When patent examiner Houston Bell dashed out of his office yesterday about 9 a.m. to renew his auto license tags at a Northwest motor vehicles facility he told his coworkers, "I'll be right back."
About four hours later, Bell still was waiting in a line that stretched from the Motor Vehicles trailer halfway through the Carter Barron Amphitheater parking lot. He still was about 70 people away from the front. Bell and about another 1,500 people were waiting in line, missing work, job interviews, and sleep to pick up two postage stamp size stickers that would renew their auto licenses before the March 31 deadline.
Despite the lines that wound past fairly nondescript scenery like the amphitheater seats on the right and parked cars on the left, most people took the wait in stride, taking advantage of the time to soak up the sunny, breezy day and chat with their line companions.
Emanuel Sweeney, waiting to renew the tags on his '74 Mercury Marquis, talked for hours with singer Michael King about the long line, Washington politics, music, and religion. "We didn't know each other before, but we know each other now," Sweeney said, about three hours into the wait. "We'll be brothers by the time this is over."
When King announced he was waiting to renew the tags on his Marquis as well, Sweeney looked up and beamed his approval. "All right," he said with a smile.
Lizzie Bell sheepishly explained to a newly-made acquaintance next to her that she had waited through the line the previous afternoon, and that the inspectors had run out of tags after an hour and a half.
Her friend nodded sympathetically and then introduced himself as Houston Bell. She grinned in surprise. "Are you a Bell, too?"
Most people did not bother to introduce themselves, finding it sufficient to remain anonymous, temporary friends. The comrade ship took on a new bond when people in one portion of the line, having waited two hours began to speculate on the slowness of the line. The feeling of impatience heightened when the right line participants realized the left line was zipping by them.
"See that fellow with purple beany?" asked James Davidson, a young professor from Washington State University doing research here. The man he pointed out was about 50 people ahead of him in the other line.
"He came in after me," Davidson announced.
Someone explained that the motor vehicles inspectors at the two windows were checking peoples' checks against a list of people who have given bad checks, thus slowing the line. "The list must not be alphabetized," said Lizzie Bell with a grin.
"The guy handling the registration in the right line must be a cretin or something," Davidson offered. "He's so slow."
One inspector for the right line shook his head when asked about his job. "I've never done anything like this in my 21 years with the department; I'll never do this again."
Most Washington car owners are allowed to mail their renewal applications, if they do so before March 18, and avoid the lines. Why did these people wait? "I've been asking myself that question for the past 3 1/2 hours, "groaned Davidson.
"I believe the lines are worse this year," said Noel K. Dawson, the chief of the vehicle control division for the District of Columbia's Department of Transportation. "There just seem to be more than we expected."
He said inspectors would work past the scheduled 6 p.m. closing today and tomorrow, if neccessary, "until the crowd disminshes or until the inspectors hold out."
Licenses may be renewed at the Muncicpal Center, 301 C st. NW, Monday trhough Friday. Trailers at Carter Barron and at Fort Dupont Activity Center is Southeast Washington will be open through Saturday. The Northeast vehicle inspection center will be open, for application renewals only, through Saturday.