Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sumiton Annexes Birmingham

by Jim Reed

Listen to an audio version of this column.

I learned the other day that my driver’s license had expired. Note that I did not receive a notice stating that my driver’s license is due to expire soon. I learned that only late notices are issued.

“Why would that be?” I ask a friend. “They could just send me a note three weeks before expiration instead of three weeks after—you think?”

“Why would they do that?” says the friend. “If they tell you you’re delinquent, they get to assess a penalty on top of the license fee. It’s called revenue-generation.”

I don’t argue with this statement, since I can imagine no other reason. I have to admit it is clever—and, of course, evil. That’s why I find myself standing here in a Butler Building-type structure in Sumiton, Alabama, about to receive my pain-free driver’s license.

The day before, I had gone to the Jefferson County cathedral of licensing to obtain my renewal, only to find a long, long line of people ahead of me, some of whom had been waiting a long, long time. Denial is always my first defense, so I walked past the extended queue to speak to anyone who could tell me that this wasn’t really the license line.

“Yes, this side of the hall is driver’s licenses,” a very pleasant employee told me. “And this other side is everything else having to do with licenses and the like.”

I said, “This is wild—is there a better time to come?”

She smiled and reported that the situation is the same every day. “People start lining up at five a.m., even though we don’t open the doors till eight.”

I turn and begin the hall-long trek to the end of the line.

“Hey, Jim!” a familiar voice beckons. I look at the middle of the “other” line and see my friend Ben Elliott standing there grinning his usual sardonic grin. “

Are you trapped here?” I ask.

“Yep,” Ben says. “It’s the way of the world.”

We chat and giggle at the outrageousness of it all. Ben is resigned to his certain fate, but I decide to just leave the building.

Being an optimist, I had parked at a half-hour meter.

So, next day, here I am in Sumiton, northwest of Birmingham, grateful that Liz suggested I pay for my license in another, less disorganized county. It actually works! A pleasant drive to this village, a chat with the librarian and a patron, a meandering path to the Butler Building, and I’m only third in line! Life is good.

Ms. Ash is the sole officer who processes licenses and apparently runs everything else: answers the phone, takes the ID photos, does the paperwork, and wrangles the crowds—yep, she’s prepared for crowd control, herding the three of us as if we were fifty people. “Take a number . . . stand right there ’til that chair is empty . . . now, take the yellow chair after that . . . now, read this chart.”

We have a nice conversation, she does her duty, and I’m out of there in minutes, feeling smug but sorry about the long gray lines in Birmingham.

The round-trip voyage to Sumiton gives me time to plan my next civic action. My campaign to have Birmingham annexed is all in my head, but with a little help from you, it could become reality.

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