L. Neil Smith's
Number 253, January 4, 2004

Free Hunter!

The Bad Citizen
by Joel Simon

Exclusive to TLE

I am a bad citizen. I admit it. I recognize that I am powerless to acquire the one skill a person must have, if he is to stand tall in American society.

I don't know what my problem is. An obscure birth defect, perhaps. I've struggled to overcome my disability. But I just can't keep my government forms straight. My papers are never, ever in order.

This leaves me with two annual ordeals, one of which is too horrible to mention at all. The other, recently undergone, is the reason all this came to mind.

At the end of each year, I note that the sticker on my truck's license tag is the wrong color. Good citizens always have the correct color. Local traffic cops are usually relaxed about this, but there are limits. As I approach that time of year when the color of my sticker cannot possibly be correct, I must do the one thing I most dread in life. I must go to the DMV office.

This would not be so bad if I could obtain the correctly-colored sticker in a single visit. But I can't do it. Not ever. This is because my papers are never in order.

Eight months ago, when my color should have gone from orange to blue, I thought to behave like a good citizen for once. I got a smog certificate for the truck. I made an appointment at the DMV office. I made sure my insurance was up to date, and that I had all the correct forms in an envelope. I knew all this was futile, but I just had to try.

Arriving at the office, I snickered with disdain at all those marginal human beings standing in the interminable line that winds around the outside of the building. I had an appointment. If they were real people, they would have made appointments, too. Ha, ha.

Sure. Behind the desk, a greasy, morbidly obese creature refused to even look up as it tapped on a keyboard and mumbled, "what's your address?"

Damn—nailed with a single shot. Address is an issue. Technically I don't have one any more. I live in a series of rented bedrooms, and have my mail sent to a box in one of those storefront mail service places. Hey, I move a lot. Sue me.

So I gave the creature my latest mailing address, but it was wise to this tactic. It didn't want a storefront address, it wanted to know where I live. Not having prepared a correct answer beforehand, I got flustered. I left without my new sticker.

Months passed. My driving paranoia increased. I got a ticket. I spent so much time studying my rearview mirror it's a wonder I avoided frontal collisions. I drove as little as possible, becoming something of a hermit.

Can't put it off any more. Gather the papers again. Get in line early. A half hour before the office opens, the line is only about 100 yards long. I wonder if the famous queues of the Soviet Union were worse than this. An hour passes, and the line does not move. The cattle low quietly to themselves. I try not to fume. I will not stomp off in frustration. I will remain in line.

A bored lady with a DMV badge announces that "the computers are down." Maybe they'll be back in two hours, maybe never. I go home.

Next morning, try again. This time, after only ninety minutes I achieve the first coveted milestone; I get a number! Yes! I still don't have a colored sticker, and I know that I probably won't get one today. But this is as far as I've gotten this year. Rejoicing is heard in the land.

Now, here's the thing about your number. Each number has a letter prefix. Now and then a computerized voice calls out a number and a booth designation. When you hear your number, go to the designated booth. The number the friendly computer voice calls will always have a letter prefix other than yours. Much time will pass.

I have invested perhaps three hours in this quiet pursuit when my number is at last called. I gather my scattered belongings and go to learn why I will be refused a colored sticker this time.

My smog certificate has expired. More than three months have passed since I had the inspection, and so even though there was nothing wrong with the truck then and there's nothing wrong with the truck now, no sticker today. Go get another inspection.

My determination is unflagging. New certificate in hand, I get in line a third time. The requisite hours pass, and this time the DMV creature reluctantly admits that she can't find a reason not to give me the colored sticker for my license tag.

By the time I actually possess the sticker, I always feel like I've accomplished something important. Putting that little sticker on my license tag assumes the character of a ritual, a rite of passage. I may not be a good citizen, but for now and until the damn thing expires again I am at least something of a citizen.

Mixed feelings? You betcha. The problem is that I don't want to be a citizen of any place that would put me through all this just to get a little sticker. I'm aware that not everyone has to run this gauntlet. Once upon a time, when I was a (more) solid citizen with regular employment and a fixed address, I got a notice in the mail. I sent it back with a painless check, and a new sticker came to me. I have a certain nostalgia for those days, I really do. I can't point to whatever it is I did that relegated me to this marginal status. But I'm certainly not alone here. That line is awfully long.

I find myself living in a place where I am not only punished by law for not having the right papers, the right tax stamp, the right permit, but where acquiring these things is made as difficult as possible unless I maintain the particular style of life approved by my rulers. Year by year I find it more difficult not only to make a living, but actually to live at all.

I'm not a bad man. But I am a bad citizen. Perhaps, in some twisted plane of existence, I deserve this fate. If so, I want to fly on some other plane.

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