Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Please type or print in black ink

... or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Form.

Almost exactly a year after I first landed in the USA, I have reached a momentous milestone: my first complete set of official documentation. It has been a long, slow, arduous and predictably tiresome slog through more bureaucratic inanity than I ever thought possible. But now, at last, I seem to have made my paperwork peace with pretty much every agency and organisation of any importance.

The paper trail started as soon as I stepped onto American soil, first with US customs and immigration, then straight on to Verizon to get myself a mobile phone. Since then I've had to open a total of five different bank accounts, gone through the surprisingly difficult process of getting a credit card (a simple process made awkward by my complete lack of US credit history, good or bad), queued up for a social security card (twice), registered with dentist, doctor and health insurance, got married (which sent my wife into a similar bureaucratic tailspin as she sought to change her name everywhere), applied to rent countless houses, then finally filled out a lease for one of them (which then had to be connected to all the utilities, as well as damn cable), started a business and registered it at City Hall (it turns out that you need a licence to work as a freelancer in San Francisco), filed my first U.S. tax return (which is fiendishly complicated here at the best of times and, surprisingly, not made any easier when you turn up in the country part way through the year), filled in more tax forms for new employers than I can shake a shitty stick at, dealt with various shipping companies to have my stuff sent here from the UK (and negotiated its passage through US customs), and even picked up loyalty cards for my local supermarket and hardware stores... And each of these individual tasks presented their own unique, unfamiliar, irritating challenges.

Of course, all of this doesn't even include immigration and the Green Card application process, which thanks to the ever-watchful Department of Homeland Security is its own enormous scary maze of crazy paperwork. Rather than detailing the whole process, I can only suggest you download form i-485 for yourself and check out the awesome list of questions that fill page three. Have I ever committed any crime of moral turpitude? Probably not: I had to look up a dictionary to find out what it was . Needless to say, the one piece of advice I'd give anyone, ANYONE, embarking on the same journey is this: Get A Fucking Lawyer. Really. Trying to do this alone would be like trying to traverse the Amazon without a map, blindfold. With one hand tied behind your back. Extremely difficult, basically.

But, after a year of checking boxes, printing answers legibly in ballpoint pen, and being fingerprinted more than can possibly be healthy, I saved one of the best bureaucracies until last. The local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles, the US equivalent of Britain's DVLA) has a special place in the heart of almost all of the Americans I have spoken to about it. People here are forced to enjoy its unique charms every time they buy or sell a car, move state, or need to obtain or renew a driving licence (which, unlike in the UK, is surprisingly often).

And it isn't just drivers who end up there either, as the DMV is pretty much the only place you can get an official US identification card without going through the even more arduous, and expensive, process of obtaining a passport (and, considering the amount of time you are asked for proof of age or identity here, particularly in bars and shops, having a separate, credit-card sized ID is pretty much essential).

Now, I thought my local Social Security Office offered a colourful cross-section of US society, but that was before I had the pleasure of visiting the DMV. All of American life is here, from the top to the bottom, and all the way across too. Forms are available in a dizzying array of languages, as are all the signs pointing out the various queues you're going to have to wait in. And wait. And wait. And... zzzzzz.

The first part of the licence test here, as in the UK, is a written exam. I gave the supplied California Driver Handbook a cursory glance, then aced the mock test at the back of it, so I felt ready. Unfortunately, the real test is four times as long and much harder. One of the questions I was asked required me to know the exact percentage of alcohol I am legally allowed to have in my blood while driving. What is the point in that? Sorry, I can't have another beer, my BAC is already 0.074%...

Anyway, thanks to the fact the test was multiple-choice (yay, guesswork!), I managed to scrape through.

Which left the behind-the-wheel portion. Of course, having already passed the famously difficult UK driving test, I should have been feeling pretty confident about my chances. However, that was the best part of 20 years ago, and I was driving on the other side of the road back then. How many bad habits had I picked up in the interim?

Quite a lot, it turns out. And this was despite the fact that I didn't have to demonstrate the dreaded dark arts of parallel parking, three-point turns or even that most mystifying manoeuvre of all reversing round a corner. In fact, the most technical task arrived early in the test: reversing in a straight line in the DMV parking lot. Put car in reverse, look over shoulder, don't turn steering wheel... Easy!

But maybe not quite so easy. You are allowed to make a few mistakes while being instructed to turn aimlessly left and right through the streets near the DMV, but each error carries with it a different points penalty. Reach the 15-point mark, and you fail. And I managed to get 13.

So now I am the proud owner of my first-ever US driving licence, a handy credit-card sized piece of ID that looks good next to my Green Card (which, naturally enough, isn't actually green), Social Security card, credit card, bank cards, health insurance cards, Bell Markets Club card... I'm almost starting to feel like a local.