Thursday, May 17, 2012
Being forced to visit a California Department of Motor Vehicles office has long been my vision of hell. We do like our cars in this state; in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have about 1.85 cars per household. All those cars and the people that own them (or do the cars own the people?) require a lot of paper. And so, the city's DMV office has always been filled with pushing throngs speaking multiple languages -- Chinese, Spanish, English, and many more -- trying to complete forms, pay bills, or simply figure out what they are supposed to do.
Resigned, I consulted the DMV website and found I could make an appointment to pay for a new license ($31), have my thumbprint taken, take an eye test, and get photographed. I visualized waiting in line for each element of the process, jostled by other desperate people. But it had to be done.
My appointment was for 9 am. I dutifully presented myself at 8:52, ready to begin a process I assumed would take a least an hour. Handwritten signs pointed me to an "appointment ticket line." Okay -- I hoped that this was the right line.
No sooner than I'd joined the short queue than an older woman with a clipboard, a sort of traffic monitor, approached asking what time our appointments were for. (Guess this was the right line.) She pulled a woman with an 8:40 appointment up to the front, but otherwise assured us we'd move right up.
A couple of minutes later I reached the front and passed the woman at the desk the paper work I'd been mailed. She glanced and said "you have to fill out the front. Come back here to the side when you're done." A pen sat on a nearby desk, I filled out the form. As I approached the side of the appointment line, the woman at the desk glanced at my form and handed it back to me with a "ticket" -- a stub with the number "FO32" on it.
Seconds later, the loudspeaker announced, "FO32 will be served at counter Number 9." Finding Number 9, I passed my papers to the woman there. She asked if I wore glasses all the time (yes) and had me read an eye chart hanging from the ceiling. That was easy. I pressed my thumb on an electronic scanner. No more getting inky these days. It beeped. I handed over my $31. She printed a multipart form on a machine that clattered like an old dot matrix printer, separated and stapled parts of it together and said "go down to Window B and get your picture taken."
There was no line for Window B. I stepped up, had my thumb scanned again (guess they didn't want any identity switches) and stood rigid for the camera flash. "Here's your temporary license," said the operator, handing me my paperwork.
I was out the door at 9:02 am.
Don't get me wrong. The San Francisco DMV office remains pretty squalid. It's crowded with anxious people, the equipment is old; apparently there is no budget for directional signs so the employees write their own on sheets of paper. But some combination of workers who are doing their best and management that at the very least doesn't get in their way make the experience simple, efficient, totally bearable.
As the Governor Brown looks for ways to cut yet more billions from the state's budget -- because California's winners have found ways to avoid paying their fair share, but that's a post of another day -- it's great to encounter state workers and government itself just doing its job.