When A Stranger Galls | Our Town | Chicago Reader

When A Stranger Galls 

One Driver's License, Two Haircuts, and 10,000 Pieces of Free Advice

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Armed with a newspaper, a book of screenplays, and a legal pad, I went to 36 W. Randolph the other day to hunker down for a long afternoon of state business: renewing my driver's license. I have to admit I was looking forward to getting a new license. Not because everyone else I know has one of those new shiny holograms, but for my own special reason.

Due to benign neglect, I've got long tresses of Breck-girl hair--well, on good days and if I've brushed it--but five years ago I was affectionately known as Buzzhead. Long after my hair grew back the legacy of this look continued to haunt me. Every time I paid for something by check a young male clerk would display my license to his young male clerk friend and say to him and everyone else within shouting distance: "Don't you hate it when women cut off all their hair?" The chicks at Whole Foods would look at the picture, then at me, then at my groceries before slowly saying, "Wow, how'd you do that?" Female tellers at the bank would collectively urge me to cut it all off again: "You looked great," they'd say, "and it must have been so easy to take care of." A male teller would chime in with a typical I-like-women-with-hair comment while I would just stand there, wanting my cash.

When I get to 36 W. Randolph, where the state has advised me to go because I've been such a good driver--everyone would be if they drove as little as I do--I see that the place is a teeny storefront and that, unbelievably, the line is short. It becomes shorter still when the fellow in front of me gets shot down and sent to the endless lines of presumably bad drivers over at the State of Illinois Building. Suddenly it's my turn, and I yell out ZNCD and all that, agree to fork over my organs in case of unexpected death, sign on the dotted line, pay my ten bucks, eke out a smile for the camera, and take a seat to wait for my shiny new license to be pressed into existence. Is it possible? Could license renewal be a quick and painless procedure? What about all this reading material? What about all this extra time on my hands? The Palmer House for tea--no, that would be someone else's life--or a few hours at the library? Is it open? Would a state office know the hours of a city office? Is the library a city office? Why is this state-run facility operating so efficiently? Perhaps the state would take over the library. If we asked nicely.

A large woman frantically asking if she can use her old picture on her new license disrupts my reverie.

"No," the clerk sing-songs, "you have to get a new picture."

The woman smiles and pleads: "I've put on weight--obviously--and my hair, look at me." She sits down heavily beside me. "Don't you want to keep your old picture?" she asks.

"No," I say.

She's staring at me, waiting for an explanation.

"I had no hair," I say.

"You had no hair?" She elbows the fellow beside her and points to me: "She had no hair."

He leans over. "How'd that happen?"

"Tequila hangover," I say. "Grumpy barber."

All nod in grave understanding.

The kindly photographer calls me up to the counter to choose the image that will serve me the next five years. "You'll want this one," he says. "Women always go for the dramatic pictures, but the one where you're smiling is a better picture."

A big guy choosing his own picture looks over my shoulder. "Choose the one you're smiling in," he tells me. "You look like a nicer person."

A small voice inside me reminds me how important it is to look like a nice person even if I'm not--especially if I'm not. Behind me the peanut gallery is calling out, "Get your old picture back. We want to see you with no hair." I choose the smiley picture and ask for my old license back.

"I snipped it up already," the clerk says matter-of-factly. "You had no hair."

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