There’s a stereotype about Department of Motor Vehicle offices as a sort of hell where people go to rot away. It’s filled with gigantic lines with unclear destinations, mysterious paperwork that you may or may not have to fill out, sour employees who may or may not help you navigate the system, and often the experience ends in a bad mugshot of yourself that you have to live with and publicly display for many years.
Surely this is an outdated stereotype, I thought to myself as I drove to my local DMV driver’s licensing facility a little before 8:00 yesterday morning. We now have the internet, which allows people to renew their drivers licenses and submit address changes online. Questions can be answered on websites, paperwork filled out ahead of time. The DMV website even listed the best times to come in for business, which is why I had arranged to come in first thing on Wednesday morning. I didn’t bring a book with me, and I even debated with myself over whether to bring my coffee in.
Okay, I was running a little late, and didn’t arrive until 14 minutes after opening. Still, 44 people had managed to get there before me! Yes, that’s right– the tag I pulled out of the automated dispenser had the number 45 on it. Clearly I have been stuck in a time warp for the past 12 years, since I only ever had to deal with the Grant County DMV in John Day, where one employee does everything and there are almost never any lines.
I wrestled with myself over whether to stick around or come back another time. With visions of some never-ending cycle of disrupted mornings trying to find a light DMV day, I decided to stick it out. Their take-a-number system was pretty fancy, with a digital sign on the wall showing who was being served, and a PA system that automatically called out numbers. I thought it seemed like it might be an efficiently run place. But about 30 minutes after I sat down, everything got very quiet. No numbers were being called. No one was at the counters talking to the employees. Obviously feeling the tension, an employee announced that all the computers were down and we would just have to wait– about 10 or 15 minutes.
This was the moment when I should have made my move and walked out the door. I could have arrived at work only one hour late. But for some reason, I stayed in my seat. I figured with any luck, at least a third of the people ahead of me would quit and I’d be the beneficiary.
About then, I let go of my nervousness about time elapsing and just starting enjoying the people-watching. I noticed how many nervous teenagers were there with a distracted parents, getting their permits or taking their driver’s tests. I noticed how awful the examiners seemed to be– sour, cranky, down on life– and I wondered what it must be like to get into several dozen strange cars every day with a nervous teenaged driver at the wheel. I heard as one of the examiners told a young girl that she had failed her test and did she want to schedule another one right away. A mother with two highly active young boys under the age of five looked exasperated and tired– but everyone in the room stopped and smiled when she went up to get her photo taken and the two boys horsed around with the background screen hanging from the ceiling, giving mock mug shots and posing on the wrong side. I noticed how amazingly alike so many of the parents and children looked– daughter with big hair, mother with big hair, daughter with snug t-shirt, mother with tight tank top and tattoo on shoulder blade.
The other major population contingent were the people over the age of 61, who can’t renew their licenses online due to their age. I felt bad for them, especially the very old people with walkers and hearing impairments, who couldn’t hear the PA system announcing their number, and then when they realized it was their turn, were so slow to get to the counter that they were in danger of losing their place altogether. But then I wondered if I really wanted those people to be out driving their cars around the Denver metro area.
There were a few people like me– not teenaged, not parents, and not over 61, professionals with phones and reading material, looking impatiently at their watches every now and again. I wondered what their story was– are they all new to the state of Colorado, too?
It turned out that a lot of people did give up and leave during the computer failure, but mostly people within numbers 10-15 spots before mine. Finally, it was my turn, and I registered myself without a hitch. Now I’m just waiting for my new license to arrive in the mail within the next 30 days. The photo will be a complete surprise– I wonder how it turned out?