Because I spent an extra hour taming my curls for a new drivers’ license photo, I arrived at the DMV Center located behind a semi-deserted mini-mall in Oakland, New Jersey around 9:00 on Wednesday. The line already stretched around the building. At one point, a lady came by and handed out numbers. I was 285. She told everyone after number 300 to go home; they had no hope of getting in the building that day.
So after three hours of waiting outside in the sun, and a slow march on socially distanced orange circles inside the hallway of the unairconditioned mini-mall, I finally entered the industrial office of DMV. A lady took my cellphone number, and I was told to go wait outside in the stale mini-mall hallway next to a closed up nail salon and a gym that still advertised sale rates for college students. They would text me when I could come back in their office.
“What?,” I yelled. “I have to continue to wait?!”
“Yes,” said the bureaucrat lady. “You have to wait for another three hours. At least.”
I didn’t handle this news very well. “What??!!! Are you people on drugs?!” I shouted. Two beefy state policemen who sat in the middle of the room looked up from their phones. There were clearly there to handle people like myself. I went back into the hallway and left phone messages with local political officials and tweeted the governor.
At one point, the lady poked her head out of the office to yell some numbers. “197, 198, 199…” I got up from my spot on the floor and told her that this process was crazy. I pointed to old people waiting there with canes and folding chairs.
She said that it wasn’t her fault. They were backed up after being closed for four months. It was my fault for getting there so late. She said that the line started forming at 3:00am with people sleeping outside the building with pillows and blankets.
I told her that I was using this time to contact my government representatives and media sources. She was pissed. She said, “you think this is bad? You should see Wallington!” I guess other DMV offices around the state were even more crowded.
Seven hours. Seven. That’s how long it took to get my driver’s license that day. By that time that the worker took my photo, my hair was in disarray. I had a sunburn. And my eyes were glassy and crazed. That lovely driver’s license will be in my purse for a decade as a reminder of that morning.
Government is not working right now.
Last night, I spent an hour trying to figure out my high school kid’s complicated school schedule for the fall and then relaying that information to his bus driver. Nobody contacted her to tell her when she had to drive my kid back and forth from school. (It’s every other day, from 7:45 to 12:20.) A couple days before that, I had a zoom call with his guidance counselor to totally rework his schedule, because of new conflicts. I’m trying not to get upset that he won’t be able to take computer programming and that he got put into the “basic” Spanish class, because the regular Spanish wouldn’t fit into his schedule anymore. There’s no point in getting upset, because it will be a miracle if the schools actually open next week.
Jonah’s trying to get a work-study job at his state college for the fall, but nobody in the career offices or financial aid is returning phone calls.
The cleaning protocols of the schools seem excessive, not reflective of the latest science and research, and out of sync with the rest of community behavior. Soccer teams of unmasked seven-year old kids are training at the field around the corner. Our rates are low here, because adults are consistent mask wearers and high-risk businesses were closed. I think if we made education the priority, kids could spend more time in school buildings.
I’m a liberal. I believe in government. We need DMVs and schools and post offices. But these offices are not working well right now. Until we get a vaccine, the chaos, long lines, inequities, and bad services will continue.
Who’s to blame? It depends on who you talk to. One person will point to the unions, while another person might point to the lack of federal support. Because this newsletter is just a fun hobby, I won’t weigh in. I think my job at this time is just to keep the focus on the impact of government’s collapse on the most vulnerable and tell their story. When we rebuild, in year or two down the line, we need to rethink everything.