Most people will tell you that three of life’s most unpleasant experiences are going to the dentist, Christmas shopping and renewing their driver’s license. They’re painful, time consuming, soul-sucking ventures everyone must endure. However, these miseries give us something to commiserate about and bring us closer as a society… Which may be one of the reasons I’ve always felt like an outsider.
I love going to the dentist, I do most of my Christmas shopping on-line to avoid the chaos and whenever I’ve needed a new/updated license back home, I’d walk right up to the DMV counter, fill out a form or snap a new photo and be out in 15 minutes.
That was before I moved to LA…
When I exclaimed I was getting my California license, most people cringed. Some told me to lie and find a way to keep my Idaho DL. And everyone advised me to make an appointment because the lines are horrendous. So I logged onto the California DMV site and made an appointment.
Los Angeles Hell…
* * * * * * *
You know those old depression era photos of Americans standing outside in the cold waiting to be served a bowl of gruel? That’s what it looked like outside the DMV. A sea of hopeless faces (at least 50+) slouching in a line that angled out the door and stretched around the corner. One inattentive mother brought her unruly kids, one guy in the middle of the pack complained that his iPod was ‘low on juicy juice’, but most just stared expressionlessly off in the distance or at the ground.
Now, there are two different carpets leading into the DMV building. On the right was a soiled stretch of fabric that had a trail worn through to the concrete. That’s the line everyone was standing in. And on the left, cordoned off by shiny brass stanchions, was a pristine red carpet. The appointment line.
I strolled up the red carpet, avoiding people’s glares and stopped at the receptionist’s desk. I was the only one in line. Nice, just like home. And then I heard the announcement.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re sorry to inform you that our systems are down. But I’ve been told they’ll be back up in 15 minutes…”
That’s not good…
I’ve learned that when you have to deal with an unruly crowd, you announce, “It’ll only be 15 more minutes.” Even if you know it’s going to take an hour and a half, tell them 15 minutes. It’s a manageable number. People don’t mind waiting 15 minutes. Even if you tell them that three or four times in an hour, most will rationalize it like, “oh, it’s just 15 minutes, I can do that…” Think about the next time someone tells you it’s only going to be another 15 minutes. You might want to find a comfy chair, but I digress…
Thirty-five minutes later, an expressionless woman motioned me forward, asked for my name, checked her call sheet and then handed me a clipboard. Her directions were curt. She never did look me in the eyes. “Fill this form out. Sit over there. Your number is F-3. Next.”
I sat on the corner of a semi-soiled plastic chair in the middle of the crowded room and filled out my form. When F-3 flashed on the screen I stepped up to the counter and handed my clipboard to a balding man with small black eyes. His pale skin and large lips made him look almost reptilian. He scanned my information and then asked me what time had I signed up to take my driver’s test.
“What do you mean?”
“A. Driver’s. Test. You. Need. To. Take. One.”
“I was told all I have to do was take the written test.”
“Nope. You need to take a driver’s test.”
“Are you sure?”
“If you don’t we can’t issue you a license.”
“You’re serious? I need to take a physical driver’s test. Why?”
“To prove you can operate a motor vehicle.”
“Okay…” I said, “but I can’t do that today.”
“Then we can’t issue you a license.”
“Hmm, can I at least take the tests?”
“Stand over there.”
He thrust his hand in a northerly direction.
When I got to the testing area, a Clerk held up her finger and signaled for me to wait a minute. Okay, no problem, I was willing to wait a minute… that is until I caught snippets of her conversation.
“Yes, later this afternoon… I can get away… because I can’t wait any longer… I need to see him…”
Great. Just my luck I get stuck with the woman scheduling some office rendezvous. I waved to let her know I was ready to take my test. She glared, turned her shoulder and continued her conversation.
“How much will that cost?
“Will it hurt?”
“Does my insurance cover it?”
What kind of policy do you have!
By now there were two other people standing in line, a meek woman who kept her eyes on the floor and an elderly man who paced back and forth grumbling about bunions or Funyuns. It’s hard to understand someone speaking through a handlebar mustache.
“Uh, miss,” I interjected, “I’d like to—“
“Just a minute! Can’t you see I’m on the phone?”
Yes, I can see you’re on your personal cell phone making a bizarrely personal call and I’d like you to stop before I get personally reacquainted with my breakfast.
“Okay, set it for 2,” she said. “And make sure it’s with the good-looking dentist, not that other one. You know, the other one. Yeah him. NO! Not with him!”
She clicked her phone closed, leveled her gaze at me (this is going to become an ongoing theme). I passed her my information. She read it with a scowl and then growled, “Here.” She flung two long test forms at me and swung her head like a disgruntled buffalo towards the testing booths.
Time to focus and rock my driver’s and my motorcycle test.
I returned to the main desk to find a fresh-faced gentleman sitting in the Clerk’s seat. Guess her toothache was too painful… He glided through my tests with his red pen. I missed one on the motorcycle test, and two on the driver’s test. You can ride in the back of a truck with a couch as long as it has proper seatbelts… Who the hell owns a couch with seatbelts?
The pleasant gentleman gave me a new set of forms and directed me to the doors. It was time to get my car inspected.
Now, the blazer isn’t a POS, but she’s well past her prime. I could have upgraded multiple times, but I refuse to walk away when she’s been with me through thick and thin. From the crazy girlfriends and the sane ones. I don’t care if your leather seats inflate on corners, I’ll stick by my girl.
Technically this has been my longest relationship. Eight years. We know each other’s little quirks, and have long accepted each other’s shortcomings and imperfections. I no longer mash her gas pedal to the floor and she no longer tries to send me through the windshield when her brakes get damp. She tolerates my parallel parking and I’ve learned to utilize the extra time she needs to warm up on those cold mornings by writing in my notebook. This May will be nine years... So let’s just get through this check up and see if we can make it to ten.
I pulled right up to the DMV inspection center – which is just a covered area with a yellow line showing you where to stop. I passed a line of other cars and disgruntled drivers. The non-appointment line… There were two female DMV Attendants standing on the curb looking at clipboards. Not really sure what the protocol was, I rolled down my windows and asked the nearest woman if I needed to do anything. She assured me that someone would be with me in 15 minutes. Great. I leaned the seat back, folded my hands behind my head and closed my eyes.
Again, I heard snippets of their conversation. They were wondering who owned the new Dodge Charger in company parking lot. Did somebody get a raise and that’s his or her new car? Did someone borrow their lover’s car? Who could it be? Was it two of their married coworkers? Did their spouses know?
A pudgy DMV man burst through the side door, out of breath. “It’s Keisha’s,” he wheezed. “She got in a fender bender this weekend, and that’s the rental they gave her until her car is fixed.”
The two Attendant’s huffed. Obviously this was not the banal answer they were hoping for.
“She was with someone. And it wasn’t her husband.”
The two Attendants perked up.
Great. Another 15 minutes…
They whispered amongst themselves a few more minutes before a surly man with mustard around the rim of his lips waddled through their huddle and sidled up to my window.
He held out his hand.
I passed him what I had.
“I don’t need this. Or this. Or this. Why’d you hand me the whole stack when all I need is this?”
“Well, you said—“
“Pop the hood,” he ordered.
He waddled around to the front and grumbled as he tried to release the hood. I opened the door—
“Stay in your car, sir.”
“You have to—
“Stay in the car!”
Okay. But if you let me out I could show you that you need to pull down and to the right first before the hood will pop up. Instead he just shook and tugged. Had I closed my eyes, I would have thought I was on a turbulent plane ride.
One last hefty tug and the hood popped up. Thank goodness. He poked around for a while and then slammed it closed. He scouted the Blazer’s parameter and seemed quite interested in my windshield wipers. Finally he scribbled his initials at the bottom of my copy and ordered me back inside.
I returned to the front desk. A new Attendant was monitoring the line so I smiled. She just glared at me.
I handed what I had over. She stapled a new paper to the top left corner. “Sit over there. Your number is F-18.”
So here’s where I must admit that my stay in hell could have been shorter if I’d been more prepared. Since I hadn’t returned to Idaho since October of 2010, I had not renewed my driver’s license. I did get an extension – a laminated blue card that said I was good to drive until April 2012 – from the home office. So when I went home for my brother’s wedding in October I snapped a new photo and the nice DMV lady said I’d get my new license in a week. So the week I was to get my California license I called to see where my new Idaho license was. They said it was sitting in the back. Why? Because the Idaho DMV can’t mail a renewed license to an out of state address. So it had been sitting on someone’s desk for over a week. After a brief plea they agreed to ship it to LA. But it did not arrive in time for my DMV visit. Well, I decided to take my chances with my expired license and my extension card.
Wrong move Red Writer, wrong move.
“So this is the trouble case?”
The other attendant eyed me with disgust and nodded.
Two hours had passed since I reentered the building. I’d stood at two different windows and talked to four different attendants, each one passing me to the next like a hot potato (no Idaho pun intended) because no one seemed to know what to do with a 'trouble case.' And for your information, just because you turn your back, that doesn’t mean I can't hear you call me a ‘trouble case,’ especially when your inside voice is a deep baritone... Lady.
“I know who will know what to do,” said one Attendant with a smirk.
I returned to the counter of the beady-eyed man. His scowl had deepened since we last crossed paths that morning. Probably because he wasn’t happy to inherit the ‘trouble case.’
He looked it over.
“We can’t issue you a license.”
So I’ve been told. “Okay.” I replied. “What can you do?”
“Me?” I’m pretty sure I saw the corners of his lips flicker. It had the makings of a sinister grin. “Not much. But I think I have a good solution for you.”
He took his time going through the motions, making sure I felt as uncomfortable as possible. He set me up with an appointment and told me I need to have all my ducks in a row when I showed up.
I left his counter with a stack of papers thicker than a college textbook – but it cost about the same. I got my plates, but could not put them on. I got a temporary permit that stated I was only allowed to ride with someone 21 years or older and who was a permanent California resident. He took great pride in saying the word ride. He even said it twice, I guess so I didn’t confuse it with drive. And then he told me I should call someone to come pick me up and retrieve the Blazer, because any vehicle left over night would get towed. He let the word towed hang in the air and I’m pretty sure I caught another flicker of a sneer.
I thanked him for my paperwork and turned to leave.
“And when you come back you’ll have to take a driver’s test.”
Right. Dig that dagger in a bit more.
I exited the DMV with the same look as those poor saps still in line.
However, the silver lining was I still had my potato state plates on and my Idaho driver’s license.
And guess what came in the mail that afternoon…
Next Monday, I drove to the DMV running through my driver’s training – checking mirrors, signaling a 100 feet before a turn, shoulder check, change lanes, stop left-right-left, go, yield to the right, etc…
I parked, said a quick prayer and followed the red carpet inside. I took my number and I’m pretty sure I sat on the corner of the same semi-soiled plastic chair. F-7 flashed on the screen and I walked up to the counter. The seat was empty. Hmm…
And then he returned – the beady black-eyed man with a shiny chrome dome.
He settled into his chair and stereotypically adjusted his pen collection and straightened his keyboard, then turned to me… and smiled.
“Good morning. Can I see your paper work?”
His friendly demeanor caught me off guard. Like if you came face to face with a rattlesnake and all of a sudden it started rubbing against your leg wanting it’s head stroked. I said nothing and passed him my paperwork. He scanned it, quickly.
“Everything looks to be in order.”
He took my fingerprint, signed a few print outs and handed me a temporary paper driver’s license for California.
“Your card should arrive in the mail by the end of the week. Have a nice day.”
“So…” I said, hesitantly, “I don’t have to take a driver’s test?”
“No. Who told you that?”
I smiled, thanked him for his time and I made a beeline for the door. Freedom!