UPDATED!: Hell Is the Harris County Admin Building
Updated at the end of the story
An Icelandic saga as written by Franz Kafka. That is the best way we can describe what happens when you attempt to register and transfer title to a car given to you as a gift by your dad who lives out of state.
Through what is now four trips to the Harris County Administration building and a few other trips around town, we have learned that the world's most infamously mind-numbing bureaucracies -- post-colonial India, Anwar Sadat's Egypt, Brezhnev's Soviet Union -- have nothing on our own red tape merchants on Preston Street.
My personal odyssey began several months ago. Honestly, I forget now how my first attempt was rebuffed. I think it had something to do with not following the precise order of battle you must undertake to get this done. First you show proof of insurance, then you get the car inspected, then you bring all of that back downtown and they will give you your sticker and your Texas license plate.
I think I was sent away the first time because I didn't have the right proof of insurance form. No biggie. I obtained that, returned to Preston Street, and that was when I learned that I needed to have the car -- a jet-black 2001 Toyota Corolla with over 110,000 miles on it -- inspected before I could proceed further. I was also told that I must prove that "Dark Star," as my Grateful Dead-loving dad had dubbed it, had been a gift. I was given a form to send to my dad in Nashville -- he would have to sign a statement declaring the gift and have it notarized there, return it to me, where I too could sign it and have it notarized in Texas.
So I drove Dark Star up to a garage on North Shepherd and had it inspected. It passed with flying colors. After several weeks' delay, I finally sent the form to my dad, and he returned it with the necessary adornments.
I was now ready for my third trip to Preston Street; I brought along proof of insurance, the title, and my driver's license, and the now-well-traveled, twice-notarized gift affidavit. It was then that I discovered that I had mislaid the V-130, a document proving that Dark Star had been inspected. "That's all you need," said the lady behind the glass. "You'll be good to go after that."
Fair enough. Losing that certificate is on me. But shouldn't the fact that it was inspected be in a computer somewhere? Can't they verify that? Apparently not. That same day, I raced up North Shepherd to the garage where it had been inspected. The receptionist there, an older black lady with the severe look of a school principal, looked at me sternly. "Well, I can't give you that form," she said.
"But how can I get my car inspected if you won't give it to me?" I asked.
"Yeah, I know, that's a problem," she told me.
She called one of the owners of the garage on the phone, and that person didn't know what to do.
While that impasse was ongoing, the other owner of the garage walked in. The receptionist asked him about my situation. He told her he could fix it. He vanishes for ten minutes and comes back with two Xeroxes of my inspection cert., one color, one black-and-white.
You're gonna be here for a while.
I race back downtown. I was on the cusp! Last time, the lady told me this was all I needed!
And this time, the line is almost clear out the door to Preston Street. It's 1:45. I have to be out in West U to pick up my daughter at 2:50. I bite the bullet and wait. And wait and wait and wait, and watch as person after person leaves the building scowling and without license plates or papers.
Some are turned away because unlike every Quick E Mart in town, and even some taco trucks I know, Harris County don't take them-there fancy-schmancy credit card thingamajigs. Others lack one of the half-dozen documents it takes to get this crap done.
Meanwhile, the utterly indolent women at the counter seem exhausted by each of their customers; so taxing they find them, they must adjourn back into their lair for cookies and long pulls off Big Gulps and banter sessions with their colleagues before they can rejoin their sendings-away.
I get to the window at 2:40. I am armed for bear. I array the sheaf of documents on the counter -- the license, the insurance, the twice-notarized affidavit that has now traveled over 1,500 miles, and my two copies of my proof of inspection.
The lady says that might be a problem -- they want originals. I told her that was not what I had been told earlier that same goddamn day. The lady had told me I needed to bring "a copy" of this V-130 thingy, not a new original, and the people at the garage had refused to give me one. I point to the Big Gulp-slurper next to the one in front of me. "She told me 'a copy'," I said. "Your buddy, right there." Meanwhile, my lady keeps on processing my application, finding new places where I forgot to sign my name, which I do, my knuckles white on the pen. And yet I still think I am on my way...
We are almost done now. "Okay, let me just see about this," she says, picking up the color copy of the V-130. She goes back and talks to the Supervising Big Gulp Slurper. I see this woman narrow her eyes and shake her head, the faintest tuggings of a smile on her face. Well now, this was something they didn't get to see every day! A copy of the V-130! This is an exotic way to send someone away!
I know the jig is up before my Big Gulper returns. She tells me I am close, so close. I just have to go back to North Shepherd and pay the garage $2 for a freshly-filled-out new original V-130.
And then she tells me I would be paying a mere $97 the next time I return to Preston Street, and walking out of there with my plates and fresh title.
Unless and until they find some new, even more exotic, way to fuck me. At that point, I lost it. I was now late to pick up my daughter, on top of everything else.
"It's not worth it driving a car!" I shout. Lame, I know, but it was the best I could muster.
I snatch back my license, and as I try to stuff it back in my wallet, everything -- credit cards, Metro Q-Card, vintage Harris County library card, the business cards of 17 pushy Chase personal bankers -- falls out of it and scatters on the floor. As I attempt to restuff my wallet with as much dignity as I can muster, I expect to hear laughter and catcalls behind me, but instead can hear people sympathizing, saying stuff like 'Poor guy, waited all that time..."
Back on Preston Street in front of this Dante-esque ring of mind-numbing hell, a bum asks me for money. I tell him, "I don't have any goddamn money." "Dude, man, sorry I asked," he said. (Here's a tip to all you panhandlers or those considering said career: find a better spot than just outside these inferno-portals.)
And then as I am jaywalking across Fannin towards my still-illegal Dark Star, a silver-haired John O'Quinn wannabe in a gunmetal-gray convertible Porsche honks at me 'cause he wants to do 60 miles an hour all the way down to the next light 50 whole yards away.
I flip him off and hope he wants to hop out and fight. He doesn't, sadly.
UPDATE, May 5. On a freakishly cold morning in early May, we tacked off into stiff Norther back up to the garage where Dark Star was inspected. It took the owner about 20 minutes, but he finally produced a duplicate copy of my inspection certificate. He even waived the $2 fee I'd been expecting.
Bright and early the day after that, armed now with my driver's license, Tennessee title, certificate of inspection, proof of insurance, and twice-signed and twice-notarized gift affidavit, I took a co-worker's advice and headed to the Mickey Leland Courthouse Annex on North Shepherd. Although I arrived a little before eight, I was dismayed to see a huge line snaking through the lobby of the building, but was pleasantly astounded at the speed it moved. I soon saw why: whereas you are lucky if four windows are open at the Preston Street building, this one had eleven, each one going great guns.
After about 15 minutes, I was summoned forth. I arrayed my sheaf of documents before the woman behind the glass. She inspected each one with care, and found yet another place on the title that I had forgotten to sign -- one that the last lady downtown had apparently also missed. Then she handed me something called a Certificate of Visual Inspection. On it, I was to fill in my name, address and Dark Star's VIN. And yes, this was yet another step the people downtown had evidently not known I was supposed to take.
As it happens, my title was almost impossible to read, as it is printed on the green-paper title in tiny print that also happens to be green. (I'd had to take my contacts out to do so, originally, and that was not an option there.) What's more, my handwriting is terrible.
"Aw hell no," the woman said when she looked at my first attempt. "You're gonna have to write better than that." She handed me another copy to fill in.
This one was legible, but upon close inspection, the County woman discovered that I had mistaken a "C" on the title for a "6." She handed it back to me. I crossed out the C and wrote a 6 above it and pushed the document back to her. "Naw, we can't have that either," she said, and wadded it up and threw it away. She then handed me a third form to fill in. Which I managed to do to her satisfaction.
"You have really terrible handwriting," she said. I laughed and told her that it was kind of ironic, because I was a writer. She was stamping forms, chuckling, everything was going along well. But she wasn't quite done with me yet.
"Boy, take that pen out your mouth!" she exclaimed when she looked up from my papers. That was a little odd. I could understand if it was was hers, but this was my pen. Still, I was startled enough to instantly comply.
And after that, it was soon enough all over. I now have not one but two up-to-date stickers in Dark Star's front windshield, and a Texas plate on the back. And yet I am not quite done yet. Tennessee does not require front license plates, and Dark Star does not even have a mount for one. So it looks like I'll be heading back up to that garage where this all started, one last time.