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The closest you can come to hell without dying

INSIDE/OUT

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

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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

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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

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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

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the room.

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

appointment.

“Why, no.”

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

late.

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

appointment!”

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

their car.

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

hell.

* 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 david.silva@latimes.com.


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