Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My day at the DMV

Is there anything worse than having to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles? It combines all your favorite activities – dealing with bureaucracy, taking tests, waiting endlessly, and paying money.

My driver’s license was up for renewal. In the past they’ve let me do that online. Not this time. I guess they figure my picture is so old it looks more like my son than me.

Every time I go to the DMV I can expect confusion, crowds, and the wrong forms. I can also expect it’ll take the entire day.

Now in California they let you make appointments, which is great… except you have to make them months in advance. My license is up in a few weeks. The first appointment I could make was for early March. So that option is gone.

At this point it becomes a challenge to see if I can beat the system.

The first question is which DMV to target? Are any less crowded? Are any more efficient? Which has the fewest number of crack heads sitting in your row? For the answer to that I went to check Google reviews of the various Westside DMV’s. These proved to be no help. Culver City, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood all seemed to get the same mixed reviews. Half the people thought they were fine, the other half thought they were Guantanamo. Some said they waited for four hours. A few said they were in and out in five minutes? Unless the DMV was open during Monday's East Coast blizzard I can’t imagine how that could be possible. If Obama showed up to renew his license it would still take forty-five minutes because the computers would be out.

I decided on Santa Monica. I just figured I’d be mingling with a higher class of crack heads and gang members.

Next question: When is the best time to go if you don’t have an appointment? If you wander in at 10:30 in the morning or 1:30 in the afternoon you’re a blithering idiot. You’ll be there longer than it took to film BOYHOOD.

One reviewer said to show up at the very end of the day. If they close at 5:00 and you get there at 4:30 it’ll be clear sailing. He may be right, but it’s a schlep to get across town. And if he’s wrong then I’ve wasted an entire afternoon for nothing.

The other option is to arrive right when they open at 8:00. Since this seems like a no-brainer I figured I wouldn’t be the only one employing this gambit. So I decided to get there early. Real early. An hour early. There was already a line. I was maybe tenth. The people in front of me must be the same folks who camp out at Best Buy for four days before Black Friday. By 7:30 the line was around the block. This was the longest line in Los Angeles where they weren’t selling iPhones.

At 8:00 they opened the doors and we charged to the START HERE counter. Within seconds the back-and-forth line looked a TSA checkpoint. By force of habit I started taking off my shoes. I was assigned a letter and a number and told to go to the waiting area and wait to be called. In only ten minutes I was called. Sweet, except I had already been waiting an hour.

As expected, there was confusion. I was there two minutes and someone else approached saying they were called for this window. Actually, they had been called but never responded so the clerk moved on. They didn’t understand the system. You have a number. They call your number. How difficult is it to understand that system? But apparently it was. They were sent back to the START WINDOW and I’m sure, never heard from again.

Sure enough, the computer wasn’t working. I asked if this happens often and the clerk said he didn’t know. How long had he been working there I wondered? Several years. So… sitting at the same computer for a several years he didn’t know if the shutdown was a regular thing or an anomaly? Ohhh-kay.   After about ten minutes it slowly returned to life.

Maybe it’s because I was in the army but I’m always nervous when talking to government employees at windows. He’s going to check the wrong box and I’m going to have to repeat Basic Training.

I didn’t have to take any driving tests or written exams, but I did have to take an eye test. There are eye charts placed periodically behind the windows and I was asked to read one (which I did fine). But depending on which window you were at the top line was either 20/30 or 20/80. I would not use this system to determine your prescription.

I had to take a thumbprint of my right thumb. I just placed it on this electronic pad. I had to do it four times. It wasn’t working.  This must be the same company that made the thumbprint software for iPhones. 

Finally, I was given my form and sent to get my photo taken. Here too there was a line, but only three ahead of me. There was a problem with this computer. It took twenty minutes before I reached the front of the line. Seriously, if you arrive at 10:30 you’re at the DMV until Haley’s Comet returns.

I had to take a thumbprint of my left thumb. This electronic pad didn’t work either. Three times was a charm. For the photo I was told to take off my glasses. I always wear my glasses when driving, but whatever.

And that was that. A grand total of 1:45 hours, counting my wait outside the building. I felt like I had won THE AMAZING RACE. For the DMV that was lightening. As for my review, I have to say that all the clerks were very pleasant. It can’t be easy processing all of us nimrods for eight hours a day. Which takes me to this, one of my favorite scenes of all-time. It’s from TAXI. Reverend Jim goes to the DMV to get his license. It was written by Glen & Les Charles. I bet, in real life, these clerks have seen this and worse.


Unknown said...

My joke is that every time I pitch my sitcom idea that centers on the people who work at a DMV office, the networks dismiss it as too far-fetched from reality. And who, from the generation that watched Taxi, hasn't gone into their DMV and started quoting the yellow light question? Hmmm, maybe that is only me...

MikeK.Pa. said...

MY DAY AT THE DMV sounds like it could be a good sit-com. Maybe a kid out of college, who gets a job there through political connections. He aspires to higher things but has to settle for this job in the meantime. Each day new characters are at his window, almost as bad as the ones he has to work with every day.

Before the flying ones, the original drones - DMV workers.

Oat Willie said...

Nice piece, but you didn't take us there. Make it more tactile, more odoriferous. The sweet old lady perfume that cuts like a knife, the billowing gusts of dairy farts, failed deodorants...

Hamid said...

There's always a Simpsons quote for every subject. This reminded me of the classic episode in which Selma and Patty show Bart what they do in their job at the DMV.

Some days at the DMV, we don't let the line move at all. We call those weekdays.”

Chris said...

Friday question: do you know exactly when network series dropped from 39 to 24 episodes per season?

I mean, I know The Dick Van Dyke Show was already doing "only" 32 per season in the 60s when they started, but All in The Family in the early 70s was already down to 24/season.

Do you know who and when finally said: "We gotta stop, 39 is madness."?

Hamid said...

Sure enough, the computer wasn’t working. I asked if this happens often and the clerk said he didn’t know. How long had he been working there I wondered? Several years. So… sitting at the same computer for a several years he didn’t know if the shutdown was a regular thing or an anomaly? Ohhh-kay.

In some ways it's reassuring that it's not just the UK which has dumb, incompetent staff. I seem to have a knack for encountering THE stupidest and most inept staff in customer services. The primo example was when I tried to switch mobile network and made the colossal mistake of choosing Vodafone. They promised they could port over my number within 24 hours, as I wanted to keep the number I had with the previous network. They ended up porting it over and then cancelling it. It took about a week to rectify, during which I lost all calls and texts and has to use a temporary number, and I was passed from one useless assistant to another, each one giving conflicting information.

When they finally reactivated my number, I immediately said I was cancelling my contract and I switched to a different network (02) who ported the number over in less than a day without a hitch. They Vodafone had the nerve to write to me to demand I pay for the contract. I took the time to write what ended up a 6 page letter which I emailed to the head of the division that had written to me, sarcastically dissecting their appalling service in detail and demanding not only that they cease and desist sending any further payment notices but that they compensate me for cancelling my number and the loss of all communication for that entire week. Within a day of emailing I got a call from the division head's secretary apologizing profusely and I got £100 in compensation.

At the very end, she asked if there was any chance I'd reconsider coming back to Vodafone.

Mitchell Hundred said...

Is that Christopher Lloyd?

McAlvie said...

I think a sitcom set in a DMV would be great. The idea reminds me of the revolving cast of extras in shows like Night Court and Barney Miller. Those shows had to be a gold mine for starving actors. Ken, that would make a good post in itself, I should think, if not a Friday qustion, at least. Of course, the networks wouldn't go for it today. It would be much too character oriented, not enough gratuitous sex and violence. It would have to be funny on the merit of the writing and casting.

Back to the topic. I never go to the DMV without something to read or do. It's a good time to write your Christmas cards, knit socks, read War and Peace, etc. Listen, you know going in that there's going to be a wait, so it's pointless to get impatient. And all you have to say is "I have to visit the DMV" and you have an automatic out for any family activity or errand. Yes, the seats are horribly uncomfortable, and as everybody tries to sit as far away from everyone else as possible, the seating area resembles a jigsaw puzzle. But if you embrace the fact that it's a big chunk of time when nothing else is expected of you, it can be kinda of restful.

Cat said...

We were watching Taxi last night (funny, I don't much care for it) and I mentioned that the only episode I thought was actually funny was Jim at the DMV, not knowing it was written by Glen and Les. Those two are miracle workers.

blinky said...

My best DMV employee was this guy that could have been the guy in the movie M*A*S*H, the one who said "Goddamn Army".
I walked up to this guy who said "What the hell do you want?"
"Title transfer"
"It's a nice day out side, you shouldn't be here"
"Gimme your papers"
"Here is your receipt, now get the hell out of here"

Covarr said...

Thanks for reminding me why I love living in a small town. I can go into the DMV any time of day without an appointment, and be out of there within 20 minutes. I guess that's karma apologizing for the lack of shopping.

Sharon J said...

Like most government services, you get what you pay for. The necessary funds required to upgrade the experience interacting with any government office requires funds that 'we' Californians don't want to cough up. So equipment fails, employees are underpaid and unmotivated and the public suffers.

Anyway, I'm glad that your experience wasn't worse. But since you're a writer, if it had been horrendous, you may have gotten a story out of it!

Anonymous said...

I'm in a suburb of St. Louis and if I go during the two middle weeks of the year and go first thing in the morning (before 10am) and just need a plate or driver's license renewal...piece of cake. In/Out 20 minutes usually. If its a title transfer, God help me.

Pam St. Louis

benson said...

Re: The question of how many episodes per season. I've been watching Burns and Allen recently and in season 7, they produced 43 episodes, and for most of the others 40 per season. No wonder Gracie wanted to retire as much as she did.

The "goddamn Army" guy in MASH, I believe was Bobby Troup, who wrote some music. LOL

Hank Gillette said...

Bad as the DMV may be, it was much worse back when you had to physically stand in lines while you waited.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

In my town, at least, you can go to the city-county building to get your licenses renewed, without having to go to the DMV.

I've got to say, though, the picture that Ken posted in this entry makes that particular DMV look nice... our DMV looks like you're inside a bunker.

But, of course, I always loved this line that Jerry once said in an episode of SEINFELD: "Have you ever been to the Department of Motor Vehicles? It's like a lepper colony there!"

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I also would just like to add that I don't know if procedures vary state-by-state, or even city-by-city, but my driving test was really a joke.

I remember back when I got my license, it was the written (now computerized) test that really takes it out of you: 30 randomized questions you have to answer correctly, just to get an appointment to take the driving test (I had the take the written test twice), but it seems to me that the driving instructors want to see that you can handle all the rules of the road in addition to just remembering them in your mind... my driving test was essentially pull out of the parking lot, drive down the street, turn around on a circular residential road, drive back down the road, and pull back into the parking lot. That was it... I guess that explains a lot of why Tennesseans can't drive for squat, with such simplistic driving tests, they can pretty much give a license to anybody so long as they can pull out of a parking lot, turn around, and pull back in. I see drivers always do the opposite of what you're made to study in those drivers manuals: if the light turns yellow, people start speeding up; when people make left turns, they always cut the corner and nearly clip you; and I don't believe half of the people on the road understand the concept of right-of-way.

Mike Barer said...

Great situation comedy sketch!

LouOCNY said...

New York actually does their DMV right -

1. They let the County Clerks do DMV work, so instead of huge faceless offices, most of the offices are of a manageable size, and the clerks are sometimes someone you might actually know

2. Almost 3/4 of their stuff can be done online, and if it can't be done online, you can print out 90% of the forms online.

3. All of the local county clerk DMV offices have a great system: you first go on a line where the clerk checks your paperwork before you actually do anything - and then you get a deli type ticket that is classified to what you are doing - registration, license renewal, whatever. This way, your next clerk is ready for you an your transaction, and knows your paperwork is in order - again, HUGE saving in hassles. The only clerk dealing with unprepared idiots is the first one, so the rest of the clerks are in a MUCH better mood.

4. Learner's permits are always in a special separate room. Again, keeps the kids and others off the main lines - more unclogging of the other positions.

If you spend more than 45 minutes in one of those officies, it HAS to be something you did

VP81955 said...

IIRC, didn't Bud on "Married...With Children" briefly work at the DMV? They didn't do much with the concept other than using it for a few episodes' "B" stories, so it's not an entirely new idea.

CamrioKid said...

Thousand Oaks DMV - the best there is.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Covarr: indeed. The DMV in Ithaca, NY has always been a pleasure to attend.


Barry Traylor said...

Why can't there be any sitcoms today as funny as Taxi?

Mark Solomon said...

How brilliant was it as an expositional device for Reverend Jim to be required to literally characterize himself for his
driver's test application?
Just beautiful!
Would love to know how many takes it took for the other actors to get through that scene without totally losing it.

Smith said...

Very funny post, as always, Ken! But at least you didn't discover the bureaucracy had classified you as a CAR. (Just ask McManus!)

Cap'n Bob said...

I went there today for new tabs. I was in and out in 20 minutes. Finding the damn place was the biggest problem.

Paul said...

Anonymous Chris said...
Friday question: do you know exactly when network series dropped from 39 to 24 episodes per season?

When? Mid-late '60s. Why? Rising production costs. Switching to color film was a big factor. Color was more expensive, although some series continued to shoot 30-odd episodes per season for awhile, even after color came in.

The other thing was that networks realized that they didn't lose that much of the audience by airing more reruns. People might have griped about reruns, but they still watched them. Once they got used to them, anyway. When CBS premiered The Amos 'n' Andy Show in June 1951, their first season consisted of only 26 episodes, which was unusually low for 1951. That meant the series aired reruns from December 1951 until June 1952, when season two started up. You can go back and read newspaper TV columns from January 1952 and find columnists addressing irate viewers who were outraged that they were expected to spend six months watching episodes they'd already seen! At least one CBS station refused to carry the reruns, and simply dropped Amos 'n' Andy from its schedule during that period.

In its last couple of years, I Love Lucy aired only 26 new episodes per season and filled out the remaining 13 weeks with reruns. (Lucy aired only 39 weeks per year, its time slot filled by another series during the summer.) That was an unusual new episode versus rerun ratio for the mid 1950s, but Lucy being as popular as it was, it could get away with it. They always insisted the reruns were to meet audience demands to see episodes again that they either missed the first time around, or thought were so good that they wanted to watch them a second time.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Having stood in line for a (certified) birth certificate so I could stand in line to apply at the post office for a passport so I could stand in another line to pick up the passport, I am not impressed. And this was pre-9/11.
I believe they require a DNA sample now.

MikeN said...

You have to give a thumbprint to get a driver's license?

So they treat you as a criminal.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

The Beverley Hillbillies were shooting 36 episodes per season until season 4, when they shot 30 episodes in colour;in season 7 they cut back to 26 episodes, the last season (9, 1970) saw 24 episodes.

Charles said...

MikeN said...
You have to give a thumbprint to get a driver's license?

So they treat you as a criminal.

Yeah, I recently got a misdemeanor charge expunged from when I was arrested for drinking when I was 20. Part of the deal is that my fingerprints taken by the police the night of my arrest will be destroyed. I asked what the point is, since the State Police already have them from when I got my license to carry a handgun, my employer has my thumbprints, my bank has my prints and probably 10 other banks have them.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

When my kids were old enough, I 'made' them watch a few scenes on youtube of great comedy:
-Jim at the DMV was one.
-Password with Felix and Oscar.
-Ralph and Ed doing the crossword, and address a golf ball.
-Lucy doing a commercial and packing chocolate
-"This is an Arm and this is a rib" with Rob Petry.
-Coach teaching Sam about Geography
-Cliff talking to his son Theo about the real world.

Dana Gabbard said...

803 Cole Avenue in Hollywood, near Melrose/Vine. Did my renewal last April and like the previous time there it was a painless experience. And I don't even drive, just have the licenese for ID and if I need to drive while visiting my relatives in central Washington (where public transit is scarce).

Dana Gabbard said...

Chris, in its first seaon (1966-67) Mission Impossible was doing 28 episodes. By the last season
(1972-73) it was down to 22, so late 60s was when the current # of episodes was set.