2.25.2021

Visiting the DMV: American Efficiency in the Age of COVID-19

cars on the road

My driver's license was about to expire, and Mississippi's online renewal system requires that each online renewal is interspersed with an in-person renewal. Since I used the online renewal last time, I'd have no choice but to brave the DMV in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I probably would have waited and let my license expire if I thought I had any chance of receiving two doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the next couple months, but I don't.

The ordeal began by attempting to navigate a poorly constructed website to determine where I was supposed to go. The main branch in town was listed as "closed due to COVID-19" on some pages but not others. I found a small branch much closer to me that looked like it might be open, but this was also inconsistent. Of course, there were no phone numbers. I finally found a page that encouraged me to schedule an appointment online. "Skip the line" was what it advertised. I scheduled an appointment and wrote down the address, noticing that the address seemed incomplete. I recognized the street address as being the street on which our town's main shopping mall is located. That told me I was likely to need extra time to find it.

The extra 20 minutes I gave myself was exactly what I needed. The street address took me to the mall. The suite number was useless, as no suite numbers were visible on any of the buildings. It was only by slowly driving through every little strip mall near the main shopping mall that I finally found it. My joy in finally having found it faded as soon as I saw the crowd of people standing outside the door.

Masking up and getting as close to the front as I felt comfortable doing while trying to maintain social distance when few others were making any effort to do so, I soon observed that they were letting 3-5 people in at once. The appointment scheduling system I had used sounded great on the website, but it was clearly designed for pre-COVID days. It looked like they were letting people in based on how long they had been standing there, defeating the whole point of having an appointment. I was going to have to be assertive if I wanted to get in. I called out to the woman who would periodically open the door to let select people in and asked what those of us with appointments were supposed to do. She seemed momentarily puzzled but quickly recovered and asked the crowd who had appointments. There were 5-6 of us, and she got us in next. By the time I gained access to the building, it was only about 15 minutes past the appointment time I had scheduled.

Groups of 3-5 people were allowed in at once, clustered together into a very small space where we were practically standing on top of each other. Masks were required, but I use the term loosely because some were not covering people's noses, and others looked like they were about to fall off. At least two of the people there were coughing. One-by-one, we were screened with a temperature check. You know, because it is impossible to spread COVID-19 without running a fever. The woman in the gatekeeping role asked why we were here and looked through our paperwork to make sure it was in order. We were then required to apply hand sanitizer, which was fine except that there was no place to set down whatever papers or other items we were carrying.

After all of that, we were rewarded with a paper number reflecting our order and being allowed to stand in line for the next 30 minutes. So much for skipping the line! It was clear at this point that they were trying to maintain social distancing in the lines. Unfortunately, there were two problems with this. First, the room simply wasn't big enough to allow the number of people they admitted to spread out with more than about 3-4 feet between them. Second, some of the people in line would not stand still. The woman in front of me kept backing into me, completely ignoring the marks on the floor that indicated where she was supposed to stand.

The DMV employee running the line I was in was training a new employee. This didn't phase me a bit because this has been the case at every DMV I've ever been in every time I've ever been in at least 5 different states. If they weren't going painfully slow because they were training a new hire, it wouldn't be the DMV, after all. The problem turned out to be the people at the front of the line. I had plenty of time to stand there and observe, so I was able to gather that an older Vietnamese man with a very limited grasp of English and a younger man there to interpret for him were trying to obtain identification papers. They had a ton of paperwork, and the DMV employee kept saying incredibly helpful things. Here was one exchange I particularly enjoyed:

Do you have your birth certificate?
[Hands over his birth certificate]
What country is this from?
[Looks confused and says nothing]
What country is this from? (loudly, because that will obviously help)
[Interpreter says something in Vietnamese] Vietnam.
This isn't even in English. Some of your paperwork isn't in English!
Why the hell would Vietnam issue their birth certificates in English? It went on like this for at least 20 minutes, becoming apparent that the interpreter's grasp of Vietnamese was limited. The DMV employee announced loudly that one of the man's forms needed to be notarized; however, it appeared that they gave him his identification anyway.

Once I got to the front of the line, everything went smoothly and didn't take too long. I'm not sure when to expect the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, but I'm hoping this experience doesn't prove fatal.

I can't help thinking this this and every other interaction with the DMV is symbolic of something; I'm just not sure what. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but it is hard not to think that the "greatest country on Earth" could be doing much better in so many ways. Perhaps the problem is that saying things like this still leads one to be branded as unpatriotic, traitorous, or worse. Or maybe I just need to embrace my membership in the "blame America first crowd."