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First Person

Getting mugged-shot at the DMV


I'm a newcomer, so I went Friday morning to trade in my old state's driver's license for a North Carolina one. It was a lot like bonding out of jail, but slower and less fun.

I was held at the East Durham office of the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles for nearly two hours before being released on my own recognizance.

Past the white, boxy lobby full of lethargic people, a crowd-control rope led me on a narrow path along a concrete block wall. On the other side of the rope, two dozen people sat in regimented rows of hard plastic chairs facing a series of metal signs heavy enough to withstand a hurricane.

The signs listed fees and sternly told me what sort of ID I would need. My Social Security Number would be required. I wasn't allowed to use my cell phone or to stand and block the path. But none told me what to do to get started.

I followed the rope to its end, where a red sign said: "DO NOT ENTER." I later learned that this is DMVese for, "Welcome to the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles! Someone will be right with you."

Indeed, a woman soon appeared and asked if I had brought all the papers I needed. I pulled out my insurance card, Social Security card and the lease to my apartment to prove I live here. The irritated clerk I'd spoken with on the phone had told me what to bring in the tone of voice you use to remind a second grader not to hit his brother.

The woman seemed satisfied and handed me a slip of paper that said "B230" in blue letters.

My inmate number.

The matrix board read B223. I was optimistic. Seven people ahead of me. But the next number was A-something. Then H something. Finally B224 and B225.

I realized then that I should have brought a newspaper. I guess the reason that I didn't go over to the magazine rack and pick up an old issue of Sports Illustrated to read is because the DMV had not provided a magazine rack or any magazines.

I noticed that the examiners, who had been sitting at the carrels and helping inmates with lower numbers, had left. The receptionist told me they were out giving road tests. I suggested that a separate line for people who need road tests might allow people who just need paperwork to finish faster.

She looked at me, genuinely intrigued for a moment. Then her face changed. She shrugged. I sat down again.

People kept arriving. Each one scanned the signs on the wall, then glanced at the matrix board. They peered about, trying to figure out where to get one of those numbers. I pointed meaningfully at the "DO NOT ENTER" sign and told them the receptionist would be back in a minute to check them in.

I'd been waiting an hour, and the board was up to B228.

I realized then that I should have brought along my portable CD player, lunch, No Doz tablets, some skeins of yarn, needles and instructions on how to knit a sweater, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes and the complete works of Shakespeare. I thought of illicitly using my mobile phone to have a recliner delivered from Haverty's.

Each time the receptionist did return, she turned away half the people waiting for her because they hadn't brought the right documents.

Some spoke only Spanish. She raised her voice and told one guy, "You need to go to your CASA and get your DOCUMENTOS. Then BRING your documentos HERE." At least the man on the phone had given me more than two nouns' worth of information.

I realized then that I should have brought along Franz Kafka and told him not to forget his clipboard and a pen.

At last the automated voice called out B230. I wanted to jump around and hug the people sitting near me. I was the next contestant on The Price Is Right.

My license examiner was pretty nice. The computerized traffic test ranged from obvious questions ("The best way to dry out wet brakes is: A. Turn on the heater B. Hope real hard C. Apply light pressure to the brake pedal until normal braking performance returns") to useless, esoteric ones: ("The percentage of accidents caused by intoxicated motorists is A. 83 B. 38 C. 14"). I'm going to have try that heater thing.

They took my picture. I was snarling, but finally I had my new license. I was free to go.

A sign on a door read, "EXIT."

By then, I knew "EXIT" was DMVese for "We know you have many choices when it comes to North Carolina driver's licenses, so we appreciate you choosing the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. Thank you for your business!" EndBlock

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