Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Take A Number

Southern California

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Every locale seems to have its share of loopy lawyers advertising on TV and southern California of course is no exception. Ambulance chasers, firms looking for people to sign up for class actions against asbestos-mongers or purveyors of poorly designed bionic joints, people trying to help you get your Social Security benefits, and so on.

"We'll deal with the government. You have enough to worry about already." So says the guy with the ridiculous cowboy hat who, if he's a real lawyer, would be someone you'd be wise to steer clear of if you wanted to be taken seriously.

I was thinking about the idea of letting someone else deal with the government as I walked purposefully into the California Department of Motor Vehicles office in Pasadena this afternoon to get a driver's license. Based on my observations I believe Californians have a high tolerance for nuisance and annoyance, and they suffer a great deal of indignity in relative silence, at least until they reach their breaking point. Compared to their counterparts in the densely populated east they don't honk their horns very often, nor do they appear to bitch and moan a lot in public places. They wear shorts and sandals so much that I think it makes them feel like they're on perpetual vacation, and hence they're in a more relaxed mood. It's true that they do start complaining if the skies are cloudy and the temperature dips below 70 or goes above 85. But that's entirely consistent with vacation behavior. I guess since being in southern California is a lot like being on vacation, the thing to get upset about isn't the crowding and the traffic and the waiting, but the weather. Another factor to consider is that, like people who've gone to a vacation destination, Californians are more or less committed to being where they are, and don't really have many other choices. This country is all about choices--too many of them usually--but most Californians have already made their choice, to move here. You don't get fed up with California and say, "Hell with this, I'm moving to Minnesota!"

I had been warned that the California DMV would be a terrible experience. Common sense would tell you that in a county of 10 million within a state of nearly 40 million you'd expect some crowding in a DMV office, and that was indeed the case. The parking lot was full to overflowing and the inside of the building was packed. But to my surprise things went rather smoothly and were made tolerable by an absence of the pissing and moaning you would get if you were in the northeast. I'm not saying people were happy to be there, and indeed they might have been grumbling among themselves in Spanish or Chinese or Tagalog, but they were keeping it low-key, which I found to be admirable.

After filling out my form I got into a line that ran the length of the building. I was congratulating myself that it was moving right along until I began to hear a disembodied female voice calling out that such-and-such a number was being served at such-and-such a window, and I realized I was waiting in line just to get one of those numbers, not to be served. After twenty minutes I got my number and then sat for another forty-five waiting for my number to come up. Then a bored and semi-competent man processed my application behind a bullet-proof glass shield such as you would see in a convenience store in a blighted neighborhood, complete with the tray underneath through which I passed my paperwork. At that moment I caught a glimpse, I thought, of the limits of the tolerance of the California public. Additionally, here and there were signs indicating that it was a violation of the law to harass or attempt to intimidate a DMV employee. Finally, after getting my picture taken and passing a 36-question multiple choice examination covering the rules of the road I was awarded my temporary license, the real one to arrive in the mail in a few weeks.

The length of the wait, considering the hundreds of people who were jammed into the small office, wasn't bad. And as for the curt indifference of the staff, I would have been disappointed if they had tried to be more civil than they were. As a former state employee, I appreciate and understand curt indifference in a person who meets the public. We seem to be losing some of that in the private sector, and I guess this is one of those areas where the government has to step in and fill the gap. For instance, at banks the service has been getting more ridiculously cloying as time goes on. The tellers act as if they're your personal geishas instead of the people whose job it is to pay you almost no interest on your money while charging you enormous interest to borrow their money. I am much more comfortable with the coldness at the DMV. "We have what you want and we'll take our time giving it to you," is the message.

I was struck by how smoothly it went, all things considered. The California DMV has a decent system for handling an enormous polyglot population, including the option to make an appointment ahead of time to make your wait much shorter. But for a walk-in, an hour and a half total to obtain a driver's license once every five or ten years doesn't seem to me like that much of a sacrifice.

However, I should note that I am a veteran of many trips to the Connecticut DMV which, prior to its reformation in the late 1990s, employed what was easily the surliest and most unproductive bunch of bureaucratic thugs in the nation. And they're still pretty damned slow, albeit in a more chipper and polite way. I say that with only two other states to compare to Connecticut, but I nevertheless say it with absolute confidence. And of course things are much worse in other countries, I have no doubt. Indeed, maybe that's why the people at the California DMV are so patient--so many of them are from other countries, where without bribery or interminable red tape nothing gets done at all.

Which lets me mount another hobby horse of mine. Where's the everyday bribery in this country? Sure, there's organized crime and extortion galore; border guards get paid off and certainly cops are crooked throughout the land, but can someone slip a ten spot to a DMV employee and expect to get faster service? I doubt it. What's wrong with that picture? So much corruption in the billion dollar sky boxes and so little in the cheap seats.

Well there you go. Another California experience chewed, swallowed, and digested. After I've tuned up by waiting a few more times at the DMV, maybe I'll be ready to stand in line all night to get into The Price is Right. And then, who knows?


Anonymous said...

Did the DMV ask you to change the title of your post? Did RR ask you change the title of the previous one?

Peter Teeuwissen said...

No, just a little post-post editing.