On the great scale of seriously dreaded events, a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles office has long ranked somewhere between a week-long cruise with the in-laws and a shopping trip to Fairway on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
Even jury duty, with its high-minded civic ideal of sitting in judgment of your fellow Americans, seems less onerous. It’s no accident that Patty and Selma Bouvier, Marge Simpson’s short-tempered, chain-smoking spinster sisters, work at the D.M.V. Their cynicism and obliviousness to the travails of those they purport to serve is all too familiar to anyone who has waited on line for hours in hopes of simply renewing a driver’s license.
New Yorkers have been known to go to great lengths to avoid this fool’s errand. Some may travel to Yonkers, or extend a weekend in the Catskills, in hopes of finding shorter lines. Others have been known to pay a red-tape cutter to do their standing on line for them. Then there are truly drastic measures, such as giving up driving altogether or even moving out of New York entirely. (It says something about this city that the former is considered less of a burden than the latter.)
But have you gone to the D.M.V. office lately? Maybe you should, because the Soviet-like lines have gone the way of gaslight, spittoons, ashtrays in restaurants, even the Soviet Union itself. They have been consigned to the dustbin, made obsolete by a 16th-century invention known as the stamp.
That’s because ever since 1994, New Yorkers have been able to renew their drivers’ licenses by mail. What used to take weeks of finding the time during business hours, days of psyching yourself up for the drudgery, and hours of studying the dandruff on the collar of the slightly less unfortunate soul in front of you now takes minutes.
Before you even know that your license is about to expire, the D.M.V. sends you a renewal form in the mail. You send them a copy of a recent eye exam along with a check for 45 bucks-sure, that seems a bit high, but not compared with the cost of schlepping to Westchester-and you’re done. That’s it. Your new license arrives in less than a month, and it’s good for eight years instead of five.
What’s more, ever since Sept. 1 of this year, anybody with a credit card can renew a license by using that newfangled Internet invention that’s so popular with the younger set these days (the web site is www.nysdmv.com). Taken together, these two developments are the greatest leap forward in New York automotive history since the introduction of the E-Z Pass.
Further streamlining the process are the License Express offices, the D.M.V. equivalent of the 10-items-or-less checkout aisle. As the name suggests, License Express handles only driver’s license renewals. It’s been around for a while, but like most cynical New Yorkers, I simply assumed that the word “Express” in a government office name was for ironic value only.
I was never so happy to be wrong. I went to the License Express Office on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue and found the kind of service I had come to expect only in small-town Iowa. The woman at the information desk was more informative than an Applebee’s waitress. The woman administering the eye exams was courteous, bordering on amiable. And the woman who printed out my temporary license even smiled several times during our transaction.
Even better, with so many people mailing and going online instead of standing and shuffling in line, the crowd at the License Express office looked more like a Mets-Expos game in September than a Radiohead concert.
“The D.M.V.’s reputation has changed quite a bit in recent years,” said Joe Picchi, the department’s director of communications. “If you ask most people, if they go into a D.M.V. office at all, they find it a much more pleasant experience.”
The office was clean and well-lighted-well-ventilated, too. With no bullet-proof partition between customers and staff, I could overhear some cheerful R&B music playing softly on somebody’s radio. Convenient L.E.D. monitors directed me to the window where I could collect my temporary license. There were fewer places to sit than in a Soho shoe store, but I never had the opportunity to leave my feet. From start to finish, the entire process took six minutes.
The three hours of exasperation I had budgeted for the occasion were furloughed from government purgatory. What would I do with so much free time on a Thursday afternoon? More important, if a trip to the D.M.V. has become simpler than getting a sandwich from Au Bon Pain, what will we use as a metaphor for a bloated bureaucracy with interminably long waits in dingy office buildings?
Not to worry. There’s always the post office.
Joe Conason will return next week.