I’m sitting in a PennDOT Driver’s License waiting room in Southampton, Pennsylvania, waiting for my number F539 to be called. The line for getting pre-screened and given a service number took about forty minutes, and I’ve been sitting now for about thirty minutes more. My butt is hurting from sitting in a cheap, plastic chair, and the highest F-number called so far is F532. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to be crowded inside with seventy-five other breathing people. Thankfully all are wearing facemasks. The Omicron critter … The only bright spot so far is there’s an attractive woman sitting beside me reading the New York Times on her cell phone. I’d kinda like to talk to her, but is it appropriate? In this setting? What if she doesn’t want to be bothered?
There are twelve stations where driver’s license technicians could be helping with the backlog, eight are currently staffed. Probably several are out sick with Omicron. I’m facing the south wall where Stations 1, 2, and 3 are located. Apparently, this is where applicants get their photos taken. These employees don’t have much to do, and when they do have a client, the transaction is brief. Ten minutes go by and I observe the four driver’s license technicians sitting at the photo stations talking with each other, sipping soft drinks, things like that. Why are there four employees in three stations? And why are they doing nothing when there are empty stations on the other sides of the room? I can’t actually hear what they are talking about because of the distance and the large plexiglass panels protecting them from their clients, but it doesn’t seem like they are doing driver’s license technician kinds of things.
I scroll through my email on my cell phone deleting older ones one at a time. Some stir up recent memories, most I have no recollection of. I am, however, remembering past waits in DMV waiting rooms. After I left home there was Dallas, then Philadelphia, then Dayton, Ohio. Wonder how many driver’s licenses I’ve had? I run through the chronology of my driving life. It takes a while because I’ll be turning seventy soon and I’ve moved around the country a good bit. Why have I moved so many times? Good question.
This is my third time getting a license in Pennsylvania. Apparently, there’s no fast-track for repeat customers. I’ve also had three in Louisiana, plus the ones in between. OK. Counting today, assuming I’m successful, that’ll make ten driver’s licenses. Maybe I should be a consultant for DMV offices around the country? How do they compare? Best practices? It’s easy to name the best one – fastest, one-stop, everything done – that would be Richmond, Indiana. Took a written driver’s test, got a new license, new titles, and license plates for two vehicles, and registered to vote in under an hour. Maybe I should move back to Indiana.
“Now serving F535 at Station Number 6,” blares from the speakers. What happened to F533 and F534? Did I drift off? The woman beside me is now reading a book she brought with her. Good idea. Smart woman. In fact, this would be a great place for a library branch. Give all the waiting people something to do. Increase the reading capacity of Americans. Might become an incubator for entrepreneurial ideas … and ways to improve productivity!
One of those ideas might be – YES, cross-train the photo-taking driver’s license technicians to do the work of reviewing and approving driver’s license applications. Then, when there’s no one waiting to get their photo taken, employees like the four I’m facing who have not had a single client in the last fifteen minutes, could be getting people processed, taking their money, and getting them back outside in the cold January air where they’d have a much lower risk of being infected with the Omicron variant. Most people who get it are having mild cases apparently, but some are hospitalized and some are dying! I don’t like that range of possibilities.
I glance out the glass storefront. About a dozen masked people are rubbing their gloved hands together, stomping their feet, while waiting to get into the building for pre-screening.
Two lighted notice boards hang from the ceiling, listing the numbers for clients being served. The board in the corner of the room lists different ones than the one in front of me which seems to be accurate. Some of the numbers listed on the board in the corner have not been called out, I’m sure of it. What is this? Is it like horse racing where they report the results of races taking place on other racetracks across the country?
“Now serving C009 at Station Number 12,” blasts from the speakers. The woman beside me gets up and gathers up all of her things except one manila folder.
“Do you want this?” I ask her.
“No, put it in your briefcase,” she says to me. Which I do because she’s my wife and I have a briefcase for our paperwork.
I sit alone waiting to hear the magic words – Now serving F539 – thinking of other ways PennDOT could streamline the driver’s license process. How about taking your cell phone number, have you wait in your car, and they call you when they’re ready for you? Same amount of waiting, but less spread of COVID-19. Yes, I think that could help. Wonder how many levels of supervision it would take to get that procedure approved?
“Now serving F539 at Station Number 9,” shakes me out of my slumber. I’m glad to get off my butt and moving again. Need to bring a pillow next time. Next time? Maybe I should stay in the same state for a few years. Think of the time savings …
The driver’s license technician at Station 9 greets me with a smile and a pleasant voice. She takes my paperwork and in a few minutes, she’s ready for me to insert my credit card to pay the fee. It’s $60-something.
“I thought it was $30-something,” I say.
“It’s $30 more because you asked for REAL ID.” Right. I sure don’t want an UNREAL ID. “Are you sure you’re OK with that?” she asks.
“Yes, I’ve had REAL ID for the last six years, three in Louisiana and three in Indiana before that. I thought REAL IDs were required for everyone by now.”
“The deadline is somewhere out there.” She shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t know, 2024?” She gives me back my Louisiana driver’s license with four small square holes punched in it to make it void and hands me a piece of paper to keep in my billfold to prove that I’m driving legally until my REAL ID driver’s license arrives in the mail two weeks hence.
“So, I don’t get my new driver’s license today?” I ask.
“No,” she smiles. “But you can go take a seat in the waiting area and wait for your number to be called.” O Lord I want to be in that number …
“OK,” I say. “I also need to get new titles for our two cars and Pennsylvania license plates.”
“Oh, we don’t do titles and plates here at PennDOT,” she says. “You can go down there for that.” She points outside the office to someplace else in the shopping center like I’m supposed to already know that.
“But they won’t let you get new titles and plates until you have your REAL ID.”
I nod and walk away. Pennsylvania law requires new residents to get PA plates within two weeks of residency. They give you up to six weeks to get a driver’s license. But you have to have a PA driver’s license before you can apply for license plates. Go figure.
My butt has just hit the waiting chair seat when the speaker announces, “Now serving F539 at Station Number 3.” Remember, there’s no waiting for stations 1, 2, and 3 because they don’t have much to do because the seventy-five clients who have managed to get inside PennDOT are waiting for service from the five staffed stations that have way too much to do. The friendly technician at Station 3 accepts my paperwork, takes my picture, and sends me on my way. Takes two minutes.
I step outside, away from the waiting line that has grown to about twenty-five people, remove my N95 mask, and take a deep hit of cold, fresh air. Good job. My wife awaits me on the sidewalk.
“Let’s get the titles and plates now,” she says. “There’s a title agency right here.” She points.
“Privatizing,” I mumble.
We step inside together. There’s one employee at the counter and one customer filling out paperwork, both unmasked. Before we can say a thing, the employee yells, “We only take cash,” like she’s selling cold beer at a baseball game.
My wife and I look at the fee schedule on the wall. Looks like it’s going to be at least $130 or so, per vehicle. I look at her and shake my head. She shakes hers in agreement. I open the door and we step out.
On the sidewalk, I say, “Not bad. We got half the job done. Let’s head home.”
“How about Starbucks?” she asks.
“It’ll have to be drive-through, you know.”
I give her a questioning look.
“Their dining areas are closed. COVID-19.”