones that actually died on the job, rubber stamp in hand.  They processed six people in the month they sat there, dead, and were therefore elevated to prized employees of the month.
Hiding just barely in the waiting pen, it’s shift change at the lovely front desk.  Anywhere else that thing would probably be behind bullet proof glass or at least a cage but they somehow manage to keep us all docile with no air circulation and I’m guessing with a soft and gentle lacing of the air with a little CO2 bled off from all the failed driver’s tests.  Do they even fail drivers anymore?  It doesn’t seem like it.    

The nice lady up front was replaced, or possibly taken out back and shot, for exceeding to do her job.  The comrade that replaced her was much improved.  Warming up on me as she steamed by informing me,
“You really can’t take that chair out of the office.” 
Clearly, I could.  I mumbled something about hiding but the Soviet sow had already sailed on by.  I didn’t move which, of course, here looks just like moving, so I was good.  I just kept my head down and continued writing.

12:20.  They were calling 95, 96, 97, and 98, for the second time.  From where I was still sitting, I listened to an exchange between a woman who wanted to be a school bus driver and the counter worker who was preventing her.
“Can I take my test?”
“No, because you’re required to get finger printed first.”
“Okay, I can do that.  Can I do that now?”
“No, because you need to get finger printed first.  Are you qualified on air brakes?”
“No, haven’t taken my test yet.”
“Well go get your air brake certificate and then come back and I don’t wanna hear you taking your test, out back until you got your air brakes, then we’ll finger print you, but we can’t test you without finger prints.”
I’m confused, I think, I’m not sure.  The poor woman was sent away or back to a line somewhere. 

Finally, someone with some authority and tact told me about the chair, again.  They were really serious here about our discomfort.  She said that patrons were not allowed to sit this close to the testing area, which was empty, and that the chair wasn’t allowed to be removed from the office.  So, I stood up and just left it there and moved forward into the galley of blue molded plastic chairs tethered two by two.

They would’ve been happy to have provided us with just sharpened sticks, I’m sure, and were probably disappointed to find out that they couldn’t, at least not until they were promoted to Hell. 

I sat next to a pleasant woman who planned better than I did and brought a book, a thick one.  She didn’t remember how long she’d been there but she thought it was about three days.  Since she could read, I took a chance and tried out my joke about the employees of the month up there and how they died for the honor.  I was relieved when she got it.  We talked about the book she was reading.  She told me that the man who wrote them delivered all three to his publisher at once and then promptly died.

1:26. Numbers 115, 116 and 117 are called.  My seatmate left and I had the whole row to myself.  Two out of the four employees went home or to lunch or maybe they got promoted.  1:30. 118, 119 and 120 are called.  Apparently, they start over with number 1 when they get to 120.  Now, I get to stand in the line I originally came in here for.  Maybe when I’m done here, I’ll go to the post office, to see how it compares.  By 1:50 I’m seen.  You know you’re no longer among the living, when the person waiting on you has hair piled higher than humanly possible and nails so long it makes all personal hygiene impossible.  

I hand over my license, my paper work proving I have a right to get my birth name back, and give her some money she forces out the command to stand in front of the screen and look at the dot in one breathe, or where one breath would’ve been if she had one.  Another employee of the month in the making.  She had me remove my glasses because on my last license I had them on and I was actually smiling.  This time though, they had me remove them, in order to take the rest of my soul.

I looked over the counter to get a glimpse of my future picture in color but she wouldn’t let me see it. Instead she handed me my paper black and white copy.  I hid my shock.  I didn’t want to give her any more pleasure then she was already sucking from the air between us.  In four hours, they had managed to drain twelve years of life from me.  I had lines in my face that weren’t there this morning when I got dressed up and put on my make-up.  I’m going to come back here twelve years from now, they’re going to look at this picture and say, “Okay, no, you’re fine we, don’t need another shot.”  They’ll take it anyway, of course.        


  1. "by now some of the people I had worked for were dead"

    *snort* That's how I used to feel. In my last job before I left Canada for Israel, I was the oldest by 15 (!) years. My cubie-mate was more than 20 years younger than me. :sigh:

    This all reminded me of when I went to the Passport office in Stamford to get my name changed after my divorce. Tor-ture. Although not nearly as soul-sucking as your adventure in Hell.

  2. While in collee, I lost my driver's liscence (can't spell) and had to give proof that I was alive. I had to go to my boss and type up a letter saying I was alive and have him sign it. Then go back and give that letter so they would re-issue another one. Oh, the memories you have given me. :0