Doing hard time at the DMV

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Complaining about the DMV is an admittedly banal exercise. Just like death and taxes, a trip to obtain, renew, or restore a driver’s license is inevitable, and no matter where you are, the ambiance is best described as “hell’s antechamber.” If you value your driving privileges, the universe declares, then suck it up, buttercup.

I’ve experienced epic wait times of up to 2-3 hours in New Jersey, which is practically world renowned for “worst DMV experience of all time,” and easily an hour in the Philadelphia suburbs. In Florida, the county tax collector’s office instructs you to book an appointment online for the privilege of waiting in line for half an hour or more.

In Tupelo, the waiting isn’t the hardest part. But just as Tolstoy famously wrote that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” every state’s DMV system is a unique incarnation of Hades on Earth, and Mississippi is no exception.

Unfortunately, my quest for a license required TWO trips. This was a huge disappointment because I pride myself on studying DMV logistics as scrupulously as I prepared for my high school and college exams. I never wanted to be the moron who gets turned away because they don’t have their act together and is then mocked behind the scenes by the DMV staff, who would otherwise commit homicide against the general public on a daily basis if they couldn’t entertain themselves in this fashion.

I was off to a decent start, or so I thought. I had called a couple weeks prior to confirm that my birth registration card from the Commonwealth of Virginia, which had long been my go-to proof of U.S. citizenship, would not be accepted here. Instead, I would need to shell out $50 to expedite my “long form birth certificate” from the state Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Once that was in hand, I was anxious to get this errand over with. That meant aligning my availability with the DMV’s. I would say that they keep bankers’ hours, but at least my bank is open on Saturday morning, for crying out loud.

Still, I am better off than the poor slobs in Magee, where the DMV is open only on the third Wednesday of each month (and then has the gall to close an hour for lunch!), or even worse, Belzoni and Indianola, “temporarily closed due to technical issues,” or Lexington, Winona, and Purvis, just “temporarily closed,” period. And God help the denizens of Pontotoc, where the DMV is “temporally (sic) closed.”

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The posted hours of my friendly neighborhood DMV are 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday.  Because I am now on Central time, my work-from-home hours are 7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. to coincide with my colleagues in the Eastern time zone. The drive to the DMV takes 15 minutes. Surely I could cross this off my list after my work day ended, without having to burn any personal or vacation time.

It turned out that getting there, as they say, was half the fun. My phone’s GPS led me to a sprawling, nondescript complex known as the Mississippi Building of the Tupelo Furniture Market, subdivided into “suites” and dominated by a furniture wholesaler known as LQ Furniture (marketing tagline: “LQ Equals Limited Quantities – Unlimited Savings,” which seems to fly in the face of the laws of supply and demand). For at least five minutes, I circled the parking lot, confounded by the absence of any prominent signage suggesting where one might procure a driver’s license. Behold Exhibit A:

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It wasn’t until I finally noticed the Mississippi-shaped decals on the doors pictured above, conveniently located next to The Anchor Church, (a “God-centered, Bible believing, Holy Spirit led church not affiliated with any specific denomination,” according to its website) that I realized my pilgrimage was over. Perhaps I should have given some credit to the Holy Spirit for taking time out of its busy schedule to lead me there. The time was around 4:20 p.m.

By the time my number was called, it was close to 4:30. “You need to be here by 4. It takes 30 minutes to get your license,” twanged the woman behind the counter. To add insult to injury, my AT&T Internet bill wasn’t an acceptable substitute for my misplaced apartment lease as proof of my address because there was no landline telephone attached to it. Cue “The Price is Right” loser horn and my empty-handed walk of shame back to my car.

Nearly two weeks later, I tried again. I arrived at 4 on the dot, had my lease this time, and confidently stepped up to the counter when my number was called at around 4:15 p.m.

This time, the gatekeeper was a man in his 60s who announced about every 5 minutes how tired he was. Despite having numerous documents with my full name clearly marked on them, I needed to spell my last name for him multiple times, but unlike my jewelry store inquisitor, he had no interest in its ethnic provenance.

Then, he puzzled over the discrepancy between my birth certificate and every other valid proof of my existence and residency that I had proffered. I wondered, did I remember my marriage certificate? No. I took a deep breath and explained that I had taken my maiden name as my middle name upon getting married and adopting the exotic surname that has proven to be such an albatross in these situations. After conferring with one of his bureaucratic brethren, he decided that I had in fact sufficiently proven that I was who I said I was, and reminded me yet again of his fatigue: “I’ve been at this all day.”

After passing the vision test (no small feat with progressive lenses), I had to make an important decision in order to seal the deal: Did I want a 4-year license for $24, or an 8-year license for $47?

I had to remind myself this wasn’t a prison sentence. But seriously? Eight years? In Mississippi? Renouncing my Florida residency was difficult enough. Better to start with baby steps.

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