Dispatches From the DMV

Confronting bureacracy and emerging victorious

by Jane Argodale

published March 10, 2017

Distractions can be physical or mental in nature and are often a combination of both. A physical distraction is one that causes a driver to take his or her hands off the wheel or eyes off the road, such as reaching for an object. Mental distractions are activities that take the driver’s mind away from the road, such as engaging in conversation with a passenger or thinking about something that happened during the day. 

–The Rhode Island Driver’s Manual, Author Unknown

We missed the exit for the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles Headquarters (DMV) in Cranston for the second time in a row. Through the car window, I watched the first wave of people enter the building as we sped by. A friend and I, both of whom had reached our early twenties without ever learning to drive, got a ride from another friend so that we could get our permits and remedy the situation. Ironically, the easiest way to reach the place that decides whether you may drive is by driving.

Growing up in New York City, learning to drive was not a rite of passage for me or my friends. On the verge of turning 21, I still can’t think of a single close friend of mine from home who has their license. For us, the real milestone was getting to ride the subway without parental supervision. After that, the whole city was ours, and there was no good reason to face the perils of driving through the choked Manhattan grid or searching for a sliver of space in which to parallel park. 

But then I came to Providence, where over time I was gripped by fantasies of summertime drives along the bay to Newport, buying more groceries than I could ever carry at Price Rite, and actually learning how to change a tire—something I’ve been told I’m supposed to know how to do. Whenever a friend offers me a ride here, it feels like I’ve been opened up to a whole new world. But I hate being dependent on others, and I especially hate the feeling that I missed out on learning an essential life skill. So about five years late, I cracked open the Rhode Island Driver’s Manual (in PDF form on my laptop), and started studying for my permit test.

We arrived shortly after 8:30AM (when the DMV opens) but a long line had already formed on the second floor.

This line was really a line for another line—you wait to see a clerk, tell the clerk what you’re there for, and are given a slip of paper with a four-digit number. Halfway through this line, I took my passport, Social Security card, voter registration, and L-1 form out of my backpack. Nervous that I could be missing something essential, that I’d be turned away and have to come back, I glanced at each of these items over and over, mentally checking off the list of required documents to receive the learner’s permit. With each round of this anxious game, I only became more uncertain. 

When I finally reached the front of the line, I dropped all of my documents on the desk in front of the clerk, and blurted out, “Hi, I’m here to get my learner’s permit—I have my passport, my social security card, my voter registration, and the form.”

The clerk opened my passport to the ID page, glanced at everything else, smiled at me, and said “looks good,” before he gave me my ticket, with the number 5016.

The ticket puts you in the real line—the DMV’s digital line. When your number comes up on the television screens above the waiting area (I admit this is a meaningless phrase since the whole DMV is really a waiting area), it’s your time to shine under bureaucracy’s fluorescent light. 


Limited self-awareness may be the cause of fear or other strong emotional responses. The more you know about yourself and why you act a certain way, the better you can control your actions. If you can predict the emotional responses of other drivers, you can better prepare your own responses. 


The chairs in the waiting area are arranged in back-to-back rows. Alongside the large windows, it almost looks like an airport terminal, though rather than providing a view of planes leaving for other, better places, there’s just the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal. The Adult Correctional Institute is also nearby—another, darker site of bureaucracy—perhaps run as seamlessly as the DMV.

There’s another set of inner windows that provide a view of the ground-floor atrium below. From the center, the four walls reach to the top of the building that enclose the floors above, like building façades. On one of these walls, a banner hangs with the words “Customer Service Is Our Priority!” The building’s layout is that of a poorly-formed panopticon—they couldn’t even bother to make it a circle, and for some reason there are blinds on many of these inner windows. The building is not so much meant for watching as it is for waiting. Besides the handful of booths staffed by clerks, where the DMV’s actual services are carried out.

In the second-floor waiting area, I watched as a state trooper stood by one of the inner windows, peering down with a focused but relaxed look on his face. He caught me staring. I looked back down at my phone.


It is easy to become angry with another person or driver without knowing exactly why. Drivers have different goals. Sometimes you are in a hurry. Remember, however, that other drivers do not know your goals or have anything against you. 

The first line to get my ticket only took about 20 minutes. From there, it took about two hours for my number to finally be called. In America, the DMV is a cultural shorthand for dreary hours of waiting and incompetent bureaucrats, but I mostly found myself entertained. The faces of the older people around me, many of whom had brought their children or were missing work, suggested that my amusement was an anomaly, a product of the novelty of the experience and the fact that I didn’t have anywhere else I needed to be that morning.  

Next to the ticket numbers, the DMV TV screens showed a series of advertisements on a loop, including ones for a law firm that will represent people contesting their traffic tickets and a personal breathalyzer. The latter seemed at least somewhat questionable—I still have yet to actually operate a car, but I would like to think that if I were tipsy enough to consider using a breathalyzer to check my blood-alcohol-content, I simply wouldn’t drive. And after reading the Rhode Island Driver’s Manual cover-to-cover the night before in preparation for my permit test, which urges drivers not to drink at all with a litany of terrifying statistics about drunk driving-related deaths, I was particularly confused by the DMV’s apparent endorsement of this product. Then again, it was unclear why the DMV even had a closed-circuit television channel—were all the patrons who had woken up at the crack of dawn to be here supposed to be interested?

I was working my way through this problem when my number was finally called, at around 10:50AM. Finally, this was my moment. I went up to my assigned counter, presented my documents and ticket, and was given another ticket that allowed me to take the permit test. I entered the computer lab in which the test was administered, presented my ticket at yet another counter, and was told which computer to take the test at. 

The DMV lost its novelty when I began the test and found myself guessing on most of the questions—I’d clearly spent too much time on the sections of the Driver’s Manual that gave oddly helpful advice for dealing with your emotions while driving, and not enough time on the technical details of driving—the meanings of various signs, parking distances, the steps involved in making a turn, and right-of-way rules. Losing one morning to this place was perfectly fine for me, but the idea of making a second trip to wait two hours and retake a multiple choice test yet again sounded miserable. 

I finished the test and hit the submit button. I resigned myself to this possibility—only for the screen to announce in a blue pixelated font that I had passed.



Evidence suggests that text messaging (or texting) often requires the driver to both look at the phone and manipulate the keypad with one’s hand. 

I stood in the remaining two lines triumphantly. The first was to check out of the testing area, the last was to take my photo and sign my name for the permit. I came away with a printed-out piece of paper that served as a stand-in for my actual, hard plastic permit, which should arrive in the mail any day now. I still have a mandatory 30-day wait, at least one road test, and another trip to the DMV between now and the moment when I will finally be allowed to drive. But my name, photo, and address are already in a new database, deep in the Rhode Island DMV’s hard drive, my own little mark on the cold, bureaucratic heart of the Ocean State. 

JANE ARGODALE B’18 would like to drive to another universe, once she may legally do so.