The Art of Waiting

One of the things we have to take care of soon is getting a Tennessee driver’s license. We think that in a small town, this is likely to be easier than in Columbus, so we plan to walk down to the closest Driver Services Center at lunch. Lunch comes and I have an hour before my next conference call. We head out, but I make the mistake of letting Pat navigate and we discover a half mile later that we went the wrong direction. As we walk what has become a mile to the center, the trees disappear and the neighborhood deteriorates. It’s amazing the difference a mile can make.

We are hot and sweaty by the time we arrive at the center. There is a small woman standing in the entrance between two sets of doors and it appears that the line is backed out the door. I ask the woman if she is waiting and she replies with something unintelligible like, “it shor ’nuff is, uh-huh,” which I take to mean yes. But then I look more closely at her, standing away from the inner door, swaying slightly on her feet and wearing enormous sunglasses that cover 2/3 of her face. I decide to ask again as someone comes out the door, but she doesn’t move. This time, she says, “uh, no, uh-uh” along with a bunch of other mutterings that seem unrelated. We decide to step inside, discovering a line that wraps the wall of a 20×20 room. There are no cattle ropes to create switchbacks in the line and people lean wearily against the wall fanning themselves, although it feels cooler than in the entry way by at least 20 degrees.

Following the line around the room leads to a window to our immediate right with one woman working with one person, moving as slowly as if she has all day to wait on each person. I look at the line, my watch, and then Pat and say, “We’re not going to make it.” We walk on home and I return to work early for my call, but we decide to try later in the afternoon when my calls are done for the day and I can come back to work on my own schedule.

We decide to drive on our second attempt. It’s only gotten hotter and the neighborhood wasn’t really conducive to walking. When we arrive, at first we think the line hasn’t moved but we don’t recognize the people in the room from earlier. Many are teenagers. Most have books–never a good sign when you’re getting in line. A woman arrives after us and suggests that the long line is due to kids wanting to get their driver’s license before the holiday weekend. I ponder this and think about the increased death toll on the highways over Labor Day each year–coincidence?

We wait outside the door in the terrarium-like entry way until people shuffle forward enough for us to fit inside the air-conditioned room. No one has actually left, but they condensed somehow. We stand there watching the same, slow-moving woman waiting on a man that could have been the same guy who was at the counter three hours earlier. We are there 20 minutes and the line hasn’t moved. I experience a flash-back to picking up an overnight package at the Rome airport nearly 15 years ago.

Back when I was doing software acceptance testing and Telecom Italia was my customer, I was once on site when we needed a patch and we needed it quickly so that I could wrap up and go home on time. The team in Columbus decided it would be faster to ship the patch to me (back when software was shipped physically on tape) through airline cargo service instead of DHL since I could pick it up at the airport the next day whereas it would take two days to have DHL deliver it to the site. When I told one of my Italian colleagues this, he rolled his eyes and did the Italian shrug thing indicating he thought it was a very bad idea, but smiled when I told him I would pick it up myself. He asked me twice before he believed that I was really going to pick it up myself. Had I been older, wiser, or a little more experienced, I might have known better than to volunteer. I arrived at the airport cargo area just before 9am the next morning. My first problem was reading signs in Italian. I followed a sign around a fence and paused, confused as to whether I was in the right place. As I started moving forward again, I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw two uniformed men carrying automatic weapons, running towards me frantically waving their arms. Things got worse from there.

Fortunately for me, it was pre-9/11, so they didn’t shoot me. But I was apparently headed out onto the run-way when they stopped me. They gestured me back to the other side of the fence showing some small amount of patience for a lost American who didn’t speak Italian, but not much. After that, I spent the day moving from one desk to the next, changing buildings 6 times, paying fees and getting papers with special stamps. I literally had to get approvals from 10 different people, only one of whom spoke English.

Had it not been for a kind English-speaking man who guided me through about five of the steps and humbly asked each Italian bureaucrat to take care of me quickly since I didn’t understand, I’m fairly certain I would still be standing in one of those lines. I brought my American expectation of customer service with me to the airport that day and was wholly unprepared for the Italian bureaucrat who wields power by withholding a stamp.

At the end of the process, I stood outside a warehouse in my spring dress next to a group of truck drivers there to pick up their daily load. A man driving a forklift would disappear for 20 minutes at a time and reappear with one load associated with one number regardless of how empty the forklift was. A security guard came over and started chatting me up while I waited. He spoke enough English to take pity on me. He spoke to the forklift driver and my package was the next to be delivered. I was extremely grateful, but not grateful enough to accept the security guard’s offer to take me out for pizza. The funniest part was seeing the forklift driver arrive with my package. He drove this huge forklift that could haul a good-sized truck load, but he made a single trip for my one box that was about 2″x3″x4″. I imagined him trying to lift it with the fork.

When I arrived at the office just after 3PM, my colleague looked up with shock on his face, “What?! You are back already?? That was fast! We will have to send you every time!” Not on your life, I thought. I made sure to tell all my American colleagues never to ship that way again.

But now, here I am in the good old US of A being held hostage by another bureaucrat. Once again I look at my watch and think of the work I need to finish before the holiday weekend. Pat suggests we try another office that’s bigger, although across town. We head out and drive 20 minutes to get there (partly because we took the long way by accident). The office is bigger, but the line is longer. They use numbers here and we’re told that they’ve already announced that they aren’t giving out any more numbers today. It’s 45 minutes before close and they aren’t sure they’ll be able to serve all the people already in line. We give up and decide to block out several hours on my calendar the following week since we will be at the 30-day limit for getting our licenses changed. I do not look forward to our return.

These tasks are never fun, but I find myself frustrated by agencies who make them worse.  I’m not sure why Chattanooga is so behind the times on making this easier.  Maybe they haven’t outsourced the task to private business owners?  Maybe they don’t collect enough taxes?  Who knows, but I wish I could order my drivers license online!


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