On May 10, an emergency prompted me to visit the DMV office on Morning Star Drive in Sonora at about 11:30 a.m. I didn’t leave the office until 4:30 p.m. Some people referred to it as a moment for “people watching” or “people listening.” A lot more happens than you expect to happen when you’re doing nothing at all.

“You’re still here?”

A woman sauntered by the rows of black plastic chairs arranged along the wall of the Department of Motor Vehicles office at 885 Morning Star Drive in Sonora.

“Yeah, over four hours now,” a man yawned.

It was 1 p.m.

Over 30 people did something — anything — to dull the fatigue and frustration of a protracted exile in the DMV office. Some flicked at their phone screens, held a book aloft, or turned through documents. Others dipped their heads backward and stared into the white gleam of the fluorescent light. Some buried their faces in their hands and groaned out loud.

“Good luck,” the woman said, and turned to the door.

This interaction was indicative of all hours at the DMV. We would all commiserate in our shared circumstances. The only truism within those hallowed walls was that every DMV patron should expect to wait.

Afterward, I emailed Marty Greenstein, California Department of Motor Vehicles public information officer. He said data was “not yet available to calculate the current average non-appointment wait times” at the Sonora DMV office due to the implementation of REAL ID, a new queuing system and an electronic driver license and ID card application available to California residents.

The REAL ID driver licenses and identification cards will allow Californians to board a domestic flights and enter secure federal facilities when federal restrictions are enacted on Oct. 1, 2020.

I pulled my license out of my wallet and checked the upper-right corner. “Federal Limits Apply.” I slipped the license back into my wallet. That’s unfortunate. I will have to return.

According to Greenstein, it had been this way for a long time, and would likely be the same when I was forced to come back.

“There has not been a notable increase in the average monthly transaction volumes processed in Sonora over the last three years,” he said.

There appeared to be three to four employees working the booths at any given time. Occasionally, the number would dip to two, or even one. “Transaction volume” wasn’t indicative of the customer, I thought, it was indicative of the staffing.

The effort at efficiency was repeatedly undermined by the magnitude of the public need and the lack of working employees to tend to it.

The Sonora DMV office was built in 1994 and employs about a dozen people total. The staff is upbeat, positive, and reassuring, but for patrons, the DMV office has the Sisyphean quality of existential malaise.

I took a seat. (Don’t be confused either, it’s “your” seat once you're there. A few hours into my stay, I stepped outside for a moment, and upon my return had to shoo away an unknown encroacher. “Excuse me sir, yes… sorry, just took a step outside. I left the computer under the chair there.”)

After only a short time within the hallowed walls, claustrophobia begins to stifle you. Was it the gleam of the linoleum floors? The general sterility of the place? Or that distinct and unpleasant scent emanating from somewhere behind your right shoulder?

I looked at the person to my left. Grizzled, old, and maybe half asleep. Still, one had to make the effort to assimilate into this absurd purgatory.

“How long have you been here?”

“Since 9:30.”

“That’s crazy, man. What’re you in for?”

“Oh, you know, it’s my motorcycle,” he said, fluttering a few folded papers toward me.

We spent the next few hours near one another. His jacket, and my book, set a psychic barrier on the seat between us. A metallic voice echoed from the loudspeaker. The motorcycle man was called first, and when he rose from his seat he arched his back, as if to allow the inertia to fall from his shoulders. His papers fluttered from an aerial fan, and he lurched toward kiosk #5.

You make a friend, and then they’re gone forever. People walk in, and people will, eventually, walk out. It didn’t matter, anyway. We all had somewhere else to be, or something else to do.

In the meantime, voices muttered and speculated on the cause of the protracted delays.

“Bureaucracy,” said one man, out to no one in particular. “Bureaucracy. The longer Jerry Brown is in office the worse it’s going to get.”

Two women arched their eyebrows toward one another.

“It’s the people here. They don’t know what they’re doing. Hey! Look,” one of the women said, pointing to an employee. “There he goes into the back. When we’re all waiting too. Can you believe it?”

The woman next to her nodded in affirmation.

“There’s people driving in from the valley to our DMV. I heard their lines go out the door. It’s even worse.”

The first woman blushed and constricted in her seat.

“I’m from Riverbank,” she said.

Greenstein said there was no existing report of how many non-Tuolumne County residents use the Sonora office, but the information could be requested as a public records request, with a fee.

Not all patrons could be considered an out-of-county DMV refugee, he added, because many customers visit a DMV office near or en route to work. Out-of-county customers may have always been using the office, he said.

The REAL ID transition was likely the actual culprit of the extended wait times. According to Greenstein, the change meant staff spent more time with explanations to customers, as well as “extra time” spent reviewing the correct documents for a REAL ID application.

But, as with most things at the DMV, you could choose to avoid the waits and the people by performing an online transaction, or scheduling a “recommended” appointment.

As of Friday, the first available appointment for a new REAL ID is Tuesday, June 26, 2018 at 9:20 AM.

Most everyone knew this, and thought it better to take their chance with the wait. Even those with appointments had to sit and wait for a little while, after all.

But was it worth the wait? The horror stories bellowed across the room, in evident earshot of the employees. Three hours. Six hours. “I was here when they opened this morning. There was a crowd outfront of the door.”

Some craned the necks sidelong over the countertop, and posed (repeated) inquiries about the expected wait time.

The official DMV verbiage was frequently vague and conciliatory. Employees, and even Greenstein, are wary of providing anyone with ammunition to level more blame in their direction.

Workflow changes, innovative solutions, and “the improved customer experience” are all misnomers. Most everyone receives the same nod and acknowledgement.

“We apologize for the delays.”

Each time another name was called, and it wasn’t you, that boulder of hope tumbled down the mountain again.

A noble posture arose from most people when the announcement called to them, “it’s your turn.”

We all awaited the right-of-passage to approach the counter.

4:30 p.m. I had been there for almost five hours. My initials and number flashed across the screen. I hurled myself toward the counter.

“I just need to pay my registration, but I need to figure out about this smog check. You see, when you have a check engine light on in your car…”

“Tuolumne County doesn’t require smog checks. Cash or debit for the registration?”

“No, take a look here, it says smog check, right there.”

He took the paper from my hand and pointed to the delivery address.

“Are you still registered in Orange County? We’ll fix that.”

A few clicks on the computer keyboard later, and he pulled a blue 2019 registration sticker out of a drawer.

“You’re all good.”

“Are you sure? I mean, I don’t want people pulling me over or this becoming a problem later because I didn’t figure it out. No smog check? Really.”

“You’re all good.”

There was no one to say goodbye to, and nothing else to say. As to walked toward the door, I looked backward at the 20 people still waiting. Anyone who wasn’t called before closing in 30 minutes would not be given preferential treatment tomorrow. They would have to live through another day at the DMV.

I felt weightless.

I put on my sunglasses and walked toward the light.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.