Navigating the REAL World.

When you enter a surreal world … of course you don’t stand a chance. That’s Kafkaesque.

— Franz Kafka biographer Frederick R. Karl

One recent morning my wife announced that we needed to rush to the DMV if we ever hoped to fly again. “You need a star on your Virginia driver’s license,” she said. “I don’t have a star. Do you have a star?”

I pulled out my license. The information was correct, the mugshot was adequately unflattering, but there was no star.

“We’ll just go to the DMV office and present the same documents as before,” she said. “It’s all the same, but you have to get the star and pay for the upgrade.”

We need a REAL ID to fly because the federal 9/11 Commission recommended minimum security standards for identification, which Congress enacted in the REAL ID Act of 2005. A REAL ID has a star on it. The star, apparently, makes it REAL.

Six years ago, I presented copious documentation to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver’s license. But, even though Virginia was already compliant with federal security standards, they were not handing out stars in 2015. To get one now, I would need to make an appointment with DMV officials and show those documents all over again. By October 1, a star would be required to fly. Rumor has it, starless people will simply be turned away at airports.

I wanted to talk to a human about this, but my call to the DMV bounced from robot voice to robot voice, all of which directed me to the DMV website to make an appointment. These are scarce; so, at 10 a.m. 54 days in the future, I will drive 25 miles to present the same documents, hand over more money, and get the same proof of identity already in my wallet. But with a star.

I used the word “Kafkaesque” so often when I was in college getting my liberal arts degree, that I’ve since sworn off it. But there it was again, on the tip of my tongue: “This may be the most stereotypically bureaucratically nonsensical thing ever,” I told my wife before adding, “It’s Kafkaesque.”

She winced.

Days later, as if the federal government and the DMV had overheard us and felt wounded by the slight, the star deadline was extended to May 2023. The upset was all for nothing. We could postpone our stars for almost two years.

Curious, I reached out to a DMV spokesperson using an old contact number to evade the robot voices. “There must to be thousands of people freaking out about this, right?” I asked Brandy Brubaker.

“Well, not exactly,” she said. The Virginia DMV has already issued 1.9 million REAL ID-compliant licenses, Brubaker assured me. DMV officials estimate 700,000 more people will want their star. But Virginians who have received new or renewed licenses since late 2018 already have stars. DMV staff has been “using every opportunity to get the word out” and answering questions about REAL ID.

Brubaker is good at her job. So good, in fact, that she turned the tables on me. “We need the media’s help,” she said, suggesting that I would be amplifying any Kafkaesqueness by failing to pass along her advice. “Please make sure your readers know this: They need to make a plan. Do you need the REAL ID? Go to the website, study up on what you need, make sure you have the documents you need, and set up an appointment with us.” 

And remember, she said: You’re fine if you have a military ID, or a passport, or a Global Entry Card. If you don’t fly, you don’t even need the star.

Okay, okay. I’d probably misused Kafkaesque once again, especially once Brubaker put a compassionate face on bureaucracy. Granted, the REAL ID kerfuffle presents an annoyance and an added cost to thousands of Virginians. The situation might have been avoided if Virginia had been quicker to issue REAL IDs. And, amid the pandemic, the deadline should have been extended sooner.

But Kafka’s characters are trapped in the hands of an unknowable machine. They don’t stand a chance. I’m forced to admit that, by comparison, we are merely being inconvenienced. So it’s time to retire “Kafkaesque” for good. When I finally get my REAL ID, fully equipped with a star, I know one thing that won’t change: the mugshot.

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue.

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