Returning: The DMV


The DMV….yes, the Department of Motor Vehicles. D M V – three initials that generate immediate distaste. The DMV is the punchline for jokesters. Who enjoys a visit to the DMV? Simple answer: The 17 year old teenager who, for the first time, is receiving that prized drivers permit. They are smiling, excited by this rite of passage. I saw several of those teens arrive at the DMV, led by their mothers, during my three (yes – 3) trips to the DMV last week.

We all have a history with DMVs and, truthfully, there was only one joyful memory – as a 17 year old getting my driver’s license. But, getting my 17 year old driver’s license required managing obstacles. Namely, I failed my first written test. Damn road signs. I should have studied harder! Passed my 2nd time but my 1969 Chevy station wagon was deemed unsafe for my first road exam (bald tires) I boycotted the Dunellen, NJ DMV in favor of Rahway, NJ the next time and finally earned my license. I even parallel parked successfully. It was a journey and I remember it well.

Not to mention, the DMVs I’ve frequented in India, Israel, Indonesia, Ghana, and South Africa. All grueling experiences. All with people in uniforms, wielding some sort of intimidating government authority, controlling your fate. I have survived DMVs on three continents, I was certain I could handle the North Carolina DMV.

In order to register a car in NC one must have a NC driver’s license. In order to get a NC Driver’s license, you must have several required documents including proof of car insurance. I have no car as I explained at the DMV – I’ve lived overseas. blah blah blah, so what. In my case, non-owner’s car insurance was needed, frankly a bizarre concept to me. So, needless to say, on that Friday afternoon I failed upon my first attempt to achieve anything at the DMV – not the right insurance. But, no worries, Monday I would take care of the insurance.

One must also have a Social Security card with a name that matches identically to your passport and any current license you hold. I haven’t seen my social security card since I was a teenager so I smartly arranged to get a new social security card by requesting a new card through the office in Boston, I was feeling pretty good.

Monday, I showed up at 6:30 am to wait for the 7:00 am opening. Had the insurance in hand. I was 20th in line. Things were looking good. Finally around 9:00 am – yes, two+ hours waiting in the plastic shelled DMV seats. 5 rows of 15 people per row, waiting. Listening to the automated voice assigning numbers to windows. No standing allowed, those without seats needed to wait outside. Could they make a DMV building any more sterile and uncomfortable? It was, however, a well organized office. Having said that, my frame of reference includes about 15 annual trips to the DMV in Jakarta, Indonesia and those experiences were mysterious adventures. So, the bar for DMVs is not exactly a high one.

Finally, the robotic voice called my number and window (they really need to adopt a new voice, surely Alexa or Siri would improve the quality in the DMV office. All looking good. Insurance, check; evidence of mail at address, check; passport;check, old license (NY); check, social security card; check – sort of.

What seems to be the problem ma’am (I’m starting to say ma’am and y’all)?

So, here’s the thing about my name. My full name is Stephen Geoffrey Lathrop Smith. My parents, in their infinite wisdom, gave me a first name of Stephen but I was never called anything but Geoffrey (except “Smitty” which was my name from probably age 7 to 18). I found out my first name was actually Stephen in Grade 6 when I needed a birth certificate to play in the pop warner football league on the Highland Park Hurricanes. But, my mother helped me get my social security card as a 14 year old under the name Geoffrey L Smith. So, my social security card (brand new, issued in Boston a week earlier) did not match my passport. Upon discovering this issue, I almost lost my cool…but I remained calm. But, no go, Gayle wasn’t budging. There would be no corners to cut here as has sometimes been experienced in DMV offices around the world. Gayle, though, was most helpful. She gave me instructions and told me where to go (the Social Security administration office) what to collect and if I got back to her by the afternoon, she could give me an immediate appointment to skip the cue – which would still be an even 5 rows by 15 people per row and others standing outside!

In line at the social security building, another sterile government office, waiting for another robotic voice inviting me to a window. I get there. But…passport isn’t enough. They need a certified birth certificate. Where, in the boxes we have hauled down to Asheville would I find a certified birth certificate? I leave, discouraged but resigned. Arrive home and Rhona Polonsky( saviour) asks me to go through a box of papers….no’s the box…the box with my birth certificate. I rush back to the social security office. Helped in my quest by an oddly robotic individual, uninterested in any small talk. But, job done, documents in hand, I return to the DMV, jump the cue back to Gayle, who approves the paperwork.

Just one last thing before the photo. Gayle asks me to “put my eyes into the device on the left and read some lines for me”. OK, no problem, just checking my eyesight. I read the top line of tiny letters. All good. Then she asks me about the 3 road signs at the bottom left. No way, my nemesis, the road signs without words, I should have studied– Shades of my 17 year old DMV experience in Dunellen, NJ. I knew the shapes meant something but, to be honest, I began to panic. I couldn’t name them. “Calm down”, I told myself. OK, the middle one had the shape of a house – a SCHOOL Zone. She nodded, confidence restored. The far right one was a kicker, a funny sideways triangle. Gayle gives me a hint “double solid yellow lines”. I say “ The sign you see when there is a no passing zone”. Almost there. One more sign….I can’t recall what I said but Gayle read my anguish and gave me a couple of hints and I made it through. Damn road signs…..almost got me again. So, after my third tip to the DMV and 3 trips to Social Security buildings, I have my NC license.

DMV visits are best left to 17 year olds. It’s there rite of passage to embrace and enjoy.

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