Moments of Truth

That every day we face. And being honest about it!

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Location: Monroe Twp, New Jersey, United States

TeeBee for many, Manthru for some, Sunny for a few, Myna for selected, Suresh for record. Hailing from Thrissur of Kerala and now lives (read survives) in Monroe Twp, NJ with wife and daughter.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

You are not You - A US Puzzle!

I could manage to get my social security number (SSN), one of the evidences of my existence in US (non working dependants can get a TIN, Tax Identification Number, instead of SSN) and the first step towards survival as well as surveillance, by the second week of my arrival in NY. It was one of the simplest processes with only a page having hardly 10 rows to fill up and requiring an identification document such as passport and a work permit such as visa approval notice. The queue in the office, which was in the middle of Manhattan, was not that long and it took me only an hour to get out of the building. As promised, the SSN came in 10 working days time to the postal address which need not be the residence address. Even photo copies were not required as the officers usually took it themselves after verifying the application and original documents. Needless to say, I was impressed as the sites of SSN clearly talked about the process and the offices followed it closely.

I had read a short novel by Anand, Marana Certificate (meaning Death Certificate), some years back. It was so disturbing that after reading it I could not get the hang of the thoughts that provoked me for days. Anybody landing in US fresh will most likely find situations that question his/her existence. A credit card cannot be used without a photo id at some places (this is not true in most cases these days although you are supposed to present one if asked), a SSN is a must for getting a house rented (it might run into a chicken egg problem where an address is required to apply for a SSN), a rented or own house or valid residence address combined with a SSN and passport is needed for opening a bank account, a SSN combined with passport and bank statements or ATM/Credit cards are needed to apply for a driving license which is a generally accepted photo id anywhere in US. One cannot get a loan or credit card without a credit history (you might get one with exorbitant interest rates and terms/conditions) but to build a credit history, you need to have a loan or credit card (the work around is a secured credit card with limits matching a deposit that is held as security, for beginners). Most important point is that your overseas history does not count here at all. Everybody start from square one and it applies to driving license too with most insurance companies quoting higher insurances for a first time driver in US irrespective of how good a driver he/she was overseas.

On one of these days of survival, I find myself in a fairly small queue with 50-70 people at the entrance to the department of motor vehicles (DMV) office at herald square (34th street and 6th avenue) to start my adventures of getting a NY driving license. The law allows me to drive a vehicle as I have my UAE driving license (same right hand side driving) and an international driving license issued from Dubai for an year. But as I become a NY resident, the time for this is 90 days of my residency, I am supposed to get a driving license of the state. Each state has its own rules, mostly same and differences being in the minimum age or blood level alcohol content or turning on red signal or highway speed limit or penalties etc. With a learners driving license and an overseas original, one can practice driving in NY, alone. Otherwise, an authorized driver is supposed to be present and the practice hours of the day or zones of the city are limited.

The entrance to the building is right on the street with a revolving door and the queue was so spread and uneven that I went directly to check inside when I was blocked at the entrance by an officer who guided me to the queue that was stretching towards the entrance of a subway station. I had a good view of the herald square from the street where I was standing as the area is an intersection of 34th street, avenue of americas (6th avenue) and broadway. It was around 8am and the smell of coffee that comes from almost all the shops, particularly from the street vendors, was far from resisting. A good cup of coffee and a croissant could come even under dollar 2. A non stop crowd was coming out of the subway like the bugs in the movie Mummy and the well built young man who was distributing the free news paper, am New York, was a sight to watch with his special tricks to the chicks who passes by.

After 30 minutes of wait, by this time the queue had grown and was reaching the 7th avenue, the queue started moving and we were directed to a corridor where the queue would wait for the exclusive elevator, to the DMV office somewhere on the 8th floor, that can carry only 8 at a time. The officer controlling the flow to the lift looked like a robot with his arm actions and no words. Up the levels of floors, the queue got rearrangments with last in to the elevator coming first in the queue to the reception where application forms were distributed and directions to the counters were given. To my back the queue was forming multiple S shapes squeezing the crowd into the small room between the reception desk, gate and the elevator.

I received a fairly long application, which I could have downloaded from the net and printed on a long sheet of paper, probably A3 size, but the waiting could not have been reduced much, and was directed towards a counter where documents were verified and digital photo was taken. A good 20-25 were waiting and I joined at the back of the latest queue relieved that the queue size will give enough time to fill up the application. As the queue got lengthier, a bald-headed man, resembling pretty much former election commissioner T.N.Seshan, came to reorganize the queue and asked everybody to take out and verify the documents needed. He even went on to distribute copies of driver manual for those who needed it.

DMV follows a 6 point document verification criteria where documents are given points and at least 6 points are required to apply for a learner's driving license. SSN is must which carry 2 points and passport with valid visa is good enough with 3 points. A credit card or ATM card or bank statement (only one of these types allowed) carry one point and I had two ATM cards and bank statements from two different banks. It was surprising, though not unexpected after 9/11, that after a long process that is required for somebody to get into US with document checking going on at many places including where the SSN was issued, many more were required by DMV and that just to get a learner's driving license.

The documents were verified and the photo was taken and I joined a group of gentlemen and ladies sitting on three rows of benches in no particular order. After some time, when there was enough strength on the benches, another lady behind the counter waved to the waiting crowd to come over to an area where pencils and written examination question papers were distributed. Some of the ones who had finished their document verification earlier missed out on this new call and would have to wait for the next set to write the exams. The examination was provided in many languages (another puzzle as the directions and signs on the road/streets are mostly in English) and consists of 20 questions (as opposed to 50 in NJ) out of which 16 must be answered correctly. Candidates must score the road sign questions completely which leaves space for 4 wrong answers in the general questions section. The web sites provide a very thorough and professional insight and even allow taking test examinations. The well designed driver guide on rules and signs is free and the written examination should not pose any problems for somebody who is willing to spend some time on the resources.
Those who got passed, which they came to know immediately, were directed towards another set of counters where fees would be collected, documented verified and an interim learner's license issued. Failed ones would have to go back home to come on another day to try their luck again and must go through the same process. This wait was much longer as the counters were attending to other issues as well and it took a good 90 minutes before I got the call from a lady officer. I had noticed in the short time I had spent there that she was the slowest and seemed always in doubt. The documents were further produced for verification for the second (or third) time and after looking at them, she slowly got out of her seat and went to a gentleman who was printing interim licenses. I was left with a guessing period and she came back to request me to go to the gentleman for further processing. I waited for the set who were before me in that counter and finally he attended to me telling that the documents were found to be not in order. He explained that my SSN and the passport (How? Indian passports do not have space for middle names instead they have given name and surname fields) were in order but my ATM card is not. The ATM card was showing a shortened name as would most cards do because of space restrictions. Interestingly all my credit cards and bank statements were with the middle name shortened and they were not acceptable according to him. I showed my UAE driving license where the name was in full but he rejected it as that was not part of the 6 point documents. It was beyond logic as I had valid documents such as passport with a US work visa(you won't get it that easily, right?), a SSN which was issued from a US federal office, ATM/Credit cards and bank statements that showed relations with at least two well known financial institutions that required banking regulations and rules followed to open accounts, an original driving license issued with full name on it from UAE (a country where US driving licenses can be converted legally with less than 30$ under one hour). I thought about Anand and his novel "Marana Certificate" and shook my head in disgust. Somewhere in the novel it had mentioned the requirement of a birth certificate to issue a death certificate to prove that the person in question was indeed somebody who lived.

It was almost 5 hours after I reached that coffee smelling street and I went to my office which is a good 10 minutes walk from the DMV office. I narrated the incidents to my HR manager, who incidentally is my colleague's son, and we decided to give it one more shot with a letter from him on the company letter pad (with seal and signature) stating that the bank statement or pay slip in question indeed belongs to the person and working in close proximity of the DMV office in an organization that has international presence in at least 8 countries. I was not optimistic but it was worth giving a try if it could save the time I spent and avoid going through the same process of long waits for written examination again. I could bypass some queues but not all and was able to reach the counter where my identity was questioned an hour before. The gentleman was not seen and the lady who took his position was not with any mentality to help. I had to thank her for telling that the man will return after his lunch. I could get a glimpse of his egg shaped face at around 2:30pm before he closed the door to the lunch room behind the counters. I waited patiently as I was good at it.

At around 2:45pm he came out of the lunch room. Finding that there is no reason for him to occupy his previous seat as his movements suggested, I quickly jumped out of my seat and sought his attention. I briefed the story once again to introduce myself before handing over the sealed letter from my organization. He almost threw it away telling that he wanted the name in original in the documents described in the 6 point set and nothing else would suffice. He told that I have two last names and no middle names. There is nothing one can do to wake up a person who is pretending to be in sleep. The decision was purely up to the officer as no records would be kept and no copies of originals taken to issue a learner's license. Only the verification of documents and written examination followed by fees in cash. Disappointed at the system, often it is up to the employees who handle the system, I left the DMV office to go there on another day with an expanded name on my bank statement.

The waits repeated, the coffee smelt good, the exam taken without preparation and I was finding myself in front of another officer, this time too one lady, trying my luck on the 6 point puzzle. This was after a good 50 days as I had lost my interest in taking a driver license. The officer adjusted herself by seeing the application and asked about my last name. "Oh! Not again!" I said to myself. Learning from my previous encounter with a similar situation, I told that I have two last names and no middle names. She went to another officer and I lost hope but waited. They were looking at the documents and talking in mild voice that I could not hear. She came back and started typing the name and took a print out of the interim driving license (ofcourse, money was paid in cash). Before delivering it to me, she said she had to take off some of my name due to space restrictions in the system and that I would have to write and post a letter (which many won't do) to the commissioner if I would like to get the issue known. The prestigious piece of identification that I would use for many years in US, the process for which rejected shortened names due to space restrictions on ATM/Credit cards, had truncated my name to a good extent and my given name was no longer available except an S.

Note 1: It still read better than what Etisalat (the govt. run UAE telecommunications company) in Dubai did. Their monthly bills came with the name THUDAthil BRAskaran. No wonder why there were needs for names like TRIVANDRUM and TRICHUR. I had seen many in US with only half of their father's name on the licenses that makes DMV true fun makers.

Note 2: I had removed references that could lead to identity theft which is a regular phenomenon in US with California and New York being the front runners. Watch your bank statements and credit reports closely and regularly in addition to keeping the ATM/Credit cards, SSN, Driving License and other IDs safe.


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