A Day-trip Adventure to the California DMV

I thought I was prepared. I clutched pink slip, smog certificate, and a stack of pre-completed forms like they were permits to climb Everest or descend the Grand Canyon. But I wasn’t expecting this. There were two lines stretching out the door from the DMV office in my hometown. One line was maybe 50 people following the cement-paneled exterior wall and stopping just short of the full parking lot. The other line had hundreds, wrapping around the building, along the sidewalk, and reaching halfway to the nearby above-ground BART station. Add another hundred people and I could see it continuing through the turnstiles, up the escalator, across the platform, and onto the tracks. The imaginary headline: “System down for days due to grieving DMV patrons flinging selves onto third rail.”

Luckily, I was early for my 9:50 AM appointment, which the field office webpage informed me meant only a 2-minute delay compared to an hour for the instructionally-themed no appointment line. But, inside, a sign clearly indicated I must first wait behind the 50 people who also had appointments. I texted my hometown buddy, who was off skiing in Alaska, about the situation.

“What they mean by appointment is there’s no wait to wait in the no-wait line,” replied Cole. “You can walk right in and start waiting immediately.”

Clearly the snow in this photo can’t read. You’re a loose cannon, snow.

Got it. But given the bumbling behavior of arriving appointment holders, it was clear that many did not understand. A friendly employee came out to greet the confused, handing out clipboards with various forms as a peace offering. She explained the appointment line was definitely the faster of the two. Maybe an hour. The non-planning souls without appointments would be here much longer, transitioning from the standing line, through the check-in desk, and to a federal penitentiary—err, seated waiting area. They might never be seen again.

Meanwhile, us fore-thinking appointment holders would also progress to the seated waiting area, but we’d be there for a much shorter time. This discrepancy appeased most appointment holders, who accepted their fate and watched apprehensively each time the non-appointment line lurched forward and ours didn’t.

“This is my third day here,” said the young man behind me. “I think I finally have the right form.”

I hoped I could say the same. I’d studied the online requirements like a topographic map. First, was a smog check. However, since my battery had recently been disconnected for some work, our local mechanic explained I must drive the car 100 miles to reset the internal monitors before testing. They offered this as a service, but I’d save several hundred dollars by doing it myself. He also offered a list of recommended routes through the traffic-intensive Bay Area. I texted Cole to confirm I’d heard right.

“It’s important that before the state determines your car doesn’t emit any extraneous emissions that you first emit 100 miles worth of extraneous emissions inside the state. Welcome home.”

My ’99 truck aced the smog check, which probably had to do with all the studying–I mean, the 100 extraneous miles I was told to drive–right before the emissions test.

Nearing the doorway, I noticed that many non-appointment holders had brought books to occupy themselves while a few were unfolding lawn chairs for a registration-themed tailgating party. Inside, I decided to enjoy my own light reading from around the room. The rotating messages on overhead screens focused on various forms of reduction, including road rage, impatience, and blood pressure. Perhaps a dozen placards explained the complex legal ramifications of threatening DMV staff. A series of signs explored what is and is not allowed regarding children. Do keep them in sight. Don’t place them on high countertops. Do accompany them to the restroom. Don’t leave them in the restroom.

When I reached the check-in desk, the amiable attendant reviewed my forms and asked if I had a completed Verification of Vehicle form. The online instructions had explained that a vehicle owner must obtain this in-person verification from an authorized DMV employee. I decided not to mention that I had come to this very DMV because I’d heard a story, no, a rumor, that this was the place to find authorized DMV employees. Nor did I elaborate that since I don’t live in a DMV—not yet, at least—it wasn’t really physically or temporally possible for me to arrive to the DMV with the completed verification I had come to this DMV to complete. While a time-continuum paradox formed above my head, I simply answered no.

Upon instruction, I moved my vehicle to the verification lane and all went smoothly until the inspector discovered an issue. Because the unladen weight of my pick-up was not listed on the Missouri title I was surrendering, there was a chance that I would be asked for a weighmaster certificate at my next counter stop. Just a chance, like intermittent rain showers, he explained. So, I returned inside to discover that the attendant had gone on break. I received an ID number and went to the seated waiting area, where a non-appointment family of four had recently learned that they would likely not be seen before the office closed. Instead, the whole family was offered a no-wait appointment for the following week.

A favorite observation from my day-trip to the DMV: all the street parking had a one-hour time limit, which was roughly 1/4 the time I spent with an appointment.

When my number was called, nearly all was completed with ease including my payment. But without a certified weight, I was unable to receive new plates. Instead, I was given a handwritten note that would allow me to return to the no-wait appointment line should I obtain a weight certificate in the next few hours. In the meantime, this latest employee was required to list an estimated weight, which she entered as 3500 pounds.

My mechanic gave me a tip that there was a weighmaster at the north Berkeley recycling center, so off I went and soon I was driving onto the scale. The employee glanced inside the cab.

“Oh, they want the truck entirely empty,” he said.

I looked at the few items on the passenger seat. “I can wear the two shirts,” I offered, like a person traveling without luggage on a plane. “And I’ll just toss the tools in my backpack and hold it.”

The employee was unconvinced. He pointed to a parking spot and said I needed to unload everything onto the asphalt and then drive back onto the scale. So, I made a big production of removing about 10 pounds from my truck, while jamming the other 20 pounds under the seats. The weight came out as 3520 pounds.

Next time I’m showing up to the scales in this thing.

Four hours after my DMV day trip began, I was back in the no-wait appointment line, which only had a ten minute wait this time. From the check-in counter, I returned to the seated waiting area. This time I noticed a caution sign explaining that self-immolation is strongly discouraged. Finally, I reached the counter of a sixth employee I’d met that day. The hours seemed to have worn on her, the remarkable friendliness I’d noticed among the staff replaced by fatigue. But all my forms were accounted for. My many fees were paid. I’d reached the Hilary Step or the Grand Wash Cliffs. I received my plates within an anticlimactic hot minute.

I burst outside into the brightness of daylight, full of hope and imagination. My vision blotted out. Was the adventure really over? I half-expected to be funneled to one final station for a radiogenic injection—just makes the blood glow and helps the crash scene investigators in the unfortunate event of. Upon insertion of the needle, all would go blank and I’d wake up in a room filled with documents. Wires—mostly telephone cords from the 1980s—running in and out of my body. Disembodied voices asking me questions about wait-times, certifications, and fee schedules.

I texted Cole: “I think I am the DMV now. If you ever need a no-wait appointment, just let me know, and I will totally hook you up.”

My vehicle showing its age after my adventure at the DMV.