The Glendale branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles is a hulking,
brownish, sullen-looking box of a building on Glenoaks Boulevard. As
branches go, it’s a pretty unimpressive limb. It has almost no
exterior windows, no landscaping escape a swath of mottled grass and
a couple of shrubs that saw better pastures.
If there is anything interesting about it at all, it’s that inside
is the closest you’ll come to hell in Glendale without actually
dying. But you’ll wish you had. I had the opportunity recently to
spend quite a bit of time at the DMV. Actually, any visit to the DMV
involves spending quite a bit of time. I needed to get my new car
registered, so I called the DMV and set an appointment, got caught up
in work and missed it, then decided I’d just pop in early one morning
and get it over with. Oh, silly me.
Inside the building, I discovered about 300 other people had also
decided to just pop in and get it over with. Most of them were queued
up in a long, straight line extending to the entrance. I walked in
and immediately found myself standing at the back of a line. It was a
portent of things to come.
An average day at the Glendale DMV looks like this: Facing
Glenoaks, to the far left of the building is a menacingly long line
of people, all of them waiting to get to the head of Window 1.
Immediately to the left of them are about 200 or so more people, some
sitting but most standing in place sort of helter skelter across half
Over to the right, things are moving fast. Short lines move
steadily up to a row of windows and desks. People are being handed
papers, people are walking out the door. The right side of the room
hums with motion, while on the left, nothing, not the DMV clerks, not
the waiting drivers, hums. Humming requires energy and energy
requires motion, and on the left half of the Glendale DMV, nothing
moves. A hive of Africanized honey bees could be nested overhead and
you’d have nothing to worry about.
The right side of the room is reserved for people who called ahead
and set an appointment. The left side is for those who decided to
just pop in and get it over with.
But as formidable as the line for Window 1 appears, it actually
moves fairly swiftly. I almost managed to convince myself that my
visit to the DMV would be a short one. Then I got to the front of the
line and the clerk asked me if I had called ahead to make an
She handed me a piece of paper with a number on it and told me to
wait until my number was called. The number was 50. I looked overhead
to a digital counter.
It read 71.
So I walked across the street to a corner grocery store, bought a
newspaper and a cup of coffee and phoned work to tell them I was
going to be a little late. Then I sat at a bus stop, drank the coffee
and read the paper cover to cover. I walked back into the DMV and
checked the digital counter again.
It read 73.
So I called work again and told them I was going to be really
Given the number of chairs that are set out to accommodate the
day’s visitors, one would think the Glendale DMV was originally
designed to service a much smaller clientele, like maybe the
residents of the block it sits on. I found myself an empty spot
against the wall and stood and waited.
And I waited. Trapped in line at the DMV, I started thinking about
my life and about all the decisions I’d made that led me to this
predicament. I regretted having missed that appointment. I regretting
not having taken better care of my old car’s timing belt. I regretted
not having pursued a career in politics and gotten elected governor
on a platform of abolishing the DMV. But mostly, I regretted not
having brought something to read.
For a place as keenly versed in the subject of waiting as the DMV,
you would think they would at least set some snack trays out. But the
DMV doesn’t do snack trays. Instead, it has a sort of in-your-face
inhospitableness. Everything about the place suggests that the DMV
would really rather you be some place else. No vending machines. One,
maybe two water fountains, but these would require climbing over a
lot of people to get to. And all around you are less-than-gentle
reminders from the management that all this might have been avoided
had you just thought ahead.
“TIRED OF WAITING?” a large hanging sign informed the waiting.
“NEXT TIME, MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.” And just below it, for any rocket
scientists who get it in their heads they can just cell phone their
way out of waiting, a smaller sign reads: “No same-day appointments.”
I started thinking about the whole concept of DMV appointments --
when you’re standing in place for hours, you tend to think about a
lot of things. When I had called ahead for my appointment, the one I
would miss, no one asked me for my driver’s license or Social
Security number. I was asked for my name and was given a time and
date. So it wasn’t like the DMV was able to do any advance
preparation for my case. I wouldn’t have shown up at the appointed
hour with a clerk waiting with my completed registration in hand,
saying, “Here are your papers, Mr. Silva. Thanks for shopping DMV.”
So I had to ask myself: If all it takes to get in and out of the
DMV fast is to give someone your name, why couldn’t the entire
operation be run like that? Why couldn’t someone simply be waiting at
the front entrance with a sign-in sheet, or a big phone be available
where you could give your name and get the fast treatment? Why
couldn’t there be same-day appointments?
The answer came to me immediately. The whole DMV operation can’t
be made as efficient as the appointment system, because the
appointment system really isn’t more efficient. It simply works under
the principle that only a fraction of the people who visit the branch
will bother to call ahead. And these are simply put in a much shorter
line. It’s an illusion of efficiency.
So why the charade? Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective for the DMV
to have a couple of clerks periodically select a few waiting
customers at random and rush them out of there? The answer to these
questions, too, is obvious. Appointments are good PR.
By having an appointment system, the DMV shifts the blame from
itself to the public at hand, from the defensive “We’re sorry you’re
having to wait for hours, but the fact is we’re grossly underfunded
and woefully understaffed” to the more authoritative “We’re sorry you
have to wait for hours, but we can’t be held responsible if you
didn’t have the foresight to call ahead.”
It’s a clever system. But the DMV should take care not to
advertise its appointment service too much. Because if all the people
standing in line for Window 1 should suddenly experience a mass
attack of foresightedness, leave and call back for an appointment,
then the big line would simply shift from one side of the room to the
other and the entire illusion would collapse. And then the DMV would
find itself having to answer some pretty tough questions.
“What do you mean I have to wait in line for four hours? I had an
Finally, after hours of nursing resentments against the
government, my number appeared on the overhead counter. I walked up
to the registration clerk, who hit me up for about four times more
than anyone should be reasonably expected to pay for registering
When you think about it, the DMV is like a corrupt version of
Disneyland. You wait in long lines for hours, but instead of a fun
ride waiting for you at the end, you get mugged.
I left the building, exhausted from the wait, hours late for work,
and suddenly so broke I’d have a hard time paying attention. And when
I got to my car, I found a freshly printed ticket for having parked
there too long.
But for all my troubles, I felt inside me a profound sense of
relief. I had gotten it over with. I was legal. I would never, ever
go through this again because you better believe that next time I
would make and keep that appointment. I started feeling better the
moment I pulled away in my newly registered motor vehicle, the cool
wind in my face, all my troubles behind me.
Surely, this is how one must feel as they’re driving away from
* DAVID SILVA is the editor of the News-Press’ sister papers, the
Rancho Cucamonga Voice and the Claremont-Upland Voice. Reach him at
(909) 484-7019, or by e-mail at email@example.com.