Ten seconds after you first move to Los Angeles, you will no doubt hear someone complain about the DMV. It’s a horrible, horrible experience. Replete with miserable employees, weathered and embittered by thousands of shockingly idiotic people per day, smiles and courtesy will get you only the most basic of social interaction when you are forced to make a trip to one of Southern California’s many branches. Making an appointment online will reduce your wait time, but it’s no guarantee that your business will be smooth and efficient. I only visit the DMV as a last resort when there is no other way to settle the particular vehicle related business I need to do; when all other options are exhausted and futile and all other hope is dead. It is always a hellacious experience.
Still, the optimist in me hoped, “Maybe it’s better now?” as I drove to my scheduled 3:15 appointment at the Santa Monica branch of the DMV. Hope flickered briefly as I found a parking spot in the lot without much effort. Could it have gotten better since I last ventured into this red-tape hellhole? Maybe the Governator cleaned up our state’s nightmarish hotbed of inefficiency. Maybe today would be different.
I walked through the front door into a scene which I imagine was similar to Ellis Island circa 1890. What seemed like thousands of people from every extant nationality were crammed into the place, arguing, pleading and chattering in multiple languages. Most of the people inside were sitting in chairs, clinging desperately to their little white number slip, anxiously perking up each time a new number was called. Directly in front of me, however, was a line of people waiting to speak to the woman working at the “Start Here” desk. I had an appointment. Was I supposed to “start here” too? Just to the left of the “Start Here” desk, I spotted a sign that said “Appointments Only.” YES! Preparation pays.
I picked my way through the throngs of people in the “Start Here” line, and crossed over to the shorter (and by shorter, I mean only one person in it) “Appointments Only” line. I waited. The DMV sucks, but it sucks less if you schedule your arrival.
After 15 minutes of NOT ONE PERSON ACKNOWLEDGING US, I asked a passing employee if anyone happened to be working the “Appointments Only” line on this particular day.
“It doesn’t look like it,” she told me with a laugh as she walked her giant La Salsa beverage back to her desk.
No indeed. It certainly doesn’t.
I returned to the back of the “Start Here” line, which had since grown past the front door and now dangled outside the walls of the building. My appointment was scheduled for 3:00 and since I spent 15 minutes in the “Appointments Only” line, it was now sneaking up on 3:15. Perfect.
Luckily, the woman working the “Start Here” line also fancied herself a comedienne. Each time someone would ask for a “Lost License” form, she’d hold up the form and shout out to the entire line, “If you lost your license it will cost you twenty dollars. Go ahead and keep losing them. We need the money!” Blam. Nothing like being entertained with condescending humor by an employee of the place you are seeking help from. She had lots of fun jokes like, “Ooooweeee! You got yourself a lot of tickets. You better start paying that meter!” and “You didn’t make an appointment? You better find a comfortable chair, cause you’re gonna WAIT!”
Eventually, I got to the front of the line and faced the comic. “Hi, I have a 3:00 appointment,” I told her nervously. I felt like the guy sitting in the front row at The Improv, terrified that she was going to use me as material for her act.
“3:00? What happened you get lost? It’s 3:30!” she shouted for everyone to hear.
“I know,” I told her quietly, “I’ve been waiting in lines for half an hour.”
She ripped off a slip of paper with a number on it and shook her head. “You want to get here on time, baby. Sit down until they call your number.”
I think I had actually bitten through my tongue at this point, and I smiled through the blood that I’m certain must have been seeping out of my pinched mouth. I knew if I opened it even to thank her, the words would start coming and I’d make a scene. I found a chair in the sea of zombies who looked like they had been waiting for weeks.
The DMV is embarrassingly inept and more insultingly, unfair. My particular issue was this:
I sold a car a couple of years ago, filled out the required “Release of Liability” paperwork, mailed it to Sacramento, and then continued to get billed for the registration on that car. In case I haven’t made it clear how horrible the DMV experience can be, I avoided going in for almost two years, even as they garnished my wages and took my money to pay the registration on a car that has not been in the state since August of 2003. Since I filled out and mailed the appropriate paperwork, I hoped that it was a clerical error that would eventually right itself. Finally, when I got yet another bill this year for re-registering that sold car, I decided it was time to speak to someone.
An HOUR later (thank god for appointments!), my number was called. I approached the window with a smile. After all, my day of hell was not the fault of this nice employee at window 23 and I may be a lot of things, but I’m only heartless and evil in certain situations.
“Hi,” I said cheerfully. (It wasn’t even mock cheerful. I was so happy to be actually speaking to a representative of the DMV after all this time that it was actual cheerful.)
A sullen, miserable looking woman did not look up from her desk. She replied, barely audibly, “Can I help you?”
I explained to her that I wanted to clear up a DMV clerical error that has been costing me money since 2003. Clearly bothered and put out by my request, she handed me a printout of the total money that the computer told her I owed and told me to write to Sacramento.
“No, but that’s why I came in,” I told her patiently, “I wanted to clear this up with a human being so that I can get my money back from the state.”
She shook her head in disgust and told me, “Sir, we are limited as to what we can do here on these computers. You need to write to Sacramento and tell them what’s going on.”
I stood there silently for a moment, trying to decide if ripping into her would be worth the guilt I would undoubtedly feel about it later.
“Thank you,” I told her dejectedly, as I took the address that she handed to me.
I walked out of there completely frustrated, angry and fed up. Why do we tolerate this kind of treatment? The DMV is a bureaucratic mess of an organization. It’s embarrassing. I don’t blame the employees. I have no doubt that they are underpaid, overworked and indeed limited as to what they can actually do, and it can’t be an easy job to deal with countless idiots each day. I am aware of that. But I want to be treated with a little bit of respect and courtesy. I suppose there is really no incentive for the employees to be nice, nor is there any economic benefit to the state for the experience to be pleasant or efficient. Since it is the only option we have when it comes to registration, renewal or license-related issues, it shoudn’t shock me that yet another governmental organization operates basically unchecked, unchallenged and untouchable (and perhaps largely underfunded).
I just think that we deserve better. I don’t know why we stand for it, to tell you the truth.