I went to the DMV today to get a REAL ID upgrade for my license, and to get it reprinted with my correct address so I don't need to carry the paper change-of-address confirmation any more. The DMV is always a fascinating microcosm of human behavior, and a unique experience to simultaneously see the best and worst in people.

For those of you who haven't been in a California DMV, the process follows several stages:

  1. (optional) Make an appointment. The North Oakland DMV doesn't have any appointments available in the next six months, and then next DMV available anywhere in the Bay Area is late March at Oakland-Colliseum, so I did not get an appointment.
  2. Get a number. This involves a long line. At bigger DMVs (e.g., San Francisco), there are separate lines for getting a number if you have an appointment and if you don't; at smaller DMVs (e.g., North Oakland), there's just one line. I got there a few minutes after the DMV opened today, so I only waited in line outdoors (in the delightful, 40°F weather) for about 45 minutes to get a number. Your "number" has two parts – a letter and a number. Appointments get letter G and an auto-incrementing number (e.g., G-002); non-appointments get letter H and an auto-incrementing number (e.g., H-003).
  3. Wait for your number to be called. Every minute or so the PA will call out something like Now serving G-002 at Counter 12. Today, they called approximately eight G's for every H, so I waited for about 90 minutes inside.
  4. Actually do your business at the DMV. For me, this involved three different counters and took another half an hour.

These wait times are pretty great for a Bay Area DMV1, but still spending three or more hours doing paperwork isn't anyone's idea of a good time. This was extra fun for me, because I (foolishly in retrospect) decided to renew my license at the same time as I upgraded it to a REAL-ID, and apparently in California if you renew a license more than six months before it expires, you have to re-take the written Driver's Test2; it's not at all a difficult test, but it took an extra 20 minutes.

Anyhow, the whole process really magnifies the impersonality of bureaucracy – at one point, a woman and her disabled daughter walked past the line to the number-issuing desk to ask if there was a way her daughter could sit down instead of standing in line outside for hours. The answer, of course, was a resounding No, there is no way, you need to go to the end of the line. Eventually, someone volunteered to hold their place in line while she sat down. The best of people, the worst of people.

Anyhow, I guess now I have five more years before I have to do this again. Yay.

  1. I've heard horror stories of people showing up to the San Francisco DMV exactly at opening time and waiting five or six hours before they even got assigned their number. 

  2. Incidentally, I cannot find out where this rule is written down. The woman behind the counter told me that this was the rule; the Internet just says that you "may be required to take a knowledge test".