The first thing you notice as you walk in the door are polished wooden pews, set in a big semi-circle, facing the front of the room. Amongst the pews, people sit, still wearing winter coats and hats, alone with their thoughts. They all keep looking up at the big square sign hanging from the ceiling, so that there's a constant head bobbing motion rippling through the congregation.
A man in a dark uniform comes out of a side door, rolling a bin in front of him. He kneels down to lift up muddy mats, tossing them into the bin and replacing them with clean ones. One mat is in use: a woman is standing on it. He waits, hands folded, eyes on the floor, until she steps away.
Every few minutes one person from the crowd, prompted by a sign above, leaps to his feet and makes his way to the front of the room, clutching an offering of paperwork. Music, pumped in from — well, from the seventies, it seems — provides a background of noise that covers the quiet questions and answers, the back and forth of information, the necessary ritual. When the music pauses, I can hear a low hum from the vending machines and flourescent lights. In the back of the room, a young couple lean against a counter, filling out a form, consulting each other with nervous giggles.
A woman standing behind a counter wears a floral Hawaiian shirt, the only bright spot of colour in this room full of neutral hues. A young woman in a fur-trimmed coat fidgets as she waits in line. "Stand all the way back," Floral Shirt says, and Fur-trimmed Woman moves self-consciously back, gasping a bit as a bright light clicks on, shining right into her face. "One, two, or three?" Floral Shirt asks. Fur-trimmed Woman blinks and hesitates just a moment before saying, "Three. They are all awful, but I guess three."
Fur-trimmed Woman is wearing fur-trimmed boots, and one still has a tag hanging off. As I watch her, I wonder the reason for the tag. Is it a status symbol? Does she plan to return the boots? Or is she just flaky? She leaves one line to go to across the room to another, leaving behind the black bag that looks like it might contain a laptop computer. I call to her, and she grabs the bag gratefully. Just flaky, I decide.
When it's Shaggy Hair Boy's turn, I stand with him. We produce documents. Some of the questions they ask him are difficult to answer. "How tall are you?" asks the man behind the counter. Shaggy Hair shrugs and looks at me. I look up at my newly tall son. "Uh, I don't know. It seems to change daily."
They take my son away to a side room for testing. I return to a wooden pew and read the signs on the bulletin board closest to me. I like the "Dangers of Drowsy Driving" poster; I think briefly about stealing it to hang in Boy in Black's dorm room. Another poster screams CLICK IT in huge letters. I spend several minutes contemplating what "click it" might mean in urban slang before I read the rest of the poster and see that they are talking about seat belt use. Another poster has ominous warnings about what will happen if I don't talk to my kids about sex and drugs.
My son is finally released from the side room. He tosses his long curls back, his hands still in the pockets of his winter coat, and motions for me with just a tilt of his head. Woman in Boring Cardigan asks for proof of identity — and demands that I pay her money. We pay quietly, without argument, and circle around the wooden pews. Once we are out the door, we breathe sighs of relief.
I hold up the car keys and look at my son. "Want to drive?"