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The California DMV or: How I Learned to Stop Time and Hate People

Recently, I received a notice in the mail from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. This piece of paper informed me that my driver’s license was near its expiration point. This signifies two things…One, that I am about to turn thirty and have thus outlived many ancient Eqyptian kings and queens; Two, that I have to venture to the vapid, bureaucratic mental parking-lot that is the California DMV. For some reason, this notice also informed me that I needed to take the written portion of the test as well. Should I study or just wing it? I like to believe I am a knowledgeable driver. This idea, coupled with the fact that I’m lazy and slightly arrogant, means that there will be no handbooks being opened or websites perused.

Thanks to modern technology (my camera phone) and unending boredom (standard DMV waiting time) I decided to document the affair.I arrived to the Costa Mesa DMV office around 8:30am. The line to get in was out the door and around the corner at this time.  Nothing for me to do but jump in de line, rock my body in time (OK, I BELIEVE YOU!). The line is mixed with young folks studying up before they try for their permit, people like me renewing licenses and registrations, and older folks who seem excited to be a part of something. In front of me was a young girl looking over her Driver’s Handbook as if it was a signed copy of Twilight (New Hoon perhaps?). Her Teva-wearing father was doting over her nervously as they both were waiting for mom to arrive with a copy of her birth certificate. Behind me was an older gentleman who has no problem with litter, seeing as he felt the ground was a good place for the random wrapper he had in his hand. Teva-Dad did not like this and stared down Litter-Guy for a minute, then shyly turned back to his daughter and did nothing. The most eventful part of my morning had passed.

As I waited in line, a DMV worker appeared and helped answer any questions or provide any forms that people may require. For some reason he was also wearing a lab coat. I didn’t know that the DMV employed scientists but Dr. DMV was friendly and helpful despite his ridiculous white laboratory attire. In fact, all the employees I encountered in the DMV were friendly. I expected grunts and stares for most requests, but everyone was quite pleasant and helpful.

Finally I could see light, but this was just the beginning of the tunnel. I entered the facility nearly 45 minutes after arriving and I was again face to face with Dr. DMV. He looked at my paperwork and handed me a tag with a number on it. I was now to be known as G-049. It felt good to get inside and be assigned something but the second phase of operation Make Jeff Go Crazy was underway.

I found a seat and prepared my mind for a nice long wait, meanwhile my ass was already trained to sit and do nothing. The only thing I brought with me to stay occupied were my cell phone and my imagination. One of these things is laggy and annoying and the other runs wild and rampant. It seems others around me were not ready to succumb and sit quietly while the call of of random numbers and letters turns this open-floor office into a boring bingo hall. With no one to talk to, I regressed into the form of a 16 year old girl and turned to Twitter and Facebook to occupy my time. Here are a sample of some of my not-so-sane tweets:

Dear “bro” next to me, your sighing doesn’t make this DMV experience go faster. Sincerely, annoyed in Costa Mesa 9:54 AM Jul 29th

Dear uber important lady, your phone call can wait. We don’t care about your security sys/H2/Jag/2ndhome in VA. Sincerely, please shut the F up 9:58 AM Jul 29th

Dear DMV number caller, please call G049… sincerely, bleeding brain in Costa Mesa 10:02 AM Jul 29th

When they call my number at the dmv, I wish I had the price is right theme song cued up. 10:22 AM Jul 29th

Eventually, Twitter and Facebook no longer provided the stimulation I was craving so I begin to check the place out. The place is adorned with posters and various informative pieces of paper but the building is standard government drab. One corner had some vanity plates and a poster which I found hilarious.

Apparently "Hoops" is now slang for "Donuts"

The DMV Bingo Caller finally squeaked out what I had been waiting to hear as “G, 49″ came across the speaker system. It was time to step to the counter and pay the $31 I owed to Governor Terminator.

After forking over my wife’s hard earned debit card, it was on to the photo area then ultimately the testing section. I was going to make a stupid face, but I tried that last time and it turned out that I just looked ugly. This time around I went with a simple half-smile and pseudo boy-band hair…I think the look suits me.

My photograph in the system, I was now herded over to an area with testing spaces. The two-sided test sheet has 36 questions on it, but since I was renewing I only needed to complete one side and 18 questions. If I got 3 or more wrong I would fail the test. Was I nervous after I read that? Actually, yes I was…but just a little bit. I finished in about 5 minutes and got in line to have my test graded. In front of me was a young, cocky d-bag who was smiling and joking around. He was pretty sure he was going to pass, and exclaimed this to his waiting mother. He strode confidently to the counter and his smile slowly faded…he had failed…for the third time. I feel bad that I felt great pleasure from this fact, yet I don’t feel bad that the CA DMV is keeping another dumb driver off the road. It was now my turn to hand over the test. The lady graded it and was clearly surprised at the results.

Zero wrong.

Come on now hoons, did you expect anything less? The woman behind the counter did, because this is California and people don’t know how to drive here.

Time inside the California Department of Motor Vehicles behaves in mysterious ways. I have identified the fact that the DMV building acts as a time vortex, and time slows to a near halt. However, once you are outside the building time instantly speeds back up and you are now transported hours into the future. I entered the DMV building around 9:14am and exited it around 11:30am. I declare this phenomenon to be known as Glucker’s Theory of DMV Time Wormholes. Hopefully Morgan Freeman will discuss on an upcoming episode of his new show on that-one-HD -channel that I don’t recall at the moment.

If you have any tales of the DMV, please feel free to share them in the comments – you know we love hearing from you.

Currently there are "49 comments" on this Article:

  1. lilwillie says:

    Thankfully after years of DMV abuse I no longer have any terrible horror stories there. I finally have a "in" at the counter. She will stop by the shop and take my stuff for me, along with a blank check and at 5pm when she returns I have everything I need. If I happen to head in there because I am feeling the need to waste a day away I will get my little number at the counter then sit near her station. She notices me and will slip me in quick as heck.

    Yes, I am abusing the system but I really don't care. The DMV is a broken system in our state in my opinion. Anything I can do to circumvent it makes me feel like I took on the "man" and won.

  2. tonyola says:

    In Florida, it seems that everything depends on which office you choose. My drivers license renewal at the South Dade County office last summer was very painless – the appointment was right on time, everyone was friendly and courteous, and I was in and out in 40 minutes. I was mentally prepared for a long, hurtful slog, so I was quite surprised.

    • Jeff_Glucker says:

      Yeah, same for me when I was back in MA.

      If I went anywhere in the Boston area, it was a decent wait… but outside of the hub, I could be in and out within 30 minutes.

  3. Matt says:

    Vermont has significantly improved their DMV systems over the last decade or so. I went in on a Friday afternoon to register a newly acquired pop-up camper/trailer that was gifted to my wife, and was out the door in under 10 minutes. This despite the fact that the wife's signature and the gifter's signature was forged on several documents and I had no idea how much the trailer weighed "fully laden". I hope that my guess was correct.

    My only gripe with the VT DMV is that they don't take payment in any form except cash or personal check. Um, hello, this is 2010. Get with the times.

  4. LTDScott says:

    Odd, I too just turned 30 and had to recently renew my license which meant going to the DMV, but did not have to take a written exam. Just an eye test and a new photo, which thankfully looks better than the photo from when I was 16 that I previously had.

    CA does have a lot of dumb drivers. 2 or 3 years ago I got a speeding ticket on I-5 in Orange County which meant I could not do traffic school online. I had to spend a Saturday in a classroom, and it was an eye opening experience. I like to think of myself as being relatively smart, and since I enjoy cars and driving I may be more knowledgeable about driving laws than the average person. But holy cow, on several occasions I was the only person in the classroom who correctly got some questions that I thought were very basic, bordering on common knowledge.

    It was scary knowing these type of people drive around me all the time.

    • Jeff_Glucker says:

      CA is pretty much the bulls-eye for car culture in this country yet people here are TERRIBLE drivers…
      My wife's theory is that people are so self-involved in SoCal (I live in the heart of me-first orange county) that the don't care about any other cars on the road, other than their own…and I have to agree with her.

      No blinkers, erratic lane changes, random brakes, texting/shaving/reading/etc, no high speed lane on the highway, can't drive in teh rain… it is endlessly frustrating

      • PFG says:

        Once upon a time, I would have agreed 100% with your wife's theory, but now I believe that there is something much darker at work. If we were talking about simple self-absorbtion, our freeways would be a soporific-but-generally-harmless 19 MPH crawl. That, they are not. They are combat zones. They are populated with nakedly aggressive people who aren't merely unconcerned about the well-being of others, but rather are actively TRYING to do harm (even if "harm" means only jamming someone else behind a slow-moving truck.)

        The reason for this, I believe, is that in our society we are generally so powerless, so shit upon, that when we get into our cars, we're in the one place in the world where we can exercise some control, and when another driver does something to impinge on that control, well that simply won't do. So we tailgate, we cut-off, we use on-ramps as our personal 1/8 mile express lanes.

        It's not apathy. It is malice.

  5. P161911 says:

    In Georgia you can renew online for 10 years at a time now. So now when my license expires I will be 46 but have a picture that was made when I was 32. (I reused the 4 year old picture when I renewed.) I'm really hoping I can keep the same picture until I'm 56.

  6. rennsport964 says:

    Your DMV takes plastic? That's an improvement.

    On the other hand, Washington State has automated multiple choice testing kiosks, so we have that going for us.

    Good news/bad news: I've lived here since 1978. I've had to take the written exam and practical driving test exactly ONCE, in 1986, when I was 17. That's right, no retesting at all. In that time, I've had my drivers' license renewed four times which means an eye exam and a new photo. This means a bunch of people on the road that really shouldn't be. But I guess that whould be obvious if you drive around here for any length of time.

    More bad news: given that no retesting is required you'd think that a license renewal would take less time. You'd be very, very wrong.

    • My grandmother never took a driving test, got her license in 1927 and kept it renewed until 2008. Then again, she also has never been in an "at fault" accident.

      On the time thing, there's a trick, go to a main DMV and you'll wait all day, go to one in a small town or a satellite office where they don't do testing and you can be in and out in half an hour (Pro-Tip: it doesn't need to be in the same county). Case in point, when I took my tests to get my license the options were go to the main DMV office where I lived and spend an entire day waiting to take the written then schedule a drive test for another day… or drive 30 minutes to a small town, have my written exam finished within 10 minutes of stepping through the door and when I go to make an appointment for the drive get "well, we've got time now if you're ready." By the time I would have sat down to take the written in my home town I was back home with a license.

  7. CptSevere says:

    Utah has got to have the worst DMV's anywhere. Two offices for the entire Salt Lake Valley, where something like a million people reside. Whenever I had to do that shuffle, I'd make sure I had something substantial to read. When I moved to Arizona, I couldn't believe the efficiency here. In and out in about a half-hour, and there is also a private car title company that can handle the same transactions, even faster, for a small fee. Plus, you can license your vehicle for two years at a time. Nice.

    • MrHowser says:

      I really hate the idea of paying someone a convenience fee, but I used a place that charged $20 for a title transfer, and the 2-year registration on my old bike was still only $50. I really really really really like that private party sales here in AZ incur no sales tax!

  8. dwegmull says:

    My last visit to the DMV (Fremont, CA), was to renew my license (no written test though). The entire "experience" took less than 30 minutes (I went in around 1:15PM on a Tuesday). I was expecting much worse: I told my boss I might not be back that afternoon and brought a book…

    More importantly, Morgan Freeman's show is on the Science Channel.

  9. In the state of Alabama you do not have to use the DMV office in your county. So, in the county south of mine, there is a little three room building with two old ladies who are the satellite office for that county. Apparently no one knows this office exists. The most time I ever spent waiting was to get my Motorcycle license. It took 30 minutes max. If they would let me renew tags there I wouldn't visit the court house.

  10. muthalovin says:

    My license is set to expire in September. Add the fact that I have lived in Texas for 2 years and have not gotten licensed here (DO IT IN 90 DAYS OR ELSE! sez the law), I have to get cracking on that. You have to have a vehicle registered to get a license, so step one was to get my truck inspected. Step 2, which I completed at the same time Jeff was at the DMV, was to get Texas tags at the Tax Assessors office. Through the grace of god, they have 5 branches, so I went to the one out in the middle of nowhere. No one was there. I got my tags in 15 minutes. Step 3 is getting my license. Hopefully I don't choke on the test like your buddy, Jeff.

  11. Maymar says:

    Most of my DMV experiences have been fairly pleasant and painless. My only (major) irritation goes back to when I turned 16. Of course, like most budding hoons, I anticipated the hell out of my 16th birthday, and the driver's license that came with it. And then the union that handled licensing went on strike, exactly a week before said birthday. They didn't go back until at least a month after, and by the time the computers came back on line, I'd been held up two months.

    I suppose there was also a bit of a wait when I got my motorcycle license, but that was sort of done on a lark, so I can't complain about long lines at peak times.

  12. Rust-MyEnemy says:

    Our DMV over here is the DVLA, or Driving and Vehicle Licensing Authority. I visit our local branch pretty much every second day for work reasons. I hate it.

    I park illegally (no free parking available) to use their services in a second floor office crowded with people at varying stages of confusion and frustration. Endless forms are on hand for every possible set of circumstances, all called things like V117/b. I take a numbered ticket from the machine (like at a Deli counter) and get an urge to shout out "I am not a number, I'M A FREE MAN!!" in a Patrick McGoohan style.

    In two lines, ten abreast, we face the front. They sit behind attack-proof plexiglass windows. There is no a/c and an atmosphere sorely lacking in oxygen. An "infotainment" feed on a plasma screen loops selected Sky News stories round every two minutes and is interspersed with adverts proclaiming new and exciting methods to renew your license.

    One of the best feelings I have on an average day is that of leaving the DVLA, knowing it's all sorted for another 48hrs. Only to return to my car safely warden-clamped outside.

  13. engineerd says:

    I grew up in SoCal and spent many hours there as a young hoon-in-training and probie-hoon. Luckily, when I turned 16 they had just opened a new branch in Norco (where the city bird is the horsefly). Now, I usually don't have a reason to go to Norco…except for a girl…but the word on the street was that this one had no wait. Sweet! So, the day after I turned 16 (that's another story) my dad and I head down I-15 to Norco. I passed, of course, and the wait was not too bad.

    Fast forward 2 years and I'm ready to get my unrestricted license. I go to the Norco DMV, but by then via the previously mentioned word on the street and several new subdivisions constructed within spitting distance of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, the lines were outrageous. Ugh. Welcome to adulthood in California, I guess.

    Almost 11 years ago I moved to Michigan. I went to the Secretary of State's office (that's what they call it here) to get a Michigan license and plates for the Shaggin' Wagon. I walked in and took a number from one of those doohickeys like they have at the deli counter. I sat down. Within minutes my number was called. How did this happen? Well, they call your number twice and if you don't make a movement you lose. There was one person that was so engrossed in their book that they missed their number and had to take another one. Awesome. So, I go up to the counter and said I needed a license and plates for my car. The lady said she could help me. I asked, "With both?" "Of course," she answered. Really? I don't have to stand in Line A to find out what line to stand in for my license then go stand in another line for my photo then another one for my license plates then a final line to pay for it all? What kind of strange and wonderful place have I gone to? I walked out within 30 minutes with Michigan plates and a temporary license, which would soon be replaced by a new Michigan license with a goofy grin on my face.

    • hglaber says:

      And have you been back since, engineerd? In the last decade I've probably been in an SOS office once, to get a plate for an additional car. All renewals have been online, and they take cards online (although they don't in the office last time I was there). I think they also somehow updated my voter registration when I changed my address (also online) because I never updated it with the county clerk. A new one just showed up in the mail.

      As for the vortex, I assume time, like energy, must be conserved. Therefore, I suspect the other end of theese vortices is hammocks. If you lay in one, even for "just a second," you're instantly catapulted 2 hours into the future. I always wondered where those hours went. They must end up in the CA DMV offices.

      Speaking of vortices, does anyone else have a vortex that takes stuff they take out to the car and deposits it back on their kitchen counter somewhere between home and destination? Brown bag lunches are especially vulnerable. Stephen Hawking should really look into that.

      • engineerd says:

        I had to go in June to renew my tags since I waited until after my birthday. Oops. They were still fairly fast, although I went after work and it was busy. They did wind up opening a lane up just for people renewing tags or licenses. Otherwise, I try to do everything online.

        I am convinced the state government can save a crapload of money by eliminating most of the SoS offices and doing more online. Put in kiosks in malls and use the computers in libraries for people that don't have a computer. Then you really only need a few SoS offices to take care of regions, and not one in each city like they have now.

  14. alex says:

    Here in Rhode Island, a 3 hour wait at DMV is standard. There have been tales lately of 7 hour waits.

    The Federal government will find your airline $27,500 per passenger if you are waiting on the tarmac more than 3 hours.

    Our DMV's should pay us a similar number if they keep us captive for more than 3 hours.

    • Jeff_Glucker says:

      In RI, I remember people used to be able to take someone elses birth certificate and go get a real "fake" id

      • BrianTheHoon says:

        We used to be able to do this in CA as well. Years back, before digitized photos, all you needed to do was show up with all the data – you didn't even need a birth certificate, you just needed to know the appropriate personal data. Our fake IDs came in the mail from the State!

  15. BGW says:

    Overall, VA's DMVs are OK. The biggest drawback to the process is that, upon entering, you're given a number (much like Mr. Glucker's above) that has some loose theoretical tie to the nature of your transaction and, thus, to the number of windows available to help you. I've tried over the years to detect a pattern- are "A" numbers registration-related? Do "C" numbers correspond to license renewals?- to no avail. And why do these windows do A,B,C,D,E,F and G numbers, while these only do A,D and F? But what is always consistent to a fault is that whatever series of number I have will have the least number of windows working on that series AND the most complicated transactions taking place. No matter what I'm there for, it seems I'm always stuck behind a Slavic resident alien trying to register a non-DOT compliant vehicle from Guatemala with little more than a bill of sale and a picture of the guy who sold it to him. Throw in the fact that my local DMV branch (and, after a closing/consolidation round some time ago, the only one reasonably nearby) is also the state DMV HQ and the only one on the city bus line and, well, it's always party time at the DMV.

    I'd bet that California has nothing on the walking freakshow that comes through this particular location on a daily basis. And that's just the DMV officials.

  16. dculberson says:

    Three effing hours?? I am upset if my wait is over a half hour. 45 minutes and I'm out the door. I can't believe you guys have to put up with that crap.

    Here in not so sunny Columbus, Ohio, some of it is the office you choose. I've never heard of a 3-hour wait, but the really big main office can have an hour wait sometimes whereas there are branch offices in low traffic areas that will have nobody in line and you can transfer a tag or renew a registration in all of 10 minutes or less. I've had a complete drive from home – transfer title – drive to registrar – get tags – drive home circuit take less than 45 minutes before. Practice makes perfect, I guess; I'm up to number 40 or so in the historical fleet. (only 5 cars and 2 motorcycles right now, though.)

  17. Dr. Jomamachubby says:

    That's not Dr DMV, he's handing out challenges! How did you score on your "renewal"?

  18. bzr says:

    Wow, your DMV is relatively clean. The Worcester one is a grimy, dimly-lit Brutalist 70s dungeon by comparison.

    Also, people who bring their babies to the DMV should be arrested for child abuse. Leave your kids with the neighbors, or put them in a cage or something, give them a Capri Sun and some Sour Patch Kids and they'll be fine, dammit. (It's ok, I hate kids.)

  19. nater says:

    Reading this while at the DMV on my phone, funny enough. Been here for an hour- 53 “G” numbers down, just 45 to go!

  20. Mad_Science says:

    Dude: use the appointment system.

    You get the be the a-hole who just walks right past that line right up to the counter. They give you a letter-number that comes up quicker, too.
    http://apps.dmv.ca.gov/fo/offices/appl/fo_data_re

    Current Appt wait time: 8 minutes
    Non-appt wait time: 1 hour

    Technology FTMFW

  21. My last experience with the Colorado DMV lasted about 15 minutes, mostly because I only needed a copy of my driving record.

  22. Number_Six says:

    Here in the People's Republic of Eh? we take a lot of abuse from Americans who believe that Canada is a dirty pinko monument to Karl Marx and from the British who think that Canada is a place that annoying relatives emigrated to and good riddance to them.

    But on Friday I needed to change my address and renew my license. I walked into an office a few blocks from my apartment, went straight to a counter, barked out the new address, sat for a photo, and walked out. Ten minutes total.

    • I had to renew my registration at the end of June, here in Alberta. Went in the (privatised) office two blocks from work, handed over $560 in total (a years accumulation of tickets, including the $76.00 for one years registration) and walked out in 20 minutes. Other than the stupid amount of tickets, rather painless. Someday I will learn to drive slower and not to park where I shouldn't. Someday.

    • bzr says:

      That's what happens when you live in a country where moose outnumber people. Tho I can't imagine the moose would be any friendlier while stuck in line.

  23. SVT2888 says:

    I must be a masochist that never learns because I always forget to eat or drink anything before going to the DMV. For some reason I always think that this time it will go by quick. Yet it always takes waaaaaaaaaaaaay longer than expected.

    I'm always close to collapsing by the time I get out. Yet I never learn! lol

  24. Spencedaddy says:

    rightttt after the floods in nashville i went to get my 18year license

    in and out in 7 minutes

    i think it was an act of god

  25. I was having trouble looking through google and stumbled upon your website. Now I have finally found what I was searching for. thanks a lot!

  26. Dionna Popp says:

    Though I’d throw in a link that readers here might find useful.

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