My father, an avid motorcyclist, died in October, 2011, at the age of 63. I have spent the past 18 months settling his affairs and, in the words of the probate court, distributing his assets, which included five motorcycles. His beloved Kawasaki KLR 650 — which he’d spent an absurd amount of time and money on, even for someone so rabid about motorcycles as he was — was the last to go.
This is what happened.
Above: Photo taken in 2003, by Jerome Ducote. My dad with his 2001 BMW GS, somewhere in Utah. The GS was one of five bikes he had when he died, leaving me to sort it all out. Everything went smoothly, until it came time to register his KLR.
I hate the DMV.
I don’t use the word “hate” lightly, but after spending six hours transferring ownership of my late father’s Kawasaki KLR, it’s the only word that adequately describes my feelings for this bureaucratic black hole.
Monday, I made my second visit to the DMV in as many weeks to accomplish a task that should have taken an hour, tops. My first visit was stymied by a clerk who told me I can’t register the bike without having South Carolina, where my father lived, issue me a title. I politely told her that South Carolina does not issue titles to non-residents. She went to discuss this, at great length, with her supervisor, who told me the same thing. I was going to argue the point, but realized I’d be wasting my time. Defeated by incompetence, I left.
A few hours later, I called the DMV help line, where a very helpful clerk told me I was right and the clerks were wrong. He gave me the number of the DMV registration processing office in Sacramento, which handles every title transfer and vehicle registration in California. A very helpful clerk there told me that I was right and the clerks were wrong. All I need, she told me, is the original title, a copy of dad’s death certificate, the letter from the court naming me executor of his estate and the various California forms. I had all that. I made another appointment with the DMV.
And so it is that I am once again at the DMV. I have all of my paperwork in order, the name and number of the clerk I spoke to in Sacramento and a positive attitude. I am ready!
Or so I thought.
By some strange twist of fate, I draw the same clerk who defeated me last time. She gives me the same line she gave me last time. I take a deep breath and calmly explain that the registration office told me yada yada yada.
“I’ll get my supervisor…”
God and dad were truly enjoying fucking with me, because here comes the same supervisor I dealt with last time. I take a deep breath. I count backward from 10. I say, “Hello” in the friendliest tone I can muster before explaining the situation and what I’ve been told. She gives me the same line she gave me last time. I politely repeat what Sacramento told me, then name-drop the clerk I spoke to and provide her telephone number. The supervisor returns to her cubicle, presumably to call Sacramento. I take out my phone and do the same. A clerk named Jessica answers. I politely explain the situation and what I am being told in the Hayward office.
“That’s not right,” Jessica says. “You’re doing an in-probate transfer. These always confuse people because we don’t do many of them. Let me put you on hold…”
I am buoyed by this. Three people have told me I am correct. That has to count for something, I think. Jessica comes back five minutes later.
“You have all the paperwork and authority you need,” she says. “Give the supervisor this California Vehicle Code number…”
Jessica then hands me a great sack of gold: All the proper sections of the state vehicle, registration and probate codes which show I have everything I need to transfer ownership. “I AM ARMED,” I think to myself with a smile. “I have the armor-piercing hollow-point ammunition I need to take down this bureaucratic monster!” I see light at the end of the tunnel.
Five minutes later, the supervisor walks up. She begins talking, but all I hear are Jessica’s numbers clicking into place like bullets being chambered. I am about to blow this woman’s argument to pieces. I am looking forward to this. I resist the urge to smile, take a deep breath and tell her, “I just got off the phone with Jessica at the registration office. She told me….” I repeat everything Jessica told me.
“Wait here,” the supervisor says.
More waiting. I see the supervisor on the phone. She’s looking at me. Looking at her computer. Looking back at me. Looking at her computer. Rolling her eyes. She comes back. “Do you know which Jessica you spoke to? They have two…”
I am dumbfounded. “Um, no. But you could ask which one spoke to Chuck with the probate matter in the Hayward office. I can’t imagine they’ve had two calls like that.”
More waiting. I’ve been here almost two hours and have not yet cleared the first circle of hell. She finally comes back, smiling.
“You’re smiling! That must be good news!” I say, hoping a positive attitude will influence the situation.
“Well, good and not so good,” she says.
I don’t have quite the right documentation from the court, she tells me, waving my letter from the probate court. Now, this letter — written on court letterhead, signed by a judge and stamped with the raised seal of the Probate Court of the County of Spartanburg, South Carolina — clearly and plainly states that I am the personal representative to the estate of Carmine C. Squatriglia. I know this because I paid a lawyer handsomely to procure this document for me. The supervisor tells me all of this anyway.
“Yes,” I say, not getting her point.
“We need something saying you’re the executor,” she says.
“It’s the exact same thing,” I tell her. “California calls it executor. South Carolina calls it personal repre….”
A light goes on in my head, like a bulb over Wiley E. Coyote when he gets a brilliant idea. I’d swear it went, “ding.”
“This is a semantic issue?” I ask. “We’re stuck here because that letter doesn’t say, ‘executor,’ but ‘personal representative’?”
The supervisor looks at me like I’ve asked the most asinine question she’s ever heard. She ignores it and says, “We’ll process it, but the registration office will have to review….”
I stop listening after “We’ll process it” because all I hear is “We’ll process it.” I have won, I think, and I hear in my head, “Free at last, free at last, THANK GOD ALMIGHTY I AM FREE AT LAST! I can finally close this estate.” I realize she is still talking and come back to reality.
“blah blah blah…. It could take as long as three months…. blah blah blah,” she says. I stop her. I do not care in the slightest how long it takes, and tell her so.
“That’s fine,” I say, fighting an urge to jump up and down in excitement. “Three months is fine. All I want to do is get it out of South Carolina’s system and into California’s. This is literally the very last of the business I must attend to before I can close the estate and get the court off my back and my lawyer out of my pocket.”
“OK,” she says. “Have you had the motorcycle verified?”
A note here, for those who may not know: California requires out-of-state vehicles to be physically inspected to ensure the VIN on the title matches the VIN on the vehicle, to obtain the motorcycle engine number (which I believe California is alone in recording) and to ensure the vehicle meets California emissions regulations. Basically, a clerk looks at the VIN and appropriate stickers, fills out a form and you’re fine. It takes five minutes, once you’ve spent 20 minutes waiting in line.
“It’s on a truck outside, ready for inspection,” I tell her. I do not tell her the bike is on a truck because the carb pisses gas when the choke is on and even if it didn’t, well, it’s not registered and it would be just my luck to get a ticket while riding to the DMV. Dad had a sense of humor like that.
“OK. Go get it out of the truck and I’ll have someone….”
Oh shit, I think. I see that light at the end of the tunnel becoming an oncoming train.
“I can’t take it out of the truck. I’m here alone and I don’t have a ramp…”
“I’m sorry. We can’t climb into the truck. It has to be on the ground,” she tells me.
You’re kidding, I think. The train sounds its whistle. It’s coming right at me. I am mortified. Terrified. I see myself starting this journey again on another day with a different clerk and making all these calls again and suddenly I am screaming in my head, “I AM NOT COMING BACK A THIRD TIME.” I am ready to begin bribing people if that’s what it takes.
“I will give the inspector a boost into the truck,” I tell the supervisor, hoping the issue is the clerk is short and can’t climb into the truck. “I will get down on all fours and she can use me as a step-ladder. I will do anything necessary to get this motorcycle verified.”
“Well, let me see if the tall guy is working today. Maybe he can see it from the ground,” she says with a straight face, obviously unaware that the VIN is stamped on the steering tube behind the fairing, the engine number is stamped on top of the engine case under the exhaust pipe and the bike is in the back of a Ford F250 crew cab with four-wheel drive. Manute Bol with a pair of binoculars would not be able to see what needs to be seen to get this thing verified. I go outside to ponder my next move.
I call a local independent verifier — this, by the way, is a great racket. The DMV will license people as vehicle verifiers and, for a fee of $75, these people will come to your vehicle and check the VIN, etc. and fill out a form. “When do you need this done,” he asks.
“Today. Right now. I’m at ….” I explain the situation.
“Well, I might could maybe get out there this afternoon,” he said. “See, my helper is sick and she went to the doctor, and I’m a-waitin’ for her to get back….”
I suddenly wonder if I’ve somehow reached a vehicle verifier in West Virginia. I thank him for his time and say I’ll move to Plan B. Never mind that I do not have a Plan B. My best friend Anthony lives four blocks away, so, after texting him at work, I decide to retrieve the ramp from his garage and hope his neighbor is home. He isn’t. I grab the ramp anyway. Back at the DMV, I spot a guy with whom I’d shot the shit about motorcycles while we were waiting in line. His 16-year-old daughter is taking her driving test.
“I will buy you and your daughter lunch if you help me get this bike out of the truck,” I tell him.
“That’s nice of you, but you don’t have to do that. I’ll give you a hand,” he says.
Alas, the truck is too high, the ramp too steep. The bike hangs up on the center stand as it crosses the tailgate. “I’m afraid that ain’t gonna work,” the guy says. “Sorry.” And then he walks away.
At this point I am seriously considering throwing the bike off the truck. It’s a KLR, I figure. It’ll survive the fall, and maybe it’ll fix the carb. I think better of that and scan 360 degrees, as far as I can see, for anything high enough to let me lay the ramp at a shallow enough angle to get the damn bike off the damn truck. Nothing. Nada. Hayward is remarkably flat. I give in and text Anthony, who owns the truck I’ve borrowed to make this fool’s errand. He’s like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction. Got a problem? Call Anthony. He’ll fix it. I explained the situation. “I’ll be there in 45 minutes,” he replies. Knowing that I have a habit of freaking out under stress, he adds, “Be cool.”
While I am waiting, I remember that dad had installed a crash bar on the bike and one of the brackets partially obscures the federal safety sticker. Something tells me it is just my luck today that some pinheaded clerk will attempt to verify the bike, see that bracket and tell me, “I’m sorry, but I can’t read this sticker. You’ll have to remove the bracket.” I go back to Anthony’s house, grab the appropriate Allen wrench and return to the DMV.
I’ve just about got the crash bar off when Anthony rolls up on his VFR. He’s an engineer, and immediately scans the parking lot for a high spot. There are none. “Fuck this,” he says, and hops into the truck. He spins it around the parking lot and then drives up over the curb and onto the landscaping. Then he lets all the air out of the rear air shocks, something I hadn’t even thought of because I’m a journalist, not an engineer. With that, the front end is higher than the rear, and the ramp is just — just — shallow enough to get the damn bike off the damn truck.
“Now go get this fucker verified,” Anthony says, good-naturedly. “You’re killin’ me here!”
I roll over the verification line. I wait half an hour while the clerks enjoy their state-mandated 12-to-1-pm lunch hour, which on this day goes until almost 1:30. Finally, the clerk who verified dad’s BMWs back in November comes out. (Oh…. did I forget to mention that I got dad’s GS and RT, along with his Land Rover, registered using the EXACT SAME PAPERWORK in the EXACT SAME DMV OFFICE? I accomplished all of this in one hour, with no trouble. Of course I explained that, repeatedly, to the clerk and supervisor inside, to no avail.) She vaguely remembers me. I hand her my paperwork. We find the VIN. We find the engine number. We find the federal safety regulations compliance sticker.
We do not find the emissions compliance sticker.
We look all over the bike. We finally find it on the down tube, just in front of the engine. I start breathing again, because I had been starting to worry the sticker was under the seat, which can only be removed by unbolting it. That would probably lead the clerk to move on to other customers, sending me to the back of the line. We’re in the clear, I think to myself.
“Wait,” the clerk says.
My blood runs cold.
“It doesn’t say California,” she says.
I am about to cry. I swear I hear my father laughing from the great beyond.
“But it says federal. Isn’t that enough?” I say, knowing full well that California emissions regulations supercede federal regulations. If you don’t have a California sticker, you get thrown into even more Kafkaesque DMV experiences that I don’t have the stomach to even consider, let alone endure.
“Ah, screw it. It’s good enough for me,” the clerk says, checking the appropriate box on the form.
I am stunned. I hear a chorus of angels sing. I have, for the first time all day, caught a break. “Thank you,” I tell her. “Seriously. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” she says.
Believe me, I think to myself, I won’t.
I go back inside. I have everything I need. I sit down, with the number they gave me, to wait my turn. I begin signing over the South Carolina title, something I’d wisely decided not to do until every last duck was in a row.
“Sir,” I hear. I look up. It’s the security guard. “I’m sorry, there is no food or drink allowed in the office.”
“Your bottle of water,” he says, pointing at my unopened Aquafina. “You can’t…”
I just about lose it. And then I laugh. “Seriously? Water? I can’t have a bottle…” I stop. Of course he’s serious. Rules are rules, and the DMV loves its rules. Each employee has his or her little fiefdom, which they rule with iron fists. And so I get up, go outside, drink half the bottle and leave it at the curb. I return to my seat. The supervisor sees me, motions me over. “Here,” she says, giving me a number that bumps me to the head of the line.
They call my number. I stride confidently toward the last clerk, feeling like Mo Farah approaching the finish of the 10,000 meters in London. I have done it. After more than 5 hours, I have beaten them. I triumphantly hand over my paperwork.
“Let me talk to my supervisor…”
You do that, I think. Take your time. You cannot take victory from me now. I will stand here and savor it. She comes back five minutes later and hands me my Form 256, California Statement of Facts, a sworn affidavit stating that I am the personal representative to the estate, with authority to yada yada yada.
“I need you to write down the names and numbers of everyone you spoke to at the registration office,” she says.
“No problem,” I say. I do it. “Why?”
“We’re sending this to them for review,” she says.
Oh shit, I think. No. You are not going to deny me. Not now. I have been here all day. Do not make me wait weeks longer to get this resolved. I take a deep breath. “What does that mean?”
“We’re not familiar with this procedure, and you don’t have quite the right paperwork from the court,” she says. “So we’re going to have the registration office review all your paperwork to make sure it’s all in order.”
I realize they’re punting. They don’t know quite what to do, so they’re going to pass it up the ladder to let someone else sort it out.
“How long will that take?” I ask.
“If I had to guess, I’d say three months.”
I see myself yelling “Noooooooooooooooooo” as I fall into a bottomless pit of bureaucracy. Then, incredibly, she says, “The registration fee is $124. Cash or check.” I am stunned. “Wait. I have to pay you, even though I won’t know for three months whether I’m getting a title and a license plate?”
“Do you want this registered or not?”
I take out my checkbook.
She hands me a red piece of paper. “This is your temporary permit so you can ride the motorcycle.” This gets my attention. “Wait. I’ve transferred ownership? It’s now registered in California? All I have to do is wait for Sacramento to issue a title and a plate?”
“Yes,” she says, as if I’m the biggest idiot in the county and this was abundantly clear from the start. Just to be sure, I repeat myself, slowly: “This motorcycle is now registered in California. I am the legal owner. South Carolina no longer has any claim to it, nor does my father’s estate.”
She looks at me as if I’ve asked her if two plus two is indeed four. “Yes,” she says handing me a receipt. “This piece of paper proves you’ve started the titling process.”
I take my paperwork. I am done. I go around the office thanking every single employee who led me through this byzantine process, in part because they were, aside from bureaucratic, actually pretty helpful and always polite. But mostly I do it because I want them to know that I have won. I have cleared every hurdle they raised, dodged every bomb they dropped and taken every punch they’ve thrown. And I have done this without once losing my composure. I played their game and beat them. This is my victory lap, and I revel in it. The clerk at the front desk, the one who shoved me down this crazy rabbit hole to begin with, and I enjoy a good laugh as I leave.
“Have a good day, sweetie,” she says.
As I approach the truck, I can only smile. I’ve inherited three motorcycles from my father, each of which tells a story about him. Mom always hassled him about getting a will. “Why do I need a will,” he’d say. “I’ll be dead. It’ll be someone else’s problem.”
Thanks, dad. No. Really. Thanks.
The KLR isn’t my favorite bike, and truth be told, I’ll probably sell the damn thing if and when I ever receive a California title for it. But I think it will, in short order, become my favorite story.
Chuck is the editor of Wired Playbook and, like his dad, an avid motorcyclist.