You take a number and wait for your turn


A photo of Bill gates is making its rounds on social media. In the picture, Mr. Gates, dressed casually in a sweater, jeans, and sneakers, is waiting in line to order his hamburger. The significance of the photo is that one of the richest men in the world could have flaunted his status and demanded that he be served before everyone else. But he showed humility and decided to wait for his turn. There is a lesson to be learned here.

So, it happened that I came to know about the new federal regulation in the United States that requires everyone to have a driver’s license with a REAL ID. I first ignored it. Then I read about it in a magazine and heard it over the radio. Their recommendation was to get this done as soon as possible to avoid the rush later in the year. “As of October 1, 2020,” I learned, “Everyone traveling will need to show  driver’s license with a REAL ID. Otherwise, you will not be able to board the plane.” The license with REAL ID looks the same, except it has a star in the upper right-hand corner.

One day a week ago, I was not particularly busy. This is January, and I had plenty of time to get it done. But, I thought it would be better to get it over with sooner than later. I presumed that since I already had a license that is valid for two more years, it would be a simple matter of applying for a new one.

I logged on to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) web site. The REAL ID tab was right on the first page.

Now you are talking, I said to myself. Maybe I fill out some form online, and The DMV will send me a new license. I soon discovered that it wasn’t going to be that simple. I needed to produce four types of documents – proof of identity, proof of social security number, and two proofs of residency. There was a list of acceptable documents under each category. After reviewing the lists, I elected to produce my US passport, social security card, and a current statement from the credit card company. The passport satisfied two requirements, so I only needed three documents.

I realized that it was essential to have these documents in front of me when filling out the online form. For each of the documents I had identified, I had to enter my full name that matched precisely as it appeared on the document. My name was listed differently on my passport, social security card, and my credit card statement. I followed the instructions.

When I was done filling out the form and saved it on the DMV web site, I received a congratulatory message with a caveat that I was not done yet.

“You need to do one more thing,” I was informed.

That “one more thing” was to take the printed copy of the DMV application confirmation to the nearest DMV office along with the documents. Everything needed to be verified and approved within a month.

The local DMV office is within ten minutes’ drive from my house.

I placed all the documents in a large brown manila envelope. I didn’t want to, perchance, drop anything, and lose it. It was a Wednesday, and the schools were open. This meant the absence of hordes of youngsters applying for their first driver’s license.

“It’s mid-week and an afternoon,” Bharati said. “You may not have to wait too long.”

I felt good that the entrance to the DMV office didn’t have many people. It was deceptive. The line had snaked inside, and there were at least thirty people ahead of me. The line moved slowly. I looked at my watch, and it showed 2.30 pm and the office was to close at 5 pm. Can I get this thing done in two hours?

I reached the reception counter at 3.00 pm. A large sign on the wall said to apply for the REAL ID. The clerk asked me why I was there. I told her that I wanted to apply for the REAL ID. She checked everything I had.

“Very good,” She said.

“Is that it?” I asked, feeling cheery. “Can I leave?”

I was too optimistic.

The clerk punched something on the machine in front of her and pulled out a slip of paper.

“I only give you a ticket,” She said. “You need to wait. They have your application, and they will process it for you.”

The “They” were the clerks behind the ten windows on the far end of the room.

I let out a sigh and realized I had no other option than to wait to be called to one of the windows. Then why did she check my documents?

The room was full, and it took me twenty minutes to find an empty chair. Some people were sitting on the floor, and some were strolling with blank a look. I took a peek at my ticket. It had the number I 288 in bold letters. I looked up at the message board above the windows, and they were calling I 244.

Are you kidding me. Does this mean there are more than forty people ahead of me with a number starting with an I?”

Other numbers were being called that started with different alphabets. A message occasionally flashed, telling us why the ticket numbering system was the best way to process everything rather than treating on a first-come/first-serve basis. It is based on years of experience, the message said. If you say so, I said in my mind.

I had my Kindle with me. I read one chapter of a book I was reading. When I looked up, I had no idea how much time had elapsed. The number had moved up to I 268. Still, twenty more numbers to go. My watch showed 4.25. I started to get concerned. If they cannot get to my number by five, would it mean I have to come back tomorrow? Maybe I would have to take another number. Perhaps get up early in the morning to come to this office early.  My head was spinning.

I looked around and scanned the room. A young man next to me was playing the BlocuDocu game on his iPhone. A man behind me was telling someone that his license had expired and he had to get a new one. A young girl to my right was sitting on the chair with her feet pulled up and punching her iPhone with two thumbs as she talked with her Mom. Two rows ahead of me to my left was a young woman in Hijab talking to her baby in a stroller. Most others in the room were just waiting for their turn with a stoic expression on their face.

To pass the time, I started playing mind games.

Do all the people with a number starting with an “I” go to window number 1?


Does everyone pose for a photo?

A majority did.

What do they do when they approach the window?

They pull out papers from envelopes. Show them to the clerk. Then, sometimes sign something.

How much time does a person spend at the window?

Less than five minutes.

A few minutes later, I was distracted by the presence of a security guard in uniform. He stood in front of us and made an announcement. He was a heavyset man of medium height.

“We have closed the front doors,” He proclaimed. “You cannot leave. If you leave, you will not be able to enter, even if you have a ticket.”

“Great,” I thought. “What if I need to go to the bathroom? Tough luck. We are stuck here. At least it means they will process all the numbers today. Hush!”

When I looked up at the message board, I realized the “I” numbers were moving fast. It had reached I 286. My watch showed ten minutes past five. Within minutes it would be I 288.

“I 288. Please go to window number 6.”

“I 288. Please go to window number 6.”

The message was loud and clear and spoken in a business-like monotonous tone.

I grabbed my material and walked up to window number 6. There was an amiable Asian gentleman who smiled at me, a rarity.

“Looks like you guys are very busy,” I said to start a conversation. It was a risk I took because you never know what response you may get.

“It’s been crazy,” he said.

At least he wasn’t in a nasty mood, tired maybe but friendly. He carefully checked all the information, including my name on all the documents. He made copies of everything.

“Please turn to your left.”

“What for?”

“We need to take your photo.”

I thought the DMV already had my photo, and my current license was suitable for another two years. I was wrong. Applying for the REAL ID meant applying for a new license. The clerk punched my current license, “Void.” I paid $30, and I was given a paper receipt as a temporary license.

“You will get the new license in the mail in seven to ten days.”

I was out at 5.40 pm.

That’s the way it was. I felt good that I accomplished something that needed to be done, and I didn’t have to come back the next day. As far as the wait was concerned, isn’t it the same in many places? It could be a deli counter in a grocery store, a line to get to a cashier at the Costco warehouse, a doctor’s office, or just waiting to hear from your literary agent. We have to wait for our turn, just like Bill Gates did.