View from Mudsock Heights

It’s a national joke, but not for us. Thank goodness.

Most of the country hates the motor vehicle registration and driver license office.

It’s the bureaucratic equivalent of root canal when people are describing something they really, really don’t want to do: “I’d rather stand in line at the DMV!”

When the South Park show wanted to illustrate the epitome of governmental uselessness and inefficiency, the setting was the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles. That characterization is consistent across other entertainment programs. It’s a cliché, and like most clichés it works because it’s true. The acronym “DMV” is shorthand for a tedious, overly long, dreaded-but-necessary task.

I’ve lived in a number of states, and in my experience the reputation held by state motor vehicle offices is generally true. I would say universally true, but there’s an exception: my visits to the motor vehicle registry here in Athens has always been a pleasure.

Perhaps Ohio wanted to exempt itself from the DMV jokes when it decided to call its agency the Bureau of Motor Vehicles – BMV – instead. Even if accidental, it’s a good call.

When I moved here 15 years ago I knew that at some point I would have to transfer my driver license and car and motorcycle registrations to Ohio. I moved here anyway, despite recent memories of the long lines, surly people, and unpleasant atmosphere of the Danbury, Connecticut DMV office. There’s little that sours your day quite like spending an hour in a long line in a big, crowded, fluorescent-lit, too-hot building, only to be told that no, you should have stood in that line over there.

In New York, the joke is that the way to figure out which shopping mall is on its decline is to see which mall houses the DMV office. When you had to go there, you would invariably get behind someone whose business was not straightforward, the bureaucratic equivalent of being behind the guy who seems to think he can renegotiate his home mortgage at the automatic teller machine, the one who believes that it’ll find some money in his account if he tries once more, or twice.

Other states are much the same. Maybe Ohio is, too, but that’s not been my experience in Athens.

Things didn’t go perfectly the first time I visited the BMV office, at the time located on West Union Street, but that was partly my fault. I didn’t check my new license and as a result didn’t see that it did not carry my motorcycle endorsement, as I learned to my regret late one Saturday night on Route 33. I thought it could easily be straightened out, but I was wrong. A $214 total fine plus costs, and motorcycle rider re-testing made unforgettable the rule that you should check your new license for errors before you leave the BMV office or forever after hold your peace.

Even so, that first visit was a relative delight, with very polite, even friendly, people and remarkable speed in getting everything done. There was no sense that the people behind the counter were there as part of a community service plea bargain, as is true some other places, or else exhausted lifers counting the days until retirement. They were actually nice, and helpful.

So it has been on my several visits there in the intervening years. It was a little disappointing when the office moved from West Union to East State Street, but that’s because the move deprived me of another excuse to go to Miller’s Chicken. On the other hand, the new location is much closer to where I live.

During the great national shutdown I got a new (well, new to me) car. And my driver license would expire soon. The BMV was closed. While there were extensions – the temporary tag disintegrating slowly in the spring rain was good through mid-August, for instance – the idea of having those things pending made me uncomfortable. So did the fact that with each passing week the backlog would grow, and when it reopened the local office would be overwhelmed.

It would surely be a test that not even the friendly, efficient Athens BMV people could pass with grace.

Ten days ago I found out. I prepared by writing long, sober letters to friends and relatives, in case I never returned. I packed some food and a small tent, and headed off early in the morning to the BMV office. (Okay, the only part of that that’s true is that ten days ago I went to the Athens BMV office early one morning.)

I got there 20 minutes before the office’s 8 a.m. opening. There were already two people in line ahead of me, masked and socially distanced. By 8 there would be 20 people behind me.

By 8:10 I was at the counter and by 8:20 I was outa there, my business successfully completed. In that 10 minutes I learned that no, I couldn’t transfer my old license plates, to which I have a sentimental attachment, over to the new car, because I still own the old car. I learned that my eyesight is still good enough that I can pass the eye test without my glasses (which is weird – I’d always needed glasses until two license renewals ago). I learned that there is now a very loud amplified announcement summoning the next person in line. (“That must be a lot of fun by mid-afternoon,” I said to the woman at the counter. “Actually it’s the worst first thing in the morning,” she replied.)

And I learned that no matter how charming one is, they will not let you get your license picture taken with your sunglasses and N95 mask on, so my picture this time, too, looks like the image of a wanted escapee instead of a wanted suspect. But here, at least, I could try, could respectfully joke around a little. Try that in New York!

While I was there, people were zipping in and out, the place seeming to be even more efficient than ever. It was surprising. Maybe they were as eager to be back as we were to make use of their services. It was the opposite of every DMV joke and characterization you’ve ever heard.

Which is good news, as needed nowadays as it is rare.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at

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