There's no way around it: I have to go through waterboarding. Actually, my daughter and I have to go to the local Department of Motor Vehicles to get her learner's permit. We're excited, but bummed about the prospect of waiting in one of those DMV lines. But wait — isn't this the computer age? It's been years since I've been in one of those buildings; maybe today things will be different!
1:15 — We arrive at the DMV. Office hours are posted: Monday through Friday 8:00-4:30, closed on Saturday. Hmmm. Isn't Saturday the day most people could come in and renew their license without missing work? The left door of the double entrance doors is locked for no discernible purpose, so I try the other one. Success! This is a good sign.
About 15 people are lined up in a hall outside the door of a waiting room, and about 15 more sit inside the room. We get in the hall line and stand there for a few minutes before someone in line tells us, "You have to register inside first." I look around for a sign that points out this somewhat important detail. There is none. But in the hall on a door that looks like a restroom door I see a plaque that has on it this exact word: "Mens." This is a not a good sign.
1:21 — "Hello!" I say to the guy at the counter in the most friendly way I can think of. "Yes?" he replies, with the same cheerful, glad-to-see-ya expression a person might use while facing a mugger. "We're here to get a learner's permit for my daughter!" I tell him. Counter Guy takes all our forms and scrutinizes them, regularly delivering the approximate same grunting sounds someone makes when he's having his teeth scraped. "I can't do anything with this — you were supposed to have this form signed! It's not signed! You'll have to come back when this is signed!" he barks. Gritting my teeth into what I hope is still a smile, I answer, "Well, I'll sign the form right now for you," a declaration that has the same effect on Counter Guy as though I had announced it to a fire hydrant. "She's homeschooled," I explain, "so I'll just sign the form as a school official right now." Counter Guy's head turns a reddish-purple as he slaps a ticket with our number (B237) on the counter and tells us to wait: "It'll be about an hour."
1:25 — Off for a late lunch with my daughter; why wait at the DMV? We'll come back at 2:00 and have only about 30 minutes to wait — maybe even less, if we're lucky.
1:57 — We arrive back at the DMV, remembering to use the right door this time. A few minutes later the left door rattles loudly as a woman tries to open it; she opens the right door and enters, looking quizzically behind her. Me too, lady! "B233," says an electronic voice over the speaker. We're getting close to B237! Peeping into the waiting room, I notice that much progress has been made — if "progress" means "14 of the same 15 people are sitting there, but looking even more bored." There are a few empty seats, but not two together, so back to the hall we go.
2:01 — A woman with her 15-year-old son strikes up a conversation about how long they've waited, how poorly the DMV is run, and government inefficiency in general. "Well, that's to be expected," I say. "Why should the DMV be efficient or friendly? There's no competition! That's why we avoid dealing with government as much as possible. And, anyway, why should a free person have to ask the government's permission to drive?" This last one is a new idea to her, and she thinks for several seconds. "Hmm…that never occurred to me," she says, "but you're right about how bad the government does things, for sure. And don't get me started, especially after that Supreme Court thing on Obamacare. Government doesn't do anything right; we avoid dealing with them as much as we can, too." "Oh, so you homeschool?" I ask. "Well, no," she says, "but our kids go to McGlukster High (not the real name), and it's pretty good." My daughter looks at me; she understands. I take a deep breath, reach out, take the lady's collar in my hand, and shake her. "What in the world are you thinking?" I ask. Actually I just take a deep breath, look away, and sigh the world's loudest sigh that only my daughter and I can hear.
2:26 — Still not much movement in the line. I notice that there are "A" numbers and "C" numbers being called, in addition to ones like our B237. For about the fifth time, another unsuspecting person grabs the left door handle to open the door, which still doesn't budge. Okay, that's it. I walk over to the left door and snap open the flush bolts so both doors can be used to enter or exit. There we go, folks! "Thank you! Thanks a lot! Why was that stupid door locked?" say several persons waiting in the hall. Actually, no one says a word. Instead, several inmates look surprised that anyone should attempt such a dangerously subversive maneuver and involuntarily lean away from me, in case a cop comes to arrest me and thinks we're together. "B234," says the electronic voice over the speaker. Open the pod bay doors, please, HAL.
2:43 — There are now two seats together in the waiting room, so my daughter and I sit. Fellow wretches fill the seats; everyone is bored, listless, resigned to the heavy hand of DMV Fate. The room, like the rest of the building, is gray, cold, ugly. There's probably a government manual on how to decorate buildings to look their dreariest. Chapter 26: Submission Through Drabness. An image flashes in my mind of a scratchy old film clip I saw once of a Soviet Union bread line.
2:52 — "I've been waitin' two hours to get this thing renewed — just renewed!" a 60-something man next to me says, waving his license. "And people want these guys to run health care," I joke. A late-30s to early-40s guy sits with his two daughters, both around six or seven years old. "Yeah, these two are pretty wild," he announces, "but it's my two-year-old who won't listen to nothin' I tell her." I suddenly notice that he sports a Mickey Mouse t-shirt that reads "Kickin' It Old School" and "gangsta" shorts down to his shins. I am a teetotaler, but decide that if I ever get out of this building, I will begin drinking regularly and heavily. "B235," says HAL over the loudspeaker. I'm sorry, Dave — I'm afraid I can't do that.
2:58 — It finally registers to me that the waiting room TV screen has been playing the same three-minute loop of Hollywood trivia scraps and "educational" information over and over, like the ones in a movie theater. Many rich golden nuggets of multimedia counsel are offered, though: Children Shouldn't Smoke, and Don't Mow Down Construction Workers While Driving, and For Best Results In Growing Flowers And Vegetables, Water Them. These profundities are packed with frequent spelling and punctuation errors; somehow this seems to fit perfectly. "B236," says HAL, and my daughter's eyes widen. She's next!
3:19 — While glancing around, it occurs to me that if I squint a little to blur the figures in the room, it looks and sounds like a debtors' prison — ugly, gray walls; the sighs and groans of suffering inmates; pictures of Our State Government Leader on the wall mocking us with a plastic smile: "Thank you for coming today! Doesn't this visit remind you of who's really in control of your life?" When HAL drones "B237," my daughter is ready. To the testing room she goes!
3:24 — While she's back taking her test, I joke about the infoscreen to the guy next to me. Other detainees join in the fun ("Don't they have a spell check?" "I'm boycotting every company that advertises with this place!" "I'll never let my four-year-old smoke again!") until there is rollicking laughter every 30 seconds or so. "Please be QUIET!" hisses Counter Guy, who has materialized like a ghost. I look at him and realize that at his desk he has been pushing unsharpened pencils all the way through his hand and pulling them out the other side. At least that's what I think he's been doing; I can't think of anything else that could cause his face to twist up like it is. "There are people TESTING in here!" he adds, taking off one shoe and banging it down on the counter, Khrushchev-style. Actually, it just seems like he banged his shoe, but he only stomps back to his desk. There's no door between the waiting room and the testing cubicles for privacy or quiet, see.
3:41 — "I passed!" says my daughter as she waltzes into the waiting room, and I go back to finish up with her. A guy in a shaved head and goatee (don't a lot of cops look like that too?), in a stentorian drill sergeant tone, rattles off rules for first-time drivers — way more rules and steps than I remember when I got my permit. I ask a minor question or two, which agitates him, like it's spoiling his lecture.
3:43 — Drill Sergeant hands my daughter a mileage sheet. "You have to log your first 60 hours of driving here. Don't lose this piece of paper, or you'll have to start all over with the 60 hours of driving to move to the next step."
"Wait," I stop him. "Can I download one of these forms from your web site in case she loses it, so she doesn't have to start all over?"
"No. This is an official document you can only get at this office."
"You're kidding!? Can't I just make a copy of this before she fills it out, in case this gets wet or torn or lost?"
"No, you can't. This is an official DMV document, and if you lose it you'll have to come down here to get a replacement and start over."
"Can you just give me an extra one now in case something happens to this one?"
"No, I can't do that."
"Why can't a person just make a copy and hand it in, or get an extra copy now? What if I just made a copy at home and filled it out if the original got lost or wet or something?"
"Then we would consider that a fraudulent document, and it would not count toward her driving hours."
"Fraudulent? Doesn't that seem ridiculous to you?"
"You can talk to the governor if you don't like it."
3:51 — After taking my daughter's picture, apparently Drill Sergeant has thought it over and graciously changed his mind: "Do you have a copy machine that you could use to copy the front and back sides of the mileage form?" he asks. "Of course!" I reply. "I know five-year-old children that can run a copy machine or scanner. Are you aware that personal computers, printers, scanners, iceboxes, and air conditioning are items that most people have access to at this point in human history?" At this point I've had enough: I throw my head back and scream as loudly as I can and dash around the office, grabbing huge stacks of mileage forms and stuffing them in my shirt and down the front of my shorts.
Actually, I just say, "Yes, I have a scanner," mentally note to scan the form when I get home, and leave.
Afterwards, my daughter says, "I could hear you guys out there laughing when I was taking my test."
I don't doubt it.
Scott Clifton [send him mail] is a small business owner who writes from North Carolina.