Waiting for Godot: Three Horror-Filled Hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 15, 2015

BRIDGEPORT, CT - Why is the word “nightmare” so often associated with a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles? Why does the work of Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett come to mind?

"We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness." -- Arthur Schopenhauer (Jim Motavalli photo)The procedure is this: You get in a line that snakes out the door. Chances are, you’re unclear (in part because of a complete lack of signage) if it’s the right line, but the truth of the matter will only become clear once you reach the counter. In my case this morning, I was almost there when I heard one clerk say to the other, “The computer is down.” It wasn’t just the one office; the computers crashed statewide, meaning this exact scene was unfolding at 10 other hellholes.

The line stopped dead. There was no announcement of any kind; we just entered into a kind of stasis—nothing moved, and most of the office staff disappeared. We stood there as dust motes swirled in the air. Babies cried, in several languages. People pulled out their phones, an option not available to DMV visitors in years past.

Occasionally, someone would gingerly approach the desk and inquire when the problem might be fixed. “Who knows!” the clerk said, raising her arms to indicate a vast unknown. “It’s computers!” The desktop at her station looked like one I recycled in 1985.

As we waited, I pictured, somewhere in the state capitol, a lifer employee leisurely finishing his coffee break before heading down to see what might be the trouble.

"In the consciousness of the truth he has perceived, man now sees everywhere only the awfulness or the absurdity of existence and loathing seizes him."-- Friedrich Nietzsche (Jim Motavalli photo)The guy in a baseball cap behind me in line said he’d experienced exactly the same thing a week ago. “I stood it for an hour and then went home,” he said.

“Did you at least get to come back at the head of the line?” I asked. He looked at me like I was crazy. "That would make too much sense," he said. At this point my shoulder was killing me and my hernia was acting up, but every seat was filled, and leaving the line only meant I’d have to come back.

Entering a DMV office is like walking into a time warp. The experience is exactly as it was decades ago when I first visited. This is true despite successive governors announcing that they’re going to reform the process. One of them decreed a series of monitors above the individual teller windows displaying the deli-like number of the customer they’re serving. They’re still there 20 years later; they just don’t work anymore.

Why do DMV workers always look terminally bored and disgruntled? Aren’t they, in fact, well-paid state workers? I’d compare the level of service to Soviet-era Russia, but I’m betting that things are better there now. I was sitting next to a six-foot, five Latvian, and asked him if the DMV experience in Eastern Europe was better or worse. “About the same,” he said.

"Life begins on the other side of despair." -- Jean-Paul Sartre (Jim Motavalli photo)Forty-five minutes later the computers started up, and (again, with no announcement of any kind) we started moving. I was handed number 667, which was fine until I saw they were calling 610. We advanced through the numbers with agonizing slowness. The clock ticked. At least I was sitting by then.

Having been to the DMV before, I’d brought a book. Michael Mewshaw’s Sympathy for the Devil is about the author’s 40-year friendship (if that’s the right word) with the acerbic Gore Vidal, who evidently spent the latter decades of his life wishing he were dead. It’s easy to sympathize while life ebbs away at the DMV.

I entered at 9:30 in the morning. At around 1 p.m., with Vidal headed to a fairly grim end, I was called, handed in the paperwork to register my new Mazda Miata, and in 10 minutes was hitting the door as a free man. For the record, the clerk who handled me was briskly efficient, a rather stark contrast to the general air of indolence that hovers over the place. Blazing sun outside, after the perpetual fluorescent twilight of the DMV! People going about their business with no thought about registering a motor vehicle!

Everybody hates the DMV. Jalopnik ran a “10 Scariest DMV Horror Stories” piece and found no shortage of material. There was the poor sap who was practically arrested for having a forged title because a clerk had made a single-digit VIN error. A 16-year-old is told by the inspector giving him a driving test to pull his car up to the starting line, then rejected for driving without a license. Another hapless kid is judged “legally blind in left eye” when the vision tester fails on that side.

"Let me go to hell, that’s all I ask, and go on cursing them there, and them look down and hear me, that might take some of the shine off their bliss." --Samuel Beckett (Jim Motavalli Photo)The best case, though, is the peripatetic fellow who moved to Connecticut from New Mexico and when applying for new plates was told by a DMV official, “This is the wrong office for foreign transactions.”

“I told her that New Mexico was part of the United States and told her it was between Arizona and Texas,” the applicant explained. They refused to take his word for it, and the plot thickened when, after a brief huddle, the officers said that checking with New Mexico’s DMV was impossible because “the phones wouldn’t allow for international calls.”

By the way, it matters what time you go to the DMV. Timed just right, I’ve had miraculous in-and-out visits. But not lately. Don’t go to the Los Angeles DMV on Mondays. The LA Daily News described it as “like getting stuck behind a four-car pile-up on a holiday weekend….Thanks to furlough Fridays—which close many state offices three Fridays a month to save money—lines at most DMV offices on Monday overflow with motorists, desperate to renew licenses or register their vehicles before getting fined.”

By the time I left, the line was twice as long as when I came in. The hot dog vendor outside was doing a brisk business, and people were buying Skittles from a vending machine. And every so often, another liberated prisoner would emerge into the sunlight, clutching a precious piece of paper or a pair of license plates. Remember when Morgan Freeman is finally sprung in The Shawshank Redemption? That’s what it looked like. Here's some relevant video:


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