I am driving with a (very) expired license to the place where you get your driver’s license renewed. I knew it was expired, not because the state sends out a notice every six years as you’re about to come up for renewal — apparently, they don’t do that in my state — but because the woman at Hertz who asked for my license as I was leaving the lot … just yards from freedom … looked at it and told me it was expired. Indeed, it wasn’t even close. (I guess I hadn’t rented a car in a while. And when was the last time you checked the expiration of your own license?)

I now have added a reminder in Managing Your Money for March 20, 2004 — HEY! YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE EXPIRES IN 30 DAYS! — but I had not been so organized in 1992 when I got it the last time.

Couldn’t this be done by mail? I called the place listed in the phone book and got a recording explaining that “appointments are available” but not allowing me to talk with a human.

Still, remembering how horribly long it had taken to get the license in 1992 (or was that the 1986 nightmare? I could swear I had been able to renew in 1992 by mail), I was thrilled at the notion of “an appointment.” I pressed “two” to schedule an appointment (or whatever I was supposed to press) and got a dial tone instead.

I called back and this time got a recording that said they were open only Tuesday through Friday, and another that gave me directions to the location nearest me.

I decided not to try for an appointment, as I really had to get the license because I had to get to Kinko’s because … well, I’ll get to that … and that I would just drive very carefully to the location nearest me, about ten a.m., figuring that most people have to work for a living and that they would have queued up about seven a.m. when the office opened. (The driver’s license place is open only four days a week and not on weekends in order to make it as inconvenient as possible for the average taxpayer.)

Uncharacteristically, I followed the directions perfectly and arrived at the location nearest me without a hitch. In the window was a large sign outside an empty storefront announcing that this location was permanently closed, with directions to another one, which did exist. (Might a private company have updated its phone message to avoid sending people to a nonexistent location?) In fact, it not only existed, it was mobbed.

Outside, there was a crowd of people, and several government employees were slowly sweeping up what appeared to be the remains of a few square yards of safety glass — someone had perhaps driven his car into the window, out of frustration, or perhaps there had been a small bomb that exploded — but I ignored all that because I had only one interest: getting in and getting it over with, so I could get on down to Kinko’s.

I will spare you the details — save two, to set the scene. Detail one: A man, fuming, shouting over his shoulder as he sat down on a plastic chair to wait his turn: “So then what was the point of my making an appointment?!” OK, maybe he wasn’t shouting, but the point was clear enough, and it made me feel bad and good and bad all at once. Bad that the wait was likely to be horrible if even the people with appointments were fuming; good that appointments apparently did no good anyway (as I didn’t have one); bad that I was taking some perverse satisfaction from that.

So there I am, thinking how I would reorganize this. I would add two signs. One announcing a $100 express line — for an extra $100 you could avoid the wait. The other announcing that the free coffee and donuts, as well as the funds to remain open on Saturdays, had all come from the rich suckers paying an extra $100 not to wait. (So don’t hate them too much.) Of course there were no free coffee and donuts, and the place was closed Saturdays. But isn’t this pretty much how the airlines have maximized the value they provide? You’ve got the folks in the back feeling pretty good about a $252 round-trip, knowing that the suckers in the front of the plane will arrive at approximately the same time for an extra $1,106. And you have the folks in the front just so happy not to be squeezed into a middle seat with the folks in back. From each according to his ability (to pay), to each according to his needs. It’s not communism; it’s the invisible hand maximizing happiness! Karl Marx, make way for Adam Smith. (OK, I’ll admit the “to pay” I threw in there is not exactly the way Marx envisioned it. Still.)

And now I am going up to two women in front of a computer terminal to try to get some sense — even the vaguest, most general ballpark sense — of how this process worked and how long it might take. One of the two women was doing absolutely nothing, just looking off into space. The other was doing nothing visible but looking with a concentrated, consternated stare at the computer screen.

Could I ask a question?

No, I couldn’t ask a question — couldn’t I see that they were busy?

Apparently, the computer was not working, and my life was on hold while I relied on these two, or on whomever they relied on, to fix it.

I could go on. Suffice it to say that, actually, the whole thing took only an hour. Once I got my turn — even though no one was willing to give me any sense of what would be involved or how long it might take — they actually managed to get me to read some letters from a nifty eyesight machine, then go to the cashier, hand over $16 and get my photo taken (I look like a mushroom, and will until March 20, 2004), wait what turned out to be a miraculously brief 5 minutes or so, and walk out … free! legal! … into the sunny mid-morning air.

Back in the car and down to Kinko’s.

I have a photocopier at home, but not equal to a task like this. My task at Kinko’s was to copy 1,000 days’ phone records, credit card bills, diary entries and tax returns, among other things, so that the New York tax authorities could determine where I really was each of those days. I may think I live in Florida more than half the year, and they may have agreed last time we did this that I live in Florida more than half the year, but now, unless I could prove otherwise, I live in New York more than half the year.

I will spare you most of these details as well (and I expect no sympathy, as you shiver up North) except to say that a few weeks after receiving my 20 pounds or so of neatly organized materials, the New York tax authorities sent a letter commanding me to copy and send a whole new batch of stuff — my bank records, my frequent flier statements — and requesting that I sign a waiver of the statute of limitations (or whatever they call it) so they will have until May of 2000 to complete their determination of the 1995 return.

If I owe something, I’d like to pay it. But there has to be a simpler way of doing all this. Couldn’t they just put one of those bracelets on my ankles and track my whereabouts that way? Or have me call in once a day and verify the area code with caller ID?

Anyway, Kinko’s has some mean copy machines (and unlike the Florida Division of Drivers Licenses, Kinko’s is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week), and I was out of there in just a couple of hours.

I arrived home, driver’s license in wallet and Kinko’s poundage cradled in my arms like logs for a fire, to find a postal carrier returning a PRIORITY MAIL package I had left in my box. It was properly addressed and stamped with the $3.20 postage, but, you see, it weighed 16 ounces. (It was a book.) Surely you know you cannot mail something that weighs 16 ounces in a mailbox. Surely you know you must go in person to a post office when one is open and wait in line to hand the package to a postal clerk. Otherwise, how will they know whether it’s a bomb or not?

The details of this insanity — which I even got to bring up to Marvin Runyon back when he was still Postmaster General, to no avail — I will spare you altogether, as I have dealt with them in this space several times before.

It’s a great country and I’m a very lucky guy. But it’s not quite perfect yet. Not every aspect of the government has been reinvented. We still have a couple of months’ work ahead of us.

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: Currently, an alternative route to this column is www.andrewtobias.com. As of February 1, that will be the ONLY way to reach it. To keep reading, please adjust your bookmark. Also, please note my new e-address: atobias@andrewtobias.com.



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