The other day, I went to our local DMV in Corning to renew my driver’s license, which seemed a mundane enough activity. Little did I know I was about to journey through the looking glass.
To look at the building sitting high on a hill, you’d never guess that the DMV is located there. The only sign says, “WARNING SIDEWALK UNDER REPAIR.” The main entrance sits at the top of the concrete steps. You can’t take the steps, which are torn apart, but no signs indicate where you’re supposed to go. I stumbled around until I found a way in.
The building is a magnificent old courthouse fronted by Greek columns. Inside are marble floors, a graceful winding staircase, a vaulted ceiling and intricate molding of the type found only in buildings constructed in the late 1800’s. It was a time when people were well-mannered. My, how things have changed.
The signs inside said Line One and Line Two, but it was unclear who was supposed to stand in which line or where the lines began. I was one of a few early arrivals. We were all confused, looking at each other questioningly. We waited in front of a massive iron grate, and somewhat later than the advertised opening time of 8:30 AM, the grate slowly and noisily rolled up to reveal counters, computers and two scowling DMV clerks. It was immediately clear they had flunked the customer service course. Their faces said, “approach with caution.”
The clerk in front of me, looking annoyed, said not “Good morning” but “Who’s next?” which would seem to be a rhetorical question, since I was first in line. He never looked at me or spoke to me while he looked over my paperwork. At last satisfied, he barked, “Read the top line.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I said, “I’m sorry?” He said, “Eye exam.” Baffled, I asked, “Where?” He gestured to a wall plastered with black-and-white leaflets, in the middle of which was a well-camouflaged black-and-white eye chart. I read it and he said, “Line number two.” “Did I pass the eye test?” I asked. Still looking everywhere but at me, he growled, “Yes.”
I had come up in the world; I graduated to Line Two. I moved to where I thought Line Two was. I looked at the others waiting back in Line One, who were smiling, shaking their heads, rolling their eyes or shrugging in resignation. Their faces said, “Yes, we’re paying these people to treat us like crap.”
Now my wait in Line Two began. No one was staffing it. After ten minutes I caught a clerk’s eye and, smiling, I asked, “How long?” Sounding bored, she said, “As soon as they’re done in the back.” Minutes dragged by, more people arriving, more sympathetic smiles and eye-rolling among the crowd. A couple in their mid-60’s walked in, confused about where to stand. The woman said, pointing to my lonely spot on Line Two, “Do we line up here?” “Oh, no,” I chuckled, “This is Line Two, apparently it’s my own private line. I think you belong on Line One.” I stood for another ten minutes and finally a clerk from the back made her way to the counter and the steel door in front of Line Two ground open. This clerk didn’t look at me either. She called, “Who’s next?” I glanced behind me – I was alone – and said, “Must be me.”
When at last my business was complete, the woman I had spoken with earlier finally made it to Line Two. She said, “We’re moving back here from Colorado and we’re getting New York licenses and registering our vehicles.” I said with some irony, glancing at the DMV clerks, “Welcome to New York!” A knowing smile flashed across her face. “Thank you. I know New York, the bureaucrats rule and we obey.”
In the age of instant information, it took 45 minutes to renew my driver’s license, and it was an endurance test complete with uncivil civil servants. All I could think was, “Thank God these people aren’t running our health care.”
Michael A. Morrongiello, Ph. D.