Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Grace, and the DMV

My daughter Grace and I were driving to school yesterday, discussing the idea that if she did her part to catch up in English, as he promised Mr. Proctor would meet her halfway--the concept of grace itself. I was grateful for her attitude but hadn't even realized the connection between her name and the idea as it pertains to her education. In the afternoon, I was required to dig down deep and call upon the universe to provide a measure of grace on my own behalf.

I got a parking ticket a few days ago, due to an expired registration sticker. But I never received a notice in the mail and do not make it a habit to look at my own license plate; I had no idea. I stayed on hold for 22 minutes and 43 seconds calling the DMV on Monday afternoon to find out what the problem was and how to get it resolved. At 5:08 p.m. the call automatically dropped, they had now closed. Knowing this would be an unpleasant experience (how can a trip to the DMV be anything more), I geared up with some Dove chocolate and headed down the expressway on Tuesday afternoon.

Just as I had anticipated, at 3:30 p.m. I walked into a scene from Armageddon. Lines, crowds, desperate and frowning people with no place to sit. Luckily I had taken my work bag inside with five ski magazines that I had intended to read on the plane last week but never did. I heard the loudspeaker, "Now serving number A230." My number: B318. What does that mean? I used my cell phone to let everyone know that I would be very late, and squeezed myself into a single plastic chair near the "Now Serving" display. For an hour, I read my ski magazines and put myself into the "happy place" that Happy Gilmore describes.

Finally, at 4:30 p.m. the numbers started whizzing by and mine came up. "Go to window number seven." I walked toward the window and said a little prayer that I would be greeted by a merciful DMV employee on the other side. No such luck. It was the end of the day and this gentleman was only interested in getting me out of there a.s.a.p.. I explained the situation to him and he authoritatively looked me up in the system, "You owe $834." I braced myself and tried to calmly ask how this could be, when I never even received a renewal notice in the mail. I had paid $274 last January, so it should have gone down slightly, not up. The worker maintained his position, and so did I. Finally, he typed a few characters into the system: "That will be $542, with the penalty." I wondered if it would help to let him see my tears, but I decided to just be strong.

I had been standing at window number seven for ten minutes with no resolve. The man looked at the clock, ready to go home, "I can't do anything about this. You owe a penalty for a suspended registration. Do you want to talk to a supervisor?" I was relieved to hear that position in the DMV budget was still in place. "Yes!" I smiled as he pointed me to window twenty-seven, the "outer banks" of the agency. Worker 27 did not look pleased to see me standing there at 4:45 p.m. "Did I call your number???" I told her that I had been sent there by Worker 7, and that I needed a supervisor. She seemed happy that I wasn't her problem, and she called over a handsome East Indian man who must have either just gotten a raise or was also looking forward to quitting time.

His name was something like Raj, and I looked him right in the eye with my story. He looked back, not as the typical bureaucrat but as a human being. I told him how I was really just trying to get my car registered but that this fee and fine did not make any sense if I never received a renewal notice in the mail. Raj took it in, and surprisingly in my favor (against the advice of the female worker at window 27), he agreed that it was not my error but the DMV's. The lady printed out a ticket, with the amount now showing $472. At least the number was moving in the right direction! She stepped aside to talk to him about the fee, and he insisted that the correct assessment was $271, three dollars less than last year. (Who knows how they really figure that out, anyway.)

To remind me there really is grace in the world, "Raj" had looked me in the eye and tried to understand my story. The lady at window 27 eventually believed him, and after her insistence that I still owed two years' worth of registration, she lowered it back to one and even offered to stamp my parking ticket to bring it from $75 to $10. Numbers aside, it's comforting to know that maybe there are still human beings at this organization after all. Well, there's at least one. And if you happen to have a problem that the DMV online or voice-activated-computerized calling service can't seem to figure out, you'd better talk to the supervisor and hope he's having a great day. For an experience I dreaded as much as tooth surgery, I was shown a bright spot to end this day that had started with a reminder that if we do our part, others will be there to help.

***If you absolutely must deal with the DMV in-person, I'll pass along my advice from "Raj" and Window 27: arrive at 4:50 p.m. From me: look them right in the eye with honesty and pray they're in a good mood, it released me from a battle over $834 with fines!

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