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'Rule No. 1 Is Don't Miss Your Number'

CITYSCAPES / SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON

February 05, 2000|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON

Long before the doors swing open, hundreds of people arrive from all over the Southland and dutifully line up around the building in a queue that rarely shrinks over the next nine hours.

They aren't die-hard fans seeking Bruce Springsteen tickets. Nor are they obsessed parents jostling for some hard-to-get Pokemon cards. This crowd is looking to part with its money in the name of Southern California's premier pastime: driving.

They have come to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Pasadena, which on Saturdays is the busiest one in the state, according to manager Dixon James. There are a handful of other DMV operations open Saturdays--a total of 22 statewide--but this one draws the largest crowd, thanks to its proximity to Los Angeles and its full range of services.

People drive here from the South Bay, the San Fernando Valley and the Inland Empire. On a recent Saturday, even a San Diegan joined a slow-moving procession toward one of several vehicle registration windows.

Another long line is the one for getting a number assignment for driver's license customers, a prerequisite before they are allowed inside the waiting room. There, patrons wait once again, this time to see their numbers flash on an electronic board along with the numbered window to which they must proceed.

"We have two rules here. Rule No. 1 is don't miss your number. Rule No. 2: If you miss your number, go back to rule No. 1," said DMV field representative

Ruben Mendoza, a looming figure in Nike Air sneakers who herds patrons through the myriad steps.

Some drivers and car owners are fortunate, bypassing the maze by nabbing the 300 advance appointments the Pasadena office offers each Saturday. But with an estimated 2,000 transactions completed there every Saturday, many people must pass through the facility at 49 S. Rosemead Blvd. without appointments. That means, according to DMV surveys, a wait of 90 minutes to three hours.

Many customers described their waits as longer.

"It's crazy," said Sheryl Galbraith of Hermosa Beach, who was celebrating her 38th birthday by hurrying back and forth between the driver's license and vehicle registration lines. "I thought it was going to be a couple of hours. Now it's looking more like an extra two or three hours."

She would have preferred to handle her renewals by mail, but because of her recent move from Victorville, the notices never came, Galbraith said. Her data entry job prevented any weekday visits to closer DMV facilities with shorter lines, she added. "I am thankful they have someplace open on Saturdays."

DMV officials for years have grappled with proposals to reduce human traffic through its offices, such as improving mail-in options, and with the Legislature's blessing, increasing the interval between license renewals from four to five years. The latest attempt will start this spring, when vehicle owners will be able to renew registrations via the Internet.

Such steps haven't eased crowds at the Pasadena office, James said, at least not on Saturdays.

So the Pasadena DMV and its 50 or so employees have come up with their own ideas on how to deal with the crunch.

Saturday customers who come through their doors are encouraged to make appointments for another day or, depending on the service they need, to drop off their documents for processing and return by mail.

The most effective tool to move along this jumble of humanity, however, appears to be Mendoza, 48.

"OK folks, listen up," he called out. All eyes in the crammed waiting room turned his way. "Let's see if you're ready for your test," he continued.

"When is it OK to pass on the right shoulder? Never. When is it OK to cross the double yellow line? Never. When do you miss your number? Never."

The weary crowd chuckled appreciatively. A moment later, Mendoza scooted back to the lobby, where several impatient customers were waiting to get their numbers. "The room is filled up. We're in a holding pattern," Mendoza told them. He shares a few tips. After you get the number, there's a probable two-hour wait, he explained. Why not go to lunch? Just don't miss your number, he said.

Next, it's on to the people outside. For a change of pace, he recites the fees for various licensing options.

"I don't care how good-looking you are. You've got to have money" to get your license, he joked, drawing a smile from several patrons. "We take checks, cash and money orders."

Saturdays draw a different crowd, James said. Some are unlucky victims of the Los Angeles Police Department's Friday night sweeps for expired registrations. Others are procrastinators who opted not to renew their licenses or registration by mail. Many have work schedules that don't allow them to come in on other days.

Most seem resigned to the hours-long process to resolve their vehicle-related problems.

"In a way, it's fun," said Akani Inyang, 40, of South Pasadena, as he chatted amicably with Erika Zelnick, 26, of San Diego, who like him was waiting to renew a car registration. "You stand in line and start a conversation with new friends."

Even some Jehovah's Witnesses have tapped into this captive audience, setting up a table near the building, where they displayed literature and politely answered questions.

"We see a lot of people that we can't find at home during the day because they work," said congregant Mary Boustedt.

For appointments up to 30 days in advance at the Pasadena DMV, call (626) 796-1228.

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