Puzzling questions in a (now) happy place


It’s not the same old RMV. Of course it isn’t. Just the online ability to register and re-register vehicles, change addresses, and more is evidence of that.

But I’m talking about personal service at the Vineyard registry office. Perhaps you’ve visited recently. I do most of my registry business by mail or online. Not a cuddly experience, for sure, but comfortably distant and unthreatening.

This week, I was worried. You might have been, had you been me. Years ago, even when Red Kennedy, the genial, unflappable Registry inspector and Oak Bluffs selectman, presided over the Oak Bluffs office, registering a new car or renewing your registration or driver’s license was never easy or quick or pleasant. A visit to the dentist for an extraction seemed a cheerier prospect than a trip to the RMV.

In those ancient, simpler times, I thought of a visit to the Registry as a sentence to the cloakroom, which is a reference to my first grade teacher at the old Tripp School. Mildred Webb devoted herself to stamping out childish glee wherever it arose in her sober-sided classroom. The passing flicker of a smile upon the snotty face of one of her inmates would draw her to the desk of the miscreant. Her bony claw would fix on your shoulder. She peered downward at you and said, Douglas, you may spend 15 minutes in the cloakroom contemplating whatever it is that you think is amusing. The blood of Miss Webb ran in the veins of the former Registry factotums.

And this week, well, I had some issues. For instance, my driver’s license had expired nearly three months ago. It just slipped my mind. By the time it dawned on me that I was driving with an expired license, I had lost the renewal form the Registry had mailed me in timely advance of the December expiration date. I slunk into the Registry expecting the worst.

I found things delightfully changed. Gone were the dull gray barricades with the bulletproof glass above, behind which the Registry agents formerly condescended. The small office had an open, inviting air. I took a number. I sat with a friend whose son was about to take his license exam. We reminisced about the white knuckle experience, your foot pressed uselessly into the floor beneath the back seat, your inner voice screeching “the brake, the brake, step on the brake,” as a beloved youngster went through his paces for a distinctly unimpressed inspector.

I said hello to a former Registry inspector, who has gone over to the other side now, shepherding aspiring young drivers through the gantlet.

A very pleasant and attractive young woman called my number. I went up to plead my case. She said, no problem, we’ll fix it up. Fill out this form. My heart skipped a beat.

I focused on the form. Check here if your name has changed. Check here if the address in the general information section reflects a change of mailing address. Check here if the address in the general information section reflects a change of residential address. Check here if sex has changed. Note: additional documentation may be required. Change sex to: __Male __Female

The mind reeled, as P.G. Wodehouse would say.

Not that I did not know which boxes to check.

But this was the Registry. How do they even know about sex change.

I completed the form. The wonderful clerk processed the renewal. I stood in front of the camera. She photographed me looking like a plump, gray-haired man, vaguely criminal in aspect, who has recently been asked, when he least expected it, to reconsider the question of his sexuality. With her help and advice, I got the hang of the eye test machine.

In search of support, I consulted Roger Scruton, writing in the British “Dictionary of Dangerous Words.” Mr. Scruton discusses the word gender, which he says was misappropriated from “the study of grammar … in order to describe that aspect of sexual behavior and sexual identity which is ‘socially constructed.’

“… [R]eplacing the word ‘sex’ with the word gender, wherever sex is being discussed,” he says, “… create[s] the impression that the sexual aspect of the human being is infinitely plastic, and can be remodeled to any specification. Hence we can free ourselves of the existing ‘gender roles’ … So successful has this piece of brain-washing been, that application forms for a passport now ask applicants for their gender — meaning their sex.”

The Registry has not gone that far, of course. But either way, Mr. Scruton, who obviously will have none of it, suggests that if one can change gender roles as one does one’s clothes, then applicants for passports and driver’s licenses, I guess, could honestly reply ‘don’t know’ or ‘working on it’ or ‘I’ll let you know.’

Suppose I had been in transition, an in-betweener. What box should I have checked then? And, could the sweet Registry clerks have helped with the answer?