I Waited, Phoneless, in the DMV and Here’s What I Observed

Despite the fact that I’m going phone-free this month, I’m not advocating that we adopt a position of technophobia. (And honestly, given Prince’s penchant for finding new musicians on YouTube and firing off emails, I don’t think he was technophobic, either). Technology is a powerful tool, and my phone is a tool that I fully intend to use when September 1st rolls around. Although I’m doing without it this month, I appreciate my phone’s ability to get me a car when I’m on the streets of New York; to map out a route to drive to Sioux Falls, all while helping me avoid construction or traffic delays; and to message anyone I’ve ever met.

Still, in an effort to be more present — a quality that helped define Prince — it’s been helpful to remove the phone altogether. It hasn’t been without its trials, though. My resolve to do life sans smartphone was put to the ultimate test this week: The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) waiting room.

Is there any place more stultifying than the waiting area of the DMV? You sit in that particular circle of Dante’s Inferno and clutch your little paper number, wishing that number was instead securing your spot in line at a New York deli where there would be a Reuben sandwich as a reward for your suffering. But, no. At the DMV, your only hope is that you’ll have the correct documents to obtain a Real ID and the ability to fly using it after October 2020. You will wait for an unspecified amount of time (the fact that it’s unspecified is a huge contributor to the stress level of this particular circle) while you attempt to be patient by reciting mantras you learned in yoga (“I am the universe and the universe is me.” Om). Occasionally, a computerized voice calls numbers on a far-too-irregular basis.

I went to that place this week to get an updated driver’s license. I didn’t expect it to be as busy as it was, during the late morning on a summer Wednesday. But busy it was.

I was unprepared for a long wait. I had no book or magazine or even notebook and pen. And while I had my smartphone in my handbag, I was refraining from using it for anything except emergency calls from kids. I parked myself within sight of an overhead television that offered a hopeful “welcome to Chanhassen” message, a list of the numbers being served, and a commercial for a local marketing firm. Imagine my dismay to find that that same ad played in a neverending loop. It occurred to me that this marketing firm was likely in charge of getting advertisers and, having failed to round up any clients, had instead made a commercial for themselves.

The television was not going to be a source of entertainment. There was nothing for me to do but stare into space, observe my fellow humans, and be bored.

After about five minutes (I couldn’t tell exactly, as I’d forgotten to wear a watch and like its neighbor down the road, Paisley Park, the DMW appeared to have a policy against clocks), I learned that my brain no longer does boredom well. I decided to use my time wisely by doing an unscientific survey of my fellow wait-ees. How many were on a cell phone? I fully expected a solid 90 percent to be staring at their screens. After all, if people weren’t face down in their screens at the DMV, then where? I was surprised when, of the 15 or so people waiting, the split hovered around 50-50 between people on phones or doing something else. Every once in a while, the split would shift: A woman who’d been on her phone set it down and picked up her knitting. Score one for Team Phone Free. A little girl who was getting restless took her mom’s phone from her handbag. The balance shifted back to Team Phone. Two women who were friends and had been chatting pulled out a phone to look at photos of grandchildren. A two-pointer for Team Phone. A lady sitting a seat away to my right put her phone away and commented to me that the wait was much worse than she’d expected, and why were there two people taking passport applications and only one for driver’s licenses? We struck up a conversation and Team No Phone tied the game.

After an hour or more ticked by, I started to squirm. My brain had managed to work up several compelling reasons why I needed to get back to people who’d emailed me, and how I needed to keep up when out of office in the middle of the workday. It was an unnerving feeling, this guilt over being away in the middle of the day and rudely not replying to other people who were more responsible than I. Anxiety welled up.

I caved. I allowed myself to feel so uncomfortable at the thought that I was inconveniencing others by taking too long to respond that I pulled out my phone, went to my email, and fired off three replies in quick succession. I put the phone away and felt a sense of satisfaction and relief. I had kept the ball in play.

The brain is a wily creature. It tricked me.

Finally, after about an hour and twenty minutes into my wait, I got my turn.

Instead of feeling bad about caving, in retrospect, I consider that hour-plus wait, with only a few minutes on the phone to send a few emails, a victory. I didn’t get sucked into my phone. I connected with people, I had a conversation, I let myself feel bored, I made up a game. As they say in Weight Watchers: Progress, not perfection.

One thought on “I Waited, Phoneless, in the DMV and Here’s What I Observed

  1. Gretchen Baker

    OMG! I was at the DMV Wednesday morning too! But my wait was 3 hours – 1 hour just to get INTO the building! In my effort to be phone free for as long as I could during the wait, I overheard very interesting conversations, discovered I know the mom of the young man who was 3 people in front of me, silently judged whether people really qualified as “disabled” or were actually 75 years old when cutting to the front of the line, and felt sorry for the poor man in the seat in front of me who discovered that his car had been hit in the parking lot by a teenage girl taking her driving test. Sometimes, if you allow yourself to look up and look around, you can find things that are as interesting and entertaining as anything on your phone – and actually connect with live human beings!

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