I had an interesting conversation the other day with a woman by the name of Barb at the Texas Department of Public Safety. You see, my mother has recently moved from out of state to live with us here. She arrived in a very useful, very new, low-mileage Toyota Camry that she expected to use for driving herself to Trader Joe’s, her hair appointments, and an occasional trip to the doctor. (So much for expectations. Remember hair appointments? Incidental outings? Old people in public? Nowadays she barely knows what the end of our street looks like.)
New move-ins are required to get a Texas driver’s license in right snappy fashion. Not an issue when she first got here at peak Covid lockown, but now, as cases surge in Houston and it becomes clearer and clearer that public indoor spaces are dangerous, driver’s license offices are bizarrely open. Even for people in their 80s. To fulfill the requirements of the law, you have to trust that “open” means “safe enough.”
Anyhoo, along with ID and proof-of-address documents, you’re also supposed to bring a completed vehicle registration, or sign a document saying you don’t own a car. Problem: though driver’s license offices are open, tax assessor’s offices (where you get the registration) are closed.
This is a conundrum I haven’t seen the like of since living overseas, where I would be annoyed but not at all surprised to have Government Branch A require something from Government Branch B that Branch B doesn’t provide. But here at home, with this incredibly obvious conflict…surely I was missing something. So I settled myself in with a cup of tea and a crossword, dialed, responded to all the auto-prompts, and listened to sixteen bars of chipper music and a half dozen “Did you know” announcements on repeat for an hour.
At last, a click, and Barb. I explained the situation. Was I missing something? Had I failed to see an entry on the FAQ page?
“Nope,” she said cheerily. “Just say you don’t have a car.”
I digested that for a moment. I doubt digesting it any longer would’ve changed anything.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But, it seems a little weird that you’re telling me to lie on a signed government declaration.”
She laughed. “Oh, I know. It feels like you’re going to get electrocuted or something, but don’t you worry about it. I mean, technically, you don’t own the car in Texas.”
Perhaps this was the loophole we were intended to wiggle through. “Is that what the question actually says?” I asked.
“Well, no, I don’t think so, but you know what I mean. Look, if anybody gives you trouble just tell ’em Barb sent you.”
As it happens, I don’t see Barb’s name on the Department of Public Safety’s home page as its director, so perhaps you’ll forgive me if I doubt her authority. But our conversation made for an exquisite emperor-has-no-clothes moment. Suddenly my relationship to dogwhistle-forward-science-backward government became clear. They have no capacity or willingness to protect my family. That job is up to me, though it shouldn’t be. They’re the ones with all the resources and access to experts and regional plans, but if they can’t even keep a driver’s license flowchart straight, I guess I’m on my own. So let me announce my plans right here:
We won’t be right snappy about getting that driver’s license. Instead, we’ll be doing what you won’t, which is protecting our family. Your ineptitude and recklessness are not my problem.
P.S. Except for the voting part. That is my problem and I’ll be sure to see to it.
As pointed out in this fascinating Atlantic article about the psychology of risk assessment (“Our Minds Aren’t Equipped for This Kind of Reopening”), “America’s half-hearted reopening is a psychological morass, a setup for defeat that will be easy to blame on irresponsible individuals while culpable institutions evade scrutiny.”
So thanks, Barb. You were a delight, and made the hold worth every minute. Plus you did a bang-up job of exposing a culpable institution to scrutiny.