Mar 1, 2007

I'd rather have woken up to discover that I was a cockroach

After all, it's widely believed that cockroaches will survive a nuclear holocaust.

Instead I woke up yesterday at 4 am to find that my son and my car were missing. Now both son and car had taken off early the evening before to go to work, but I went to bed before he returned. I called son's cell phone and it went straight to voice mail. I paced, alternately cursing son for staying out all night and worrying that he was dead in a ditch.

A half hour later, son came home. Car didn't. And therein lies a tale.

Son was stopped by the cops because they said the car's registration had been suspended by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Agency for not complying with emissions testing. It was further discovered, said the cops, that I had had no insurance on the vehicle since April 2006--again according to the MVA. The car was impounded and son was given a card with the address and phone number of the county's tow merchant of choice and left to make his own way home.

The fact that there was a registration card in the car with the expiration date of April 30, 2008 couldn't dissuade them. An inspection report, duly carried out by an authorized state inspection center, didn't do it either. And the insurance card from Liberty Mutual? Didn't impress.

Now, this was not the first time son had been stopped regarding emissions testing. About a month ago, he was driving his own car when he was stopped and given a ticket ($145!) because, he was told, that he had ignored MVA requests to have his car tested for emissions. Since his car was registered in my name, son told me about it and I had meant to call the MVA but forgot. We heard no more about it until yesterday.

So it's 5 am now and we're both puzzling about the the matter. I start looking on the MVA website to see what this emissions testing wheeze was all about. There was a section on emissions testing, there was a section on inspections. Neither referenced the other and we had heard nothing about having to submit to such a test. Both cars had been registered and inspected in April 2006 and as far as we knew that was all we had to do until April 2008.

So I call the tow people, whose card advertises that they're open 24/7 to see about getting the car. Maybe, I thought, I could pick it up and actually go to work today. No such luck. The guy who answered the phone told me the office was closed until 9.

At 8:30 I decided to call my local insurance agent about the mystifying claim that I had been uninsured for the past 11 months. I get an automated phone system. Fine. I'm not a person who necessarily minds swimming through the layers of the automated phone system. Press 2 for a question about your current policy, press 0 to speak to an agent. Busy signal. Disconnect. Happened three times.

9:01 and time to call the tow people. There's an old gag where someone walks into an office to complain about something, sees a guy behind the counter with a hat on that says "Information." Guy starts laying out his woes. "Hold it right there," the counter guy says, "this is a matter for the complaint department." "Fine. Let me speak to the complaint department." "He'll be right with you." Guy disappears, comes back wearing a hat that says "Complaints." Apparently Bob at the tow company had changed into his "The office is now open" hat, cuz the same guy who answered the phone at 6 am and refused to hear me out was now ready to help.

But I digress. (Expect a lot of that if you're going to continue reading this post.)

Anyway, Bob tells me it'll cost $175--cash--to get the car back. Plus $35 a day--cash--for storage. But Bob's a good sport. Since I caught him right after he put on his "The office is now open" hat, he'll forgo the storage charge if I pick the car up by 4 pm.

But there are questions about where car was picked up, make and model, etc. Bob doesn't see the paperwork on car. Bob has to call me back. After a couple back and forth phone calls, Bob tells me he has the paperwork and he spoke to the driver but there's a problem with the paperwork. It seems the paperwork says the car still has its license plates on, but the driver told him that the cop took the plates off. Bob has checked. The car has no plates.
"Bob," I say, "this is not good."

"No no. You have to call the sheriff's office to get a Form &&***@# anyway, so I can release the car. Just call this number and give 'em this incident number and they can get a hold of the officer and you can get your tags back."

It was at this point that the whole affair took on the dark inevitability of a Greek tragedy.

I call the sheriff's office. Rerouted twice. Geezer picks up the phone. I tell him my car was impounded. He tells me I have to come by with my license and registration to get the Form &&***@#.

"There's a problem," I say, "the car doesn't have plates."

"That's not what the incident report says."

"Yeah. But the tow guy said there was a discrepancy between the paperwork and what the driver told him."

"Did you see the car yourself?"

"No. But the tow guy did and he assures me that it's plateless."

"You better go check yourself."

"Sigh. Fine, but what do I do if, in fact, it doesn't have plates?"

"It does have plates. The paperwork says it has plates."

"But if it, you know, doesn't have plates?"

Then we'll have to fill out a report that the plates were stolen."

"But the officer took the plates off the car."

"Not according to the paperwork."
Then I do something stupid. I try asking him about the emissions thing. There follows a whole song and dance that doesn't address my question, but leaves me even more confused: Why does my son keep getting stopped for emissions? It all boils down to the fact that I have to straighten it out with the MVA. "Just go to the information desk," he tells me. "They'll straighten it out." Uh huh.

10 am. I realize that my registration card is in the car, so I call Bob back and ask if he can get it for me. He has to call me back. He finds the registration and off I go to the back end of nowhere to pick it up. Then it's off in the opposite direction to the southern barracks of the Harford County sheriff's office.

In the lobby there's a door on the left and a glass-enclosed booth on the right where I find seated the geezer I spoke to on the phone. I tell him I need a Form &&***@#. He asks for my license and registration. I try to slide them through the little hole. He demands that I pick them up and place them on this here blank sheet of paper. I comply. He pulls out an oddly shaped piece of paper and begins laboriously to fill it out.

Another digression: Why is it that whenever you deal with officialdom, they always must fill out by hand an oddly shaped piece of paper with three carbons: Pink, yellow and goldenrod? Have they not heard of computers? Does it not occur to them that the customer's copy--in essence proof that said customer has duly complied with whatever pettifogging regulation is in question--is completely unreadable, hence useless? And why the official prejudice against the standard 8 by 11 sheet of paper?

Anyway, geezer fills out the form, gets up from behind the desk and leaves the booth. Comes back a few seconds later and proceeds to help the next customer without so much as a word to me.

A few minutes later, the door on the left opens and out walks a pig. I say this not to cause offense to the noble profession of policedom, rather it's a descriptive term. He is blond and fat and pink with a nose that resembles a snout. And, because he's much taller than me, and has his head cocked at an unusual angle, I find myself looking directly up his snout where I cannot help but marvel at the abundance of thick, bristly nose hair--grey and blonde and stiff--as though he'd shoved a couple of used toothbrushes up his snout. It's really rather remarkable.

The porcine fellow gives me my Form &&***@#. He tells me that the license plates were confiscated because I didn't have insurance. I do some spluttering in protest. I had an insurance card in the car. Doesn't matter, he says, you need a PR1619 (?). He tells me to take it up with the MVA and my insurance company. I question him about the emissions wheeze. Is there a new requirement I don't know about? He denies any such knowledge. Another song and dance about a wholly hypothetical situation in which I bought a used car from someone who still had a couple months to go before inspection and the inspection lapsed and I didn't get a new one. Not my situation, I say. Take it up with the MVA, he says.

Noon. I head home to call the insurance company who, I am now convinced, have screwed me. For some reason they told the MVA that I don't have insurance, I fume. If I don't have insurance, what were they doing with the almost $4,000 I've paid them since April 2006? Get trapped again in the automated phone system: Press 2 for a question about your current policy, press 0 to speak to an agent. Busy signal. Disconnect. After doing this a couple of times, I find my way to a layer in which I can leave a message. I leave a long detailed message, with heavy emphasis on the injustice of having to pay $175--cash--for something that wasn't my fault. I am speaking very slowly and enunciating every syllable to exaggerated effect. That'll show 'em that I mean business.

Lorraine from Liberty Mutual calls back about a half hour later. She apologizes for the phone problems. I lay out my tale again. Again I fume about the $175--cash--which now seems to be the most unjust thing about the whole sorry tale. She tells me that I do too have insurance. And I'm paid up through April. I tell her I know that, but the MVA doesn't know it. She promises to call the MVA and get back to me.

Lorraine calls back and tells me that the MVA had sent out a random "spot" insurance check demanding proof of insurance, but they had my address wrong. They had Apartment 1, I live in Apartment 11. She faxed them the official PR 1619, but it takes a day or two to process, however, if I'd be willing to drive out to the insurance agency to get the PR 1619, I can hand it in to the local MVA office and get it straightened out immediately. I say that I will, but I explain that my car no longer has any plates. Did they say what to do about that? Lorraine is sure they'll give my plates back to me. She's confident that it will all be straightened out. I still have to pay $175--cash--though, and I'm pissed about it.

Off to Liberty Mutual, about 10 miles from home. In the vague general direction of the impound lot, if you're interested. But not near the MVA. Insert rant about suburban sprawl here.

Lorraine, who seems sweet and helpful, has armloads of paperwork for me. She wants to ensure that I'll have absolutely everything I need when I go to the MVA. She hands me an official PR 1619, another oddly shaped piece of paper, but it only has one carbon and it's printed, not filled out.

Off to the MVA where, in the parking lot, one old geezer almost rams me with his pickup truck while trying to leave the lot at the same time that another old geezer passes me on the right, figuring he can negotiate the area between my car and the pickup truck and make his way to the parking spot he was planning to steal from me. Harford County really ought to have a senior recreation program to get these geezers off the street.

By the time I get to the front of the information line, I'm spent. I begin droning out my story in an affectless voice. Before I finish, the information lady smiles and directs me to a red-outlined doorway in the far left corner. I'm to enter the first door on the left. I walk through the mysterious doorway and enter the first door. On the left there's another door that says "Administrative Hearing" and there's a lawyer type and two clients sitting outside. My heart drops.

Let me explain here what I look like. I still have on the clothes I had slept in: A Looney Toons t-shirt and gray yoga pants with a giant whole in the knee. My sole concession to a decent appearance was to put on a bra. And shoes. So, I have the mistaken impression--for an instant--that I was to be put before a judge and asked to explain myself while looking like a homeless person. A homeless person who's had a very bad day. Then I see that beyond the hearing room is a little anteroom and I walk through.

Behind a dutch door, I see an office with several women sitting at desks. "Can I help you?" says the woman whose desk faces the door. Again the affectless voice outlines the situation. She says, "Why don't you come in here and we'll straighten everything out."

And she does.

Not without, of course, filling out several oddly shaped pieces of paper that absolve me of the emissions and insurance debacles. One for each incident and one for each car. Then she fills out another form that eventually gets me new license plates and a new registration form.

2:30 and I'm out of there, new license plates in hand. (This requires standing in another line, where, after the clerk hands me the plates, I think to inquire about the address they have for me in the computer. It's still wrong, but she fixes it.)

I still have a couple of hurdles to jump, however. I call Bob, but he had taken off his "The office is now open" hat and gone to pick up another car from another luckless Maryland driver so the office is closed for 45 minutes. And when we finally do get there, it is discovered that the cops had taken off the screws that hold the license plates in place. Bob is screwless. So we have to go to the hardware store to pick some up.

At 4:50, I put the license plates on in the parking lot at Lowes. Then I go home.

And that's why I didn't blog yesterday.

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