This is the last blog for 2014. How many times have you ever gone to register a boat or a car? Maybe, it was time to renew your driver’s license. In any event you probably had to go to a county or state building to get the job done. How many times did things go smoothly and the people were actually friendly? I thought that I would present my thoughts on the difference between an urban experience and a rural experience.
Let me start it by telling you about my urban or big-city experience. A state like California has a huge population; therefore that literally means thousands of people are trying a year to get a driver’s license, a license plate for their car some other vehicle like a boat or ATV. Let me start by reviewing my experiences of going to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). I do not know what the numbers are of people who try to renew their driver’s license, or get a driver’s license on any given day. I do know that each time that I went to the DMV to get my driver’s license renewed there was always a long line of people to do the same thing. The first thing that I noticed when going to the DMV was that there was very little parking available. I would usually have to find a spot on a public street and risk or ignoring the signs this told me that there was only two hour parking in that area. It was always a gamble that I would take on of getting in and out of the DMV in two hours. Each of the DMV offices seem to be small. They were small compared to the number of transactions and the number of people that visited the building every day. So the adventure would begin by standing in line outside of the DMV building. Luckily, Southern California has more good weather days then bad. There was no way to tell how fast the line would go. So there would be some time outside listening to all the different languages being spoken and watching the nervous faces of the 16-year-old about to get his or her first driver’s license. Once inside the building, there was a continuing line like at an airport security. There would be written instructions along the way showing you directions on how to proceed through the lines. Then as you slowly inched your way forward there was always a large black or red line across the floor and signs telling you to stop there and wait for the next available clerk. Many of the DMV locations would have you stand in that long line only to get up to an area that would ask you to take a number. It seemed to me that I would take the number 205 as the clerk up front called out number 71. I anxiously took it and waited for the clerk to call next and that next to be me.
During the time that you were standing in the line inside the building you might have noticed some chairs. I think the chairs were really made to be uncomfortable. The people in the chairs had usually made it to the front of the line and then they were asked to wait for further action on their request. Many times it was the young sixteen year old waiting for the driving test officer to call their name out for their driving test. The only difference that I noticed while standing in a line in the last ten years was that many people, while standing in line, are talking on a cell phone. Some of them pass the time in line by playing games on the cell phone. In the decades before that all you could do is strike up a conversation with somebody in front or behind you. Most of the time when I looked at the employees of the DMV I had the impression that they hated their jobs. Until it was your turn for a clerk to call you to their location, the employees at the DMV seemed to look right through you as is if you were not there. It was almost like the people waiting in line did not exist. It also appeared to me that the clerks and the people that supervise them were in no rush to get to the next person in line. I don’t know how many breaks the DMV people were supposed to take, but it seemed like every half-hour one of them would walk away from their location. When a clerk walked away from the front desk location there seemed to be no one else to fill that void until the clerk came back from their break. It was almost an unwritten rule that you did not smile or try to engage the clerk in any conversation other than the procedure of getting your driver’s license. There was certainly no time for humor when standing in front of the clerk. Rather than trying to help you through the forms that you may have already filled out, the clerk would seem irritated to have to explain anything that was already in the explanation portion of the form. The worst thing you could do was try to talk to the clerk at all. Any effort to engage them in conversation seemed to either make them irritated or slow their actions down even more. It was my observation that many of the female clerks spent more time looking at their highly polished fingernails then ever looking at me. One thing was for sure, your information had better have been correct and you did not ask to make any real changes. If for some reason you do not agree with the clerk and you questioned the clerk’s actions, that clerk would call a supervisor. The supervisor seemed to have many years of experience in showing their indifference to anyone even being alive.
I realize that those clerks see literally thousands and thousands of people. Within those thousands and thousands of people there were always a few who were doing something illegal or were just plain rude to the clerk. Because of those few people, the clerks and their supervisors seemed to become more and more callous as the years have gone by. Pretty soon it doesn’t matter who you are or what you said, that clerk just wanted to go home. One of the things I did not mention before about standing in line was that there were a lot of people there who didn’t seem to care that they smelled bad. Some of them smelled bad because I don’t think that they took a shower in a week, others had so much perfume on that they were just as offensive. Of course, there are always those people who tried to sneak into line. I really did not notice that until, on two occasions, I observed people cutting in line on days where the line was already going super slow. I did call one out on it, and I guess I had upset one of the clerks who called the Highway Patrol officer assigned to the DMV out to see what I was up to. I actually got used to this callous treatment of the DMV. I guess I got a little callous too and just expected to be treated badly at the DMV.
Now let’s jump to a rural setting. The offices that handle: getting a driver’s license, registering a car or any other vehicle is at fairly small buildings. But one of the first things that I noticed was that there was parking available near that small building. Sometimes it was the curb right in front of the building. Then when I walked into the facility and I noticed that there were about 20 to 25 chairs available to sit in. The difference this time was that the seats seem to be padded and in good repair. The next thing that I noticed was that there were only a couple of people in the whole building besides the clerk. As I waited for my turn, I noticed that the people in front of me actually held conversations with the clerk. During those conversations the clerk would look back at me and tell me that they would be with me in a few minutes. It was amazing, someone actually acknowledged my presence. The actual time that the clerk spent on the computer to produce any documents seemed to be the same as the amount of time in the city. The difference was that the clerk was friendly and responsive to any question or observation that I would make. I watched the clerk laugh and smile. I even watched the clerk help the man before me fill out a form correctly. When I first moved out to the rural area I was very uncomfortable with everyone being so nice. In the beginning, I thought that there was something else going on and that I should be on alert.
Even the insides of the buildings were different. City buildings seem to want to put some kind of barrier or even bulletproof glass between the clerk and the person trying to get their documents. The rural area offices were very open. They were clean and there was even some sort of chair or bench next to the clerk’s area for a person to sit down if they had to wait a little longer for things to be done. In the city, the clerk would not recognize your existence until you are standing in front of them. In the rural area, the clerk would take the time to let you know that they saw you and they would get to you as soon as possible. Once it was my turn, the clerk would greet me and then help me with my request for documents. I even found the clerk to smile and they seemed to be genuinely interested in getting me to my destination. My destination of getting the license or documents I needed.
I’m fairly sure that the clerks in the city get paid a lot more money and have a lot more benefits than the clerks in the rural area. I realize at the clerks in the city handle a lot more people. But I think it’s time the system should to change the environment that has allowed the city offices to be callous and cold. I think that the leadership of those systems probably started their career in that old system and did not want to make any changes. Change is needed, there is no need for any government system to treat its citizens like they don’t exist and are not wanted. The people who can change this are those leaders and elected officials whose responsibility is for those offices. Don’t blame it on a labor union or the physical location in the city. It’s the government that makes you go to these locations to get your license.
My thought is that whether you are in city or in the country, those offices and employees that engage the citizens should be trained and be expected to treat every person with dignity. If the employee or clerk does not engage in an appropriate manner, they should either be retrained or fired. I have had some unpleasant experiences with the clerk in a rural area. It was only once and the person quickly explained that they were having a bad day. Then the clerk did their job and I left feeling that at least I was recognized as a person. When I was in the city, I just began to accept the fact that I was going to be treated like I hardly existed.
If you are one of those clerks, you can change your attitude and will probably find that the other people working around you start changing theirs. I know that as a policeman I began to be a very callous person. But I found out that by recognizing people and showing them that they are important, I felt better and the people who I came in contact with appreciated it.