The Department of Motor Vehicles

The Department of Motor Vehicles

What's the sitch with waiting at the DMV?


It is clichéd to complain about the Department of Motor Vehicles; the long wait times, the apathetic employees, the drab color-scheme, their indirect reliance on fossil fuels. 

But clichés exist for a reason. There are truths underpinning them. Often dark truths. 

I recently visited the DMV because my driver’s license was expiring. They just expire I guess, like milk. As if I aged out of my name and birthday. 

I also recently moved to the state of California, so I was changing the statehood of my ID, and therefore needed to take a written knowledge driving test. This is to ensure the state I claimed to be from, this, “Minnesota,” is a real place, with real people, who know how to drive up to Californian standards. After all, the best drivers are the ones who do well on multiple choice tests. And there are 50 states, quite a long list; the bureaucrats wouldn’t want to let someone with an license from, “Kenterker,” or, “Intriana,” or, “Youtah,” just sneak by. They needed to input me into their system, man. There’s no breaking free from the system, man.

Like many working Americans, I don’t have a lot of weekdays off. And when I do, I often spend them doing things I enjoy. I was able to scrounge one, and the only task I needed to accomplish for it to be successful was go to the DMV and renew my license. Pretty straight-forward.  

After a leisurely morning, I arrived at 9:45AM. There was already a substantial line slinking out the door, maybe 50 people long. But I was optimistic and, as I would find out, naive. “No big deal, this will take at most three hours and I’ll get out in time for a nice afternoon.” 

If we had all been there by choice, rather than by government mandate, it may have actually been tolerable. It was sunny, there were children zigging and zagging through the line, letting out high-pitched giggles. A new ride-share app had dispatched a couple of workers to target the trapped linefolks (myself included), offering to exchange a download of their app for a $5 gift card from a nearby coffeeshop. I took the bait (and still have the app on my phone). It wasn’t what I would call a, “festive,” environment, but it was pleasant. 

Then two hours later we still weren’t inside. At this point, a revolution was starting to foment inside of me, but I had the mental fortitude to keep it deep. “Once inside, things will move quickly. I’m close. We are all in this together. We are all in this together.” That would become my mantra for the day. 

An hour later I was at the desk, finally. I had my lease, establishing a California residence, I had a tax document on my phone, proving my social security number, and I had my old Minnesota ID, evidence I had passed a behind the wheel driver’s test. I had been thorough. An impassive front desk guy reading a National Geographic said “Yeah, unfortunately you also need a passport if you’ve never had a California ID before.” Mother of God. We’reAllInThisTogether, KeepYourCool, StayCoolBro. I call myself, “Bro,” sometimes in emotional situations, to keep things light when they are looking their most cloudy. 

It was then I felt the instinctual shiver of something secretive going on. I couldn’t put my finger on it yet… but these workers were motivated to prevent people from getting their driver’s license.


I called my beautiful, generous, loving girlfriend (no she’s not made up), and she brought my passport 30 minutes later. That meant losing 30 minutes of valuable wait time. I finally got my number. 

SL1070. They had a completely indecipherable system. One part, “take the next sequential paper number at the deli,” one part, “random digit generator,” one part, “we haven’t actually established a system that works, so just sit the fuck down and shut up.” 

I compared notes with the good folks around me. NP 2054. HG 1070. SL 1045. I had no idea. 

There were a few hanging television monitors, with half the screen occupied by numbers of lucky DMV lottery winners and which desk they were being served at. The other half of the screens were playing local advertisements, followed by DMV announcements, followed by missing persons information. There were also frequent mentions of the melting polar icecaps… Strange programing. I saw SL 1039 pop-up. An overhead announcement informed us, “SL 1039 now being served at counter #18.” Only 31 people to go? There was no way to know.

There is an old theory of how riots start. I heard it recently described by Malcolm Gladwell, though he was referencing some older academic’s work. I have neither the willpower (nor the internet connection) to look up the primary source right now. In short, the theory posits that every individual has some threshold for when they would join a riot, and this threshold is based on how many individuals have already started rioting before them. Some folks have low thresholds, the ones starting riots. Most have higher thresholds, but the idea is, for everybody, there exists some point when they will join in, even our grandmothers. Just by walking through the door of the DMV everyone’s threshold was lowered significantly.


I was talking to a sharply dressed middle-aged woman with an Italian-made leather purse. This information isn’t pertinent outside of the stereotypes it implies. She had a boot on her right foot, from an injury she sustained a few weeks prior. After pleasantries and general complaints about the situation were exchanged, I asked, “How’d you hurt your foot?” She replied, “I wish I could say I hurt it when it got stuck in the ass of one of these DMV workers… but I just tripped on a stair.” This was not the way she regularly interacted with strangers. We were not far from a riot.

I had my coveted number and estimated at least an hour of further waiting, so I left for a quick interlude to get lunch. On my way out I noticed a DMV employee bend over to tie his shoe; I was surprised to see, “Save the Earth,” in gothic lettering tattooed on his lower back… interesting.


Since I already felt like I was dying, I went to a nearby restaurant known for their giant fried chicken sandwiches. I bought a sandwich, a cookie and a La Croix, and ate them all on my fast-paced walk back to the DMV. The whole outing took 30 minutes, the blink of an eye within the epoch that is a day waiting at the DMV, but I would never have forgiven myself if my number had been called while I was away. I probably don’t have to tell you that large volumes of fried chicken, baked goods, and carbonated beverages consumed while walking is tough on the gut. I returned in time to see SL 1045 appear on the screen… as if no time had passed. Had I even eaten lunch? Or was it a delusional episode caused by the stress of this imprisonment? The gas I started passing confirmed my recess had occurred. 

A nearby man started talking to himself. Many of the sentences were punctuated by expletives. He would pace, then sit. He walked outside to the smoking area, then back into the office. He started making quacking noises, like a duck. Loudly. He was oh, so close to breaking. After he was eventually seen at a desk, it was apparent he didn’t get the answers or service he expected… and a real shouting episode followed. Not at anyone in particular, something along the lines of, “F*%& this place and the people in it, who’s coming with me!?” No one rose to his defense, for fear of losing a spot in line. But many quadriceps muscles were flexed instinctively, ready for the riot. No one else quite met their threshold, and he left the room, followed not far behind by two defeated, aging security guards, looking like they had responded to a similar outbursts every day for the past decade. 

The local crew that I had joined all smiled knowingly, making eye-contact and nodding our heads at each other, communicating, “That could easily be any one of us, and if that time should come, I gotchu.” The quacking man hadn’t laid the groundwork before his revolution. 


It was after 2:30PM. There was an announcement over the loudspeaker, “The last written driver’s license exam will start at 4:30PM. There will be no exams after 4:30PM. Also, today is Earth Day, please try to reduce your carbon footprint so our children’s children can have a place to live.” It wasn’t Earth Day… and what does that have to do with DMV testing? Something weird was going on, but couldn’t quite place it. 

One person in front of me in line since the morning came back from the front desk with intel that they were still estimating a two hour wait time. I started to contend with possibility I wouldn’t be seen. I tried to gather strength from the fact that some of the others I had befriended were starting to be called up. Despite the agonizing wait, they had made it to the mountaintop, had overcome adversity, and accomplished their goals. And I liked to think I had small part to play in their triumph. I had to tell myself something.

To make the rest of a long, painful story short, there was no happy ending. An announcement over the loudspeaker at 4:30PM confirmed no one else would be taking their written license tests that day. I tried to ignore it. My number was called at 4:45PM. I begged, I pleaded. The worker just said, “I understand your frustration, but we have to go home too.” Still in shock, she tried to help me schedule an appointment to be seen in the future, to avoid the wait time. The next appointment was a month out. We tried to get my information into the system, but it didn’t go through; their scheduling system had crashed. She looked at me and smirked, “I guess you won’t be driving for a while.” I saw a National Park Service uniform slip out from under her cardigan. 


A light bulb went on. The nature magazine? The global-warming TV ads? The strange tramp-stamp tattoo? This DMV was run by people who cared about the environment, some of them seemingly National Park Service employees! 

At first I was angry. Why? What do they have against me? Why would they stop me from getting my license? I care about the environment too, I’m on their side. Then I understood… this is how they are fighting global warming. My license was expired and wouldn’t be able to get another weekday off for at least a month, so I wouldn’t be able to drive until then. Multiplied across all the people waiting with me that day, that week… that is a lot of gasoline left unburnt. 

One way to slow global warming is to make it illegal for people to burn fossil fuels. Using the horrible inefficiencies of the DMV is a somewhat indirect way to enact this, but it may be easier to accomplish than some sweeping national policy. If our collective carbon footprint is reduced and conservative climate change-deniers are none-the-wiser, that would be a win, and well worth the wait. 


Or… maybe I should just make an appointment before going to the DMV next time.


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