An Expat Slice of Life in America: the Dreaded DMV

EXPAT LIFE: If you haven’t had the exquisite joy of visiting a DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in the USA yet, then you haven’t really lived.

As an expat, I would definitely classify the DMV as an adventure travel experience – expat thrill seeking at its most dangerous. Just mention ‘going to the DMV’ and you will see fellow expats cringe in fear, at the memory of this harrowing experience.

Naturally, visiting a DMV in New Jersey is just as much fun as anywhere else in the USA,  although here we call them the MVC (Motor Vehicle Commission).#

Actually, I am kidding about the adventure travel part but a visit to the DMV must surely rate in the top 10 most frustrating experiences for new expats.

For those novices yet to savour this experience, it’s hard to describe it in full detail. To get some type of idea of what this would be like, try to picture an image that combines all of the following:

  1. The fun of going shopping on Christmas Eve with four million others
  2. The adventure of going through US Immigration at the airport to see if they allow you in or lock you up as a terrorist
  3. Uplifting personal interactions with characters like Selma and Patty from the Simpsons
  4. An endurance experience, lasting up to five hours at times.

Got the picture?

DMV 2Perhaps No.3 is an exaggeration but there is a disturbing grain of truth in the Simpson parody of DMVs. For those who don’t know them, Patty and Selma are two petty despot bureaucrats who work at the DMV, using their power to create hell for the gormless people of Springfield. Trapped like flies in a spider web, these poor people cannot leave as they need the DMV’s services for driver’s licenses, car registration etc. Sadly, they can only stand, usually in a huge queue, and fume while Patty and Selma watch and cynically enjoy their cruel handy work.

Selma: “Hey, there were parts of this job we loved. Like that time the line stretched out the door while you stood at your window stapling papers.”

Patty: “I am pretty proud of that.”

Selma: “Everyone in line was fuming! You wouldn’t even make eye-contact.”

 Patty: “I ran out of staples in the first minute, but I “stapled” til my lunch-break. That was pure sense-memory acting.”

 Selma: “A lot of people don’t realize — a big part of this job is mental.”

selmaMy favourite quote from the Bouvier sisters about working at the DMV says it all:

Patty: “On some days we don’t let the line move at all.”

Selma: “Yeah, we call those ‘weekdays’.”

While Patty and Selma are a caricature, they are not far off from the reality of the US public service bureaucrat. Almost everyone is familiar with this cliché character: the unhappy government worker who is low paid, hates their job, hates dealing with people, knows nothing of customer service and doesn’t care. Their only real joy in life is exerting their power over others through their job. These bureaucrats live in every country, not just the USA. But they are alive and well in many DMVs in the US, and none more than in New Jersey. That’s why Patti and Selma are really so very funny.


The Dreaded DMV: ready to serve you like never before

Recent propaganda from my home state of New Jersey says that ‘the MVC is ready to serve you like never before’. Now that’s funny…

Unfortunately for New Jersey, this message hasn’t gotten through to everyone at the MVCs just yet. As I say this I am picturing those workers in one of the largest MVCs located in Northern NJ. This place could be a Simpsons TV set.

Staff who never smile. Workers who look at your papers and pass them back to you, either by virtually tossing them, or without looking at you. Staff delivering some oft-repeated bureaucrat diagnosis after reviewing your paperwork (usually meaning there’s a problem) e.g. “you’re not verified. You’ll have to wait”, as if the everyday person knows what the heck that means…. Cranky bureaucrats, grunters and just the downright impolite ones.

Then there’s the other type of bureaucrat, barking orders at you about not standing, not queuing unless you are the applicant, and not helping your wife during the application process. When my husband tried to explain an inconsistency in my passport and visa, he was told to “Step AWAY from the counter sir!” We weren’t sure if he was going to be arrested by the MVC policeman for breaching the rules, the way this order was delivered. This is no joke. The NJ State have armed police guards posted at the front area of every MVC. My husband just wanted to explain to the officious lady that he knew the details because he submitted the applications. But that wasn’t going to get a look in! It felt like a scene out of Birmingham, Alabama. The only thing missing was the men with truncheons and ferocious Alsatian dogs on chains.

The Dreaded DMV: Today’s Guidelines or Let’s Make It Up As We Go

Worst of all though, is the MIUAWG (‘Make It Up as We Go) approach, especially when it comes to Driver License rules and requirements. In a state-run facility? Not possible, surely?

Well, I’m afraid it is. Not only that, it’s also relatively common. There are different rules, depending on who you speak to. Rules vary between people within one MVC and also between different MVCs. So unfortunately, you have to be either lucky or very well prepared when you come across this.

When I went to apply for my DL renewal, as an L2 visa holder, I got to the first document checking point, and although my papers were all OK, I was told I needed my husband and his documents (as the L1 visa holder) in order to proceed with the renewal. This information of course, is not printed anywhere on the website, and when I challenged the DMV worker, she just laughed and said “it’s funny what information they don’t include on the website, isn’t it?” Yeah, hilarious…

Upon hearing this, I rang my husband, had him leave work early, drive home to meet me, so we could re-visit the MVC before it closed. Well, on my second visit to the MVC that day, I got my renewal OK, without any issues. But not once did they ask to see my husband’s paperwork, or speak to him. Getting very annoyed with this as the process went along further, I prompted one of the workers (different to the first lady), to say that I had my husband with me, did they not want to see any paperwork? No interest was shown. He might as well have not been there. I dragged him away from work for no reason.

At a different MVC, I was accompanying one of my relocation clients to apply for his DL, and at the first document checking station, the MVC worker questioned his proof of residence. He had an original lease for his rental home but the MVC worker stated that the document was over two months old, and thus was unacceptable. Really??? Luckily he had a backup bank statement that was accepted instead. However, without backup documents or anyone there to help argue your case, you are in the hands of these people. If you are unlucky, the whole visit can be a complete nightmare. All this and big queues of people, equally frustrated; is a perfect recipe for aggro and bringing the worst out in people..

Of course, not all DMVs are like this. There are DMVs with polite, helpful staff that are pleasant, informed and they do care about their jobs. For instance, I can recommend the MVC at Randolph, NJ, because the place is mostly full of great people like this. Unsurprisingly, the process here is less painful and more efficient than others that I have attended. The MVCs at Oakland and Springfield, NJ also have good reports about them, so try to visit one of these.

Be warned though. Patty and Selma are waiting to help, at an MVC just near you.


Footnote #: I use the acronyms of DMV and MVC interchangeably but I am referring to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission only in my examples.

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