by JANET GILMORE
My driver’s license expired last week on my birthday, and I had to have a new picture taken. At a certain age, birthdays are traumatic enough without having your picture taken. But off I went on what turned out to be another adventure in “maturing.”
When I got to the Ogontz Avenue PennDot Photo Center, I was the only customer there. Nevertheless, I had to check in at the desk, get a ticket (number 60) and sit down to wait.
I looked around — there were no other people in the entire big room. Not a one.
“Number 51,” called out one of the clerks.
I looked around for the nine people allegedly ahead of me, but they simply weren’t there. There were two clerks; did I really have to wait for nine invisible people to be photographed? It was only 3:30 p.m.; the office didn’t close until 4:15, at least in theory.
The other clerk looked at me, looked at all the empty chairs and made a small “come here” gesture with his chin.
“Me?” I mouthed.
He nodded, and I approached his desk.
He scanned my old license into a machine.
“Please verify the right answers on the screen.”
“Your name? Address? Date of birth?”
“Today,” I replied.
He looked at my old license, looked at me and said, “Sign the screen.”
“Sit down,” he said, indicating the chair in front of the camera.
“Make a happy face,” he said, pointing to a sticker of a smiley face stuck to the camera.
Click! Neither of us liked the picture.
“I’ll take another one. Another happy face.”
“Two happy faces in one day? That’s a lot,” I said.
“Please verify the information on the screen again before I print,” he said.
“Do I have to remind you that today is my birthday?” I ventured. I looked him right in the eye, without a happy face.
“Happy birthday,” he said without smiling.
I understood, or thought I did.
How could a man enjoy his job of asking imaginary drivers to make happy faces? What kind of job satisfaction was there in that?
I left with my new license. The first clerk was calling for Phantom number 54.
Now Ogontz Avenue was part of my old stomping grounds when I was growing up on East Tulpehocken Street. In a sentimental mood, I drove down my old block on my way home. Things had expired there, too.
The neighbors in the brand new 1947 post-war row houses on Tulpehocken Street had collected money to buy and plant trees in front of the houses. Those trees were part of the throbbing life of the block. As goals to tag at the end of races, as bases for baseball or pimple ball, as places to tie annoying siblings. We had sat under those trees for hours, having important childhood conversations.
The trees must have eventually grown big enough that the roots pulled up the sidewalks, and most of the block is bare now. The only big tree left is in front of 1626, the home of my best childhood friend, Ellie, who died several years ago from cancer.
I stopped my car for a moment in front of that lone tree, my eyes filling with hot, stinging tears of self-pity because my childhood is over, and this is my first birthday as an orphan. I thought about all the birthday parties we had on that block and how much fun they were. I thought about my little sister’s doll birthday cake on her fifth birthday in 1950 and how envious I was of my sister. One more reason to tie her to a tree.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t stand to wait a whole year until my next birthday. It seemed then that a year took forever to pass. Now years zip by like shooting stars.
My mother once told me that after a while birthdays don’t seem so important. I thought she was crazy. “How can your birthday not be important?” I asked. “That can’t be true! No cake? No presents? Come on, mom.”
“You’ll see,” said mom.
As usual, she was right. Over the years, I learned that if you’re nice to me all year long, I don’t need a present, and if you’re not, then a present won’t help. The soul of the occasion is family and friends singing “Happy Birthday.” Plus adding to my cassette so I have something tangible to hold on to when things and people expire or are cut down.
This year’s was a low-key birthday without my mom.
We went to Maria’s Ristorante in Roxborough for a birthday dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Maria’s stuck three candles in a slice of ricotta cheesecake. My husband, my son and the waitress sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I blew out the candles with a healthy expiration.
Later that night, I looked at my new driver’s license photo and ate an extra chocolate pudding snack as my own personal celebration of myself.