Being removed, as I am, from the familiarity of friends and family, I tend to appreciate it when someone goes out of their way make me feel at home. I would therefore like to thank the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) for an unexpectedly inspirational morning that left me nostalgic for the glory days of the Department of Motor Vehicles Office in Albany, NY.
Our DMV was so legendary for its awfulness and buffoonish officialdom and I never expected to see its like again, but the Brighton DVLA managed to leave them pale in comparison.
In general, people would rather have root canal than visit any government office, so making supplicants feel impotent, off-guard and a little bit frightened is the bread and butter of any civil servant, but to totally cow and humiliate people, well, that was a thing of beauty.
It didn’t start well; they opened on time and had a deli-style “take a number and wait” system that threatened to be efficient, but they cunningly overcame this challenge by having one of the three clerks inexplicably disappear while the “average wait” time displayed on the overhead viewing screen changed from 4 minutes to 13 minutes to 22 minutes in short succession.
If this had happened in New York, they might have felt their point was made and leave it at that, but this office went the extra mile by having the absent clerk return to her window but not serve any of the waiting people. Instead, she fixed up her hair, spent a protracted amount of time laboriously opening a can of Coke with a letter opener and chatting with the clerk at the next window. Then, and this was simply breathtaking, she took up a small pile of mail and began dealing with that while ignoring the people who had taken time off from work, and otherwise had to rearrange their lives, who were standing in front of her. I was so overcome with admiration that I nearly wept; with those few simple gestures she conveyed to a room full of people, louder than if she had used a bull horn and more obviously than if she had spelled it out in red tape on the walls, that all the time, effort and money we had expended to be there was totally irrelevant. She showed us all how a true civil servant remains insouciant before the inconvenience of the masses.
And insouciant she was, for she could afford to be. In large, not-to-be-missed writing on the display board was a warning that they tolerated no abuse of any kind toward their staff. This might include, one should suppose, suggestions about how people might like to be treated in order to keep them from being cranky enough to become shirty in the first place. This promoted the fear that, unless you behaved meekly and obediently no matter how poorly they treated you, you would be deprived of, not merely your car, but your liberty as well.
While I applaud this masterstroke of crowd belittlement, it does take some of the fun out of it. I always enjoyed the occasional sparks at the Albany DMV.
Despite this disadvantage, she worked the room with such consummate perfection I could not help but be won over by her; I want to have her children.
But I mustn’t forget the Brighton Office as a whole. Although this one clerk took the opportunity to shine, her performance would not have been as memorable had it not been for the supporting cast:
First, her two colleagues, who sent a disproportionate number of people away empty handed:
“But the man at the post office told me this is what I needed to do,” cried one distraught applicant.
“Well he doesn’t work here,” the clerk replied, and sent the dejected man on his way.
Another brilliant ploy was to have no toilets available. If you felt the need, you had to leave the building, and the office complex, and walk to the top of the hill at the end of the street, elbow you way through the train station and make use of their lavatory. And, of course, you had to take a new number when you returned.
Lastly, they kept the waiting room so hot sweat trickled down my back even though I was doing nothing more energetic than sitting and admiring their ability to reduce grown people to gibbering children. There was a fan in the room, but it was not turned on, unlike the multiple fans on their side of the barrier, where they sat drinking cold soda and cups of tea while we looked in vain for a water fountain.
It was really quite exciting, and I could not imagine how the experience might be topped until I paid the parking fee: eight pounds for less than an hour and a half, or about ten pence a minute. Way to go!
New York, you’re good, but you have a lot to learn.