Meeting Patty and Selma at the RMV

Meeting Patty and Selma at the RMV

My driver’s license is expiring on my birthday later this month so I received a renewal notice in the mail. Unfortunately, according to the form, drivers are required to go into the Registry of Motor Vehicles branch every 10 years for a new photo and, guess what, it’s been 10 years. No quick and easy online renewal for me this time.

I decided to go into work a bit late today and went to the Beverly, Mass., branch first thing. For those of us who remember the old pre-Web days, the modern RMV is a marvel of efficiency. In the old days, the lines snaked through the office and any visit to the Registry was measured in hours. Renewing your license or registration was looked upon with the same trepidation with which one considered Purgatory: The suffering will end in bliss one day, but when you’re in it, it’s hard to believe that day will come.

Where else do you get the complete cross-section of society except at a place that hands out driver’s licenses?

But now you whisk in, receive a number and go wait in the area designated for your particular query. And since so many tasks can be completed online now, the lines are much shorter. Of course, it wouldn’t be a state agency if it was a flawless process.

No license for you!

In fact, I get the feeling that the efficiency makes the customer service employees even more cranky. That’s the only way to describe it. At best, they were surly and lacking in social grace. At worst, they were curt and downright rude to the people they dealt with. The first face of the Branch office—the fellow who sorted people into the right lines and handed out numbered tickets—snapped at people who asked questions. Without exaggeration, his demeanor reminded me of the Soup Nazi minus the funny accent. One of the women at the counter kept snapping at the people coming to her counter for failing to understand her instructions.

On the other hand, the people provoking these reactions were not exactly easy to deal with. On a Monday morning at 8:30 am, the vast majority of customers were elderly and they just didn’t understand the instructions barked at them nor did they understand the technology presented to them. Maybe they were expecting to be treated with, I don’t know, dignity and were thrown off by the surliness.

One woman had to be told three times which line to get in, but if only she’d had it explained to her briefly and not spat at her in clipped orders she might have understood the first time. Then when she asked for the key to the ladies room, the same guy grunted and threw a thumb over his shoulder at two keys hanging on the wall. “Which one is it?” she asked. His voice could not have dripped with more derision when he replied, “The one that says ‘woman’ on it.”

Like a rat in the maze

Over at the license renewal station, they employ a machine to test your vision like the one in your optometrist’s office. You have to press your forehead against the top plate and look through the binocular eyepiece. The pressure of your head against the bar turns on the interior light. Not one, not two, but three elderly people in a row tried and failed to make it work over and over again. “Press harder. Use your forehead. No, your forehead. Okay, try pushing with your finger. On the top bar. The top bar. The bar. The white thing. No, it’s not broken. Keep trying.” Eventually they’d figure it out and read the letters off. (When I used the machine, the mechanism was quite loose so it wasn’t a sticky button situation.)

The RMV employees could indeed have been nicer to the folks coming in and I think they should be. However, I understand a little how frustrating dealing with the general public can be and where else do you get the complete cross-section of society except at a place that hands out driver’s licenses?

Oh, and as for my need to go in for a new photo: Didn’t happen. I handed the woman my form and my credit card, read the top line of the eye chart, and was sent on my way. Evidently the form is wrong; photos are good as long as they look enough like you (nice to know I haven’t aged that much in 10 years), but they want to check your eyes. So it wasn’t completely pointless.

The good news is that I was in and out in 15 minutes. I must have performed some indulgences to get so much time off from Purgatory. This time anyway.