On a midsummer Wednesday afternoon, the electronic billboard in the waiting area of the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) headquarters is working just fine. The digital readout flashes through a sequence of numbers, and customers with the corresponding paper slips make their way from gray plastic chairs to the appropriate windows. The billboard also talks, and its soothing female voice politely repeats the numbers for those whose attention has drifted elsewhere.

At 3:40, the billboard flashes the number of Dan Perry, a customer sitting in the front row of seats. Perry doesn’t budge. The digital voice calls his number, but his head is still buried in his application for a motorcycle learner’s permit. Perry is about to be passed over.

It’s tough to watch. I have been shadowing Perry since he first showed up at the DMV, more than two hours before. From the beginning, he expected the worst. He saw about 40 people between him and the information desk—a relatively short line for that time of day—and blurted, “Ah, the District!”

Perry hadn’t yet earned the right to whine. He was a DMV virgin, having just gotten his car inspected for the first time. (It failed.) In four years of living in the District, he had never applied for a D.C. license. According to him, this was his first-ever experience with D.C. bureaucracy. I wanted to see how this confrontation between cynical newbie and allegedly dysfunctional agency would play out, so I tailed him.

He successfully got his driver’s license, and feeling elated, he decided to “tempt fate” and take the motorcycle test. Adrenaline apparently took full possession of his senses, blocking out the sights and sounds of the electronic billboard. And now his number has come and gone. He’s going to miss his exam. His good run at the DMV is about to end, through no fault but his own.

So I give Perry a helpful nudge. He jumps to the exam room. He is the second-to-last DMV customer of the day.

“I consider that as a great achievement,” he says later, as he walks out onto C Street NW.

The average DMV customer prizes his position in the queue and would defend it with his life. Missing your number would seem rare. But it happens, says a security guard. They zone out, or they doze off, or they lose themselves in the fine print of their license applications. Then they’re brassy enough to claim they’ve been skipped. One Saturday, the guard has already fielded two such complaints at the same time. He knows they’ve screwed up. In many cases, he has seen the numbers called.

“I don’t argue,” says the guard. “I just try to explain.” He patiently counsels them to take another number.

For the guard, conspiracy theorists are part of the job. By helping absorb the bellyaching, he helps maintain the peace. For “skipped” patrons, the experience contributes to a crustified DMV mythology of nasty clerks, Radio Shack computers, and daylong waits.

Years ago, a lot of it was true. But these days, if you have a problem with the DMV, the problem is probably you.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Vince Spaulding exits the DMV satellite facility at Penn Branch empty-handed. Penn Branch doesn’t generate the long lines that the downtown DMV does. So rejection was swift. He walked in to renew his license, and about 20 minutes later a clerk sent him on his way.

Spaulding generally has a favorable view of the DMV. “From my experience, overall, I think it’s better,” he says. You can dismiss a lot of the complaining, Spaulding says, because “the expectation now is for everything to be almost flawless…#perfection.”

But today is Spaulding’s turn to complain. He is upset because he checked off a couple of boxes in the medical-history portion of the license application, and now he has been told he has to go through the DMV’s medical-screening process before he can renew his license. This is not what he expected.

His reminder letter told him he needed a doctor’s approval “if you are 70 years of age (or older), or have any physical or mental disability.” Spaulding thought it shouldn’t apply to him because he isn’t 70 yet. “This is definitely ambiguous, subject to interpretation,” he argues.

The various DMV facilities teem with people who don’t have their shit together. One DMV clerk estimates that 30 percent of patrons coming through the door don’t have the required documents for their transactions. If so, you can blame them (or yourself, if you’re one of them) for at least 30 percent of your wait.

But you would rather blame the DMV. Not by coincidence, the D.C. institution you most love to hate also happens to be the place where your bad trip is most likely to be your own fault.

As is not the case at some city agencies, you determine much of your own fate at the DMV: You choose when you go, you determine the mood you’ll be in, and it’s up to you to research and prepare the proper documentation. Your favorite bureaucratic tropes don’t apply. The DMV is no labyrinth. It’s a big waiting room.

The heavy intake of customers encourages a sort of egalitarianism. For DMV employees, following protocol is easier than discriminating among the hundreds of faces they see each day. They don’t care if you live east or west of the river, if you’re black or white, rich or poor.

You can’t buy yourself out of difficulty unless you know who’s on the take, and the FBI is busy rooting the corrupt clerks out. You are judged solely by your urban coping skills—tolerance, foresight, and patience.

The system rewards ingenuity. The mom who dispatches her cute kid to ask a clerk a question. The patron who asks for two number slips—one for paying with cash, one for paying with a check—so it doesn’t matter which window is moving faster. The brainiac who does the math and figures that driving 15 minutes to the Penn Branch satellite facility in Southeast, with its ample parking and empty seats, is far more convenient than waiting in the long lines downtown.

Not so long ago, there was no question that the DMV sucked, and waiting was only the half of it. When you got to the counter, you had to grab the attention of surly clerks who were engaged in otherwise lively conversations. The rules seemed written in Etch A Sketch, different every time you showed up. The DMV inspired new fits of customer pique two years ago with the bumpy implementation of Destiny, new software that continually crashed the system and wrongly bumped customers out of line.

Most of the bugs have since been worked out, and only an inconsolable crank would deny the general DMV turnaround:

Clerks are sweeter. They’re told to be.

Customer pingpong has diminished. You can now apply for a new license, registration, and tags at the same window at the same time.

Dreamy satellite facilities have opened at Penn Branch and in Georgetown, oases of short lines and brisk service. And to those who have been away for awhile, the sparkling confines of C Street are hardly recognizable. No longer do you see “spiderwebs and stuff…like bats flying around,” notes one customer.

The DMV Web site, where you can pay tickets and renew your registration, now accounts for about 11 percent of all vehicle transactions and 4 percent of driver transactions. More people online means fewer people in line.

Across the board, wait times—the primary source of customer complaints—have been dramatically reduced. In fiscal year 2000, only half of the license and registration transactions were completed in 30 minutes or less. Today, over 80 percent of transactions are finished in a half-hour. (The timer starts when the customer gets a number, so the numbers don’t reflect the full wait.)

The new look has even wound its way over to Half Street SW, the site of the city’s lone vehicle-inspection station. There, a quicker pace hasn’t just liberated personal schedules and lowered collective stress; it has also altered the political landscape. In 2002, D.C. Council candidate Tony Dominguez collected hundreds of signatures at the inspection site to qualify for the fall ballot. But during this year’s campaign, he struck Half Street from his itinerary. “Now I can’t catch up with the line, it’s moving so fast,” he says.

Not everyone uses objective criteria to measure DMV efficiency. Upon leaving the C Street DMV, Bernadette Thomas complains that she waited 45 minutes to renew her registration. The same transaction would have taken three minutes online, but she couldn’t do it online. Why? Because Thomas wanted to get vanity plates. Clearly, she said, the DMV was “worse than it used to be.”

That’s mild by the standards of customer outrage. A common sentiment among DMV clientele is outright contempt for the folks behind the service counters. To hear the vitriol, DMV workers are lazy, they’re rude, and nearly every day they have the gall to take lunch.

Lunch figures large in the handbook of DMV hate. For you, the noon hour is the small hole in your schedule you’ve allotted for all your obligations as a citizen and a driver. But you will never be able to do the DMV on your lunch break—because that’s when everyone wants to go to the DMV. The crowd can double in size. And guess what? The DMV clerks get a lunch break of their own. So now your wait has quadrupled.

“It shouldn’t matter when you come,” says Cobby Williams on a recent Friday. “The system should be the same. Why should it get slower at lunch? They should have the management if they get lazy around lunchtime, or any time. That’s hump time. It should be quicker!”

Williams, a policy analyst, suggests bold action: “I would say find someone to look at how the system works, study it from the outside.”

What many patrons want from DMV clerks is an exemption from the rules. The DMV is a regulatory agency. It has regulations. They’re online, they’re in pamphlets at the DMV, and they’re at the fingertips of officials reachable by phone. One grumbler can be heard chastising a clerk because she won’t take his expired proof of insurance; he claims he left the good one at home. “Here they won’t trust me!” he says loudly, seeking sympathy from other patrons at the counter.

When a faxed letter comes through from his insurance company, he shouts, “Thank you, GEICO!” Yes, thanks for saving the crowd from more baseless whining.

The floor of the entrance lobby to 301 C St. NW features an impressive map of the whole District. It’s rendered in chunks of cut-up tile. Red shards form the main thoroughfares, like platelets in the bloodstream. Areas of green indicate parkland. A metal detector and security desk obscure much of downtown. Among the people lined up in the corridor, only those about to enter the black portal to the DMV waiting area are close enough to ponder the map’s finer details.

Other than the map, the DMV doesn’t offer many distractions. Waiting in the corridor, you can trace the veins in the purplish marble of the walls. Once inside, you can scan the subtitles on two barely audible TVs, both of which appear stuck on CNN.

The DMV wasn’t built for your entertainment. You are solely responsible for filling the time before your number is called. Yet thousands arrive at the DMV without anything to read. They wallow in themselves; they fall into an angry trance, compulsively checking their watches, and maybe their pulses; they commiserate with their fellow sufferers in line, confining themselves to a single talking point: the wait.

Chitchat can be a real downer. The DMV is a shared experience it’s best not to share. “I avoid conversation,” advises James Barrett, a truck driver who recently got new tags downtown. “I have to feel there’s chemistry. But overall, if I hear a person talking negative, I turn my back, to avoid that negativity, that flow, that negative energy they send off.

“People come here in a bad mood and pass that on to the next person,” he explains.

The DMV is a nearly 300-employee machine, churning slowly through D.C.’s 360,000 drivers. The District’s DMV may be the only one in the country that combines the functions of city, county, and state into one agency. Ticket adjudication, emissions control, and licensing functions currently housed in six different facilities come under single management. Such an operation will inevitably generate some friction. It’s going to make mistakes. But karmic rules apply: Those who get burned most often are the drivers who have themselves sinned.

Once you fail vehicle inspection, for example, you’re in for a world of hassle. And sure, the ticket-adjudication center, at 65 K St. NE, an unreconstructed vestige of the old DMV, has barely limped into the 21st century.

Of course, innocents suffer, too. DMV employees have been known to recoil from all the bad vibes that bombard them daily and finally to snap at customers. And despite vast improvement, the document screeners at the front desk and the clerks behind the service counter aren’t always on the same page. They may give out conflicting information. Like any body of laws, DMV regulations can’t address the nuances of every individual situation. Is a W-2 form downloaded from a federal Web site sufficient for proof of your Social Security number? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Nonetheless, aggrieved parties have a talent for fanning Code Yellow situations into nuclear meltdowns.

On a recent muggy Monday at the Brentwood satellite facility, a woman starts off on the right foot. The Brentwood DMV is a former Burger King. Its small size forces most of the line outside, where it curls around the corner, shaded from the sun by an awning. The woman comes equipped for the wait. She lugs a low-sitting beach chair, a water bottle, and a copy of the New Yorker.

Every few minutes, the line inches forward and the woman picks herself up, repositions her chair, and then returns to her nearly reclining pose on the sidewalk. She cycles through this routine for about an hour without any complication. Then she reaches the entrance door. That’s when the unraveling begins.

The woman has invested a lot in this trip. She and her husband retired to Florida earlier in the summer, but the District bureaucracy wouldn’t let them go without a fight. The DMV informed the couple by mail that it never received the $26 check for a duplicate car title. “It was written in very crude language,” the woman says. “‘You don’t pay! You don’t pay twenty-six dollars! You have to pay!’”

Incensed, the woman got behind the wheel of her red Volvo wagon and retraced the thousand miles back to D.C. She had another matter to attend to in Washington. But she also intended to settle up with the DMV, this time in person.

Along with the beach chair and magazines, the woman has towed a lot of emotional baggage to the Brentwood DMV. For one thing, she recently underwent treatments for cancer. She also retains memories of District government that she would prefer to forget. Perhaps the worst offense was when employees of the Department of Public Works mocked her when she called to complain about rats. “I could hear them laughing at the other end,” she recalls.

Inside, the woman’s visit continues to fall apart. At the information window, she fumbles with her paperwork—her hands are sweaty. She passed up an earlier opportunity to cut ahead in line with other older DMV visitors, leaving herself in the sun longer than she had to be.

Dizzy and already in a weakened state of health, she takes a seat to collect herself. Another woman sits down next to her, and the two start talking. When she mentions her cancer, the other woman replies with reflex sympathy— “She just started on: ‘You’re going to live on; don’t worry about it,’” the woman says. The comment doesn’t just annoy her. It pushes her eject button. She gives up on paying her $26 and walks out of the DMV. Moments later, she returns to retrieve her purse. Then she leaves again.

The afternoon is a total waste. She can’t get it together to make her payment. Another customer has displayed some insensitivity toward her health problems. Clearly, the DMV is fucked up beyond repair.

“I guess it’s like a Third World country,” she says.

Fifteen minutes before showtime, the clerks at the Penn Branch DMV are already perched in their windows. To prepare for the deluge of customers, they warm up their computers and lay out their pens and forms and staplers. For the customers already in line outside, these last moments are unbearable. “If you don’t open the door on time, they’ll call the mayor,” says one Penn Branch clerk. “They do it all the time.”

The mayor needn’t worry. The doors automatically open at 8:15 a.m. and automatically close at 4 p.m. Some people’s watches apparently run a little fast.

The clerk recalls her most ridiculous customer, a guy who looked as if he had been transported to the DMV on a gurney. He had a hospital bracelet on one wrist, a diabetes bracelet on the other, and various medical tags of unknown significance hanging from his neck. Given that he appeared to be on his last legs, the clerk asked him if he had been through the DMV’s medical screening yet. The accessorized patron apparently didn’t expect this line of questioning, so he confessed. “He says he wears it for sympathy,” says the clerk with a laugh. “He gets in and out of places quick.” The clerk sent him on his way, with a form for his doctor to sign.

Recent customer-service training encourages clerks to seek the “simple legal yes” and to smile when they have to say no. The “no”s generally result from lack of proof of insurance or missing Social Security documentation—in other words, the things people don’t normally have in their wallets. The clerk is sympathetic, in part because she has lost her own Social Security card twice.

“Unfortunately, you have to be stern with them,” she says. “You need the proper documents, especially after Sept. 11. I can’t approve items we don’t take. It’s hard, and you feel sorry for them, but they can’t prove who they are.”

Their front-line duty subjects them to fierce blowback. About 3 to 5 percent of the time, a patron gets out of hand. “They call out your name, they call you the B-word, smash up their papers and leave,” says the clerk. But when the hotheads come back the next day, they apologize “nine times out of 10,” she says.

Anne Witt, the DMV’s newish director, refuses to blame customers for their lack of documentation. “It’s not our fault,” she says. “It’s not the citizens’ fault. It’s a process that we have to make work easier.”

Before Witt started at the DMV, in April 2003, she spent seven years at Amtrak; in the ’80s, while with the D.C. Department of Environmental Services, she pioneered the Supercan program. Shortly after coming to C Street, Witt gave the order to close down all the DMV branches for a day to convene the first all-agency meeting in DMV history. Employees watched a seven-minute video of customer complaints and compliments, then spent the rest of the day brainstorming for fixes. Witt also instituted the first customer-service training sessions in years, meetings where the “simple legal yes” became the agency mantra.

She grants an interview, but reluctantly. For one, it will take her away from working. “It will be an hour longer that people will have to wait,” she says. Nor is Witt too excited about highlighting changes that have taken place. “There’s lots and lots of work to do,” she says.

The big things haven’t happened yet, Witt explains. By this time next year, her “one-done” plan will be in full effect: Every DMV facility, including the inspection station, will be full-service. You’ll be able to do virtually any transaction—including registration and ticket adjudication— on a single visit. A second full-service vehicle-inspection station will eventually open on West Virginia Avenue NE. But its construction is in the hands of other city agencies, not the DMV.

With its functions shifted elsewhere, 65 K St. will disappear. The DMV will vacate the building at the end of this year.

“I think we can make money selling shares just to push the button to blow it up,” Witt says.

At the end of August, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics mailed more than 100,000 election guides to D.C. residents. The guides lacked a pivotal piece of information: where you were supposed to vote. This was an improvement over January, when the guides arrived on Election Day, or afterward.

Last year, an official in the District’s Office of Property Management was accused of cutting sweetheart deals with a local developer that may have cost the city millions.

A few months ago, the head of the D.C. Department of Public Works conceded that the city’s recycling contractor provided shoddy service and would continue to provide shoddy service until the District starts driving its own recycling trucks in February.

And none of this news caused a single D.C. resident to shed a tear. Incidents such as these take a huge toll on the District, by either draining its already shallow coffers or further tarnishing its long-suffering image. Yet they don’t inspire much in the way of collective passion. Property management, elections—those functions are buffered by an outrage-proof degree of separation.

The DMV enjoys no such amnesty, primarily because nearly all of us drive. Nearly all of us pay taxes, too, but that’s a well-established obligation. We all recycle, but we think that’s a good deed. Driving, on the other hand, we think is our right. We forget that it’s a privilege that requires us to get a license, pay our tickets, and keep our cars from polluting our air. And when the DMV calls us to account, we think it’s wasting our time. It’s like visiting the dentist: Even the best-functioning DMV couldn’t win you over.

Because all of us renew our acquaintance with the DMV at least once every two years, the anger, even if unjustified, builds on itself. New tales of woe are thrown into the boil every day. Lots of little annoyances, by their sheer volume, add up to irreducible, unending grievance.

By turning unpleasant situations into ritualized hatred, we do ourselves and others harm.

Let Imam, a hot-dog vendor at C Street, has claimed the pavement in front of the DMV for nearly 15 years. She has no problem identifying the source of the cycle of hostility. “They’re OK with me,” says Imam, speaking of DMV employees, her most consistent customers. “The thing is, yeah, they’re rude. But what I see is that dealing with the public is not easy. People want to get what they want regardless, but they can’t get it. They come before they pay their tickets—and get upset at the employees.”

And when they don’t get what they want from the DMV, they sometimes take it out on Imam. “They treat me like a dog,” she says. “Whatever they want to say, they’ll say.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.