California Screaming

California's a nice place to visit. It's even a nice place to live, if you take pains to make sure you don't go too soft. But it sucks trying to deal with the DMV.

Due to a job situation in January, 2001, my girlfriend, Cathy, and I decided to move out to Orange County, CA, from Baltimore, MD. I'd just landed a new job with a company that a friend of mine from college had been working for for over a year. It was a great opportunity, and we were excited about coming out here.

We arrived on February 17, a Saturday, signed the lease paperwork, and got some of the suc^H^H^Hfriends that helped us with the drive out to start unloading our 17' truck. It had been about a nine day commute from Jessup, MD, where we were living, to get out to Irvine, CA, but we were glad to be here.

Being good citizen-units, Cathy and I decided to go to the DMV 1 and apply for our in-state licenses that very first week. In fact, it was February 21, 2001. This was my second mistake2. We filled out the paperwork, stood in line forever, paid the fees, surrendered our old licenses from Maryland, took the tests, got the hideous pictures taken, and got thumb-printed (what's that about "treat me like a criminal"?), and got the "temporary licenses California gives out in lieu of actually processing licenses right there at the DMV. This in itself was odd, since everyone I've spoken to from other states, and my own experiences in MD indicate that at the end of this several hour foray into bureaucratic hell, you at least leave with a nice card telling everyone your weight and height with a really bad photograph of yourself. Welcome to California, where they don't do it that way.

The first indication that anything was wrong was that, while we were told it would take 2-3 weeks for our applications to be processed, and our licenses to be mailed out, a month had passed, and no mail at all from the DMV had arrived. Nothing saying "There was a problem, we need some more information", nor the licenses. So Cathy decided to call up the DMV and find out what the holdup was. When she finally got through on the number we had for the DMV, she was told that it could take up to six weeks to processs out of state applicants, and no, they couldn't tell us any more until six weeks had passed.

On the day it was exactly six weeks, April 11, Cathy calls back, since I'd been working for well over a month at this point, and she was part-time at a place down the street. The problems? The DMV couldn't verify that Cathy existed in the SSA database. And for me, they couldn't even verify that I was legally allowed to be in the country3. Considering that I'd been a citizen for years, and had presented my naturalization certificate when I applied (and the DMV office we went to photocopied it, and took forever looking it over), this more than ticked me off. Especially since this was all information that we should have been told about sooner. By mail for sure, or over the phone when Cathy called them two weeks earlier.

Cathy calls me at work (I was at a client site), upset over the whole thing. So I get the number she called, and called the DMV to find out just what the hell was going on. That's when I find out everything Cathy had been told, and start to get really angry. I start ranting about how I'm a legal citizen of this country, how I supplied my naturalization certificate when I applied for the license, how I had already received a voters' registration card and if they couldn't verify my status then how the hell did that slip through, etc., etc. Basically, I tried to ramp up how irate I was every time I asked a question and got a completely useless answer.

I finally got somewhere when I got a number to the DMV HQ in Sacramento, in the Legal Presence department. I called that number, resetting myself to "slightly concerned", and lucked out by reaching one of the few truly helpful people working for the DMV. I explained what I had been told, and that I wanted an explanation. It turns out that somehow, of the two numbers on the naturalization certificate (the A-number that's the same as the greencard I had when I was just a Resident Alien, and the serial number of the certificate which was printed on it when the batch of blank certificates was printed), the wrong one had been entered into my DMV record, and the INS search wasn't returning any information. Go figure.

So I go back to the DMV, with explicit instructions on what to tell the worker bees there if they have any problems ("I was told by Legal Presence to tell you to call headquarters if you have problems with this"). After a bit of a wait (I made an appointment this time), I get a new temporary license. Cathy had actually lucked out a few days earlier when we went on the weekend without an appointment, and the person at the information desk rushed her to the front of the long line. The person who dealt with me told me that I should have my license "very soon now". That was in April.

Today, June 9, I go back to the DMV because my newer temporary license expires tomorrow. I didn't realize it with enough time to schedule an appointment, but the line gods were with me, and it was only a half hour to 45 minute wait. When I finally get helped, the person pulls up the record on her computer, then asks to see my Naturalization Certificate. I hand it over, and then, for the first time ever at the CA DMV, she asks to see my Social Security Card. I hand that over too. She looks at it, and then tells me that the reason I still haven't received my license (Cathy had received hers a couple weeks after the DMV trip in April) was because my name on my Naturalization Certificate, and hence the DMV's records, didn't exactly match the name on my Social Security Card.

Now, considering that the IRS, the INS, the Maryland Comptroller, the MD Motor Vehicle Administration, the Maryland State Police, and every employer I've ever had has been able to figure out that "Edwin Michael Alexander Gurski" and "Michael A Gurski" are the same person, this is rather astonishing. Especially when the signature on my application and the doo-hickey I had to sign on to get the signature onto my as-yet-mythical CA license is...."Michael A Gurski". The mind truly boggles that either no one has been able to pick up on this if they're doing these things by hand, or that there's that little room to maneuver if it's a completely computerized search.

So the solution, so far, is to find some time when I'm in the state and able to get to an SSA office in the < 40 hours a week they're open, which means weekdays-only, during shorter hours than the Post Office, and turn in a form, along with positive proof of identification. Which, since I lack my MD license, means my difficult-to-replace-if-lost-or-stolen-so-hold-on-to-it Naturualization Certificate. Which wouldn't be bad if these damned temporary licenses constituted some form of legal ID or had a picture attached to them4. But lots of places, like airlines and car rental agencies, want a photo id. So, if I travel, I need the NC. But I also need to give it to the SSA for an unspecified amount of time. I've no clue what I'm going to do, since I know for a fact travel is in my immediate future. Hopefully it won't take the 2 months I have to get it taken care of.

Update 2001/07/16

So today I managed to find time to go to the Social Security office. I found out something interesting there too. My full name is listed as a secondary name in SSA's records. So, despite the fact that the information's available to California's DMV, they still aren't competent enough to verify the information.

Instead of trying to argue with anyone, I went ahead and swapped the names. Now with luck, the morons will be able to verify I'm who I say I am. And then I'll finally be able to get a damned license. I'm sure there's going to be another problem, because the helpful guy at SSA mentioned that the names had to be listed exactly the same as how I filled out the DMV forms. Meaning I had to remember if I put "Edwin Michael" as my first name, or "Michael Alexander" as my middle name. He did mention that the DMV's computer system was similar to SSA's, and since my name only fit with "Edwin Michael" in the first name spot, it should be ok. Meaning that the DMV's will likely be different.

Update 2001/07/28

I managed to get out to the DMV today to get a new temporary license, since my old one was expiring soon, and I wasn't going to be in town when it did (go figure). After spending about 2 hours in line waiting, I managed to somehow explain to the drone behind the counter what I was looking for her to do. I even saw her write "resubmit" on some printout with my information on it, along with my SSN. Why she couldn't use the license number, I have no idea. So I should know by the end of September whether or not I'll have to go back to the hell-hole that is every DMV I've been to in California or, more likely, call someone and start screaming. Too bad there's actually a notice posted in DMV locations about threatening the workers there. I'm obviously not the first one to have come to the conclusion that the only way to get anywhere with these people is to get nasty. Time will tell...

Update 2001/08/23

Well, it finally happened. I got home today, and there was a letter from the DMV. In it, was the license that I could have, by all rights, expected over five months ago. You'd think it wouldn't be that difficult to get a license. You'd be wrong. I'm just glad that the whole thing is finally over.

To celebrate, my girlfriend and I went out to dinner, and did something I've been unable to easily do for over six months. That's right, I finally ordered a beer. It's damned nice being able to prove, without pulling out a very difficult and expensive to replace certificate, that I'm old enough to actually order an adult beverage. Maybe tomorrow I'll do something else I haven't been able to do–go buy some ammo at a local store...assuming it's possible to do that in such a fascist state.

Update 2004/10/12

Apparently I'm not the only one who's ever suffered through California's DMV bureaucracy. Someone else whose wife is a legal resident has been going through the same ordeal I experienced, only for about a year. Apparently there was enough information here to help them get in touch with the right people in the Legal Presence Department, where they were able to clear things up, and hopefully in about three weeks she'll have her license. Since I neglected to keep track of the correct phone number, they kindly supplied it in a thank you email they sent me, and I'm reposting it here for anyone else's benefit.

The phone number for the Legal Presence Department, as sent to me by Eli & Daisy, is (916) 657-7445. Hopefully this will save still others some additional time and frustration.

1 Yes, the links to CA State web sites are in the domain You'd think a state with such a concentration of high-tech industry would have a clue that .gov was for the federal government, and that state.<state_postal_abbreviation>.us was for state governments. Then again, most of the egos out here are so large, it wouldn't surprise me if they thought they were part of the federal government.

2 The first was having the poor foresight to be born in Canada and then getting naturalized in 1997. Normally this wouldn't be a mistake, and I don't regret doing it at all. However, California's a "little" on the bureaucratic side.

3 It's sadly ironic that even though the state couldn't verify that I was a legal resident, let alone a citizen, it didn't stop them from sending me a voters' registration card less than 2 weeks after we'd gone to the DMV. I guess it isn't as insane and unlikely as I thought that there's a large illegal alien vote in California...

4 It's interesting that even though this is California, the temporarly licenses, which everyone in the state has to deal with when getting a new license or renewing an old one, doesn't constitute "identification", nor does it provide "proof of age". All it is is a laser-printed piece of paper with some light blue DMV logos on it, that anyone with a little skill can forge. They could have at least laser-printed a black and white copy of the photograph on-record. I guess in a state that voted to deregulate only half of the power industry, causing a lot of the current energy crisis here, any idiotic thing will keep going.

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Michael A. Gurski <(opt. [firstname].)[lastname]>
Last modified: Tue Oct 12 20:08:58 EDT 2004
Copyright © 2001-2004 - Michael A. Gurski. All Rights Reserved.