A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Little Havana DMV, sans appointment, to get my driver’s license renewed. I was thinking about about doing a “tips for surviving the DMV” post, but honestly you already know what you need to know: renew your license online or by mail if you can, make an appointment otherwise. And all I can really do is double-down on that advice. You need to make an appointment a week or two ahead of time, which is exactly what I did not do, and this is what happened.
I took the whole day off from work, but didn’t get to the station until around 11:30. It’s part of a big walled-off complex, with an entrance that leads into an unattractive parking lot. There’s a little bit of a carnival atmosphere going on, with a hot dog vendor, an impromptu traffic school, and people milling around their cars. The building is remarkably nondescript, and there’s a line out the door and down a long concrete wheelchair ramp of maybe 75 people. Easy, I think, and join the back of the line. There is kind kind of a murmur of conversation, all of it in Spanish.
After a few minutes, a gentleman in a turban comes out the door, makes his way to the back of the line, and hands out tickets to the few people at the end who I guess arrived since the last time he was outisde, which includes me. It’s a quarter of a regular piece of paper with something printed on it, and on which he’s made a mark that looks like a backwards check mark. Or maybe it’s an oddly formed number 7. “That will be it for the day,” he announces. He means me. I’m the last person they’re planning on processing that day. I wonder if that means I’m going to be here until 5.
My job for the next few hours is to tell every person who comes to join the line that unless they have an appointment they are SOL, need to come back tomorrow, and are welcome to step inside and ask for themselves. The people in line ahead of me (sort of a quasi-thugish Hispanic guy in his 20s with a very sharp baseball cap and his mom) and I form sort of an understanding — I give the talk unless the person obviously speaks only Spanish, in which case they take over. I have no idea how we sort out who does what, but it works out. So I get to crush about a dozen people’s souls. They’ve resigned themselves to a terrible day, made the arrangements, and now find out they need to come back after the weekend. Sucks to be them. (Sucks to be me, too.)
Every so often, the door at the top of the ramp (there’s sort of an awning there) opens and a few more people are allowed in to what is, we all understand, simply the next waiting area. I have no idea how long it will take to get inside, nor how long the wait will be after that. Some people walk to peek in, but I know my curiosity will be satisfied sooner or later. Around 1:30 I make it to the corner of the ramp, about a quarter of the way from my start. I eat an apple I’ve brought to a few envious looks. The semi-thugish guy and his mom have asked me to save their spot, and retreated to their car, parked right by the ramp, so I’m now behind (actually next-to; it’s really more of a mass of people then a line at this point, although everyone is hyper-aware of the actual order they’re in) another lady, who points out the looming storm clouds to the south. She also shows me the ticket she got from the man in the turban, which has a completely different mark on it. Clearly the systems at work here are not like anywhere else.
The weather shifts from hot to overcast and windy. At some point a guy joins the line behind me who does not take “they’re not taking anyone else” for an answer. I occasionally break out the iphone and read a little bit, but honestly it’s sort of a pleasure just dumbly waiting, reveling in the mindless queuing that is such a part of life in other places in the world, so not a part of regular life here. For god’s sakes, Americans get antsy when they have to wait 10 minutes in line at the post office.
At some point it rains, a little drizzle. At this point I’m under a big tree, then the beginnings of the awning, and it’s a light rain, with maybe some dramatic gusts of wind. It’s sort of funny that we’ve been here long enough to see major shifts in weather patterns. Not that funny, though.
Now I’m in the home stretch of the beginning. There are maybe 10 or 15 people left outside, half of which are behind me, having joined the guy who figured it was worth a shot. Turban guy, as well as a couple of other DMV employees, have multiple times come out and pointed at me, and proclaimed, “yeah, he’s the last one,” or “nobody after him, I already explained to them,” which sort of makes it sound like I’ve bribed someone or something. Suddenly, a guy storms out in a huge fit, surges through the crowd, kicks a garbage can, and walks off to his car. Someone translates what he was shouting: “the computers are down.” This is soon confirmed by one of the DMV guys. “The computers are down. We can’t process anyone until they come back up, and we have no way of knowing when they’ll come back up. Sometimes they stay down the whole day. Your choice whether to wait around or now.” Another guy comes out, and his nonchalance is startling, “hey, I’d rather be working too. Makes the time go by faster.” WTF dude, you get paid whether you do anything or not, have some fucking sympathy for us poor schlubs who have to come back and do this all again if the computers stay down. So a couple of people from the inside waiting room leave, this being the particular straw that broke the particular camel’s back for them, and the rest of us tentatively wait around. It takes about 15 minutes, but word comes that the computer are back up, and a collective sigh of relief is had by all.
When the turban guy comes outside the last time to make some announcement or other, a pretty lady from behind me in line calls him over, and explains that her license is expiring today (mine expired yesterday, but who’s counting?), and what should she do. He’s actually a nice guy (it turns out everyone who works at the DMV is super nice, believe it or not), and he tells her he’ll give her a 1-week extension so she doesn’t have to pay the late fee when she comes back (the late fee that apparently is to be my punishment, though at this point I have no idea how much it is). Now, I’ve overheard this conversation so I know what’s going on, but all anyone else sees is the DMV guy taking the pretty lady inside ahead of the line, and they go apeshit. For a minute it looks like there’s going to be a mini-riot under the awning, and it takes a couple of calm DMV guys to calm everyone down enough to explain the situation.
A while later and for a long time I’m the last of the ticket-holders outside, standing awkwardly outside the door, a bunch of people behind me, and I have no idea why the DMV guy watching the door doesn’t just wave me in.
When he does finally let me in, it’s with a whole bunch of the non-ticketed folks. It’s I guess 4 pm now, and they’ve decided they can take more then it looked like in the morning, which makes me suddenly ambivalent about everyone I’ve sent away throughout the day. Sorry, suckers? The whole system stinks? Don’t blame me, I’m just trying to help? Whatever. So here’s the inside: a little pre-checkin area, then a double-line to wait for the receptionist, who turns out to be the very same Turban guy, and who assigns each person a ticket which corresponds to the announcements heard regularly over the PA: “B-5183 to window 15 … F-0097 to window 4 …” etc., except that they’re all of course repeated in Spanish. There’s also a large waiting area, with maybe 50 super-old school hard plastic chairs in rows.
The pre-checkin guy checks my papers. You need four separate pieces of documentation, to wit: (1) something super serious that proves your identity (I’ve got a passport, but a birth certificate would also work (for fun, I imagine bringing my Czech birth certificate, which is accompanied by a weird-looking but authentic and notarized English translation from the 80s), (2) something that verifies your SS#, like a Social Security card or W-2, and (3) two things that verify your address, like an electric bill and bank statement. This explains the people who, throughout the day, left the building in a huge pissy huff, fumbled frantically through their glove compartments, and then drove carelessly off.
As I get in line I look around. The whole thing is one gigantic room, with the processing desks and some test-administering computers in the back, semi-separated by a chest-height room divider. The sit-down waiting area is off to the right. Most of the furniture and appointments, such as they are, look like they were put in in the 80s and maintained on an ever-squeezed budget since then. There’s a big noisy floor fan in one corner that gets turned off and on a couple of times. Fluorescent lights. Dingy tile floors. Walls painted a combination of industrial green and salmon. More or less exactly the sort of government office we should all be grateful we don’t have to visit on like a weekly basis.
Anyway, I get in one of the two lines, the group of late-arrival unticketed folks anticlimactically right behind me. The other line is for people who’ve made appointments, who’ve been coming and going all day. Turban receptionist guy alternates taking people from both lines, and he deals with everyone for a good long while. Maybe he’s taking their oral histories, I dunno. So finally I get to the desk, and I launch into this story I’ve slowly hatched to get me out of paying the dreaded late fee. I tell the guy that I came yesterday, when my license was expired, and that I was sent away because I joined the line too late, but now I see that I could have been renewed if only I’d just stayed, because it worked for all these other people, see? He’s extremely apologetic, says I should have talked to him. Very sorry, but there’s nothing he can do about the late fee. But he can (because of the bizarre number-que system, see?) bump me up in the sequence to get my license(!!) at this point! I ask him what the late fee is. $15. At this point I have a minimum of another hour ahead of me, and I’d gladly pay four times that to have it over with, so I’m doing cartwheels on the inside, even as I calmly thank him. “If anyone asks, you had a 3:30 appointment, though. I don’t want any trouble,” he says.
I wander over to the waiting area, where all the people that have been ahead of me in line all day are sitting. It occurs to me that if they really catch on to what’s happened, it could get slightly unpleasant. I pick up an organ donor brochure, and wander over to lean against the wall near the entry area to the processing windows. Two other numbers get called, and then “B-1781 to window 6,” and I wander over to the windows, all casual like, like I’m just having a look. Once I’m at the window I’m in a separate area, and everything’s good. The lady at window 6 is again super-nice, and I think she’s sort of the resident expert, because everyone else asks her questions, and even the turban receptionist walks over at one point when there’s some ambiguous situation he needs help figuring out. We exchange knowing glances.
The lady scans my documents. She’s got a plain dell and a cheap looking desktop scanner, which makes the whole process take a pretty long time. She takes my photo with that photo contraption that may date back to the 70s. I tell her that I want the organ donor designation, answer a couple of other questions, take my eye test (It’s in that weird machine you look down into. I’m convinced I could have passed it without my glasses, and here’s the trick I realized only too late — there are three columns of letters; the middle one is visible to both eyes, but the outside two are only visible to one at a time. It’s a lot easier to read if you close your right eye, read the first two columns, then close your left eye to read the last column. I’ll get you next time, Gadget, next time!), and I’m done.
Waiting for your license is the most anticlimactic thing ever. Another waiting area, this one with exactly two chairs, and aproximately 10 minutes for the most mundane, $50-at-office-depot-looking little desktop ID printer to spit it out. I guess there’s something or other fancy about it, because it makes those little holograms of the state seal in the laminate layer, but otherwise it’s the same thing that prints ID’s at the Art Basel press checkin. And that is it, folks, I say mentally to everyone I’ve spent this glorious day with. There’s another exit route that bypasses the waiting area, goes by the reception lines (still busy) and out the door. It’s 4:30, and I’m gone, never to return.