There is no social equalizer quite like the Department of Motor Vehicles. Everyone’s a different race, everyone’s a different age, everyone’s a different social class. But we are a people united on a common front: no one, not anyone, not anyone at all, ever, ever wants to be there.
When I was a kid in Catholic school, I could never totally visualize what purgatory looked like. I think I can now. It looks like the fluorescent-lit hellscape of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation at 8th and Arch Streets.
I get there at two in the afternoon yesterday. The line just to get the deli-number ticket was already out the door, and I really, really had to pee. I squeezed past the crowd into the bathroom. Someone had grafitti’ed the toilet roll dispenser “Abandon Hope.”
Somebody is fucking hilarious.
I finish peeing. I flush. I make my way to the sink. Someone has torn off a wristband like you get from a concert, one of those paper things with big block lettering, and left it in the sink. It’s blocking the drain, but there are no paper towels handy and I’m squeamish enough to not want to touch it, so I decide just to wash my hands anyways, watching the bracelet get gummy and soft. I’m trying to shake my hands dry and I hear, from the lobby, muffled and then louder, this:
Shut the fuck up.
No, motherfucker, I said shut the fuck up.
Fuck you. I ain’t a hoe. I ain’t a slut.
Fuck you, motherfucker, I ain’t nobody’s fucking slut. Get the fuck out.
I make eye contact with the woman at the sink next to me. She rolls her eyes, like, People. Amirite? There’s the sound of muffled commotion and lower dude voices, growling and angry, but by the time I make it out of the bathroom and back into the lobby, it’s quiet. Like nothing had even happened.
I’m standing at the back of the line for maybe two minutes, still waiting to get my deli number. I fiddle with my purse. I make sure I have my ID. I check my phone.
The door behind me opens. A young man walks in, slinks in almost, all smiles, all tight pants and hipster glasses.
“Excuse me,” he says, touching my shoulder, brushing past me. “Don’t want you getting caught up in the middle here.” He glides a few more steps into the door. He’s carrying a large coffee cup. “Pardon me. Excuse me.”
He’s a good ten feet away from the check-in stand when he whips the coffee cup at the security guard, and screams “Don’t you ever talk to me like that again, motherfucker,” and runs out the door.
All hell breaks loose.
The security guard is stunned. Then he is angry.
He’s an older guy. Fifties. Big. Tough.
He stares at his coffee-stained uniform shirt, and then begins to unbutton it, and then charges out the door in his undershirt, almost slipping on the spilled liquid on the ground. I’m gonna kill that motherfucker I’m gonna kill that motherfucker. Half the crowd moves towards the door to see what’s happening. The other half of the crowd tries to move further up the waiting line.
The security guard comes back in a few minutes later, panting, breathless. People are clapping him on the back or trying to ask him if he’s okay.
I was about to, myself, before he says, “If I ever see that fucking faggot again I swear to God I’ll kill him. I’ll rip that fucking faggot’s fucking head off.”
The grandmother at the front of the line covers her grandson’s ears, while telling him to calm down, calm down, it’s not worth it, stop. The kid looks worried.
The security guard makes his way back to his station. Fucking faggot coming in here. I swear to God I’ll kill him, I’ll kill that motherfucking faggot ass. He puts his sweatshirt on over his stained undershirt. Someone from the back shows up with a mop.
Another DMV employee enters. A woman. Sensible shoes. ID badge. Thirties. Tough.
“What happened?” she asks me.
“I didn’t see how it started,” I said. “But a man came in here and threw his coffee at the security guard. I think maybe they had exchanged words earlier. The security guard chased him out of the door, and then when he came back, he just kept, uh, he kept dropping the f-bomb, and he kept saying the word “faggot,” and it’s really upsetting.”
“Oh,” the woman says. “It was a faggot, then, huh? A faggot who did it?”
I wish I could say that I had the right response here. Instead I just sort of looked at her in a stunned silence.
“People is just crazy,” she sighs.
It’s been about three minutes since the coffee was thrown, and it’s like it never happened. The woman relieves the security guard from his post. He produces a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and makes his way out of the door.
“You know how fast we movin’?”
I look down. There’s a cartoon caricature of South Philadelphia in line behind me. Fifties. Dyed-red hair. Penciled-in eyebrows. Eagles jersey. Blue eyeliner. Scrunchie. She’s missed the entire thing.
“You know how fast? You know if they take cash? ‘Cause what the fuck, I got places to be, you know?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m still waiting in line.”
“HA!” she cackles, elbowing me in the shoulder. “You’s just one of us, you don’t know nothin’ either! Fuckin’ assholes.”
I’m not sure who she’s referring to although it occurs to me that maybe we’re all fucking assholes.
The guy in front of me turns towards me and quietly says, “Hey. Did you see how that started?”
“No,” I say. “It’s …”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a really confusing situation. Was it – was it like, a gay-bashing thing? Or was that guy just a dick?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I feel really weird about it,” he says.
“I do, too,” I say.
By the time I make it to the counter to renew my license, it’s been almost an hour. I chat with the man behind the desk.
“Hey,” I say. “That fight. That guy with the coffee. Did you see what happened?”
The man sighs, rolls his eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “He came in here, acting a fool, provoking the other people around him, trying to start trouble. He was told to get out. I guess he didn’t like that.”
“Does this kind of thing happen a lot?” I said.
The man chuckled sarcastically, along with the other employee at the printer behind him. “You’d be surprised,” he said.
I live in Philadelphia, where last week, a group of a dozen men and women assaulted a gay couple near Rittenhouse Square, shouting homophobic slurs and beating them until they required hospitalization.
Does this have anything to do with this incident? No.
I live in Pennsylvania, where the rights of LGBT people are not protected under the hate-crimes law. Does this have anything to do with this incident? No.
I live in Pennsylvania, where my friends Adam and Justin were among the first to get married at City Hall a few months ago when gay marriage became legal in our state. Their wedding pictures are so beautiful that I cried when I first saw them. They’re one of the best couples I have ever met. They’re two of the best people I have ever met.
Does this have shit to do with the incident at the DMV? Hell no. Not even one tiny, tiny little bit.
And then again. In a way. It sort of does.
I wasn’t there to see how the incident started. I could have this part entirely wrong. If this blog is somehow read by someone at the DMV who wasn’t in the bathroom when all of this went down, please send me an email. I would love another account of how this actually took place.
But the narrative that seems to make sense is that a gay man started to provoke a woman by calling her a slut and a ho, and when he was asked to leave, he was called a faggot.
I can’t even begin to talk about how very wrong this is because it’s wrong in so many ways.
No one deserves to be called a slut.
No one deserves to be called a ho.
No one deserves to be called a faggot.
And no one deserves to have a cup of coffee thrown in their face.
I want to believe so badly in people’s basic goodness. I really do. And there are just days when it is hard.
Because I wanted to hurt Kathryn Knott when her twitter feed made the rounds. I wanted to hurt Ray Rice when that video was released. I want to lash out when I see wrongdoing and evil and pain in the world that I can’t control. There’s like this tiny vigilante Batgirl that shows up inside my brain, and there’s blood in my temples and red-hot anger in my eyes and I just want to throw a punch or kick or hit or scream.
But I don’t.
Because that would be throwing a cup of coffee. Feels great in the moment. Gets you nowhere in the end.
And so I’m writing, instead, a letter to the DMV general contact email address. I’m writing a letter to the Secretary of Transportation of the DMV. And I’m writing a letter to the Governor. And I’m writing a letter to the staff at that particular branch. I’m sharing this story. And I’m letting them know that maybe their employees could use a reminder that the word “faggot” is never, ever okay. (Maybe it’s okay for Dan Savage. It’s definitely not OK for the DMV).
Because I live in a state (finally!) where gay people can be married. Are afforded equal protection under the law. Which should mean that even when they behave like total asshats, they still shouldn’t be called “faggot.”
Will writing a few letters do anything? Who am I kidding. Probably not. I am, after all, talking about trying to reform injustice at the DMV. Let’s face it: it’s extremely unlikely that this will impact change in any real, measurable way.
But it’s the best I can think of to do without becoming part of the problem.