Real ID Is Not Free

Words by Sloane Citron

Photos by Scott R. Kline

A mix of stress and anxiety came over me as I braced myself for the task ahead. I parked my car and briskly walked toward the long line snaking around the nondescript beige building. I was at the DMV.

A month before, I had learned about the Real ID and how, starting this October, you would need this special enhanced driver’s license in order to use it as your identity proof at the TSA. If you don’t have it, your only choice will be to use your passport. Since one of my daughters and her husband and baby are doing me the great disservice of moving to Los Angeles (I’m secretly hoping they quickly regret the move and return here, where they belong), I did not relish the idea of constantly traveling with my passport, a document that seems too important for a 50-minute Southwest run.

When I heard about the Real ID, I jumped on the Internet and learned as much as I could about it, all of it bad. First, you can only get the Real ID at a DMV, no online possibilities. Second, despite my trying for weeks, it seems impossible to get an appointment at any DMV (well, maybe in Arvin). Third, you have to gather a bevy of documents and bring them with you and hope that they will pass muster.

It’s only logical that as every week passes toward October, the situation, whatever it may be at the DMV, will get worse. In October there will be tomes written about all the eager flyers at SFO who miss their flights because they will have arrived with only their driver’s licenses. My thinking was that early action in this situation was imperative.

And so, on a cold, early February Saturday afternoon at 2:30PM—with nothing planned until Sunday at noon—I took my place in line outside the door. There were about 50 people in front of me (not bad, I thought) and within 20 minutes, 50 people behind me. I had brought the weekend edition of the WSJ, the current book I was reading (something about deep-sea treasure hunting), a fully charged phone and, to the best of my limited ability, patience.

The line moved at a tediously slow clip. I found myself reading each word of every article of the paper. I made sure not to initiate any conversation with those in front or behind me since there is nothing more distressing to me than trying to keep an unintended conversation going, talking about nothing.

After a slow, cold hour, I finally made my way inside the DMV building where two women, business-like, were—first stop—checking documents to see if we had brought the proper ones. I watched as some of my fellow liners, crestfallen that their documents had not passed the test, limped out the door they had waited an hour to enter.

I was nervous because one of my documents—proving my social security number—was almost four years old. Like approaching the Soup Nazi (Google it if you don’t understand), I smiled, said nothing and hoped. After a few minutes of shuffling my papers, she gave me a prized number, G51.

I took a chair as distant as possible from the multitudes, knowing that there was no end to the number of viruses floating through the angry DMV air. A loudspeaker cried, “G12 to Window 8.” Patience. I read some, but mostly watched the process—people making their cases for their Real IDs, a woman illicitly helping her elderly husband pass the driver’s test, a mother demanding that it was not too late for her daughter to take the road test. Slowly, the numbers crept up: G24, then G33, then G45.

Suddenly after a little more than an hour: “G51 to Window 12” and I quickly made my way there. A pleasant-looking woman took my papers, my driver’s license, my passport and my hope.

“How are you hanging there today?” I tried to sound sincere, though I don’t know if I came across as pathetic instead. She didn’t respond, keeping her head down, attending to business. After about ten minutes with nothing negative said, I became hopeful. She printed out several documents and asked me to carefully review and sign them.

True joy! I was almost done. A few minutes later she printed out two papers and handed them to me. One was my receipt and one was for me to, gulp, go get into another line for my photo. It occurred to me that perhaps this whole process was designed to ensure that you had a big smile on your face for the picture, ecstatic that soon you would be done with this mishegoss. After waiting another 15 minutes, I put up a big, honest smile at the photo booth. I was done.

It was a bit after 5PM then. I had to leave out the back door since the front section was closed. As I walked into the crisp, clear winter air, I felt as though I had just left jail after a two-year term. A free man with a Real ID.