Years ago I took this great trip to France. But when we were in a long line at the crowded airport waiting to leave, a uniformed woman grabbed my passport, looked suspiciously at me and clearly saw a terrorist disguised as an exhausted American tourist. She barked angry questions at me and conferred with other uniformed people, some who had guns, for what seemed like a long time. Just as I was about to confess — to what, I don't know — she let me go, but I felt her eyes on my back all the way to the plane.
I figured renewing my driver's license this year would be something like that.
The notice came in the mail well before my birthday, my personal summons to our post-9/11 rite of passage: Renewing your license live and in person accompanied by the required pile of personal documents. If this looms for you, too, some advice: Start collecting them now, today, and don't forget your great-grandmother's birth certificate with the original baby footprint on it, and also a sample of your DNA.
Being the responsible citizen I am, naturally I have every Important and Official Document safely stored and at my fingertips. Here was my Social Security card, plus plenty of official papers with both my name and address on them, as required. But wait — my passport had expired. I could use my birth certificate, but where did it go?
Deadline fast approached, so for a fee of $54.50 (or, the price of being not such a responsible citizen) I ordered a replacement birth certificate online. After obvious questions like parents' names and city of birth came more obscure ones — like who I bought my house from. (Presumably a terrorist or identity thief would not have thought of that one.) But here's the scary thing: The website knew the name of the guy I bought my house from. Probably it had access to every government-related transaction I ever made.
Then there was the matter of whether I could see, since renewal included an eye test and I hadn't had one in years. The nice optometrist, who luckily had a late appointment, said I would probably pass, but I could use glasses for distances. Until then, I was the only one in my family besides my dad who didn't need glasses. What, I couldn't inherit the man's ability to spot fish across a flat calm ocean? I had to get his feet instead?
I scheduled my renewal appointment at the tax collector's office downtown near work and readied for the worst. The pleasant woman who scanned my Important and Official Documents did not seem suspicious of me and I saw no one with a gun (though she did have pictures of a really huge tabby in her cubicle.)
And I passed the eye test! Which means if a really large letter E runs a stop sign in front of me, I will definitely see it.
Because I tend to look sleepy in pictures (another paternal gift), I try to compensate by opening my eyes really wide. So the first attempt at a new license photo could best be described as: Mug Shot of a Meth Head. The nice woman offered to take another, and, excuse me, but when has this ever happened in the history of government employees you have known?
In short, I can say that even in the modern, ever-vigilant world, getting your driver's license does not feel the same as getting the official stink-eye at a foreign airport. As long you remember to bring your DNA.