Roberta Phillips, left, and Chrissy Nizer cut the ribbon on the Short Story Dispenser on March 27 at the Beltsville, Md., Motor Vehicle Association. Phillips, CEO of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, and Nizer, Maryland MVA administrator, hope the machine will improve the MVA experience and encourage more reading. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The day they turned on the Short Story Dispenser at the Beltsville, Md., MVA was like any other, which is to say, it was crowded.

“Due to high volume,” a voice announced over the public address system, “there is an extended wait time.”

The Columnist examined his surroundings at the Motor Vehicle Administration.

There were two information desks — and lines snaking slowly toward them.

There were rows and rows of seats set into the floor and people sitting in them.

There was a vending machine stuffed with Utz barbecue chips, Doritos, Cheez-Its, Snickers, M&Ms, Tic Tacs, Chex Mix . . .


The machine prints out stories that take from one to five minutes to read. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

High on a wall were two flat-screen TVs. One displayed which customers were being served (“Counter number 6 now servicing number E11”). The other showed something called the Motor Vehicle Network, a selection of ads and news headlines.

There was a crying baby.

On the plus side, there was free WiFi.

And soon there would be the Short Story Dispenser. It was set up near a wall: a black, shiny cylinder about as tall as an upright vacuum cleaner. Its orange, angled top had three buttons on it, marked “1,” “3” and “5.” Above that was a glass panel etched with “Prince George’s County Memorial Library System.”

At precisely 12:30 p.m., two women approached the monolith and used a comically large pair of scissors to cut the red ribbon that encircled it. A yellow bow fluttered to the tiled floor.

One of the women pressed the “3” button and, after a few seconds, a narrow strip of thermal paper as long as an arm emerged from a slit in the machine.

Printed on it was “The Promises of Dawn,” a story by Meryma Haelströme that would take a person three minutes to read.

That’s what the Short Story Dispenser did: dispense short stories the way the vending machine dispensed candy bars. It cost $10,000 and was invented in France. It featured the work of more than 8,000 authors, from the well-known to the little-known.

But why?

“The library always wants to be part of the community,” said Roberta Phillips, the library system’s new CEO, who had helped cut the ribbon. “We want people to be reading and exploring and learning. And this is another vehicle for storytelling. What a great venue. There’s a lot of people here. We hope this really gets used heavily by the customers here, and they also, in turn, want to come and visit the library.”

The Columnist decided to play devil’s advocate. No one likes the MVA, he said. Nothing can make it better.

“We’re really dedicated to changing that perception,” said the other ribbon-cutter, Chrissy Nizer, administrator of the MVA. “Ninety-eight percent of our customers give our employees good ratings in terms of professionalism and friendliness and helpfulness. That’s pretty remarkable. This is another way to make it a better experience.”

A man walked up to the machine, a quizzical look on his face.

“It prints out short stories,” the Columnist explained.

“A short story of what?” the man said.

“Fiction.”

“While waiting?” the man said, a smile crossing his face. “That’s fun.”

He was Girma Wubishet of Bowie, Md.,a retired college professor with a PhD in English. So far, he had been waiting 15 minutes while his son registered a car.

“Whoever came up with that genius idea, that’s good,” he continued. “People will not get bored. They’ll read something. People tend to get restless when they come here.”

The voice came over the PA again: “If you are renewing your license, there is a three-hour wait.”

The Columnist did the math — that would be 36 five-minute stories — then thought about the easy jokes he could make at the expense of these well-meaning people and their silly fiction engine.

What short stories do you get at the MVA?

“The Purloined Learner’s Permit.”

“A Disabled Parking Hang Tag for Emily.”

“The Celebrated Personalized License Plate of Calaveras County.”

“The Lottery.”

A cynic might say it was all a waste of money. And yet . . .

If you can make literature out of anything — set your tale in any world, real or imagined — why couldn’t you consume literature anywhere? Why couldn’t you introduce people to the transporting joy of fiction in the most utilitarian of places?

The Columnist pushed the 5 button.

The paper that came out was nearly as long as a CVS receipt. “Fantasy,” it said at the top. “In the Clouds,” by Michèle Menesclou, began:

“He walked along under a harsh sun that crushed him like a powerful fist. From time to time, a strong burning gust of hot wind made him stagger. Far off, little clouds followed each other in close single file, caressing the back of the mountain. A plane drew a comma in the sky.”

For a moment, the Columnist was far away, far from the MVA. And he thought to himself: I wonder how this story ends.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.