Wednesday, September 2, 2009


It looks like the good old days at the Registry, with people lined up out the door and down the corridor of the Watertown Mall. I, like them, am waiting to take a number and then sit on a bench and listen to that computer-generated bedroom voice: "Now serving B-210 at Window Number Nine. . . ." Half a dozen different categories of Registry business are identified by
different letters, each with its series of numbers. I am number A-163.

At least the numbers go quickly. At least there is a take-a-number system, and benches. The air conditioning doesn't matter in this weather but would have been very material to me all the times I stood in line for an hour or two on some hazy-sunshine August day telling my unique story to a series of bureaucrats who were as hot as I was and had been there longer. Bureaucrats don't like unique stories. Mine usually involved some motorcycle. It seemed to me in those days that no motorcycle is ever more than about half legal.

Those were the days of the Woburn Registry. I remember a cartoon in the paper depicting that highly recognizable round building just off the highway in Woburn with "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here" inscribed over the door. That was about the size of it: people packed into a small space and stepping on each other, the line out the door and around the building from before 8:30 AM until closing time. It was a happy day for Massachusetts when they closed the Woburn Registry and set up all those systems for doing motor vehicle business on line and by mail.

The Watertown Registry's problem this morning is that bugbear of the modern world, the-computer-is-down. Only the driver's license function is affected, but that's enough to create a crowd of frustrated people and a feeling of hasslement among Registry personnel. A tense-looking forty-ish blond woman is trying from inside the office to make herself heard by the straggling and meandering line, over people talking and the Mall music system playing Come Softly to Me and other 1950s favorites.

Much of the line is in the corridor; the blond woman remains in the office. She doesn't know how to project her voice, and thus sounds tense and strident. After three or four repetitions, I gather that the driver's-license hopefuls are being offered some options. I'm registering my car. When I hear "license renewal" I tune out.

The bedroom-voiced computer -- was it Alien that had the computer with the sexy female voice, in parody, I'm told, of Star Trek's female but relentlessly chaste computer? -- the computer, that is, announces Number A-152 at Window Number Three. I am seated directly in front of Window Number Three. A young woman squeezes past me between the benches, weighed down with a purse, a black nylon bag, and a couple of coats. She trails a child of eight or so, the top of whose head is about level with the counter.

Boy or girl? I wonder idly. The red shirt and blue jeans and the collar-length blond-ish-brown hair, could belong to either. Then the child gives a little hop and lands, hands flat on the counter, arms straight, feet dangling above the floor, peering over the foot-high fence that runs parallel to the edge of the countertop between Window Number Three and Window Number Two. A boy then. My son would have done something like that. By the time he was at four, he could pull himself onto any counter he could get his fingertips over before I, in my slow way, caught on to what he was doing. This boy is pretty quiet, really. At his age Justin would have been doing Bruce Lee in the aisles.

At his age I would have thought about climbing the counter. I was strong in the hands and arms but too heavy to jump that high or pull myself up the way Justin did. My sister might have been light and agile enough, but she wouldn't have thought of it, or dared do it in public at her mother's elbow. That combination of strength, agility and audacity seems to be the property of slender, wiry males.

The boy lunges at the top of the divider but fumbles and descends to the floor. Mom tells him he can't get up there and instructs him not to try. I note, with a smile, that she doesn't tell him to abandon the counter-top as well. I so recognize this pattern. If you sit too heavily on one of these high-energy kids, the pressure builds until there is a noisy explosion. A child like that is a crash course in picking your battles.

The boy jumps to the counter again and walks from side to side on his hands. Mom turns to pick up the coats from the floor. I catch her eye, smile at the boy, and remark, "I used to have one of those."

"We've been here for an hour and a half already," she answers. She hands the boy a manila folder and a pen, and relocates the coats to a bench behind me.

The boy's way of amusing himself with the materials provided is to stab the pen into the folder and, clutching it with his fist, carve dark blue W-shaped trenches into the folder.

"Don't break it," admonishes Mom. "If you get ink on the floor . . . ."

I turn my attention to the book in my lap and don't notice Mom and the boy again until I slowly become aware that there is unhappiness at Window Number Three between Mom and the woman behind the counter. I can't hear what they are saying; but the forty-ish blond supervisor, as I now conclude that she is, is trying to handle the situation from Window Number One, speaking loudly to Mom across Window Number Two: "Ma'am, I'm sorry, I can't take your application, you'll have to go back to your insurance company, we have to follow certain rules, I'm sorry, Ma'am, it isn't our fault, you'll have to take it up with your insurance company. . . ." Mom is determined not to leave the Registry, drive to the insurance company, return to the Registry, and go through the whole shebang all over again.

I can absolutely relate to Mom's position. I went through one of those scenes once, between the Registry in Quincy and my insurance agent in Bedford. The gigantic difference between her situation and mine is that my son was a dozen years older than this woman's counter-climbing, folder-and-pen-destroying brown-eyed mop-head. Mine was happy to take a day off from school, the more so since our old car would descend to him if we managed to get the new car registered. Even dealing with a horrible hassle -- is there, this side of Kafka or the Soviet Union in the 1950s, any hassle more horrible than those generated by the insurance industry and the Registry? -- loses its edge if Justin is keeping me company and doing the driving.

I've been in the supervisor's shoes as well, trying to keep order in some paper-and-pixel record-keeping system. There have to be non-negotiable rules, even though any such system creates absurdities and hardships in some cases. Without procedures that are always the same, a big, complicated system like the Registry will crumble and nobody will know what's been done or what's going on.

Mom eventually collects her bags, coats, and son, and leaves. I wonder if she took the day off from work to get this done. It's mid-afternoon now. She can probably beard the insurance agent in his den, get whatever the Registry wants, and make her way to the head of the line at the Registry again before closing time, if her son doesn't absolutely melt down along the way. Silently sympathizing, I return to my book and wait for A-163 to come up.