Visiting the New York DMV

August 18, 2018


I registered my car today. I have no idea what this really means, but I think it speeds up the process of (while somewhat reducing grounds for) prosecution when I am inevitably pulled over by a cop for speeding. I learned from the driver narrator in Springsteen’s “State Trooper” that you’re meant to keep certain documents in the car because he opines “license, registration, I ain’t got none” like that’s a bad thing. For a while I drove with a current NY license and an expired registration from New Jersey, which apparently could have led to the car being towed and impounded. Springsteen is from the Garden State and I drive there a lot, so I try to heed his protagonists’ advice.

After conversations with colleagues and relatives, ferocious googling, the gifting to me of a car by an exceptionally generous friend, and a whirlwind of paper-and-pen form-filling (very retro), I head to the DMV with the modest ambition of leaving as official car registrant and owner of New York plates. I am turned away Monday, but get a special green form for readmission later that day which apparently you can use any subsequent day too despite explicit instructions on the form to the contrary. When I head back Thursday, I bike there just for fun. It still isn’t fun.

The DMV aesthetic is Wesleyan thrift chic. Cushion-less wooden pews take me back to my misspent, sex-less teen years at a Methodist youth club in West Sussex. A half-cut, wordless security guard gestures incomprehensibly with one hand and grunts. Everyone here moves somberly, so as not to suggest unbecoming hope. The air conditioning is repeatedly turned on and off as a test of endurance. I hear my brain cells dying.

The DMV lady takes the car’s title (I hope I’m not meant to ask for it back). I get a natty little sticker for registration. She takes $194 off me, and I don’t need to use a cheque, which feels like progress. (I had to buy my own cheques from Chase bank recently, which seemed only reasonable; the company must be struggling as their main street buildings look like Greek temples with the marble floor get-up of the heist movies I used to assume was a hyperbolic visual stereotype but is actually how Chase Morgan demonstrates the wealth gap destroying American democracy). She gives me license plates, with a smile suggesting this is the culmination of the registration process. But they are not registration plates, and I already have a license, so I am confused, but I gather I can move the plates to a different vehicle under some circumstances (I have no idea which ones). The car still bears my friend’s old plates, which my mother-in-law advises me I should return to him so the friend in turn can return them to the New Jersey DMV.

The sweetest victory is my insurance cover. It took nine weeks to purchase, while I and my wife performed a delicate (she), impatient (me) and unpredictable (they) dance with the US’s second largest insurer of automobiles, their underwriters (on three separate but related occasions) and multiple applications via internet, phone and mail. When calculating my premium, the insurers’ pricing metrics cared not about 23 years’ experience driving in a country with denser traffic, angrier drivers and narrower streets, nor my decade as a government-certified driving instructor. (I recall my immigrant credit rating – officially categorization: “in the toilet”.) The DMV lady likes my insurance card (paper) so much that she jaggedly cuts it almost in half with cheap scissors before giving some of it back.

The car passes inspection the same morning, which seems weird since both front and back bumpers are cracked and falling off. The guy shaves a sticker off my windscreen and put two new ones up in its place. I hope my Darth Vader gear shift knob will earn me a discount, but alas, $37. This feels like a reasonable price, specific enough not to attract suspicion. Other car things from that guy over recent weeks always had three distinct prices – the cash price (no tax), the card price (yes tax), and the amount he takes anyway when I have give him slightly more cash than he asked for because I’m only carrying 20s and 10s.

I have the rare privilege of driving a car with manual transmission. America’s public has for so long been sliding into collective unconsciousness (along with the rest of the global North) that the 3% of “stick-shift” cars here give me disproportional hope that intention and agency still have a future in a nation where cheese tastes of paper and salt, and the flavor of all cakes is sugar. Anyway, I am licensed, the car has plates to prove it, and I am the registrant owner of a de-titled, bright green car. Life is good. (Although what’s that godawful smell?!)