It's like a birthday. Or Christmas. It comes once a year. But instead of happy anticipation for the coming holiday, it takes a zen-like summoning of one's serene core (always assuming one has a serene core), or a cocktail of seratonin inhibitors, opiods and tranks, before embarking upon the adventure. And instead of exchanging presents, fusty paperwork, ID cards, and little forms are shuffled about from person to person. So it's really not like a birthday or Christmas at all. Je m'excuse.
Perhaps it's like visiting the principal's office — in the 1970s when adults could still hit little kids. And whatever wrongdoing landed you in that musty, faux-wood-paneled office with the sturdy, weather-beaten yardstick leaning ominously in the corner flies out of your mind as the terror of the forthcoming corporal punishment seeps out of your pores. You don't think, "I'll never do [insert whatever crime you were indicted for here] again." You think, "I'll never do anything bad, ever again! Just to be on the safe side, I'll never do anything! Period! I'll sit still and straight and not talk to anyone ever and eat my peas and oh god, I'll even be nice to my little brother just please get me out of here!"
Like a perverse perennial flower that blooms only in the dead of January, mocking nature Herself with its obscene and diseased stamen, if you live in the French Quarter of New Orleans, you'll need to renew that damned Zone 2 parking sticker in the New Year.
Happy fucking birthday. Now bend over and take your medicine.
I still have vivid flashes of last year's pilgrimage to the parking authority offices, in grainy black and white and a jittering frame, like a murder montage in a B-horror film. I cannot recall exactly what transpired, but there are isolated moments branded into my cerebral cortex.
I had come prepared with every piece of necessary (and many un-) paperwork that could possibly be required of me. Ms. Stubfingers still found some pedantic flaw in the pile of dull papers I offered her. I can't remember exactly what was missing, for we tend to block out traumatic experiences like childbirth, Gulf War syndrome, and renewing a Zone 2 New Orleans parking pass. Perhaps it was that I didn't have two utility bills. Or perhaps one of them was last month's. Whatever the cause, you cannot help but notice a subcutaneous smile of satisfaction when the legion of misshapen women get to say their favorite word: "NO!"
Yesterday was a beautiful January day in New Orleans. 67°f, azure skies, a dry breeze. Since there's no parking at or near the parking permit office (which in itself sets the absurd scene for how this place works), I decided to bike downtown. The fifteen minute ride would also give the fistful of pills I had taken time to kick in.
I locked my bike to a pole, extracted the sheaf of papers, and took a zen moment to find my Center. My Happy Place. My Zone (2). I repeated a mantra, "Like water off a duck's back, I will suffer the slings and arrows of The Women Who Say 'NO!' with equanimity. No one will pierce my armor of tranquility. I will keep a pleasant smile on my face, a pleasant tone in my voice, and be the change I seek."
On the eighth floor, I took a sip of water from the drinking fountain. Water cleanses — purifies — after all. Or, I tried to take a drink of water. When the button was depressed, a stream of water overshot the fountain drain and sent a well-aimed deluge directly into a live electrical socket on the wall.
I chuckled at Fate's ill attempt to thwart me, or electrocute me, before I had even reached the first office, sucked in a bolstering breath and sallied forward.
"Hello!" I said cheerily to the woman with wedding cake hair sitting behind the first window. "I'm here to renew my parking pass."
After a while, she looked up from her Oprah magazine, took me in with a cold, disapproving gaze and pointed to a scrap of paper that had been poorly taped to the counter listing requisite bits of bureaucratic proof one must bring to this appointment. "You got all dem papers?" she asked tapping the sheet. Her tone implied that seldom few ever did, and it was her pleasure to send anyone away with their tails between their legs if an item was missing.
"Yup! Sure do!" I said perkily.
She shot me a look of incredulity. "Give 'em here."
I handed over a driver's license, car registration, and a utility bill (current), all within their expiration dates, and all claiming the same French Quarter address, with what I hoped was an easygoing smile of camaraderie. "We're all in this together, sister," is what I tried to convey.
She looked up again, eyes squinting suspiciously as if I were some perp trying to pull off a con. "I gonna need a lease or a tax bill," she said, and was that a subtle note of vindication I heard in her voice? Why yes, I believe it was!
This was a new requirement — they change requirements every year, ensuring that The Women Who Say 'NO!' would always have a legitimate reason to do so. I had thought of bringing the tax bill I had just paid, but it was in my husband's name, so thought it would be useless. Instead I proffered a mortgage statement for our rental house with my name and mailing address, hoping she wouldn't notice the small print that said it was a mortgage for another property. My reasoning for bothering to bring that statement at all was, "Well, they may be pedantic, but they're also stupid."
She pored over the mortgage statement and my heart sank expecting a jubilant "NO!" to soon be uttered. "Be stupid. Be stupid," I willed her silently.
When I find myself in a situation that is beyond my control, or when I am cornered, insecure, or frightened (and I often am one or many of these things), I begin singing, just barely audibly, the song that the evil dead preacher sang in POLTERGEIST 2: "God is innnnn…his holy temmm…ple…" I don't know why I do this, but I always have.
I began that refrain now as the fate of the rest of my day hung in those tense moments.
"Awright. Go sit in dat office and fill out doze foams. Dere should be a pen on the table." She had missed the small print showing a non-French Quarter address.
Yesssss! I thought. She bought it! I felt dirty and criminal as if I were trying to get away with something I had no right to attempt, but then, that's the air of the room, isn't it. "Everyone's Up To Something, And We'll Find You Out!" should have read a sign on the wall.
I filled out my forms and handed them back. With reluctance, she signed off on them. I tried a gambit of social interaction, asking if she knew when today's Mardi Gras Krewes would roll, and where. "Afternoon," she said and added, "Uptown," picking up her 'O' magazine once again and waving me away to the next office.
At the drinking fountain, I checked the hall to make sure it was empty and turned on my camera phone. I pressed the water button and the shutter button simultaneously as another minion of the parking authorities suddenly appeared behind me.
"You takin' pitchers of dat water fountain!" she barked.
I jumped, blurring my photo, and said lamely, "Uh, no, I was just, uh, reading a text. Golly. Look at this thing. It's shooting water straight into the electrical socket."
The woman eyed me like a criminal, shifted her gaze to my phone, then back to my face. Finally she deigned to opine, "Dis city be all messed up," and continued down the hallway.
In the second office, I was glad to see that Jabba the Hovering Hut was not at the desk in her white robe, cackling like a witch at the ceiling. Things were really going my way today!
I approached the bullet proof glass and the woman at that station was innocent of scramp poboys. Or french fry poboys or fried erster poboys or any other large food items that could be used as oral ammo as she spoke to me.
I slipped the woman my paperwork. She turned around and mumbled something to the wall. Then spun and stared at me expectantly.
"I'm sorry?" I said, smile faltering, but still there dammit. "I … uh … couldn't hear you?" She threw daggers at me from her eyes. "There's this … uh … thick glass between us?" I added spuriously.
"I SAID," she said, "how you goan PAY fo dis!?"
"Oh. Card," I said, sliding a Visa through the slot.
"I gonna need some ID with dat," she said and pursed her lips in a how-do-you-like-me-NOW? manner. (If pressed for an answer, I would have had to say I did not like her very much at all, thank you.)
"Certainly," I said, smile still holding, but just barely. My serene inner core had taken just about as much erosion as it could for one day.
She sat at her computer and beeped and booped for a minute. Then she mumbled something else to the wall, waited a tick, and spun around expectantly again.
"Oh. Um. Sorry. Still can't hear you," I said. "The glass."
"I SAID," she said, "you got a camera ticket on yo' car!"
The camera ticket had been sent several weeks ago in error. I had written a letter of contention the previous week, but nothing had been processed yet, it seemed. I knew that she'd take the fact that I had the audacity — the temerity — the grapes to even try to fight a robot ticket as reason enough to say her favorite word: "NO!" So instead I mumbled, "Oh yah. I … uh … paid that three days ago. Must not've got the check yet."
She pondered that with squinting, suspicious eyes for a few moments ("Be stupid! Be stupid!"), then, to my utter surprise, spun back around to the computer and continued booping and beeping.
Heh. "I paid it three days ago." Puh-leeze. Three days ago, I was at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris with my husband, soaking up some of the most beautiful art in the world. I closed my eyes and took a little memory vacation back to France. My armor was almost translucent. One more slight tap to it and I felt certain I'd get all Ike Turner up in dat piece.
Again, under my breath, I sang, "God is innnnnn…his holy temmm…ple."
She came to the bulletproof glass and slipped two visitors passes through the slot and explained: "Dis one be yo visitor's pass."
She seemed to be waiting for some kind of response. "The one that says 'VISITOR'?" I asked and she scowled.
"Dis one be fo yo car." It also said 'VISITOR'.
"What happened to the sti…"
"We don't do the stickers no mo!" she explained cryptically and stared at me, daring me to rub up against her … grille? Is that what one rubs up against in such contentious situations?
"Hmm," I said, not wanting to tape a relatively large piece of paper in my windshield for the whole year. "Why'd they stop the stickers?"
She rolled her eyes. In what sounded like one like word she said, "I-dunno-must-be-too-'spensive-or-some-s
"Well that's interesting," I said, "since two years ago it cost $25 for the pass and the sticker, and now it's $55 — more than double, right? — and they can't afford the stickers?"
She looked at me as if I had just spoken Swedish to her.
"NEXT!" she shouted through the glass.
This makes me think of the days when the parking permit office was in mid-City and was run by a woman who seemed brusque but efficient, and Eugene, who I am pretty sure was legally blind (but wore no glasses) and was probably given the job as part of an outreach program for adults with disabilities. The woman would sometimes yell, "Eugene! Eugene! Not there! Over there!" They had a row of filing cabinets overflowing with all parking permit records, so if I forgot my renewal, they handed me a blank one, pulled out my previous year's carbon copy, and had me out the door within 15 minutes. (The cashier was pretty much as you described.) After the storm, they moved to a trailer, and they actually seemed to be happy to see people coming in to get their parking permits.