Driven nuts by a five-hour wait at the MVA

By John Kelly
Monday, September 13, 2010; B03

The voice sounded like the computer in a science fiction movie: Female. Pleasant. A bit detached. She wasn't human, so she didn't care about being blown to bits when the reactor core melted and the space station self-destructed after she'd dutifully counted down to zero.

"Now serving K17 at counter number 29."

I was at the MVA. I was in Hell.

I know that complaining about the MVA or the DMV is the last refuge of a scoundrel columnist, but I don't care. You don't know what it was like. You weren't there, man. I spent five hours at the Beltsville MVA on Thursday. Five hours. I could have driven to New York in that time. I could have put together a house full of Ikea furniture. I could have resected a kidney and a bowel.

Instead, I spent it trying not to go out of my mind.

"Now serving B98 at counter number 22."

I was there with my daughter for her driving test. That process took about an hour, from when Gwyneth first got in line to when, successful, she was handed a thin slip of paper imprinted with a letter and a number and told to wait until it was called. Everyone was clutching one of these slips -- listening to the voice, staring at lighted numerical displays. At first I thought the numbers were random. Why else would some begin with K, some with B, others with A, S and G? But we soon realized that whatever the letter, the numbers were progressing in order: K17, then K18. B98, then B99. G34, then G35.

That last one was sobering. Gwyneth was G84. I did a rough calculation. A new G was being called every five minutes or so.

"Gwyneth," I said, "at this rate we will be here four more hours."

She didn't believe it. I didn't believe it. How could anyone, even a government, run an operation where that was the kind of service provided to customers? Where to get your picture taken and your license laminated would take practically all day?

The first hour wasn't so bad, but after that a kind of desperation set in, something akin to what I imagine those Chilean miners are going through. Believe me when I say it was grim.

One woman near us gave a sarcastic whoo-hoo and did a little dance when her number was called. People laughed. But I was worried. She seemed to be making fun of the MVA, and though I despised it at that moment, I was worried her little outburst would cause the MVA to crack down on us, to shutter a few counters in retribution.

Then, somewhere around G63, another number came up: G27, then G26. We were going backwards.

I thought: Can this really be happening? Can I really have stepped into a Kafka story? Shouldn't every counter be filled with employees working as fast as possible? Shouldn't management be out there helping, and Maryland state troopers, too? This is the Katrina of waiting, people.

Over time, I developed a hatred toward my fellow patrons. The voice would intone, "Now serving G64 at counter 26," and I would wait for that person to sprint forward. But there would be no one. Where's G64, I'd wonder. Where's G64? Doesn't he know what comes after 63? Hasn't he had the last two hours to prepare for this very moment? Ah, finally, there he is. Move it, Grandpa.

At about hour four, Gwyneth said something that chilled my very blood: "What if I need my birth certificate?"

But you shouldn't, right? The fact that we provided it when you got your learners permit should suffice, yes? But there was no way to know for sure. The possibility that we might go home empty-handed was too horrible to contemplate, so after having been at the MVA for more than four hours (we could have seen "Eat Pray Love" -- twice!) I raced home to Silver Spring to get proof of identity.

In the end we didn't need it. After four hours and 50 minutes G84 was called. Ten minutes later, Gwyneth had her license. We returned home missing a little bit of our souls.

Attention candidates. I have a guaranteed way to ensure your election: Promise no waiting at the MVA.

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