Memories of DMV Nightmares

My book club book for this month is going swimmingly.

Last month, you might say I dropped the ball. Or, to continue the metaphor, I drowned or got snub-nosed by a shark or got a side ache. After I swore, aloud and publicly, in this blog and to anyone who would listen, that I was going to read the book before the book club meeting, I was only about a third of the way through when we met. Most of the other members had finished and were able to participate in an intelligent discussion about the book, using words like “protagonist” and “denouement” and “ending.”

Only Barbara and I were so clueless that we had nothing to add. We fidgeted, tried to change the subject, spilled red wine on her love seat as a desperate distraction, and looked things up on the Internet on her laptop while the smarter girls carried on.

The book was Money by Martin Amis, listed as one of the 100 Books You Should Read Before You Die Especially if You Have a Lingering Disease and Have a Lot of Time to Spend Propped Up in Bed Reading.

It’s also somewhat pornographic, which was a little bit embarrassing for me, since it was our first book selection and helped to set the tone for the whole book club. I think it was me who said, “Oh! Martin Amis! Let’s read that one! I read one of his other books and it was hilarious!”

This one was full of laughs, too. And pornography. Oops.

This month was a redemption. We’re reading Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and it’s sophisticated and smart and thought provoking and has lots of foreign words in it and images of ice skaters, windmills and tulips; cricket, New York skylines and the DMV.

What? How did the Department of Motor Vehicles sneak in there?

The funniest passage so far in this book is when Hans attempts to get a New York driver’s license. With a Dutch last name that’s made up of about four different words, including some that don’t even start with capital letters, suffice it to say he didn’t stand a chance in the meat grinder that is the DMV. It brought back so many memories of my DMV experiences from our many moves to new states.

I can say that Florida, my most recent move, was among the easiest. Probably because I had not come to the state via a raft from Haiti, so they not only gave me a license, but elected me mayor. In Kentucky, a 103-year-old DMV worker gave me a gold star for not having had a seizure in the past 12 months. In Ohio I was suspected of stealing my own car, and in Illinois and Virginia I played the mother-of-little kids card and won the whole damn card game.

But it was in New Jersey that my DMV experience was the most surreal.

I wrote about this in my soon-to-be-still-unpublished book Home Sweet Homes: A Survivor’s Guide to Moving Your Family without Losing Your Marbles so I thought I would reprint this passage here for your enjoyment. Somebody may as well read it; 106 agents and publishers didn’t.

Here is just a glimpse of my experience with the DMV in New Jersey:

Number 127. Call number 127. Call. Number. One. Hundred. And. Twen. Tee. Se. ven.

I’m sitting in the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles in a gray molded plastic chair for the third consecutive hour, waiting to get my car registered here. In my left hand I’m squeezing a little piece of paper that says 127, which is now a sweat-soaked piece of pulp, looking like it went through a warm wash cycle. In my right hand I’m holding my car’s history – every piece of paper I’ve ever gotten that is associated with the vehicle – along with my baby book. The DMV requires so many documents to prove that I am who I claim to be, I figured rather than bring the bare minimum – my birth certificate, marriage license, social security documentation, proof of residency, proof of citizenship and my most recent utility bill – I would play it safe and bring along a lock of my baby hair and my first kindergarten finger painting. It couldn’t hurt.

Sitting here is making me relate to how my great-grandmother must’ve felt coming through Ellis Island. There are people who have been here so long they need a shave. Babies are crying and one obviously needs a diaper change. People are speaking in foreign languages, older people are starting to lie down on the floor, and the guy next to me has his head on my shoulder. And I have stopped caring.

Just puh-leeeeeeeeeeeze call number 127!

I’ve had about three hours to think and have decided that this is the original House of Pain, the place where the concept of frustration was created and where it is even now being tweaked and perfected in a back room.

Then they call number 127. I jump up like I’m on The Price is Right. The guy next to me slides off my shoulder and slumps onto my chair. He might be dead. I approach the open window and smile like an idiot at the woman behind the counter. My heart is beating fast. I am so grateful that I’m finally up to this window, that I’ve been called, that I feel a little Stockholm Syndrome sweep over me. I’ll do anything for this woman, I’m so grateful that she called my number, and so hopeful that she’ll give me those yellow plates for my car. I will hold a machine gun at a bank robbery for you, I telepathically tell her.

Ten minutes later, I’m still at the window trying to figure out what went wrong. The problem seems to be the fact that I’ve done this wacky, madcap thing called moving to the state of New Jersey and bringing my car with me. She’s telling me I need proof of insurance before I can get plates. My new insurance agent, Stan, has already told me I can’t get New Jersey insurance until I have a car registered in New Jersey.

“Think about it,” Stan had said to me. “How can we give your car New Jersey insurance if it’s not even a New Jersey car yet?” This clearly is a pickle, especially since Stan has made my car seem like it has a personality of its own, with feelings and citizenship issues. I’m inclined to believe the woman behind this counter, though, since she’s wearing what appears to be a prison guard’s uniform. But I’m not leaving spot 127 until I get some plates, so I keep insisting that Stan has refused to give me insurance until I get the plates.

“Surely, this isn’t the first time this has come up,” I say to her. “Am I the first car owner who has ever moved into this state?” I say it nicely, though. I do not want to tick this woman off, for any reason. She holds the key to my freedom.

After some more conversation and maybe some intervention by a supervisor (I’m not sure, it gets blurry and I may have even blacked out from the fear) I end up with the plates. How did that happen? I think she had just been messing with me. The prison guards at DMV have perfected that. They like to see you almost wet your pants with anxiety and then throw you a bone so they can move onto their next victim: Number 128.

Tip #31: When dealing with car issues, prepare for the worst.

How do you describe the holy mess of getting a new license and car registration to someone who has always lived in the same state? Remember when you were 16 and taking that driver’s test? Or when you bought your first car? You thought things went so badly because you were young and inexperienced? No, things went to hell because the people running that branch of government are evil sadists of cult-like proportions. They are underpaid, working in an office that reeks of dirty diapers, forced to wear polyester uniforms the color of sick, and they’ve chosen to take out their whiny gripes on us. The post office with its occasional berserk employee has nothing on the DMV, where the workers are saving up their strength to one day take over the world. Whoever is at the counter at the time will help them by holding the machine guns.

Six of our moves were out of state and required new plates, new driver’s licenses, different insurance and dozens of inspections. Twice I had to take a written driver’s test, which inexplicably gets harder to pass as you get older and have more miles on you. When I was 16 and had only been driving for a few weeks, I passed the Ohio driver’s test with flying colors. When I was 36 and had to take the Illinois test, I know I didn’t do well, but the girl behind the counter was very young and I think she felt sorry for me. I filled in the little circles with my number 2 pencil, sitting sideways at a desk built for an anorexic 10-year-old, while holding onto the back of my toddler daughter’s shirt as she ran tethered and spinning, flinging an arc of Cheerios and droplets of Juicy Juice. The girl looked at my completed test and said, “You passed.” With a look of pity, she wrote “A” and put a little smiley face on the top and then slid it right into the trash can at her feet.

Then when I was 40, I took the test in New Jersey, where by that time even the Taliban had computers and the DMV used a high-tech computerized driver’s test. No cheating allowed, no sympathy A’s and certainly no smiley faces. I had seen the way people in New Jersey drive and was confident that I could pass any test they gave me. I had been driving for 24 years and had committed hardly any serious car crimes. How hard could it be? I knew when to turn, when to stop and I even had successfully parallel parked once in the past 10 years. So I leafed through the booklet at the red lights on my way to take the test.

It was 40 questions, each one automatically popping up on the computer screen in its turn. Your total number of wrong answers showed up on the top right corner of the screen, so you could keep a running tab of how miserable you were doing. You were only allowed to miss three questions. If you got four wrong, you failed and a big red X flashed on your screen, a frown face showed up in the corner, buzzers sounded, and the trolls in the back room danced around their fire and roared with glee.

I was doing alright at first. What does an eight-sided sign mean? A) Yield B) Caution C) Stop. This was a piece of cake!

Around question 10, they started to get harder. What would be a reason for approaching a sharp curve slowly? A) To save wear and tear on your tires B) To be able to take in the scenery C) To be able to stop if someone is in the roadway. Since there was no “all of the above” I had to think about this one. I could see the scenery advantage, but didn’t think the DMV was into that kind of thing. And choice C was stupid – what if someone wasn’t in the roadway? That seems like a single case scenario to me, and that should be another question altogether. Wear and tear on tires? This test was supposed to be about safe driving, not taking care of your car. Are we going to have to answer questions about how to properly clean out our car ashtrays, too?

Then they started to get just plain bizarre. You needn’t stop your vehicle for a frozen dessert truck when A) It shows flashing red lights B) It shows a stop signal arm C) a person is crossing the roadway to or from the frozen dessert truck D) on a dual highway if you’re on the other side of a safety island or median from the frozen dessert truck. Okay, that’s just ridiculous. The ice cream man now gets his own question. Who is making up these tests and why do they keep calling Mr. Softee a “frozen dessert truck?”

By the time I got to Question 30, I was in trouble. I had already gotten two wrong and I had skipped one question – A 5-ounce glass of wine contains the same amount of alcohol as: A) one pint of whiskey B) a gallon of wine C) a 6-pack of beer D) one 12-ounce can of beer. I knew B wasn’t right, but I was having a mental block trying to picture what a pint was. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about a gallon milk jug full of red wine and my stomach was turning over slightly. I’d get back to that one later.

When I had gotten as far as Question 39, I was in a full sweat, feeling dizzy and looking around for a paper bag to breathe into. I had used up my three wrong answers and had skipped questions concerning how deep my tire treads had to be ( A) 3/8 inch B) 3/16 inch C) 2/32 inch D) 4/10 inch) and what the penalty was for a third offense for DUI. These were things I hadn’t studied in the book, thinking I would have to be an idiot to ever get to a third DUI offense and confident that one of the six inspections I had to have done to my car every 12 months would surely alert me to a possible tire tread infraction.

Soon the DMV was starting to turn off the lights. I had been in there so long they were getting ready to close. I shut my eyes, held my breath and hit some buttons, guessing on the answers. A big green exclamation point flashed on my screen. I passed! I hugged all the prison guards, posed for my picture and got my New Jersey license. Another state conquered.

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