At the DMV
California DMV
I decided to get a California identification card because San Jose locals seem to be bewildered by my Alberta driver’s licence. I had an appointment so I was able to join the shorter, faster-moving line.

Me: I want to apply for an ID card
She [without looking up]: Do you have a driver’s licence?
Me: No
She: Social Security Number?
Me: No
She: [looks nonplussed]
Me: I have my passport
She: Do you have an I-94?
Me: I don’t know what that is
She: Do you have a visa?
Me: No. I just drove across the border.
She: [Looks alarmed] And no visa?
Me: No. But I do have a Nexus card
She: What’s a Nexus card?
Me: I’m a trusted traveller.

[She walks away with two of my most valuable documents. Where has she gone? Am I being reported to the authorities? Nope. Phew. She comes back with a form and the letter F written in large felt pen ink on a three-inch square piece of cardboard.]

She: Fill out this form and then stand back in line again.

At the form-filling counter I discovered that none of the permanently attached pens worked. Other people were struggling to find pens, translators, and key information for the forms. Fortunately, I had brought a pen, and I didn’t need a translator. My Alberta driver’s licence number didn’t fit in the spaces available, so I provided as many numbers as would fit. On reflection, I should have just left it blank but it also asked for the name of the issuing country. I made the mistake of thinking they actually wanted the number of my foreign licence. This was not a good beginning.

After completing the form, I went back to the line and waited patiently until someone else with a large letter written on a piece of cardboard tried to cut in line. I politely pointed out the location of the end of the line. “But I have this letter” she said, waving her cardboard at me. I displayed my letter on a piece of cardboard, and she retreated, cowed.

Back at the reception desk, I handed in the form. I hoped that the clerk wouldn’t notice that I had tried to fit my Alberta licence number into a California licence space.

She: Do you have an appointment?
Me: Yes. 9:20.

She handed back my form together with a ticket numbered F 208. I was told to go to a waiting area until my number was called.

There were two large waiting areas, both full of people who were waiting. Dozens of people. Some of them looked as though they have been waiting for three days. Children were restless. Babies were cranky. Parents were tense. I settled in for the duration.

Then, before I had even taken out my iPod, my number was called. What about all these other people who have been waiting for ever? What about the babies? I felt guilty. I could have waited longer. I am not worthy.

Unlike the poor harried woman at reception, the clerk at the appointment desk made eye contact. He even smiled! I felt honoured. He checked my passport and got a second authorization from another clerk. He explained to her that Canadians don’t need a visa. This is awesome! Not only is he polite, he also knows his stuff.

As he was putting my information into the computer, he chatted a little, and asked where I am from originally. When I explained that I was born in England, he said that he was also from the UK. He lived in Birmingham until he was eight. Wonderful. I have a kindred spirit at the DMV.

He sent me off to get my photo taken, and this took only a couple of minutes. After that, I left the building. The lineup for those without appointments was now outside the building and into the parking lot.

The lesson is clear. Make an appointment, take a translator if you need one, leave the children at the babysitter’s, have all your documents at hand, and arrange for the smiling man from Birmingham to be your designated appointment clerk. Easy.


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  1. So it truly is like you see in the movies at the US DMV. So cool you got to experience this. When I read you got an F I thought maybe you failed but it looks like you passed the test 🙂

  2. Have to renew my California license in-person next week. It’s like the Post Office, we all hate going to these places. Crossing my fingers to meet a smiling man from Birmingham.

  3. Got here from the Senior Salon – I loved “lines and spaces” but I HAD to read this one! The DMV seems to be America’s secret little torture test. It seems no better in Tennessee – no man from Birmingham to save the day, only little women who must have been born mean and humorless and found no joy in working there. Perhaps it is a job requirement?

    I hadn’t driven in 20 years and my license had long since lapsed since I had been living carless in public-trans Manhattan. I had just moved to Knoxville and was the only grown up in the crowd who needed to take the driving test as well as the written portion.

    It was my third attempt to get it done – after calling first and being told, curtly, that OF COURSE they were giving the test, what did I think they did there – lining up a ride and a borrowed car in which to take it each time. The first two times a friend drove down from Cincinnati, Ohio, since I hadn’t yet had a chance to make many friends willing to trust me with their autos.

    I made the mistake of joking with the five foot tall lady behind the counter that I was eager to get my license because I was beginning to feel like I was on house arrest – meaning, of course, that without it I couldn’t get out much in car country. I thought it made sense to have one before I tried to buy a car.

    She called the even shorter manager, who delivered a rant at the top of her lungs about how I was breaking the law by leaving my home, and besides, they weren’t giving any more driving tests that day. All eyes were on my reddened face as my ride and I skulked out of the building JUST as two police officers were arriving. We scrammed before we could find out why.

    4th time was the charm, passed of course – but it took all day for them to get to me, even though I arrived at 9AM, as requested. Lesson learned: keep your mouth shut, don’t ask any questions, stand where they tell you, and take a book!
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD/EFD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to transform a world!

  4. Oh, Madelyn, I feel your pain! That is an awful experience, but it makes for a wonderful story to tell. The DMV really is a remarkably frustrating place, and I wonder why. Normally, I would expect US government agencies to be well-staffed and efficient–a bit like Starbucks. Sadly, it seems that they are overly bureaucratic and under-staffed. Your final paragraph is absolutely right; allow all day and make sure it’s a good book.

    Thanks for dropping by Snowbird of Paradise. I hope you visit often.

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