Editor’s Note: This post does not involve a North Texas nonprofit. It is being published as a “public service.”
After reading Dave “Watchdog” Lieber’s column about the Texas Driver License situation, I decided to go ahead and renew my driver license. Another incentive was a very official letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety warning that, come October 1, 2020, I would need something called “REAL ID’s gold circle with inset star.” Due to the Federal Real ID Act, I would more or less be an outcast dealing with any type of federal agency (i.e. entering federal facilities, air travel, etc.) without that star.
The website made it sound so easy. You could even go to the website to register for “get in line online” and avoid a long wait. But despite numerous attempts, I only got a message that the service was not available. Hmm, not a good sign.
Taking Dave’s suggestion that Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays were the least busy days, I drove to the Garland Mega-Center Tuesday morning. As I pulled into the parking lot just after 9:15 a.m., I found the line already was out the door and along the front of the building. Not too bad. Still, the parking lot seemed awfully full. When I left my car, I discovered the line actually extended back around the building along the two-lane drive for those taking a driving test. The line of people made Black Friday at Best Buy look like a fast-food lane.
Luckily, there was a breeze and it wasn’t too hot the first 15 minutes. But by 10 a.m. I wished I had worn SPF 50 sunscreen and brought a hat and a bottle of water. As if we needed more light, the parking lot’s towering lights were on. A man with a portable chair passed by us and headed to the back of the line. It wasn’t his first rodeo. A fellow from a nutrition store across the parking lot handed out coupons.
Just behind me was a family from India. I felt guilty about my suffering when I realized that the two women in their group were clothed from head to toe. The only mutual language between us was smiling and laughing over our state of misery.
Occasionally, a DPS staffer would walk the line warning, “If you don’t have a current passport or your birth certificate, you won’t be processed.” That would result in two or three people dropping out. At this point we survivors started sharing stories. As bad as we had it, the word along the line was that the Carrollton Mega-Center was so much worse — “I hear they’re really rude.” We would hear staffers say that once we got “a number,” we could come and go as we pleased. None of us knew what they meant by a number.
Eventually, there got to be a rhythm to our chain-gang wait. Every 15 minutes, we moved about ten feet ahead. By 10:15, we had made it around the corner and it was a literal turning point. The front of the building was not only away from the test-driving cars’ exhausts, it was in the shade.
By 10:20 we waiting-in-line vets watched new arrivals walk by. They looked wide-eyed at us, as if we were freaks on display in a sideshow. Some actually had the audacity to march to the front door, only to be turned away and told to go the back of the line.
Finally, we crossed the finish line at 11:15 through the main door into what we thought would be the holy land of licensing. Only, still more lines were waiting for us. We were greeted by a nice woman who individually asked why we were there. She would determine if we would be sent to the winding line on the left for documentation, or to the right, where people sat in a huge cavernous room. I said I needed to renew my license. She asked if I had my correct documents. Like an eager grade-schooler, I smiled, nodded and tried to hand her my paperwork.
Instead of taking my by-now-crumpled documents, she handed me a slip of paper with a number. Ah, the number that had been spoken about earlier. Instead of freedom, it designated me as prisoner applicant S2223. As I assumed my new identity for processing, she directed me to the cavern with its rows of chairs facing each other. This area made the Social Security Office look like a doctor’s quaint waiting room. I leaned against an empty place on the wall, trying to take in the magnitude of people in the chairs, the interview station numbers hanging from the ceiling and staring at my piece of paper reading S2223.
Recognizing that I was in a state of shock, a woman who had been ahead of me in line took me under her wing and pointed out a couple of empty seats. She was prisoner S2222. While I would never know her name, I bonded with her over the next hours as we watched a screen announcing numbers.
A voice over the PA announced S2128. We had less than 100 people ahead of us. Hey, we weren’t complaining. We had chairs to sit in and air-conditioned surroundings.
But our upbeat feeling over being just 100 people away soon soured. The problem arose when the screen and the PA voice added other letters besides S to the roll-out. There were also Rs, Cs, As and Ls. Like desperate stockbrokers, we watched our S’s fall in the postings while the other letters seemed to dominate.
The screen wasn’t just business. It also had cooking demonstrations, a report on a newly found flying squirrel, an ad for Heard Law, and tips about the online services provided by DPS. That last one got chuckles every time it went up.
Across the way from S2222 and me were a couple of earlier arrivals. When their numbers were called, we all celebrated with high fives. One was replaced by a high school dropout who was applying for his driver’s license. He had been there since 7:30 a.m.
The other spot was filled by an adorable gray-haired woman who was a breath of fresh air. She laughed at our tales of serving time outside. Evidently she had just walked in and thought it was because the greeter felt she couldn’t last the line wait. While we envied her breezing through, we also felt sorry for her when she announced her number was in the 4000s.
In comparing notes with our new recruit, the required paperwork was mentioned. The new team member said she had brought neither. Uh oh.
She went to talk to one of the wandering staffers and went MIA.
Another fellow with a beard down the row revealed a hint for registering for the online inline service. He explained that if you hit the registration link at 7 a.m., you locked down a place. If you waited just a few minutes later, you were told that the service was not available.
An hour later our MIA comrade returned with her necessary documents. Luckily, her chair had just become available. We now understood what it meant that having the “number” meant you come and go and not lose your place in line.
Finally, our numbers were up. S2222 powdered her nose to prepare for her moment. As she left our little foxhole, we wished her well. I had decided that I wouldn’t respond the first time “the voice” called “S2223.” I would play it cool and make them repeat my number. Actually, the truth was that after more than two hours of sitting, my fear was that I would not be able to stand up. But when I saw S2223 on the screen, I didn’t wait for the voice. As I left for my assigned station 20, I fist-bumped my
cellmates chair comrades.
At the station 20 cubicle, I was greeted by Sheena, who apologized for the inconvenience and wait. I thanked her and admitted that it was a bit of a zoo. She said that it was just like this every day. I now felt sorry for Sheena and all the staffers.
Before she could ask for anything, I handed over everything I had — my current driver’s license, my passport, my application and my Social Security card. I told her that I would have brought my third-grade report card, but I couldn’t find it. She laughed. After reviewing all my materials, I was thumb-printed, passed an eye test, and handed over $25. Then Sheena had me stand against a blue backdrop to take my picture. Sheena said to smile. I think I did. She snapped and offered to show me the photo. I said that wasn’t me. That was some old person, who appeared to have been mugged. She laughed again and said we’d try again. We did. That same old person was in the photo. I didn’t care. I said it would be fine. Then I signed the temporary license that turned out to be my release papers.
As I gathered my materials and walked by the hundreds seated in the rows, I was filled with a sense of exhilaration. I had survived the four-hour ordeal and wouldn’t have to do it again for years. I didn’t feel sorry for those I had left behind. I was free and they would be, too … eventually.
When I’ve tried to explain to others what to expect, I sound like a war vet who tries to tell noncombatants about life on the front. They listen patiently, but I sense skepticism in their voices. But their day will come in the trenches or, rather, the lineup for their star.