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Claremont DMV

on November 19, 2009

The line to get into the Department of Motor Vehicles on Claremont Avenue trailed out of the front doors and down the front of the building on Wednesday morning at 9 am.  It was sunny but chilly, and people huddled in their coats or rubbed their arms to keep warm.

Dolores Jones got in line forty minutes before the DMV opened its doors.  She knew it would be a long wait, but was surprised to still be standing outside at 9:15.  Jones, a pharmacy tech student, was in line to “see about some speeding tickets,” she said.

Behind her in line Trang Nzuyen waited with her father, Tai.  The two are originally from Vietnam and Nzuyen was helping her father, who does not speak or read English, obtain a driver’s license.

Carolyn Wu had been expecting a long line, since she knew that the El Cerrito DMV was closed this week.  Wu, a special inspector for structural components used in building projects, was at the DMV to order a front license plate for her car.

Why didn’t she have one already? “I didn’t know I needed one,” said Wu.  “There’s no front mount on my car. I didn’t know I needed one until I got stopped.”

Inside, customers stepped up to the front desk and explained why they had come.  They were handed a number and motioned to wait in the blue plastic chairs that line the walls. The room is light on decoration but is large and light-filled—the east and west walls are almost entirely glass—which lends a friendly air to this most bureaucratic of institutions.  Every few minutes a computerized voice called out a customer number and a counter number: “G4 is now being served at counter 12.”

When one’s number is called one walks up to the high counters that form a horseshoe shape with the open end abutting the back wall.  Inside the horseshoe, employees buzzed from desk to desk getting forms checked, then returned to their counters where they finalized transactions with their customers.  Printers hummed as receipts, registration papers and temporary ID documents were printed out.

Most customers looked bored or simply resigned as they waited for their numbers to be called.  Some chatted on cell phones, others read books or merely stared into space or fiddled with their forms.  Some people waited primly, legs crossed and sitting straight up.  Others slouched in their chairs, legs sticking into the wide aisle between the chairs and the counters.

Diana Agag sat up straight as she filled out paperwork to request a replacement handicapped parking tag to hang in her mirror.  The tag is for her seventeen-year-old son who, she says, is sick.  Agag is a stay-at-home mom who has lived in Oakland for six years but who is originally from Sudan.

Next to Agag, another stay-at-home mom, Barbara Walker waited with her two-year-old daughter, Josephine.  Josephine crawled onto her mother’s lap, then onto a chair clutching her Barbie bag and a snack her mother had brought, then back onto her mother’s lap.  Walker shifted Josephine from one spot to another as she explained that she had her purse stolen last month and needed a replacement driver’s license.

A few people had brought along company to while away the wait.  Danyale Isom had brought her mother, Denise Washington, “for moral support.”  Isom had recently found out that her license had been suspended, but she didn’t know why.  She suspected it might be because of a ticket for a seat belt violation that she had not yet paid.  Her mother said to her, with the slightly exasperated but loving tone only a mother can muster, “That’s why you just have to take care of things right away.”  She sighed, shook her head and smiled at her daughter.

Joseph Beckhusen and his girlfriend Erika Mida were perhaps the happiest looking people in the DMV on Wednesday morning.  They giggled in a corner against a window while they waited for Beckhusen’s number to be called.

Why so happy? “I turned 21 yesterday,” Beckhusen, a student at Berkeley City College, said proudly, “and I need a new ID.”

Wasn’t he surprisingly peppy for the morning after his 21st birthday?

“I didn’t drink,” he said.  “We’re not all alcoholics on our 21st birthdays.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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