Motor vehicle-wise, as they say, it was the event of the season.
Thousands of Maryland procrastinators queued around regional Motor Vehicle Administration offices yesterday like the arms of a spiral galaxy, carrying books, babies, basketballs and picnic baskets.
Hangdog but good-humored, they endured waits of up to seven hours to get their 1986 car and motorcycle renewal stickers before the midnight deadline turned '85-tagged cars into pumpkins.
"I was cleanshaven when I walked in here," joked David Thornton of Mount Rainier at the Gaithersburg office, stroking his two-inch beard. "We've been here so long, we're all friends . . . . Next year we're going to have it catered."
It was the worst of times, a trail of true pities.
Thornton had spent five hours in line "because I was foolish enough to put my change of address on this form," and the MVA told him to come in.
David McCloud of Silver Spring considered himself lucky for having waited only a half-hour.
"But my mother came in Friday, and waited so long she passed out," he explained. "She was here six or seven hours, and she hadn't eaten . . . . So I'm back here today."
Roland Johnson of Temple Hills, whose identical twin brother, Ronald, bought a pewter 300ZX identical to Roland's, stood wryly fanning himself with the registration to the wrong car.
"They screwed us up," he shrugged. "He's got mine."
State MVA spokesman Steve Horowitz estimated yesterday that the Forestville, Largo and Gaithersburg facilities would have processed a total of 8,500 renewals by the 4:30 p.m closing. Of the 2.4 million auto owners notified of the need to renew their tags in February, about 2.2 million will have been processed in time, he said.
The others may be fined up to $500, according to state law, but the usual amount suggested by the citation is $30.
Maryland officials promise shorter lines next year, when the state switches to a system of staggering tag renewals so that some expire every month.
As the hours dragged on in Gaithersburg, the camaraderie of exasperation led one group of young women to form an unsteady kickline; while three young men, who left a fourth friend holding a place in line, quietly plotted a breakdance routine between rows of parked cars.
Most people stood listlessly, though, or, having worked their way around the block into the building, slumped in rows of desks like recalcitrant schoolchildren, inattentively folding and mutilating their yellow forms.
"Do-you-have-both-tags-on-the-vehicle?Cash-or-check?" hammered Edith Gagliardi, dealing questions from her information desk like cards from a deck.
"I came in at 10 o'clock and I haven't closed my mouth since," she said three hours later.
For those with unpaid citations, the road to renewal could be even longer.
Edrle Brathwait of Capitol Heights had to pay a $10 parking ticket -- tripled by penalties -- before she could renew her tags.
She spent five hours going from the crowded MVA station in Largo to Forestville MVA, which sent her to the Rockville City Police Station, from where she went to the Executive Office Building across the street.
But the saddest story yesterday belonged to a woebegone lady from Chevy Chase, who said she was stepping into line after three hours of circling the entire Gaithersburg-Damascus region.
"I thought I was home free when I saw the 'MVA' sign" at the intersection of Rtes. 355 and 124, she explained.
"And there was this huge complex of buildings, so I got in the 'must turn right lane' and found myself headed north on I-270."
Another 45 minutes later, after meandering back south past the famous Cracked Claw restaurant ("At least I know where it is") and tracts of anonymous cluster homes, she came back to the same intersection from the north and triumphantly pulled into the parking lot.
Ten minutes later, she marched into the building -- and found herself in the lobby of IBM.