No We Are Not Joking About The Great Mind-Wasting Horror That Is The DMV

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask.

Dana! So what happened here?
Some backstory is probably in order before I get into the details of what went down. Let’s start with the fact that I’ve survived the past 15 years as a New York State resident without any form of state ID. During that period, I’ve spent more time flashing my passport at people than Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo.

I’ve tried to obtain a New York ID at least twice since moving here, but since I also had no valid ID from the last state I’d lived in, California (let’s skip that chapter of the backstory), it wasn’t easy. The first time, my application was rejected because my passport had no middle name on it. (I guess the day I was applying for it I didn’t feel like writing my middle name, which I’ve never liked, so I left that line blank. Big mistake, past me.) On my second DMV run, armed with a Sephora bag full of old university library cards, utility bills, and canceled checks with my address on them, I was told that I should mail a request for a paper copy of my birth certificate to my birth city of Minot, North Dakota. So back home I went, and back to the drawing board.

When that piece of paper arrived in the mail from the northern plains last summer it was a punch-the-air moment: At last I was only one DMV trip away from tucking that hologram-watermarked holy grail into my wallet. But, of course, it takes months to figure out how to schedule a DMV trip, because you have to set aside a whole morning—or, as turned out to be the case in my particular bogus journey, a whole DAY. So one Wednesday when I had no specific writing deadline to meet, I set out for the Herald Square DMV, arriving at around 9:45, swearing before God that I would not leave its dingy environs until I was clutching that state ID (or a piece of paper guaranteeing it was on its way) in my bloodied fist. (“From a certain point there is no turning back,” Kafka writes in The Trial. “That is the point that must be reached.”)

I was supposed to arrive at the same time as a friend who needed to renew her driver’s license. We planned to meet at the 25-cent pen dispensers—pleasingly analog old machines that we both agreed were the design highlight of the DMV—and to make the wait more bearable by hanging out together. But as we texted back and forth about how to find each other, it became clear that we had been talking the whole time about two different DMV bureaus—hers in Brooklyn, mine in Manhattan—that happened to have identical wonky old pen-dispenser machines. It was a bummer not to be able to meet up. But things went quickly downhill from there.

What was the oddest thing you witnessed during that five-hour span?
You know, I wish I could say that I spent those 295 minutes surrounded by colorful characters, watching riveting stories of the naked city unfold around me. But the fact is that the people surrounding me kept to themselves and got their business completed in fairly short order. The population in my row of benches turned over at an infuriatingly brisk rate relative to my own Soviet-grade wait, and by the time I left, everyone who’d sat down around the same time as me had been gone for many hours. The most distressing thing I witnessed was, without question, my own slow yet scarily precipitous psychic disintegration. I had brought a book to read, but in retrospect that turned out to be a terrible move that actually helped speed my decline into madness. That’s because the Herald Square DMV is set up as follows: You arrive, take a number, and wait for it to come up on lighted board in front of some rows of benches. There is no announcement when the number comes up, no dinging sound to remind you to look up and check, no warning of how long each number will remain on the board before getting pushed down the list (and soon, off the board) by the next one. Oh, and the numbers—actually combinations of numbers and letters—go in no order whatsoever. It’s just A887 followed by G420 followed by B123 or whatever. So you have to stare intently at the board at every second to make sure you don’t miss your turn, as I did after about two hours of waiting, costing me another three hours. (I had developed a technique of glancing up at the board at the end of each page of my book, which was more than sufficient to drain the experience of reading of all joy, but was apparently not sufficiently interruptive to aid in catching my number when it came up.)

The moment when I went to check in at the front desk as to why it was taking so long and was told by a perfectly pleasant but utterly indifferent woman that I would have to take a new number and start again from scratch was the day’s real Rubicon—the moment the prevailing mood went from stoic annoyance to hallucinatory (if internalized) rage. I resolved to concentrate on the board with unblinking intensity rather than risk missing my number again. But the human brain is not built to passively process meaningless strings of digits for hours on end without some degree of compensatory insanity. By the end of the fifth hour on that bench, I was providing audible sarcastic commentary on the random stupid not-mine numbers as they came up, disregarding the “don’t talk to yourself in public” clause of the social contract. I’m not ashamed to admit that at one point I very quietly cried.


Lesson learned (if any)?

Write your full name when you fill out important documents. As Mos Def asked in “The Questions”: “Why do I need I.D. to get I.D.?” It’s a cruel paradox.

Just one more thing.

I suppose it’s worth noting that the end result of all this mishegas was not even anything as competency-signifying and dignity-conferring as a drivers’ license—a document that would permit you to, say, pick up your parents at JFK or drive a friend in labor to the hospital. The wan laminated rectangle now in my possession is one of those old-lady non-driving licenses (my never-robust ability to conduct a motor vehicle having atrophied from 15 years of blissful NYC carlessness). But the next time someone asks me for ID (maybe at the liquor store around the corner that, puzzlingly, insists on carding even customers who were self-evidently born during the LBJ administration), I will slap that piece of plastic down with the pride of a duelist throwing down his gauntlet. I know what I went through to get it.


Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor in New York.