Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Have you confused your cat recently?

I didn't actually want to tell you about my trip to the DMV. I mean, news flash! The DMV is badly run! Wasting several hours of your day there is not enjoyable! You've heard it before. You've probably lived it, especially if you're in New York. It is my firm belief that the DMV experience is designed for maximum frustration -- but I don't need to list the reasons I have come to this conclusion. I didn't expect today's trip to disprove this theory, but I also didn't expect it to provide any surprising new evidence. I went there resigned to a long wait time, inadequate information and needless confusion, and from the fact that only one photo station was open to serve customers (at 12:10!) to the failure of the elevator buttons outside to light up when you pressed them, everything was pretty much exactly as I expected.

But then, two and a half hours after I arrived, my number was called, and I approached the appropriate window, and I discovered that the person who was processing my paperwork was -- seriously -- deaf. Just when you think the DMV can't do anything more to make things hard for you, they find a new way.

I don't, of course, have anything against the hard-of-hearing. I am happy to find them employed in any and all areas of service for which they may qualify. This woman was possibly the least odd of the three clerks I dealt with, and in any setting not saturated with the DMV ethic of making things difficult, her deafness wouldn't have been an issue. But because this was the DMV, here's how our transaction went: I sat down at the counter and said "Hello," and the lady said nothing, which didn't really surprise me. (When I first applied for my NY license, I remember, the person who processed the forms never once looked up at me. If I wanted to, I could have had my license say that I was 6-foot-3 with green eyes and blond hair.) She took my form and wrote on it for a while, and then she slid a scrap of paper across the desk toward me. On it was this prewritten note: "If you want to renew now or later ([scribble] 10/2008)?"

Imagine my bafflement. Was this string of words, followed by a scribble and some numbers, supposed to mean something to me? Was I being held up, bank-robber style? It finally dawned on me that perhaps she was handicapped in some way that required communication via note. I think, in her situation, I might want to have a little sign on display that says, "Please be patient - I am deaf," but no such clues were available, of course, and since she hadn't said anything to me yet, I had no reason to suspect. Then, once I figured out what was going on, I still had to decipher what the note meant. Apparently the woman was also somewhat impaired when it came to English. Or -- and this is very possible, given the setting -- she started writing one thing, changed her mind midstream, and didn't really care enough to revise her work to make it comprehensible. I might have asked her to clarify, but given that I now believed her to be both deaf and not-great with English, I decided to guess. After a long moment spent staring at the note, I said, "...Now?" And hoped that was the right answer.

I knew from my web research that changing the information on my license came with a $15 fee, so when the woman said, "Fifteen dollars," I had exact change. She looked at the bills I handed her and then scribbled another note: "$50." Ah. "Fifteen" and "fifty" sound very much alike when spoken by a person who can't hear. Why is it so much more than I expected? I wondered. But I didn't ask. For obvious reasons. I paid the $50, got my temporary license and left, hoping there was no important information I was missing out on because the clerk was out of Scrap paper or wasn't sure how to write it down.

When I got home I took a look at my old license -- incidentally, is it not weird that they let you keep your old license? I would think they'd confiscate it, like schools and office buildings do with photo IDs -- and I finally figured out what all that note-passing was about. (At least I think I did.) My license is set to expire this year, in October, and apparently I had the option of changing the information without renewing it. I'm guessing the renewal carries a $35 fee, which would account for the $50/$15 confusion -- and for the question itself, because only a person who truly could not afford to part with $50 at once would elect to come back to the DMV within the year to accomplish business she could take care of during the current trip.

The really sad part is that I consider today's trip, all in all, to have been a reasonably positive experience. I got what I needed, eventually, and I didn't have to miss meals to do it. I don't think I can ask for more than that -- well, I could ask for it, but I know better than to think I'd get it. Incidentally, this was not my first trip to the DMV since my marriage. I went down there a few weeks ago, after I applied for my new Social Security card, and had been standing in various lines for at least half an hour when I noticed a sign that said they had recently upgraded their requirements, and now everyone must present a Social Security card. "NO SUBSTITUTIONS," it said. The information online didn't say I needed my Social Security card --and it had been fed to a shredder in the SSA office just hours earlier. I wondered if I really needed it -- after all, I already had a license, I just wanted to update the name -- but the wording on the sign was pretty straightforward. There were no employees available for me to ask, and I wouldn't get to the window for at least another 40 minutes. So I decided to go home and not waste any more of my day. I went down there today armed with my new Social Security card, and they never asked for it. Of course. But you know, if I'd stuck around that day and tried my luck, I bet they would have wanted to see it. I know now that there is just no outsmarting the DMV.

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