Tales from a New York City DMV

Not to sound scary, but right now, it does feel like New York City is slowly moving toward a quasi-apocalyptic state.

Some (not all, but some) supermarkets in the city have lines wrapped around the stores — namely Trader Joe’s, where I stood in line (at a time when it’s usually empty) for about an hour and a half. Ironically and kind of hilariously, I even made an appearance in a Reuters photo from that day that appeared in the New York Times.

Aside from the absurd lines and crowds at some Trader Joe’s, many businesses and usually bustling spots in the city are completely empty. It’s eerie.

Just a few weeks ago, however, I found myself in a very different situation at one of the most mobbed and notoriously dreadful places in New York City aside from the subway at rush hour: the DMV.

I spent my morning off work at the good ‘ol New York State Department of Motor Vehicles in Downtown Brooklyn getting a new drivers license.

While I’m usually perfectly punctual (if not early) to just about every engagement on my calendar, that morning, I rushed down the narrow stairs of my building in a flurry, triple-checking that I had all my documents.

The thought of stepping up to the counter and having all but one of the accepted proofs of residency made me queasy, mostly because it’s nearly impossible to secure an appointment at a DMV in Greater New York City in a pinch. If for some reason I didn’t make my February appointment, the next open slot was during the summer — on Staten Island.

Of course, I also had to fast-walk back to open the door of my apartment to make sure I had unplugged my straightener. (As always, I did.) That set me back a few minutes.

Finally, I exited my building for good and power-walked 10 minutes to catch the G train, the Brooklyn-Queens subway line, which I think is named “G” because it usually moves at an especially glacial pace. On the other hand, some people joke that the G train doesn’t actually exist because it’s the only route that doesn’t go into Manhattan, thus making it a thing of fiction.

Some 20 minutes later, I sprinted up the subway stairs and looked to Google Maps as my North Star. I was fast-walking to the DMV with just a few minutes to spare until my appointment. Suddenly, I realized I was ascending the escalator of a mall. I can’t say I ever pictured a state-operated office to be located in the same building as a Victoria’s Secret, but hey — they never said New York was predictable.

After a very brief and very accidental detour to the Traffic Violations Bureau, I plopped myself in the correct “Appointments only” check-in line that pooled into what looked like never-ending swarms of people. 

Soon enough, I received a glossy stub of paper, sort of like what you might get while waiting in line at the deli, except it was printed with a prisoner-like combination of letters and numbers — 15C02 — then assumed my position of standing patiently to wait for my code to be announced over the scratchy intercom.

The waiting area was so crowded, it looked like the site of a religious pilgrimage but with fluorescent lights. Honestly, prayers of any kind are probably not a bad idea at the DMV.

Some people looked like they had been waiting for years for their number to be called, collecting cobwebs while slouched on one of many cramped wooden benches, which were not tempting to me in the slightest. I imagined the worst case scenario: that my “appointment” didn’t matter at all, and soon, I’d too be a dusty figure on one of the waiting benches.

I spritzed hand sanitizer on my hands and exhaled. It had been just a few minutes into the waiting game, but I suddenly felt a wave of sweat wash over me. My fleece scarf was choking me and my faux-wool coat felt like a weighted blanket, but removing either item meant I’d risk whacking the snoring-while-standing man on my right, and in order to fold the coat over my arm, I’d have to put my tote bag on the ground, which seemed equivalent to the subway floor. Keep everything on until the picture, I decided.

Ironically, moments later, my code was called, and I weaseled my way to the correct booth with my documents in hand. I slid my completed license application, passport, and other papers across the counter, but the attendant stopped me.

“You turn this in later. You take your picture here first. Sign this, stand back against the wall, and no teeth showing,” the woman behind the counter instructed.

I did as I was instructed and politely leaned against the photo backdrop, offering a closed-mouth smile that, as soon as the tiny camera snapped, I knew was going to result in a drivers license photo faux pas. 

The attendant handed me a new number-letter combo and told me I’d get called to a separate booth for round two, where I’d turn in my paperwork and finish the license application.

I returned to the holding cell, joining what looked like hundreds of others — including the elderly standing-while-snoring man I stood by originally, a woman in a skirt-suit and pointy heels, a mom reading a book to a screaming toddler.

Leaving the stuffy, sweaty, packed DMV that day was liberating, but looking back, that (plus my almost two-hour Trader Joe’s line experience) may have been one of the last overly crowded, people-filled New York City experiences I’ll have for the time being, as the city and many communities around the nation and world are, rightfully so, moving toward a state of social-distancing for the sake of public health.

Being in big crowds of people is commonplace in New York City. It’s not always pleasant, but there is something to be said about being in one space surrounded by so many different people, all with situations and stories of their own, all at once. It’s weird to think that it might be a while until these shared experiences are had again.

While this is an uneasy time for a lot of people right now, I hope that if you’re reading this, that you stay healthy and safe, and that my DMV-in-the-basement-of-a-mall story gave you a little smile in the craziness of all of this.


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