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My fancy new hi-tech “golden bear” driver’s license arrived a few days ago, just 11 days after my visit to the DMV. That was the best part of a nine-month process involving federal and state offices plus eye surgery. Nothing these days is easy when it comes to dealing with government agencies.

I realized a year ago that my license would be up for renewal this July. I knew I would have to appear for an eye test (much later I learned I would additionally have to take the knowledge test). And this was an opportunity to obtain the new more robust license which will be the only one acceptable at airport security as of October 2020.

The info requirements for this new license are several: birth certificate or Social Security card, passport, and multiple proofs of residence. I do have a copy of my birth certificate but wasn’t sure it was a certified copy; my 60-year-old thin and fragile Social Security card, resting safely in my safe deposit box, might not survive an excursion.

I knew that obtaining a replacement Social Security card was relatively straightforward, but it turned out I couldn’t order one via their website. Apparently, my login credentials had expired and the only way to get new ones – and the card—was to appear at one of their offices.

On a pleasant autumn morning I showed up at the Napa Social Security office on Soscol with an appointment, gotten with great effort. Evidently, Social Security isn’t fond of appointments. Upon entering the office, I immediately had a frisson of bureaucratic familiarity: the office reminded me of the countless federal offices I frequented for decades back in Washington, D.C. The tired, dull paint on the walls, the uniformed security officer, and the thick glass partitions protecting the inhabitants from us, the supplicants. It was not a warm and welcoming feeling.

Mission accomplished. My new card arrived shortly. Then as previously reported here, I had cataract surgery, which I hoped would enable me to pass the eye test. My new eyesight, I was informed, was 20/20 or better. I now had proof of identity and good eyes. The next step, a few months later, was to get a DMV appointment. I carefully planned to do so early. But nothing was available in Napa; I grabbed one in Santa Rosa.

Appointment day came a couple of months later. First, the vision test. The standard eye test placards were hanging from the ceiling, in deep shadows, behind the DMV clerks. Without proper lighting, it was difficult to see the letters. I struggled to read them out loud, eye by eye. The clerk told me I had passed, with one missed letter. I asked how many we were allowed to get wrong. She said, “One.” Whew.

On to the knowledge (AKA written) test. I had studied the DMV Handbook online and took five trial tests (which I passed). I had noted that the Handbook makes a big deal of parking on a hill. Clearly, parking uphill or down makes a difference in which direction you turn your wheels. But in my test, all the question said was “you’re parked on a hill.” But up or down? It didn’t say. Hence there was no way to guess the right answer.

There are 18 questions; I got the hill question wrong and one or two others. But I passed; we’re allowed three wrong answers. Then on to the photo and, heavily relieved, out the door.

At home, I contacted the DMV Public Affairs Office. I was informed that there are indeed “lighting requirements” for the eye test, and customers can “request a change in lighting.” That was never offered to me. I was also told that the “DMV has periodically engaged in formal psychometric evaluations of the reliability of the knowledge tests.” I have no idea what that means, and I never got a straight answer to my complaint about the idiotic hill question.

The final irritant at the DMV is that they don’t take credit cards, just cash and checks. DMV Public Affairs assured me that their offices will start to accept credit cards, but they’ve been saying that for years.

One woman was almost in tears because she had miscounted: she needed the odd sum of $181 but had brought just $177. The fellow behind her gave her the missing four bucks. When he told me, I suggested he would eventually be rewarded for his courtesy. He smiled and said he had been – his number was called next. Having had no appointment, he eventually escaped after four long hours.

We shouldn’t feel like prisoners when we visit Social Security. We deserve more intelligent treatment at the DMV. After all, we’re not just citizens, we’re their customers.

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Mark G. Epstein moved to

St. Helena from the East Coast

early this century after a career

in international business.

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