This Side Up

The DMV: It’s no express, but enjoy the ride


Bring a pen when you visit the DMV; it’s a great way to meet some of the best people.

That wasn’t my intention last Tuesday.

I went prepared. I checked my wallet. I had money. I checked my shirt pocket; I had two pens.

I knew I would be filling out forms, I knew I would be waiting in lines and I knew I would be watching the clock and counting minutes … maybe hours.

But something more than reregistering a car whose plates expired in 1996 (No, it hasn’t been on the road all this time; just in the garage) had to come out of spending a morning at the DMV.

This would be the inside story, a test of whether the system has been radically changed and lines and waiting times have been slashed, as Governor Chafee keeps telling us. There would be a reason to count the minutes; that Beacon readers would get the truth, down to the second, of how long it takes to navigate the maze. They would hear of heartless attendants who desert their stations for smoke breaks while hapless, hard working people are losing a day’s pay because they don’t have insider connections, how they stand their ground, wondering if they can hold their pee another hour. They would get reports of the frustration, the anguish of those who, after finally arriving face-to-face with the person who will determine their fate, are told they need another form and to return when they get it.

The DMV would be exposed for what it is – a hellhole that nobody in their right minds would visit except under the most dire of circumstances. There would be no covering up what really happens. I didn’t tell anyone to “make a call” to the higher-ups and slice through the red tape. This would be the unvarnished truth, the real scoop on the DMV.

I picked my time – 10:30 on a Tuesday – thinking the early rush would be over and I’d miss the lunch wave.

The first clue I made a poor choice was the parking lot. I could have parked in Garden City and walked a mile by the time I found a space.

When I reached the second floor, I quickly surveyed the scene. There was a line of 60 people just to get a numbered slip to sit in another line. Most seats were filled. Some people looked to be sleeping. Kids were sprawled about with coloring books and toys as parents and grandparents tried to amuse them. Other people were bent over forms, or texting, or playing games on their cell phones.

The kiosk with the forms was easy enough to find. I pulled out what I thought I needed and joined the end of the line. To my amazement, we were moving and within 10 minutes I arrived at a counter. The woman on the other side took the forms, highlighting what I had missed in yellow and handing me a slip of paper with the number 1088.

I found the screen with its display of numbers currently being served. This was like a deli I’d never witnessed. There were numbers in the five and eight thousands as well as in the one thousands. I focused on the one thousands and realized there were 44 ahead of me.

I watched the clock and the screen. Nothing changed for three minutes and then one of the eight thousand numbers advanced. Finally 1045 came up. It had taken four minutes. I did the math. At this rate, it would take me almost three hours just to turn in my forms.

“Could I use your pen?” a voice asked. I looked down from the numbers to face a young man. I handed him one of my pens and he went to work. He handed it back and then we both stared at the numbers, but not for long. He had just gotten off his shift at Toray in Quonset and was registering a larger car for his expanding family. He and his wife have a daughter and another child was on the way.

“Do you know if it’s going to be another girl?” I asked.

“We want to be surprised,” he answered. Then I was in for a surprise; the baby was due the following day.

His cell phone rang.

“It’s my wife,” he said explaining.

I had this image of her going into labor while he was within a couple of numbers of being served. What a dilemma. I suppose it could be worse. Women probably have gone into labor while waiting at the registry. Now that would make headlines.

“It’s all right. I shouldn’t be too long,” I heard him reassure her.

“Everything OK?” I asked.

He didn’t seem worried. The baby was already late and would be induced the following morning.

I told him where I work.

“You must know my uncle,” he said.

I certainly do. I’ve known Ken Mallette, the city’s tax collector and assessor, for years. I learned of their fishing expeditions. We talked about family traditions and, of course, about Rhode Island. The numbers seemed to be flying, but so, too, was the time.

At about 11:50, the place looked to clear out and the numbers seemed to stop.

“Do you suppose they’ve gone to lunch?” asked my new friend, Jonathan Caetano. I was thinking the same thing.

Jonathan went to find a seat. There were lots of them now. I stood steadfast with a clear view of the numbers. I wouldn’t be leaving for lunch.

To my relief, things hadn’t come to a halt.

My number came up and I went to booth 4 as directed. I was in for a surprise. Debbie Rich, who served as Mayor Lincoln Chafee’s press secretary and worked on his campaign for governor, was two booths down. She waved and came over, but didn’t linger. They were short-staffed for the day and Lisa, who took care of reregistering my car, had left her supervisor’s post to man a station.

I handed over $30. She handed over my plates. Once they had my number, it took about three minutes.

I left thinking that there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes. The DMV is really quite manageable, if you’re willing to share your pen and meet people.

Post script: Jon and his wife had a baby boy the following morning, at Kent Hospital.


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