Ranking right up there with the joy of home ownership is the joy of auto ownership. Both cars and houses are fixed by the same remedy, massive infusions of cash. But one advantage of owning a home is you don't have to get license plates for it.
I bring this up because lately my major project has been getting title and tags for the new car.
The car is not brand new. A brand new car would be a 1992 model. This makes the car I bought either three or four years old. It depends on whether you think the car is a 1989 model, which it is, according to the car owner's manual, and the certificate from the manufacturer is the model year of the car. Or you could say it is a 1988 which, somehow, is what the paperwork that I emerged from the state Motor Vehicle Administration says it is. More on that little problem later.
My adventure began when I showed up at the Mondawmin Mall office of the MVA on a Friday afternoon. It would have been more convenient for me to do this on Saturday, but the part of the
office that issues titles wasn't open on Saturday. This process, I learned, is not about convenience.
I couldn't wait until Monday because the temporary tag was about to expire. I had put it on the car while it was getting through inspection. The tag cost $15 and was good for 15 days. The $1 a day rate compares with the rate of 7.3 cents a day for the yearlong tag. But I didn't flinch. The governor has told us, repeatedly, the state needs the money.
Besides, I thought 15 days would be plenty of time to get the car through inspection. However, it turned out the car needed shock absorbers, and the parts were slow in coming. So I was down to my last two days on my temporary sticker.
I didn't want to drive to the Mondawmin MVA parking lot with an even slightly expired tag, because of the reputation of the parking lot police. Last July these police issued a fistful of tickets, at $17 each, to cars sitting in the lot with expired tags as the owners of these cars were inside the MVA building renewing their tags. I didn't want this to happen to me.
I figured the Mondawmin office would be busy on a Friday afternoon at end of the month. I was right. When I got in the door at 3:45 p.m. there were long lines.
Even though I was able to figure out that the office would be busy, this large turnout was apparently a surprise to the person in charge of staffing.
Only six of the 16 service windows were staffed. And only one person was stationed near the door. This contrasted with my visit to the same office two weeks earlier. Then it was earlier in the day and the crowd was light. And then two clerks were stationed near the door. One quickly told people what line to get in. Another checked out paperwork. I sailed in and sailed out of the office. It had been costly, I paid the state several hundred dollars in sales taxes, not to mention my $1 a day for temporary tags, but the pain had been administered quickly.
Late Friday afternoon, however, the situation had changed. Even though customer traffic was heavy, only one clerk was stationed nearthe door. That meant I had to stand in line just to find out if I was in the right line.
I was No. 8 in a line that had 19 people and the line was growing. After a wait of about 35 minutes, I got to see the MVA staffer. She divided her attention between my paperwork and questions from a fellow employee who said he needed plates for his truck and didn't want to wait in line.
Then the staffer said there was a mistake in my paperwork.
An "L" in the 17-character vehicle identification code had been incorrectly copied as a "1." This error had been committed by the service station mechanic, whom I had paid $42 just to tell me what was wrong with the car.
Figuring this was an easily correctable problem, I walked out to the parking lot with the staffer. She saw the car and looked at the vehicle identification code.
That was when she told me that I had to take the car back to mechanic, and have him straighten it out. That was when I said the "L" with that. I knew that by the time I got back from the mechanic, the MVA office would be closed.
So I got to see a supervisor, who by now had become the sole person manning the information booth and was facing down a line of about 25 people. She said that if I got the mechanic to call her on the phone and testify that he wrote a "1" when he should have written an "L," she would let me get in the next line. But only because she was a nice person.
So I hurried to a pay phone and called the mechanic. I had just paid him the princely sum of $61 in labor to align the headlights and fix the bulb that illuminated the license tag. I had to do this to get the car through inspection. I figured the mechanic would remember me as "easy money." The mechanic did call. And after one failed attempt he did get through to the supervisor, who with the stroke of her pen, transformed the errant 1 to a legal "L."
This aggravation had earned me the right to stand in another line for another 30 minutes, and pay $27 to transfer my old license plates to my new car.
I escaped with my papers shortly after 5 p.m. People were still standing in line when I left. It had been a long, expensive effort. But at least it was over. Or so I thought. At home, as I prepared to file the documents I had been issued, something caught my eye. A mistake.
My new documents had the car's correct vehicle identification number, but the wrong year. The papers said 1988. It was supposed to be 1989.
To correct this mistake I have to mail documents and a letter stating my case back to MVA authorities. The MVA suggested that I send the documents by certified mail. That means, of course, that there is good chance I will have to stand in line again. This time at the post office.