I'm New in Town So Naturally I Wanted to Spend the Day at the DMV


I had such high hopes. My hopes were as high as Coit Tower. My hopes were higher than the hill I have to walk up to take my dog to the park (which is high, just ask her, that panting dog-breath machine). My hopes were as high as the guy who sat next to me on the bus last week, one of the people who didn’t get the memo that the Summer of Love ended more than four decades ago.

I had called ahead to the California DMV to clarify a couple of things before I made the trip out there to get my California title, registration and license plates for my car. I was thrilled to little pieces when I found out that in California, you get an appointment, an actual day and time that is reserved for you at the DMV. I let myself entertain the possibility that instead of gray plastic chair hell, all flavors of BO, and long waits just to be told I didn’t do it right, that I might be escorted to a DMV teller by a smiling man in a jacket and tie, that I might be able to rate my experience on Yelp.

I wanted to make sure I was doing it right, because not doing it right causes fatigue, headache, irritable bowel and sexual side effects. I speak from experience. I had already registered my cars in six states. So I embarked on my seventh state of car ownership by opening up a big can of smug.

When I called, the guy was all laid back California.

“Your website doesn’t address the issue of in-person registration,” I said, reading off of my typed list. “If the car is in my husband’s name, does he have to be physically present to register the car?” I did not mention that I forge his signature better than he does. Or that we’ve been married so long that we are starting to look alike, so a quick trip to Supercuts and I could probably pass as him.

“Nah, you can do it for him,” the guy said. “It’s all good.”

“OK, so about this inspection,” I continued. “Do I get the inspection first and then go to my appointment? Do I need another appointment for the inspection?”

“Nah, you’re good. Just come for your appointment and they’ll take care of ya.”

I love living in California, I said to myself. This is going to be so great. My book, Home Sweet Homes, devotes the bulk of a chapter to my experiences at the DMV. I used to think you could judge a state by their libraries, but truth be told, a state can only be as good as the way they treat their newcomers with cars. I figured if I lived through New Jersey, I could certainly handle California.

Nevertheless, when I got in the car to head off to my appointment, my stomach was in knots. By the time I pulled into the parking lot, I was nauseous with fear that the California DMV was going to discover my old speeding tickets, my two DUIs, the fact that I stole the car, the body in the trunk, and that annoying vehicular homicide I have on my record. None of those things exist, but that didn’t keep me from worrying myself sick that I was going to get caught for doing something wrong. For not doing it right.

There’s got to be a hitch, I thought. You can’t just walk into the DMV with an appointment and get your license plates without some complication. 

That’s right. You can’t.

First, I saw the long line of people snaking around the building. But I thought we all had appointments, I thought. 

Second, I saw a line of cars presumably in line for inspections. But I thought we didn’t need an appointment for that and it would all go swimmingly, I thought. 

Third, I couldn’t find a parking spot. After 10 minutes of being third in line of a parade-speed line of cars circling the parking lot waiting for someone to come out and move, I left the parking lot and found street parking. The fact that in 10 minutes no one came out of the DMV was concerning. I wanted to say to the people in line, “You might eventually get in there, but you’re never coming out. Run! Run for your lives!”

Fourth, when I got into the building the first thing I saw was a sign that announced that fighting with a DMV employee was a federal offense. Not a good sign, literally.

Fifth, I got yelled at by a guy who wouldn’t answer my question as to which inside line I was supposed to get into. But . . . but I have  . . . but I have an ap . . . but I have an appoi . . But I have an appointment! I said in the non-serial killer voice that I’ve been practicing.

Sixth, after getting called up to the window, I was told to go back outside, get my car and get the inspection. Got in that line just in time for the late-morning break, when all of the DMV inspectors apparently went home for hot lunch and a nap, but eventually got the inspection, and had to park illegally to go back inside.

Seventh, got a new number, and then waited, the whole time worrying that now I actually had done something illegal. The relief of finally getting my California license plates was nothing compared to seeing that my car had not been towed. 

My husband is about to go to the DMV to get a California driver’s license. 

“Hey, could you check that out for me?” he asked. “Let me know what I have to do and what to take and what's involved.”

“It’s all good,” I told him. “Just go in and they’ll take care of ya.”

What, I should be the only one to suffer?

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