A Really Long Wait For A Real ID

If you ever want to elicit audible groans and muscle-straining eye rolls from anyone, just mention you are going to the DMV.

For some people, only the thought of going to the dentist is on par with the expected agony that comes from having to visit this most bureaucratic of bureaucratic institutions. Bring up the Department of Motor Vehicles and you most likely will get responses ranging from “Do I have to?” to “I’d rather light myself on fire.”

That is exactly how I felt when my wife and I made a recent sojourn to our local DMV branch to get Real ID driver’s licenses. New federal regulations set to go into effect in October 2020 will require travelers to show a Real ID license (or valid passport) if they want to fly domestically. You can keep your standard license if you want, and it will be perfectly legal for driving. But if you have plans to, say, take your spouse to Maui for your anniversary after October of next year, and your passport isn’t up to date, you’ll need to get that Real ID license — or you won’t be getting past the good folks running the TSA security check. And if your wife was really looking forward to that trip to Maui, you might end up divorced, too.

In an effort to get a jump on things, I went to the DMV’s website to make Real ID appointments for us — appointments that had to be made two months down the road. It seemed like a similar reservation policy as the French Laundry, but lacking the Napa Valley restaurant’s reputation for outstanding food and service.

When the day of our appointments came, we arrived earlier than our allotted times at the Claremont Avenue office in Oakland. Even with appointments on the books, I braced for waits. I figured there would be at least 30 people in line ahead of us and that the next three hours would drag. We also had our 9- and 10-year-old daughters with us, who when they aren’t being best friends, act like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila, and that added to the dread I was feeling.

To my surprise, this DMV trip was stunningly quick and pleasant. It took almost no time to complete the on-screen documentation, there was no one ahead of us in the picture line, and the woman who handled our eye tests and took our $36 registration payments was friendly and funny. She even cracked up when I jokingly suggested that she replace a photo on the wall of a DMV official, whom she didn’t even know, with one of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and see if anyone noticed.

Everything went so smoothly that my wife and I actually finished a few minutes before the original start time for our appointments. Could it be that the DMV turned a corner and put its bad reputation for being a pit of despair and bad service behind itself?

Not entirely.

I knew not to expect my new license to show up in the mail within 48 hours. This was the DMV after all, not Amazon. There would be the necessary rubber-stamping of documents and, probably, anywhere from three to two dozen DMV officials signing off on my Real ID. I wasn’t going to be surprised if it took a week and a half for my license to arrive.

And a week and a half was exactly how long it took — for my wife’s license to show up. Mine was not in the mailbox. But I wasn’t worked up about it. I just figured it would arrive in another day or two. No big deal.

Another day went by. And another. And another. And then … three weeks had passed since my DMV visit, and my Real ID license was nowhere to be found. It was becoming a big deal.

I called the DMV and waited the obligatory 15 minutes on hold. Finally, I was connected with a woman whom I hoped would give me some answers about where my license was. I was sure that after I explained everything, I would be told that my license has just been mailed out that day.

I was too hopeful.

After I gave my name and license number, the DMV worker spent some time tapping on her keyboard. I worried that she was adding a “Severe Troublemaker” label to my file. After a few more seconds, she hit me with a pair of questions:

“Did you take your eye exam? And pay your license fee?”

Now, I know the DMV can be behind the times, technology-wise. But was I really hearing this woman correctly? A DMV employee — presumably with access to my file — was unable to use the DMV’s computer system to find the record of me completing two critical requirements for getting a driver’s license: proving that I wasn’t legally blind, and paying for the thing? I responded in the only possible manner.

I said nothing at all.

Normally, in these type of situations, I am quick to voice my surprise by raising my voice, questioning the intelligence of the person I am speaking to, and then wanting to slam my head in the nearest door. But this time, I just surrendered to the situation. Arguing with the DMV would likely result in the same thing that happens when I try to get my 9-year-old to try a new food, like grilled salmon, when she just wants her usual chicken nuggets: me getting mad and the situation being no closer to a resolution. So I gave up.

The worker told me where I could email the proof of my eye test and payment that the DMV couldn’t find. I quickly found the necessary documents, then sent them into the ether.

Then the next round of waiting began.

One day. Two days, Three days. No reply. Not even a generic, form letter-like email saying, “Your message has been received.” More days went by. No word from the DMV, and no license in the mailbox.

Was I beginning to worry? Yes. Was I surprised? Not in the slightest.

After 10 more days had passed, I called the DMV again. I explained what was going on to a friendly woman, who then looked up my file.

“It looks like we received all your information. Everything looks good. Your license should be on the way,” she said.

This was all fine and good. But I wanted more answers.

“I just don’t get it,” I asked. “What happened? How could the DMV not know this stuff? I have the papers here that the DMV even signed off on.”

“Well, I really don’t know what happened,” the DMV official replied. “Maybe someone pressed the wrong button somewhere.”

Human error — the all-purpose answer to any spanner in the works. I can accept that accidents happen. Still, I was befuddled by the fact that somewhere along the DMV line, nothing popped up to say, “Hey, this application is missing something. Better send out a note, or call this guy to let him know what’s up.”

When I asked the woman on the phone about this, she basically said to not count on the DMV to let you know about anything, at any time.

“You should probably just figure that if you haven’t heard from the DMV in 30 days that it’s time to check in on things,” she said.

Thirty days? If I didn’t hear anything from the DMV in an entire month — and, to me, it was clear from agency’s not reaching out at any time in this process that this would be the case — then I should check in on things?

The final prize…My Real ID driver’s license. After 35 days of waiting.

If it wasn’t obvious by now, the DMV doesn’t have the same philosophy toward customer service as Amazon.

The weekend passed, a couple of more business days came and went, and then — at last! — an envelope with the DMV’s return address showed up in my mailbox. It was my new Real ID license. The one for which I had appeared early for my appointment. The one for which I had taken, and passed, the requisite vision exam. The one for which I had paid $36.

And the one for which I had waited 35 days to arrive.

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