I may be a lot of things, but a small town country bumpkin I am not. No, I did not grow up in some sprawling metropolis but I certainly had more then one stop light and various Starbucks to take care of my caffeine fix. I have come to accept four o’clock traffic as a way of life and a crowded bar as a Friday night staple. So when I go to visit my grandmother in Chaffee County- a painfully small collection of towns in Southwest Colorado- where the largest building is a prison that sits on the outskirts of town, I have to adjust…a lot. Sometimes I find the quaintness of this area (minus the prison of course) to be sweet and endearing- like something out of Runaway Bride- and other times well, I would rather sit in six hours of traffic at a dead stop then interact with some of the people that call this place home.
Recently my mother and I made the two and a half hour trek up to my grandmother’s remote abode in a pocket of wilderness she shares with two ex nuns, a monk and an occasional herd of elk. She lives alone there, the independent bad ass that she is, braving the elements with her rural sleek wardrobe and little West Highland White Terrier. Her home is a fantastically original hodge podge of Marilyn Monroe pictures and catalog bought furniture (after all, the shopping here is generally limited to beef jerky and snow shovels), and she has a book for every subject imaginable- literally every subject. So spending time in her corner of the world can be an amazingly intellectual journey into past decades- if we never leave her house. Unfortunately on this particular visit my grandmother informed my mother that she needed to renew her license- an errand that brings forth a certain sense of dread in any city- but one that somehow becomes a whole new beast in a small town.
Ironically, my grandmother had been sharing her views with us on “middle class morality” for quite a while- a term that required a bit of an explanation on her part. See small town life is as far from my grandmother’s blood line (“upper crust” she calls her family’s social standing as a child) as it is from my every day periphery so she has no trouble sharing her own judgments, even though she now finds herself in their fold. I chuckled at her use of this term, perhaps not really realizing the extent of her insider knowledge. It would only take an hour long visit to the Chaffee County DMV in the town of Salida to fully realize how correct her depiction of “middle class morality” truly was.
The DMV building is small and neither quaint nor endearing. It’s boxed in by cars since a parking lot in this town is probably as impractical as a hurricane drill in Colorado. Inside there are maybe six chairs (I suppose great crowds can never be expected in this town) separated by a partition where there are two desks and one disgruntled government employee actually working. When asked if we should take a number, one woman, a temp worker taking up a desk and doing nothing to expedite our visit, her hair in a type of teased bouffant with butt cleavage from there to Denver, looked disapprovingly over the edge of her Sarah Palin glasses. She let out a quick chuckle which I took to mean that they don’t have that technology in this here neck of the woods. My mother, grandmother, and I sat in a vacant corner of the room poking each other since we were in too close quarters to make the comments that were boiling under our skin.
The first woman was called forward to talk to Pat (if you are a seasoned Saturday Night Live viewer then you catch my drift), the legitimate worker- an unpolished woman that seemed to take her authority and job title as seriously as the president of the United States. Her voice was brash and immediately reminded me of the sound a car makes when the exhaust pipe is cut off- purposefully annoying and too loud to ignore.
Apparently the woman that she was helping was attempting to get her driver’s license after trekking down from Canada to marry a local Salidian (not a technical term). I say apparently because Pat did not attempt, in any way shape or form, to keep anyone’s business private. Apparently privacy means nothing in a small town. So in a matter of ten minutes I learned that Kristen the Canadian had no interest in becoming an organ donor and she weighed a spritely 110 pounds. And after airing her opinions on organ donation and giving us a look into her eating habits, Pat decided she couldn’t help her after all and sent her on her way. I looked at my poor grandmother who was now pale at the prospect that her recent weight loss (yes, some people would love to have this problem) would be broadcast for the entire room to brood over. Her statements on “middle class morality” suddenly took on a whole new meaning. “NEEEEEXXXXXTTTTT,” Pat called, clearly forgetting that the room was no more then 500 square feet in size.
While Pat continued on her merry way, I listened as temp lady answered phone calls. “No, no, no, I wouldn’t come in right now, we are EXTREMELY (great emphasis on this word), busy.” I looked around, thinking that perhaps I had been too preoccupied with hearing the dirty laundry of the local residents to notice the massive crowd that had just walked through the door. Nope, no crowd, she was simply referring to the five people that had taken up residence in the waiting area. Either this woman was not looking to work any harder then she had to or she had simply never endured a three hour wait time in a “regular DMV.” Maybe we could spread around some of the crowding in Denver’s DMV’s by sending people up to good ol’ Salida.
After perhaps thirty minutes of staring open mouthed at Pat as she screeched through each interaction, my grandmother neared the front of the (hypothetical) line. That’s when little Bobby and his father walked through the door (again, I’m using a bit of name creative license here). “Eleven o’clock driving test?” temp lady asked over her glasses frames. By this time I was getting down right irritated with her inability to do little more then ask stupid questions and make observations that would be more accurate coming from a five year old. The duo nodded.
I stared at the boy, immediately feeling pity for the fact that he most likely had grown up in this snow locked town- or worse one of the even smaller neighboring towns. He would probably have ten other people in his graduating class, one of whom he would marry, get some local job (at the DMV perhaps?) and spend massive amounts of his time drinking in the only bar in town. Judgmental, yes, but by that time Pat had made me cynical about every living thing within a twenty mile radius.
Just as my grandmother, whose wide eyes and occasional dumbfounded snorts made me believe we were on the same page, was about to get up from her seat and take her rightful place behind Pat’s desk, Pat got up grabbed her clipboard and told the boy she would take him right then. Now I may be small, but growing up in a city with more then twenty people has taught me to stand up for my right to even sub par customer service. And simple common sense told me that this boy was clearly after my grandmother in line. So I spoke up.
“So are we suppose to wait until you get back?”
Pat looked at me like one might look at a child that just questioned their authority.
“Yup,” she quipped, clearly she was getting some odd sense of enjoyment out of the “power” she thought she had. Power deriving from the fact that she was temporarily in charge of the only DMV within a hundred mile radius, stripping everyone in the neighboring towns of their power of choice. And of course, she was a government employee that probably had to murder someone in order to receive any sort of questioning about her customer service skills. I didn’t hide my eye roll, in fact it may have looked like my eyes were about to jump out of their sockets.
Suddenly temp lady spoke up. “And if you are wondering why I’m not working, I’m just here for the day.”
I quickly attempted to stop myself from doing an Olympic vault jump over the partition and socking her square in the face. Instead I gave her the fakest smile I could muster.
“I wasn’t wondering. Thanks.”
I settled into my chair expecting to endure a long wait while little Bobby was evaluated on his driving. But a little more than five minutes later (yes five, no exaggeration) he came through the door trailing behind Pat’s ample bottom, clearly beaming at his results. Yes, little Bobby was deemed worthy of a driver’s license that is valid ANYWHERE in the entire world by driving around the minute town of Salida for an entire FIVE minutes with at the most SIX OTHER CARS ON THE ROAD. This I thought, was the unpublicized danger that we don’t hear about- more dangerous perhaps then people that text while driving or drink beforehand. Pat was putting the rest of the civilized world in danger and the state of Colorado didn’t really give a damn.
Little Bobby sat behind Pat’s desk as she quizzed him about all of the things that a sixteen year old boy wouldn’t want broadcast in a slightly crowded room.
“How much do you weigh?” she croaked as she stared at her computer screen.
“120 pounds,” he said attempting to bring the conversation down a few notches.
Yes, she actually asked him that- as if she had mountains invested in this poor boy gaining some much needed weight. Again, the eye rolling ensued.
Finally after little Bobby was given the go-ahead to drive recklessly (the boy is sixteen- I have a pretty good idea that this is how he drives) through the town of Salida my grandmother was finally called up to speak to the all mighty Pat. She looked small and unassuming in her chic sweater and boots, and I applauded her ability to be civil to the devil in carnate. We endured an hour of small town shenanigans for a three minute process of getting a license renewed- and by the time we were finished I had to stop myself from literally sprinting out of the room (and perhaps shouting some obscenities at Pat and temp lady on my way out).
My grandmother, being the sweet lady that she is, simply laughed at these people’s “middle class morality” (yes, perhaps being judgmental runs in the family) while I fumed for a good two hours afterwards. She has long since acquired a sense of humor about these types of situations while clearly I have not. Just keep me in a place where driving tests last longer then five minutes, anonymity is easy to come by, and everyone else is desensitized by city life and I will be just fine.