Magazine | February 24, 2014, Issue

Yearning to Drive

(Roman Genn)
An immigrant’s travails at the DMV

For all the rightful talk of shining cities on hills, sea-washed sunset gates, and well-worn melting pots, the one thing they don’t tell you about moving to America is how much paperwork is involved.

When I left England in June 2011, I was 26 years old — an adult in the eyes of everyone save the Department of Health and Human Services. And yet, when I stepped off the plane at JFK, I had become a fresh-faced 18-year-old once again — with the papers to get into the country, yes, but not to go much farther. Quickly, I learned something to which I had given almost no thought before I left: That all of those hours spent as a teenager accruing the administrative prerequisites to adulthood would be erased the moment I crossed the border. I would have no bank balance, no credit rating, no ID cards — nothing. I would, in a strange sense, have been reset.

Still, at least I’d have a driver’s license, right? At least that hard-won sign of majority would remain happily intact? Well, not quite, no. It turns out that most American states have a rather ingenious policy toward immigrants who already have permits: Fresh off the boat, you are allowed to drive on your foreign credentials for a set stretch of time — usually between a month and a year — but then you have to relinquish your privileges and start from scratch as a learner. The logic is comical: For the period during which you are potentially driving in America for the first time in your life, you’re golden. But once you’ve got the hang of it? Well, then you’re deemed to be in need of some lessons, a long class, and, eventually, a test. Brilliant.

British driving examinations are more comprehensive and more difficult to pass than their American equivalents, and, being a cocky, insubordinate sort, I was ill suited to their strictures. I took well to driving from the get-go, but I failed the test three times anyway — fewer than many of my friends, but three times more than my younger sister, which rankled. And so, earning my license having been one of the more unpleasant experiences of my young life, I put off the second act for as long as I could.

And then I moved to the countryside, where I couldn’t avoid having to drive, and was forced into action. Anticipating that it might take a while, I tried to get the ordeal out of the way before I left Manhattan. But I was stymied at the first hurdle. On my inaugural visit, I stood in a line for almost three hours only to be told, seemingly arbitrarily, that I needed to move to a different queue on the other side of the building. By the time the officials had realized that I had been in the right line all along, it was too late for me to join the end of the first one, so I was instructed to go home and try again on a different day. This I did, reasonably patiently and with the peculiar satisfaction that comes with feeling you belong to a long line of arrivistes who have discovered that what the natives say routinely about the culture is true after all.

A few weeks later, I had another go. This time, through a combination of luck and well-placed rebellion, I eventually got to the right desk, where I encountered a disciple of Erwin Schrödinger’s who told me with a completely straight face that I did indeed need to get a New York license because my residency status had changed but that I couldn’t actually get one because my residency status hadn’t yet changed.

I tried to clarify, working hard to keep my head level, my eyebrows down, and any trace of disbelief out of my voice.

“I can’t keep my British license?”

“No, you need a New York one, because you’re a resident now.”

“Great. I need a New York license. But I can’t get one?”

“No, because you’re not a resident.”

“So, I can’t use the valid license I possess because I’m a resident, and I therefore need to get a New York license — because I’m a resident. But you won’t give me one because I’m not a resident?” I smiled my best impish smile. “Is that about the shape of it?”

She didn’t laugh. “Yes.”

#page#I paused for a moment, and then I asked what I should do with this paradox. Sotto voce, the clerk told me that I could try to drive on my British license and hope that the police knew how the system worked.

I decided not to drive.

I must confess to having thought that Americans were exaggerating when they griped about the DMV. After all, compared with Britain, it’s so astonishingly easy to rent cars here. The day before I emigrated, I chartered a truck so that I could help my sister move into her new home. In addition to my passport, both parts of my driver’s license, two recently received utility bills, and two credit cards, the rental company obliged me to leave a blood sample, sacrifice one of my eyes, and hold the less popular members of my family in escrow until the vehicle was returned. That was before I was walked twice around the van and shown every single mark on the paintwork, including — but not limited to — mud, dead insects, water trails, rust, and employee fingerprints. There have been less meticulously investigated crime scenes. In America, by contrast, you just show up, hand over a credit card and a license, and go on your way. Could the government really screw up their side of the bargain so badly?

Silly question. Of course it could. The DMV’s website is a veritable study in confusion. On one page, it suggests that prospective licensees can “walk in” to the center and wait in line for a road and vision test; on another it makes it clear that these must be booked over the phone. Even better: The employees are in on the joke. When I took my knowledge exam, I was told repeatedly that, because I had held a license in a different country, I needed to come back to the center to book my road test. “You can’t do it over the phone,” one gentleman said three or four times. “Remember that.” When I turned up at the center to do just that, I was asked why I hadn’t “just called.” It’s quite spectacular.

As I’ve progressed through the system, the whole thing has become rather farcical. My four-hour-apiece Safe Driving Practices classes (in which I was the only person over 17 years old) were run by a very nice man who was possessed of an unfortunate tendency to say wildly amusing things without realizing that he had done so. Explaining for the fifth or sixth time that one should either drink or drive, he announced vehemently that we would now be talking about narcotics and, letting his mind wander, told a room full of 16-year-olds that if they took one thing away from his class it should be that they could “choose to do drugs or drink but not both.” “You have to do one,” he finished, emphatically. The videos that we were shown were literally that — videos — and they were all made around 1987, which meant that the information was out of date and needed to be constantly corrected. “We were told a few years ago that a new video was coming,” my instructor told the room. “But I’ve never seen it.”

I have long wondered why, having been through a lifetime’s worth of paperwork in a few short years, your garden-variety legal immigrant doesn’t immediately sign up with the anti-government radicals or join a militia in Wyoming. My records show that, by the time I finally had my green card in hand, I had spent quality time with the Department of Labor, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. embassy in London, and the State Department. But the DMV? Nothing prepares you for that.

Not even that its incompetence is so well publicized. The DMV has been an open joke in America for more than three decades now. That it is still so after all this time is one of the great mysteries of the Western world. “Nothing ever changes,” Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks once sang, before asking innocently “if it’s me that’s driving you to this madness”? Well, not if the Department of Motor Vehicles is involved, no — in that case, Nicks is sitting in a plastic chair, waiting for her number to be called, hoping she’s brought the right combination of papers, and remaining, for the foreseeable future at least, unhappily unable to drive herself or anyone else anywhere.

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