I’ve had root canals. I’ve had gum surgery. But, when I went to get my driver’s license renewed recently, I knew real pain.
I had no choice but to appear in person. The letter I received from the state Motor Vehicle Commission contained a number of “skip the trip” urgings but they were countermanded by a contradictory warning superimposed on the renewal form: If you want your license, you had to do this thing live.
I went to the Springfield office of the Motor Vehicle Commission. In the past, I would go to the office in Elizabeth, where I live, but Gov. Chris Christie–remember him?–closed it because Chris Bollwage, Elizabeth’s mayor, refused to endorse Christie’s reelection.
But Christie did give MVC patronage jobs to Democrats in Elizabeth and elsewhere who did endorse his campaign. New Jersey’s brand of fairness.
The Springfield office is located across the street from a town lot that charges a dollar an hour for parking. Buy several hours worth of parking because, however long you estimate it will take to complete the simplest MVC transaction, know it will take a lot longer than an hour. Use your credit card to give the town a generous contribution. It’s cheaper than the overtime parking fine.
When you enter the MVC office, you see a table on the left marked “Reception” and another on the right marked “ID Check.” It’s not at all clear to which you should go. The answer is “Reception” and you should go there anyway because the clerk there is not rude. She is vaguely amused that you, like everyone else who has walked in that day, don’t know where to go.
Eventually you learn from this clerk–I will call her Susan, although that is not her name–that you must take from her a blue slip of paper with a number on it and sit down on one of the many uncomfortable chairs that all but fill the front part of the office.
“Take a number and sit down,” Susan says.
“They will call your number?”
“You go to the ID check.”
Sort of like a deli in a supermarket, but with about 100 angry people holding little slips of paper with their special numbers.
Except in a deli, the numbers usually are consecutive. So, if you pull out #237–as I did at the MVC–you would expect the next number would be #238. But you would be wrong. It could be #162. You also would expect that the people behind the “ID Check” desk would call out the numbers consecutively. You would be wrong again.
“Susan screwed up the numbers,” yelled one of the two women behind the “ID Check” counter. I will call her Bad Clerk, for reasons soon to be obvious. The other I will call Good Clerk. The two sit within feet of each other yet they spoke loudly.
“Susan screwed up the numbers,” Bad Clerk kept saying. Saying it to Good Clerk and to customers who kept appearing at the desk with the wrong numbers. She obviously did not like her co-worker, Susan, on the other side of the office. But she was saying it as if the customers–some of whom had blue numbers in the 200 range while others were down in the 150 range–were somehow to blame that “Susan screwed up the numbers.”
A few people sitting in chairs waiting for their numbers to be called picked up the chant in a defiant whisper. “Susan screwed up the numbers” they repeated softly.
Good Clerk and Bad Clerk have the same function–checking compliance with the hopelessly confusing “Six Point Rule.” If you don’t know what that is, I don’t have the space to tell you here but I can tell you a passport is 4 points and a valid drivers’ license, inexplicably, is only one. The Six Point Rule is some rule, that Six Point Rule. Someone in state government must think the rule surely must be keeping thousands of illegal immigrants and terrorists from crossing the Hudson and the Delaware into New Jersey.
The way Chris Christie kept people from driving across the George Washington Bridge.
The Bad Clerk scowled at every new person appearing before her and said, “Where’s your six points? I don’t see your six points. Where’s your debit card? What’s that? No, it’s not a marriage certificate–that’s a receipt for a marriage license. Can’t use it.”
The Good Clerk smiled at every new person before her but said pretty much the same thing.
Each of them also liked to leave their posts at “ID Check” desk and disappear for five to ten minutes for no apparent reason. Customers holding their little blue slips groaned whenever that happened. These unexplained disappearances by Good Clerk and Bad Clerk also provided ample opportunity for customers sitting next to each other to shake their heads and say things like, “What the hell is going on here?” And so on. But don’t think you will make friends easily among fellow frustrated customers; they are not in a good mood as they think of the day they are wasting and the parking tickets they might be getting.
I entered the MVC shortly after 2 pm, received blue slip #237 and finally got to the Bad Clerk an hour later. I felt a sense of civic self-righteousness because I had painstakingly assembled just the right documents adding up to just the right number–which, of course, was six.
Yet Bad Clerk still said, “Where’s your six points? I don’t see your six points. Where’s your debit card?”
But I triumphed. I had the six points and there was nothing Bad Clerk could do to deter my progress. The reward was an invitation to sit on one of 10 identical seats in an area adjacent to a long counter at the back of the offfice. Atop the counter were 10 cameras used to take pictures of customers for licenses and ID cards. Behind each camera were seats where other clerks should have been sitting taking pictures. Wait there until you are called to have your picture taken.
You would think there was some sort of relationship between the 10 identical seats and the 10 cameras but you would be wrong. Only three of the desks were staffed by clerks ready to take your picture. As each of the customers sitting on the chairs was called up to face one of the cameras, the nine behind him or her slid over one seat.
“Slide over, slide over,” barked Bad Clerk. We obeyed.
It felt silly.
“Musical chairs,” said the woman next to me.
Eventually I was ready for my close-up. No smiling, the clerk said. No glasses, the clerk said. Head straight. Look at the blue dot. Keep looking. Flash. Now wait again.
On the counter-top in front of me was a ragged piece of cardboard that apparently had been left there so that waiting, ever-waiting, customers could doodle. Someone had sketched out a delightful Santa Claus. Another depicted a slack-jawed person, eyes crossed, and tongue sagging out from a drooling mouth, with the caption, “I (heart) weed.” To waste some time, I wrote “Let me out of here!”
I had a lot of time to doodle because a new and shiny machine, a printer of sorts that spit out plastic drivers’ licenses, chose that moment to jam. Lucky me.
But this is when Bad Clerk back at “ID Check” really got bad. Until then, her voice still could be heard saying, “Susan screwed up the numbers” and “Where’s your six points?”
Then, she quieted for a moment. I happened to look over at the “ID Check” desk and saw a middle-aged man approach Bad Clerk with a much younger woman holding on to his arm. A sweet smile was fixed on her face as if she were about to enjoy the encounter. Maybe a little excited by it.
“Where’s your six points?” the Bad Clerk asked. The young woman did not answer; the man, maybe her father, maybe not, did respond but I could not immediately hear what he was saying.
Bad Clerk: “How old is she?” As if “she” were not there.
“Twenty-five,” he said.
“Twenty-five? She’s twenty-five and she has no id?” The Bad Clerk’s voice was loud.
The woman’s sweet smile stayed, but a shadow of uncomprehending worry passed over her eyes. The man was embarrassed. He looked as if he were trying to shield this young woman from something unpleasant and had a lot of unhappy experiences doing that. I don’t think he expected trying to get an ID for her would be among them.
Then, in the same loud and irritated voice she had saved for Susan who screwed up the numbers, Bad Clerk said to no one and everyone in the room:
“Oh, she’s special needs….Obviously.”
Some customers gasped.
“Go stand over there by the wall,” said Bad Clerk. “I’ll have to find someone to talk to you.”
Special needs. Obviously. Go stand by the wall.
“I can’t believe she said that,” said the woman next to me. “And so loud.”
Annoyance melted into sadness and pity for the man and the young woman. We expect brusqueness, inexplicable delay, maybe even a little rude behavior; after all, this is a state bureaucracy, headed by political appointees and staffed by underpaid workers.
But cruelty, we did not expect.