The Line


Cheri EllisIf you’ve bought a new car recently, you know exactly which one I’m talking about.

by Cherri Ellis

As I had been advised, it was the middle of the month, middle of the week, and after 2 p.m. when I stepped into the lobby of the Jefferson County Courthouse. To my right was the scanner like they have at the airport, and as the courtly, elderly gentleman took my briefcase, I wondered why everyone complained about this place; it seemed to me to be a beacon of calm policy and order.

I asked the man about car tags, and he gestured around the corner with a smile, his “Have a nice day” echoing against the marble hollows of the room. I passed the velvet rope and stopped cold. Ahead of me was a hallway the length of the one Jo Beth Williams ran down in Poltergeist. Flat against the left wall were chairs touching side by side, all but one of them occupied with human beings holding something in their hands; a bag, a pile of papers, an unhappy baby. I went to the last open chair and sat down. At ragged intervals, the line would stand and shuffle forward and re-sit in an awkward wave. Snippets of cell phone conversations created a low din of “It’s behind the thing with the broken thing,” and, “So I told her, ‘Oh, no you did not,’” and a lot of,  “Look, this is gonna take much longer than I thought….” My own phone went off and people around me heard me say “Yes, it matters! Can you tell which ones look Asian? Then pick the prettiest two and get started.” Responding to my seatmates’ curious stares, I explained that that was an editor asking about which pictures went where in a commercial for a restaurant that serves wings. They seemed to relax, and it fell quiet again.

We heard the clanking of a lock, and someone said, “They’ve shut the doors—nobody else can get in now.  They have to finish us, though.” I looked up and down the row. Two chairs down was a big guy who never spoke and looked exactly like Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. On my left was a personable woman who turned out to be a news director for a digital media group, and we discussed how difficult it was to navigate the obituaries. On my right was a guy who had been through the entire experience the preceding week, only to have run out of time and been forced to leave before he made the front of the line. He helped me figure out some apps on my iPad. As the minutes ticked by, people would travel from left to right in front of us, some of them looking like they had just won the golden ticket, and others so angry they were talking out loud to themselves and anyone else who could hear.  (Several times I felt actual gratitude for the scanner in the lobby.)

Although hours had passed, nobody stepped across the width of the hallway to make use of the restrooms facing us. This mass misjudgment was ironic. Since Jefferson County has the most expensive sewer system on the planet, we all should have been using it with wild abandon. Chief and I should have been shampooing each other’s hair. After all, we were in this line because of the famous $4.2 billion dollar bankruptcy that forced the municipality to slash 700 county jobs. Cut that many jobs and you create lines like the one we were seated in.

I craned my neck and tried to count the bodies, using my fail-proof method of counting to music. I ticked them off to Carole King’s “Tapestry,” every other human serving as a downbeat. I briefly thought about jumping to my feet and giving my captured audience a quick infomercial on the BCRFA specialty tag they could purchase when they finally got in front of a DMV associate. “And you see,” I would explain in pleasant, measured tones, “$41.25 of the $50.00 fee will go directly to fund research for a cure for Breast Cancer.”  And then it hit me—if 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, then I was actually in line with some women who would one day be receiving some pretty tough news.

I am on the board of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama, a nonprofit that raises funds for research for a cure.  Oddly enough, I was working with this foundation long before I myself was diagnosed. They are a great group—smart and frugal to the point that if I sit through one more noon to 1 p.m. meeting with no food involved, I am going to find another disease to have. Since 1996, they have raised $4 million that they have donated to UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. The CCC has in turn utilized the $4 million as seed money to attract grant funding in excess of $16 million, and all of it stays right here in Alabama. The newly designed BCRFA tags are grey and white with the obligatory pink ribbon, and in 2014, there will be a motorcycle tag available as well.

The line advanced, and my group found itself blinking in the bright overheads of the room with all the action. The sight of the beleaguered DMV workers instantly switched my sympathy from the people in line to the people behind the glass partition.

When I heard the beautiful word “next,” I high-fived the person behind me and jubilantly approached the window. “Hello!” I chirped. “Boy, I bet you could do this in your sleep! What a crowd! Do people ever just lose it after standing in that line?” The woman paused in her shuffling of papers and stared me down through the glass. “Only every day,” she responded. “Don’t have proof of insurance with you? That’s my fault. Brought a baby but no bottle? My fault. Buy a car but didn’t know you needed to get the title? Then there’s more wrong with you than I could help if had the time…which I don’t—Next!”

She handed me my packet and I laughed out loud, because in spite of her day and all the days before it at the understaffed, bankrupt Jeffco DMV, she looked me in the eye and smiled. Some people just have class.

I wanted to chest bump Chief on the way out.

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