Ever since living in Italy, I no longer really worry about red tape or long waits at the DMV. American bureaucracy is so mild in comparison to Italian bureaucracy that if I ever even feel the least bit impatient, I just open my mental catalog of the many stressful hours bopping from one Italian government office to another in pursuit of this or that slip of paper or colored stamp, and smile, because I’m here, and not there.

And in fact, despite its reputation, I don’t ever remember an excessively long wait at any DMV. All I recall from my first trip to the California DMV at the age of sixteen was that the person who conducted my driving test had a pretty low opinion of my driving skills. She (reluctantly) gave me the license, but she told my mom, “now, I wouldn’t let her go driving cross-country, if I were you.”

My teenage self was mortified. It took me years to feel like I was a good driver. (I am now, I promise. The grandchildren are safe with me.)

Up till now, I’ve mostly had a California license. Even when I was in Utah for four years at BYU, I kept my California license, since I was one of those uncool college students without a car. When I married a cool college student with a car, I had to get a Utah license.

What I remember from the Utah DMV is that #1: You can take the written test entirely in pictures. While I was waiting in line, I glanced through the study guide for the picture test, and it looked way more difficult than the written one. #2 You know how driver’s license pictures are traditionally almost as bad as passport pictures? Well at the Utah DMV (at least the one where I went) they let you do as many photos as you wanted, and showed them all to you, until you got one you liked. Bizarre, but nice.

Unfortunately, I lost that Utah driver’s license with the cute picture shortly after we moved back to California. It fell out of my purse in the parking lot at Trader Joe’s, along with several other important items, most of which I retrieved. But no matter how many times I retraced my steps, the license was gone. I needed a new California license anyway, and didn’t see much point in reporting the Utah one missing in California.  The license still had a few years of life in it, so maybe somebody masqueraded as the Utah version of me for the next few years, while I drove, blissfully unaware, on my new California license.

Although we lived in Washington State for almost a year, we never did get around to exchanging our California driver’s licenses for Washington ones. This in spite of the fact that a couple of friends there told us that people are encouraged to turn in their neighbors to the police for not promptly acquiring a Washington license.

I’m not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that Washington and Oregon have a bit of a border dispute over the fact that Oregon doesn’t charge sales tax. The State government of Washington regularly runs T.V. ads trying to work up people’s patriotism for Washington enough to get them to spend extra money (up to 20% on some items) on state sales tax, rather than hopping over the border to buy merchandise in tax-free Oregon.

This has also resulted in a strange (and you might say hypocritical) practice of Washington stores exempting Oregon residents from sales tax. If you shop at Wal-Mart or other large chains on the Washington side of the border, they won’t charge you sales tax if you can present an Oregon ID card. I don’t think the Washington government gets it that all of this just make Oregon seem like by far the more sophisticated and desirable state.

Anyway, yesterday we finally made it in to the Florida DMV to exchange our California licenses. I was reluctant, since I’m not quite ready to call myself a Floridian yet. We might not have gone in at all, except that Tony’s work gives him a car (which I also have permission to drive), but they said we absolutely had to get Florida driver’s licenses within thirty days.

And it just might have been the quickest, best DMV visit ever. Tony made us appointments and gathered together all our documents, so I guess I have him to thank. We arrived fifteen minutes before his appointment, but we walked right up to the desk and they started processing both of our applications immediately. We didn’t even have to fill out any forms. The lady just paper-clipped all our documents together and gave us numbers.

Before Tony even had a chance to sit down, his number was called. After answering all the questions (that they just ask orally and type straight into the computer, skipping the step of filling out long forms) and getting his picture taken, he went to get cash across the street (they don’t accept debit or credit cards, but we’ll forgive them that, since they’re so efficient with everything else), while I answered all my questions.

In the middle of answering, another employee asked if anyone in the room spoke Spanish. I volunteered, and he asked me to translate for a sweet old man who was having trouble understanding the documentation required. I didn’t realize that Puerto Rican Spanish was so different from Chilean Spanish, but we managed OK. The DMV employee could not get the little old man to understand that he needed his birth certificate. The little old man kept responding that he knew his birthdate by heart, and reciting it.

We had a little chat, and he was quite crestfallen, but I tried to be really nice so he wouldn’t feel so bad. When he’d reconciled himself to needing to come back later to the DMV, he said he wanted to give something to each of my children. I wasn’t familiar with the word he used, so I assumed it must be candy, since that’s what it always is in Italy (and AKK! I just realized that I didn’t even blink an eye at the prospect of a stranger offering to give my kids candy. I’ve been overseas too long!). But he pulled two dollars out of his wallet and offered them to me. I was embarrassed and tried to refuse, but when he offered them directly to the children, I gave up and thanked him. Axa and Raj could not believe their good fortune.

Warm fuzzies were felt by all. And we were shocked when the DMV employee informed us that the licenses would be made while we waited, rather than mailed to us in a couple of weeks. Sure enough, in about five minutes they were produced, along with our mutilated California licenses, which she said we ought to keep because they were so pretty. Better yet, the new Florida licenses don’t expire until 2021. Is that even a real year? It sounds more like a scifi novel.

We walked out of the DMV as official Florida residents. Oh, and did I tell you they also registered us to vote in this all-important swing state? It looks like Tony and I will be the ones deciding this presidential election. As long as we can keep from being purged from the voting rolls or leaving hanging chads, that is.

photo credit

2 thoughts on “The DMV

  • Pingback: Our Bureaucracy Fix for the Day — Casteluzzo

  • July 13, 2012 at 8:17 am

    You make even a post about getting driver’s licenses enjoyable! You are a talented writer! How sweet that you were able to help the FL DMV by translating!

    Here in NC, we’ve always gotten our licenses returned within a few minutes as well. Unless things have changed since I last went.

    (and, yes,I’m just catching up on some older posts)


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