This is not a work of fiction.
Recently, the State of Rhode Island, in conjunction with the Atlantic Shark Institute, rolled out their new Shark Plate. The Shark Plate is considered a charity plate – the DMV has several charity plates for organizations and community participation, such as Breast Cancer Awareness, Nature Conservation, as well as plates honoring (and donating on behalf of) sports teams like the Red Sox and the Bruins.
In order to have a charity plate go into production, the requests from RI residents have to exceed 600 and be approved by the state legislature and the governor. The plate has the artwork of a Mako Shark depicted on it. The Shark Plate was the fastest plate to reach 600 requests in DMV history, and has now exceeded 5,000 and growing. The state and the Atlantic Shark Institute (ASI) roughly split the proceeds of the $42.50 plate request.
Yes, I requested one. On the verge of having to relinquish my beloved Rhode Island “Wave Plate,” I was not looking forward to mounting and displaying the new standard Rhode Island plate. The new “wave plate” was not as majestic, artful, or cool as my existing plate. As a matter of fact, the waves on the new plates are less recognizable as a saltwater swell to go along with the motto “Ocean State,” as they remind one more of the ripple on a waterfilled pothole, in the parking lot behind the Olneyville NY System. Sad.
I finally received the email that my plate was ready for pickup and would be distributed at the primary DMV location on New London Ave in Cranston. There were to be two special days for the pick-ups: Saturday and Sunday. I was somewhat surprised that, as I got closer to the DMV, my excitement grew. In RI, as with many places in the United States, most people will attest to the dread, queasiness, and overall despair of having to personally visit the DMV for a registry task. Not unlike the slow walk into your dentist office, as you practice your heartfelt and sincere response to the hygienist when they ask if you’ve been flossing regularly.
That day was different. As I drove up to the DMV, I admired the beautiful architecture of the building itself. A modern building made of metal and glass and whose one side has the frames painted so a large mural of a blue wave with yellow soaked sky is displayed. Interestingly enough, this building was actually built in 1970 as a social service building and was modernized recently to serve as a DMV regional facility.
Saturday was listed as a pickup day for people with the last name starting with A-M. As I walked through the parking lot, I quickly contemplated whether people whose last names start with N-Z ever feel slighted that alphabetically, they are often treated like secondhand citizens. I further imagined saving this nonsensical day-dreaming for my upcoming time spent in the line that had formed out the door, and down the sidewalk; same old DMV.
Except it wasn’t.
Immediately, it all felt different. My spidey senses began to tingle, forewarning of the impending doom and gloom of the task ahead; but it never materialized. Yes, there was a line out the door (which moved very fast), but everything was un-registryesque. People were happy, smiling, and laughing. Strangers were polite, courteous, and chatty. Instant friendships began to form in line; not out of woe and frustration, but a bond of those like me, so excited to be here picking up, and displaying, the power and adoration of an inanimate object crucial to the local psyche and folklore; the vehicle license plate.
I began to talk to a woman standing behind me; Linda. I started my conversation asking her if she had ever seen the comedy TV show Reaper. It was about a young man who hunts down and returns souls who escape from Hell. After the man captures the souls, he turns them over to “official personnel” at the local DMV, because it is explained that any place on earth that seems like hell, well, is just that; including the DMV. Linda is laughing wildly.
We are soon inside the building and Linda comments that she has never been to this particular registry. She says, “This is so beautiful!” I thoroughly agree. The building is newish, clean, sharp, warm and welcoming, with restrooms and vending machines right in the main lobby. Today the area has been decorated with blue and white streamers, and balloons. There are shark skeletons, and large shark pictures.
Today’s event has a mix of DMV officials and ASI volunteers. The state employees are kind, efficient, and welcoming in their workplace. One of the employees is dressed in a modified shark jacket and shark fin hat. Throughout the day she was begged to appear in hundreds of pictures in front of a large shark, with Rhode Islanders holding their new plates. She kindly obliges and the euphoria continues. The ASI has many volunteers working there, including the young teenage boys who check my registration and retrieve my new plates. Seeing people volunteer for a great cause is joyful; seeing young people volunteer is heartwarming.
Suddenly, Linda is called out behind me and directed to the next available individual ready to help people. I am called 30 seconds later. The whole process took 15 minutes, including the pictures that I just HAD to have on the way out of the door!
Plates in hand, I stroll back to my car with a huge smile on my face, and a reaffirmed affinity in my heart for humankind.
I suddenly see Linda behind me. I yell out, “Hey, you line-cutter!” We both laugh. I ask her how it went. She says it was so fun and easy. I ask to see her new plate, and she turns it over. I am flashed with the popular evidence of “Rhode Island royalty;” the existence of the “low digit DMV vanity plate.” Although not the actual plate number for this literary piece, it was very similar; her plate just read; A2. That’s it. Not six digits, not two letters and four numbers, or two letters and two numbers which I received by chance many years ago, and was not that uncommon for a small place like Rhode Island in the state’s past.
“Be careful what you say to people, because in Rhode Island, everybody knows everybody!” This is not actually true…but it kind of is! Before I could help myself, I spoke out loud a strict violation of this Rhode Island protocol: “Whoa! You mobster,” I blurted out. Linda looked up at me, and we both burst out laughing again. “My grandfather really was in the Mafia back in the day, and this plate has been in the family for a long time.” I had no doubt, and was suddenly looking for paid volunteers to start up my car.
As I drove home with my new plates, it dawned on me how two separate entities; the shark and the DMV, which had been so vilified in the past, had brought me so much happiness today. In modern times, people now understand the importance of sharks, and why the study and preservation of them is for our own well-being. Oddly, the same can now be said about the DMV.
Euphoria is a funny thing.