Humankind — Be both

Back in late-summer, I gathered up my birth certificate, my social security information and all the other necessary documentation, and I headed off to the Division of Motor Vehicles building.

It was 10:00 sharp, and there were several hundred people standing in various lines or sitting in rows of seats — vaguely like cattle being processed. When I finally got to my first stop, the man behind the counter wore a smile on his face that telegraphed: “Don’t read too much into this smile; I’m not really happy to see you.” He inspected my forms, typed me into the system and handed me a ticket that said “S-1214.” I asked him, “How long will this take?” “Couple hours,” he muttered.

I took a seat in a row of metal chairs. “What’s your ticket number?” I asked the young woman sitting on my left.“S-1058,” she said. She was 156 spots ahead of me. Over time, I noticed this obnoxious loudspeaker blaring the progress we were all making. A computer voice would say, every few seconds: “Now handling ticket number S-1001 at station number five.”

The hipster to my right finally turned to me and said, “Dude, Hell is a lot better than this.” I thought a minute and finally agreed with him. “In Hell,” he said, “you probably have Black Sabbath packing out one arena and killing it with ‘War Pigs,’ and then, on another stage, Slayer or Metallica … and then all the bars, man! Hell is a lot better than this!”

Eventually the woman to my left got called, and her seat was quickly occupied by a spry 95-year-old man who was there to sign over his car to his grandson. He started a long soliloquy about his service in World War II — a gravelly narrative: “I just moved here from South Carolina to be with my daughter and her family. In the war I served in the Navy under a lieutenant commander named Richard Milhous Nixon — don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of him.”

It had now been more than two hours, so I went back to the man with the phony smile. “The system’s acting up, it’s probably a couple more hours,” he mumbled. Another hour in, the speaker blared: “Now handling ticket number S-2013.” “Yesssss, I’m next!” I said, and I high-fived my Navy friend. “Now handling ticket number S-2015.” “Now handling ticket number S-2016.” I went back to the man with the phony smile. “They skipped my number!” “Oh, this happens. Go back and sit down.” I sank into my chair and closed my eyes. Finally, the Navy veteran poked me in the ribs: “Kid, they just called your number.” “No they didn’t,” I said in despair. “Don’t be an idiot, kid! Go to station number 12 right now!”

The dear lady at station number 12 smiled broadly. “Welcome sweetie; let me see your driver’s license.” I was sputtering about the incompetence and the fact that it was now almost 4:00. “They do this all the time,” she said. “They’re bad. I’m going to help you.”

She looked at me. “Are you a lawyer?” “No ma’am.” “Well what do you do?” “I’m the president of a seminary.” She lit up and said, “Oh really, which one?” I held my head up and said, “I’m the president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.” She said, “I’ve never heard of that cemetery.” I said, “No, it’s not a cemetery; it’s a seminary.” “Well, what’s a seminary?” she asked. I told her, and she said, “You prepare people to be priests?” I thought about correcting her terminology, but finally just said, “Yes ma’am.” She said, “I had a priest in here two weeks ago; a very sweet man. If you train people like that, you’ve got a great job.” She said, “Stand up and look at this camera. Ah, that’s a nice shot. Here you go, Father. Look at the information and make sure it’s right and have a nice day!” She smiled. It wasn’t a phony smile. She was an angel.

Theodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas.