It’s 2019. I’m at the DMV in Culver City. To renew my driver’s license. Waiting. Lines around the block. I’ve reserved ahead so it’s only an hour wait. I’m tired, so the photo they take of me has one tired eye and I don’t get a second chance.
I finally get a number. I march to its window. The woman shuffles my papers. And did I want an ID card so I can board domestic flights without a passport?
“Is it hard to do?” I ask, sensing exhaustion everywhere. “Yes,” she says. But I ask for one. Only later do I ask, “Hard for you or hard for me?” and she answers, “Hard for me.” And then I feel sorry not only that I asked, but also that it’s hard for her.
She runs here and there. To one window. To another. I stand. I wait. She has conversations, drinks water, more conversations. She returns, finishes her paperwork and says, “That will be $28.”
“Great,” I say, and whip out my credit card.
“We don’t take credit cards,” she parries. “Only debit cards, cash and personal checks.” I only have the card.
“Wait,” I gamble, “maybe I have something in my car? Can I go see?” She nods yes, an angel of benevolence.
I sprint through the people waiting in chairs, past the wait lines outside, through the parking lot and find my car. I empty out my glove compartment, jacket pockets, the purses hidden under the seat.
I come up with $24 in cash. Not $28. Twenty-four. What to do?
Without thinking, I grab two books of my poetry that happen to be in the car. As if bartering were still in fashion. I fleetingly think: Am I insane? But I decide to try to use a book as currency in 21st century Los Angeles.
I run back to her window. I risk it, dare. “Will you take $24 and a book of my poetry?” I say.
She nods. “Yes.” She chooses “Dogs in Topanga,” a small volume with a pale green cover.
“Thank you,” I say, in shock, in awe, possibly experiencing a spiritual epiphany. She takes my cash, and the book, then removes $4 from her purse and places the bills in what I can only assume is an official envelope devoted to funds paid through bartering at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Like that is a thing.
I ask if I should inscribe the book to her. She looks nervous, shakes her head no. She’s now a heroine to me. Surely she’s not ashamed of her empathetic breaking of protocol. Does she want no one to know?
She hands me my temporary license. I thank her. I am more than sincere. And then I walk away from the counter.
I am astounded, ecstatic. I just traded a book of poetry for a driver’s license — in a society where poetry isn’t exactly valued. Where school budgets for the arts have been mercilessly cut. And I did it at a place that is known more for its rules and bureaucracy than its compassion and imagination.
In the end, it doesn’t matter why she took the book. I want only to celebrate that people still exist who think out of the box, who choose to be kind to strangers — that even in a big city, something that feels like a miracle can happen. The next time someone tells me L.A. is impossible to navigate, an overpopulated city without a soul, I will be ready. I will tell them about the time a book of poetry connected me to the unwieldy place I call home.
Jane Marla Robbins’ most recent book of poetry is “Dogs in Topanga, 2000-2018.”