Columns

Krishnamurthy ’19: The universality of the DMV

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

I’m not a big believer in the concept of “hell” — or, more accurately, I wasn’t, until exactly two weeks ago, when I had the tremendous misfortune of visiting the most pathetic government department in what is, almost indisputably, the most pathetic state: the Department of Motor Vehicles in New Jersey. (I’m from New Jersey, so believe me, I know what it’s like.)

My mother had decided that I, having reached the age of majority six months ago, ought to learn how to drive. As a dutiful Hindu boy determined not to trash my karma more than I already have as a vacuous first-year, I skimmed the state motorists’ manual, passed the written exam — on my second attempt, admittedly — and scheduled an appointment for a road test at the DMV during spring break. Yup, while everyone else was throwing back sketchy alcoholic beverages at seedy Mexican resorts, I was parallel-parking a Toyota Prius in a public lot. Fun times, all around.

For the uninitiated, the DMV is the mind-bogglingly miserable quintessence of American bureaucracy. It’s a libertarian’s dream: government dysfunction and civic apathy in every corner, with no inkling of hope in sight. The whole affair takes place inside an old, brutalist structure filled with scattered tattered cushion chairs, grimy linoleum floors and out-of-commission television screens. The lines for basic services are unthinkably long, and the folks — nay, the dispiriting gremlins — who staff the DMV are irredeemably uninspired. I don’t entirely blame them; dealing with bratty, entitled teenagers and their mollycoddling parents can be unbearable in its own right. But honestly, it’s really difficult to sympathize with someone who pronounces my very clearly Indian last name “Christian Murphy.” (As much as I’d like to be Christian, Krishna picked me earlier in the draft. Sorry, Jesus.)

My road test was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. I left the DMV, probationary license in hand and dignity systematically extracted from my soul, at 2 p.m. Yet, strangely enough, I can’t say that I came out of that ordeal, however traumatic, with nothing positive. Sure, I hated standing behind an extraordinarily heavyset man who was apparently unfamiliar with belts for three hours; yes, the place smelled like the unholy lovechild of a McDonald’s bathroom and a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus; indeed, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, this kind of psychosocial torment is wholly impermissible. But I did discover something.

What the DMV lacks in efficiency or basic human decency it more than makes up for in its inadvertent cultivation of solidarity. We live in a time that caters, in unimaginable ways, to each of our individual needs. Of course, we’ve always had preferences, but now more than ever, our preferences dominate how we individually experience life. We drink fancy coffees suited to our specific tastes; we scroll down media feeds tailored to our social needs; we read news pieces that snugly match our interests. When we walk to class with cumbersome headphones fixed to our faces, we’re immersed in our own disconnected bubble — even the stuff we hear isn’t the same. There is, regrettably, little in common among our experiences anymore.

The DMV, though, rejects our wants and imposes itself, domineeringly and without clemency, on everybody. Every adult who drives a car — most Americans — must venture to the DMV at some point in their lives to renew a license, do paperwork or get their kids a permit. And, thus, every adult who drives a car is conditioned, with good reason, to resent the DMV absolutely. In this way, the Department of Motor Vehicles has become a universal component of American life; it transcends differences of class, race and religion, affecting, for better or for worse, every motorist. With all of the DMV’s bureaucratic impediments, the open road isn’t so open — and this is a reality that we can’t just swipe away or deselect. It’s something that all people just have to deal with, and the capacity to cope with things that aren’t comprehensively compatible with our wishes — grit, more simply — should be preserved.

So, for those of you with the ill fortune of obtaining a license or taking a test at your local DMV this summer, I wish you the best of luck. But while you’re cursing out the rude receptionist under your breath or lamenting the lengthy queues, remember: There are very few things on which all Americans can unconditionally agree, and the complete inutility of the DMV is one of them. That’s something worth savoring.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu.

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