An Encounter with the CA DMV

I don’t know about other states, but dealing with the California DMV is about as much fun as having a root canal. That said, when your driver’s license needs to be renewed, you have to take a deep breath, say a prayer, eat a chocolate bar, and go forth.

This September 25, my driver’s license will expire. In CA when you reach a certain age, you are required to take a written exam every five years. It’s something to look forward to, just like another candle on your birthday cake. Last year was my year to take the written exam but, because of COVID, I received a one-year extension. 

One thing the DMV is good at is sending out renewal notices far in advance. Driver’s license renewals arrive around four months prior to expiration, according to the CA DVM website, but my license was expiring in two months and still no renewal notice. So, after drinking a large cup of coffee, I waded onto the website knowing there were going to be murky waters there. But I was confident I could find the answer to my question regarding the missing renewal notice. 

After a fruitless hour, I decided to try the helpline. The line was answered by Miley, a robo whatever, who assured me that he (it was a masculine voice) was very smart and could probably answer my question. After phrasing “did not receive driver’s license renewal” five different ways with an incremental increase in voice volume, Miley asked if I wanted to talk to a DMV agent. Maybe Miley really was smart.

Of course, I was put on hold. But here was a surprise: after five minutes I was told an agent would call me at 4:23 p.m. It was about 11:30 a.m. At 3:28 p.m. my phone rang, and I answered. I could hear Juanita loud and clear, but she obviously could not hear me. After Juanita hung up, I checked my phone, and it was working perfectly. I waited ten minutes for a call back, then decided to call Juanita back and got Miley again. You know what is coming up, don’t you? After going through the five questions with Miley again, I got a recording to “call back tomorrow morning to talk to an agent.”

That was when I decided that maybe a trip to the DMV office wasn’t such a bad idea. I would ask a human my question about not receiving a renewal and would pick up a booklet to study. Easy, right? I allotted fifteen minutes for this simple transaction because I really wanted to get to the gym before lunchtime (quit laughing!).

As is usual in July, it was fairly warm when I arrived mid-morning at our local DMV office. The first thing I encountered was two lines outside snaking into the parking lot outside the building. There was an E-Z Up that, because of social distancing, shaded one person, and you know there was more than one person in line. 

I finally got to the front of the line and asked my question. 

“Not to worry,” the smiling middle-aged woman said. “You just go into the building, around the corner to the applications computer, and fill in an application. You will get your new license today,” she added like she was bestowing a papal blessing.  

“But I haven’t studied,” I said. (When you spend twelve years in Catholic school, you study before an exam … well … most of the time.)

“You don’t have to take the test.” 

Frankly, I didn’t believe her, but I followed her directions into the building. (The nuns would have been proud of my compliance.)

There was no “Applications” signage, but I finally found the computers where you fill the applications in. That process was very easy. What I didn’t realize was that, at the end of this form, you had to write down a specific number to proceed to the next step. When I pushed “Enter,” the vital number disappeared. So I got in a new line and was finally told I would have to redo the application. My anxiety was beginning to build, and by now we were about an hour into the process. 

As I was refilling the form, a very nice woman about my age came up and asked if I needed help. After I recovered from my shock, I told her my story, and she and John chatted while I refilled the form. (Yes, John was with me through this process. He kept assuring me I would have to take the test. The very nice woman concurred. I could have trod on her corns. But at that point, I was not going to give up.)

You are not allowed to have a cell phone where you fill in the application, but John had his. The next step was to scan a square, and you would get a “Wait Number.” How you were supposed to do that without a cell phone is an enigma. But John had his, and we ended up with a Wait Number for vehicle registration (sigh).

That’s when I realized that the gray-haired helper was really an undercover angel. She told us to follow her, and we all went up to two bored-looking women sitting behind a desk who couldn’t—or wouldn’t—help us get a useful number.

“Come with me,” our angel said tersely, and out we went to the lines. You should now be hearing celestial music. She went up to the front of the line and got us a Wait Number for license renewal. I could have kissed her on both masked cheeks, and I instantly forgave her for saying I would have to take the test.

And so we subsided gratefully into a waiting area that was inside the air-conditioned building. After about half an hour, my number came up. The next stop would reveal the crux of the matter: test or no test. Once again, I explained my situation, and this woman smiled benevolently and said, “We have waived the test because of COVID.” A celestial choir started singing the “Alleluia” chorus in my head, and John looked disappointed. 

An eye exam, photo, and thumbprint were taken, and I was out the door with my license. All in all, about two hours. This DMV experience, while painful at times, had a great outcome. Just like a root canal …

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