Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

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.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#713)

Speaking as a non-driving person, it always amazes me that we have essentially ceded the job of doling out our government IDs to the various state agencies in charge of licensing drivers. The only thing that amazes me more is that nobody seems to think this is weird. Like, when drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants was a Big Argument a few years ago, and people were like "Do you want illegal immigrants to have government issued IDs" or "Do you want people who live here driving around without a license?" depending on their side, I just wanted to scream "WHY ARE THESE TWO THINGS THE SAME THING???"

Myrtle (#9,838)

Wow, well done! And thank you for being an Organ Donor, another "why is the DMV the source for this?" area. Organ Donation is kinda my thing, lately, as I'm helping a friend find a kidney donor.

Please make your family and SO aware of your wishes. Their consent is needed as well, and I've learned there are circumstances where they can successfully override you, even if it's on the document, as your preference is.

Multiphasic (#411)

@Myrtle Mom, it's my kidney and I'll give it to whomever I like. Gawd.

Multiphasic (#411)

@Myrtle I don't care what that Mister Orbach did, your father and I made you those eyes.

NormaDesmond (#13,452)

I went a few weeks ago, to that exact location, but got there before it opened and lined up at 7:30 outside. While that sucked, I was done with the whole thing in half an hour. I was out almost $300, but at least I still had a whole day to live outside the confines of that soul crushing spot.

Debussy Fields (#9,962)

Mind if I tell a nice DMV story?
Hey Thanks!
So a few years ago, my wife was 40 weeks pregnant and I wanted the baby to be born on my birthday so I went to the DMV, certain that my number actually coming up on the red LED ticker would be just the thing to induce labor. Alas, my wait was relatively brief and my number got displayed, but I recognized an older gentleman who seemed to have missed his turn. I beckoned him over and insisted that he go ahead of me. Initially the DMV clerk was rigid about protocol, but I said, "Do you know who this is? This is Ben Gazzara, a great actor!" And without missing a beat, the DMV guy said, "Yeah I seen Roadhouse!" So he took Mr. Gazzara's paperwork while I waited and fondled my phone and for some reason, the DeNiro to Cassavetes' Scorsese hung around while I renewed my license and then he and the DMV guy both wished me all the best on the new arrival. Total time in DMV: 48 minutes.
Ps. Wife went into labor at around 10 PM, daughter born 7:10 AM next morning.

Did you consider the passport card? They're mainly for people who cross the Canadian border a lot, but anyone w/ a passport can get one for something like $25.

mshyne (#7,971)

The secret? Is to do the DMV at Atlantic Terminal. And make an appointment online beforehand. Not to brag or nothin (ok, KIND OF to brag), but with my barcode appointment scanner thing, my DMV visit to renew my license literally took 15 minutes. Which meant instead of spending my day off in the DMV, I spent it doing the most important thing you can do while in downtown Brooklyn: eating at Panera Bread.

24732531@twitter (#254,848)

@mshyne There is a Panera Bread in downtown Brooklyn?! WHERE

Anarcissie (#3,748)

In the last several years, my visits to the DMV have been rapid and efficient, probably because I have chosen offices in the remote wilds of Staten Island and Queens. Probably, the further you get from civilization the faster it goes. Hence, going to a DMV office in the Bronx should take about two minutes. Avoid popular, kicky venues like Herald Square or Worth Street. Bring a book with small pages or short paragraphs.

BadUncle (#153)

l've dealt with DMVs in CA, CT, DC and NY, and found that the most competent – and, oddly, friendliest – version has always been NYC's. In fact, the only time I've ever written a letter to a government of any kind was a note of praise for the Atlantic Terminal DMV. Your mileage may vary.

Multiphasic (#411)

I spent 17 hours trying to get my car registered in NYC due to the simple, elegant fact that my hyphenated last name is so long, it gets truncated at different points depending on the form I've filled out. At one point, I went outside, stared at Horace Greeley, and screamed "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU SO SMUG ABOUT?!!" before my girlfriend force-fed me bibimbap and xanax.

EA_Mann (#254,761)

In my thirteen years of living in RI I've seen the DMV change from the Kafta-esque nightmare you describe to something approaching competence. The key seems to be having a greeter person help you get the documents you need or tell you which kind of ticket to take. In the old days you had no guidance, so you'd wait in line forever then be told you had the wrong paperwork and you were in the wrong line. sorry – take another number.

The worst was the time someone loaded the ticket machine wrong so that it was dispensing tickets in the reverse order, leading to someone there saying "okay, well just…line up in reverse number order starting with 99". that was fun

Four hours at the DC DMV. I had to stand in line to enter the office, then I stood in line to get a number. After waiting for upwards of 90 minutes, I then got a document stamped. New number. New line. Smile! More waiting. Four hours. A stranger asked to look at my book, then criticized my taste in literature. Four hours. I refuse to update my address. Thank goodness the licenses expire only once every eight years.

Do other states not have appointment systems? Because we do in California and the difference is night and day.

neuroboy (#14,229)


14580197@twitter (#255,037)

It sounds like Ms. Stevens had a frustrating day and I sympathize. I don't understand what's going on in her story, though.

I've been to the Brooklyn Atlantic Terminal DMV six or seven times. For many years, they've had a queue ticket system that is very similar to what she describes, except that the progression of the numbers is not too hard to figure out. On first glance, you see the chaos she describes, because there are four or five queues feeding all at once on the big LED board, and the display is NOT organized logically. But each queue has its own letter (A, B, etc), the digits within each queue increment normally, and the most recent of even the slow queues is always on the board. So maybe it would read

A203 E551 A202 A197 B003 D750 B001 A201 C388 C387 E552 D744 (etc etc)

and if you are paying attention to the ones with your letter, you see that they're going up in order, even though older ones cycle back to the top of the jumble sometimes before getting (I think) expired. They are definitely not given out nor called up via random number lottery. If you watch your letter group for a few increments, you can tell:
1) how many people are before you and
2) about how fast the turnover is and
3) whether you've missed your turn or not.

The different queues are waiting (I think) for different services, so that each one's next ticketholder can be assigned to vacant service desks sensibly… most of the desks are general purpose, but some have special equipment, supplies, or language resources. You get quizzed on what you're there to accomplish in the intake line before you get your queue ticket. Once when it was busy, I noticed that the desks where people take photos had a letter group to themselves, and that there was another letter group (F?) that progressed VERY slowly (maybe 10 or 15 minutes between increments) while one of A, B, or C popped up every few seconds. Maybe those poor sods in queue F were going to be stuck there all day, but there's no way they wouldn't be able to tell when they were next.

I haven't been to the Herald Sq DMV, and it may use a different queue system than Atlantic, but if it were the same one (which it sounds so much like), Ms. Stevens's story wouldn't make any sense. I guess you could sit there staring at it for five hours and not understand it, but you would need to suffer severely from dyslexia, ADHD, drunkness, or some other impediment that she does not mention.

Or else the queueing system had completely crashed/broken down that day and the board was being run by a cat walking on a keyboard.

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