The Secretary of State in the Strip Mall


It is was one of these days. I should have known when I stepped outside my house. It was gray, rainy, cold. It reminded me of Seattle in the fall (and winter and spring). But at least in Washington state the inside works efficiently, for instance when I got a driver’s license in seven minutes.

Not so in Michigan. While it offers sunshine often, its bureaucracy clouds the day.

The cute thing in the supposedly “United” States of America is that each state issues its own driver’s license, car registration and title. With each move, you have to get fresh documents. I am living in my fifth state now. Imagine the fun.

First, the nearest office for the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) showed two different addresses online. In the drizzle I directed my car to address number one. I arrived at a run-of-the-mill strip mall with dollar stores, nail shops and beauty salons. One bigger gray building looked official but turned out to be empty. I asked in the dollar store; the cashier hadn’t heard of a DMV office there.

I checked again online; off to address number two. I arrived at another strip mall. Same kind of stores; another small gray building at one end. Many cars sat in front of it, people streamed inside. Confidently I headed toward the building. A man in front of me held the door open. I rushed in…and landed in something else. Women with head scarves and some men with turbans sat at desks quietly reading. Beautiful rugs, book shelves and paintings decorated the room. The polite man at the door said: “This is a mosque.” He added the DMV used to be here. I sped outside and laughed hard in the parking lot.

Back to square one. I called a colleague who had visited the mysterious local DMV office before. He sent me back to address number one. He advised to look for a store labelled “Secretary of State.” He also mentioned he waited for an hour and a half.

It sat between LaVita Massage, L.A. Insurance and The Beauty Department. Announcing itself in glowing neon-letters like the other stores around it, a government agency did its best to hide from the residents who are forced to use it.

Inside women with toddlers, bands of young men, and older folks were waiting – in line, in seats, at booths. Warned of the waiting time, I had brought work. I drew a number and sat down. After a while a voice shouted people who need licenses need to come over to pick up another sheet. Did that, sat down again. After 45 minutes I reached a service booth with a person.

I had brought all my identification documents from this country and Germany: passport, green card, my still current Washington state driver’s license/ID, and my German driver’s license. In addition, I brought a rental lease, car registration, car title, authorization by the co-owner of the car that I can act on his behalf, copy of the co-owner’s driver’s license/ID, cash, check books and credit cards. Oh yeah, and the application form.

These were not enough.

No, a rental lease is not enough to prove residency. Another piece of paper with the address is needed.

No, all the identification documents were not sufficient. The real printed social security card needs to be brought! Unheard of. Never in my seven years as an immigrant did I ever have to bring my U.S. social security card anywhere. Usually you just have to memorize and give the number. Not even Homeland Security, otherwise quite demanding when it comes to documents, ever wanted to see it, or a copy of it. In fact, the social security card is not allowed as a means of identification as Americans feared a national tracking system could lead to Nazi-like persecution. (Remember each state issues its own IDs, hence my ordeal.)

No, not any car insurance but one in Michigan is needed to do anything about switching over the car. This includes getting new license plates. Yes, you have to change license plates in the same country when you move to a different part of it.

I keep telling friends and anyone who complains about German bureaucracy that U.S. bureaucracy is just as burdensome and annoying. In fact, it is enhanced because each state wants to squeeze its share of Benjamins out of you. The only redeeming, merciful gesture this unfriendly process offered was a pink slip. When I return with my additional documents, I don’t have to wait in line. Bottom line: it’s all about the Benjamins. That makes a strip mall a fitting place.

PS: It did not help that when finally driving to work, a bus that ran by kept flashing “Have a good day” on its digital display board.

Update: With the power of the magic pink slip my second visit a week later went more smoothly. The sun was shining. The Secretary of State was still in the same strip mall. Within about half an hour I got the paper work for my new driver’s license, registration and title. I’m officially a Michigoose now. Hooray!


4 responses to “The Secretary of State in the Strip Mall

  1. Wow, that is the most discreet DMV office I have ever seen. I have to say, my experience here in California is quite sad as well. I went there on October 3. Had an appointment – but the whole ordeal took over three hours and two trips outside (once to get cash, because they wouldn’t take credit card, and once to get my car emissions tested). I got plates on the spot but I am still today waiting for the driver’s license to come in the mail. They say it can take up to six weeks, though later I found on the Stanford international students site this bewildering warning:

    WARNING: International students and scholars applying for a California driver’s license may have to wait up to one year to receive a permanent license. The reason is that the DMV has to go through the extra step of verifying the student’s immigration status with the Immigration Service before issuing a license. If you have not received your license after 60 days, you can write or fax the Sacramento DMV (phone: 916-657-7445 or fax: 916 657-5834) and ask again that they solicit the verification from the Immigration Service. Send to DMV a copy of your passport, I-94 card/electronic record, temporary driver’s license and phone number. The DMV will renew your request for verification with the San Francisco USCIS office. In the meantime you should continue to update your temporary license until the permanent license arrives.

    It’s amazing to think, just like you said, that this country is “united” when in fact the procedures are so wildly different. When I applied for a Maryland driver’s license I got it printed out on the spot, no waiting six weeks and certainly not one year (sic!). But here all of a sudden they care more that I am an international student, and they have to triple check me. *sigh*

    • Joanna, I am so glad that you took the time to post your comment! Yes, of course, I didn’t have to deal with the international aspect as much anymore. But that certainly does play a role for loads of people. I am sorry to hear that you have to suffer through your own DMV ordeal over there. It is a pain and I do not see any advantage in this system over the German one in which you get one driver’s license once and for the rest of your life unless you loose it because of drunk driving or another egregious traffic related crime. Good luck!!

  2. annemarieanderson

    An official Michigoose 🙂 I never knew there was a feminine form of Michigander. Congratulations on surviving this round with the state bureaucracy!

    • Thank you Anne! As Joanna describes it seems to be even a wilder ride in California, with emissions test and immigration check. In hindsight I got a pretty good deal here. Oh, and I learnt about the Michiganders and Michigeese from J. I assumed it was a common phrase since he used it. 😀

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