Friday, September 25, 2009

The End of Reason

For the bureaucrat, the world is a mere object to be manipulated by him.
Karl Marx

I am livid.

This is actually funny, but you would have to know me to get the proper picture. People who know me would have already laughed. People who know me know also that I almost never get angry, and certainly not livid. Either it is not in my character, or it would simply be too much effort, I'm not sure which. If I were any more laid back, as more than one friend has observed, I would be pulse-less, a corpse.

Why am I livid?

Here is my story. I have told it more than once already, and I'm certain that I will tell it many more times during my remaining years. It's catharsis. Moreover, I do believe that it will ring a bell with many a reader, many a one who has found himself in my place, trapped between bureaucracy and common sense, pressed to the point of impotent frustration by authority placed in the hands of the mindless machine. Therefore join me, and let us echo together our pointless cry, muffled as it is beneath bundles of red tape and paperwork:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

Here's the scoop:

It seems that last March, 2009, I was caught by photo radar exceeding the speed limit in a school zone. Whether I did not see the sign, or did not note my speedometer, or simply blanked out for a moment, does not matter. I make no excuse whatsoever for the infraction, and make no plea other than guilty. The infraction, in fact, is the only proper thing about the story to follow. It is crystal clear, reasonable, pristine (i.e., it is the one thing in all that follows that makes sense).

I was caught candidly, you see, in the purest sense of the word (candid: photographed or filmed without the subject knowing or having the opportunity to prepare or pose).

So candid, however, was this photograph that it remained perfectly so for the next six months--far beyond the point where stealth had served its intended purpose--for after all, no matter how perfectly candid these photos are initially intended to be, the ultimate objective is for them to show up in the offender's mailbox along with a fine to be paid by check or MasterCard.

But I never received the photo and the fine. Never. Ever. Instead, it went to an address at which I had lived some three years ago. The first I knew of the matter, surreptitiously set in motion back in March, was when I received a Notice and Demand for Payment in late September. Still no photo, mind you.

The thing had been through court, adjudicated, the initial fine doubled, and then all had been passed on to the Oregon Department of Revenue for collection.

Two days later I received notice from the DMV that my driver's license had been suspended. I would need to reinstate this to the tune of $75, after, of course, paying the doubled traffic fine of $242.00.

But of course this was silly. It was a situation arrived upon through a series of errors, and so all the thing needed was undoing, like the knots my son used to tie in his shoelaces.

My first call was to the Oregon Department of Revenue, to whom the traffic fine and punitive additions had been assigned by the circuit court, after the court had assessed judgment in my absence (I was still candid, you see), which itself had happened after the original crime had been committed and reported to all concerned except me, which itself had come from . . . well, from the photo radar machine, I guess.

Hello, Cindy. Good morning. My name is Richard Boughton and I have a bit of a tangle here that I'm hoping you can help me with.

This is what I honestly believed at the time of my first call. Now, I am not so callow to have missed the fact that matters such as this are a bit difficult to sort out--no, it's not that simple, I'll admit--yet and still the scenario seemed really pretty manageable, providing that you looked at it from the aspect of inception rather than conclusion, for the conclusion quite clearly was the product of errors arising directly after the inception.

My explanation, which in due time was to be repeated so many times that it has now ended up stuck in my head like an irritating song, went like this:

I. I exceeded the speed limit.
A. As assessed by a photo radar device.
II. A traffic ticket was sent to an old address of mine.
A. I never received the traffic ticket.
III. The fine, applied in March, was not paid.
A. Because I never received the traffic ticket.
B. Because it was sent to the wrong address.
C. Because my records at DMV had not been updated.
IV. The matter went to court.
A. At which I was delinquent.
B. Because I still knew nothing of the matter.
C. And because I had made no answer to the fine, nor appeared in court, nor paid the fine.
D. The fine was doubled.
E. And sent to the Department of Revenue for collection.
V. My driver's license was suspended.

As you can see, this necessitates a fairly large number of words, considering the actual simplicity of the matter, but my responsibility at this point, or so it seemed to me, was to be concise and thorough so that everyone might do his job with integrity and efficiency. Red tape can be sticky, that's for certain, but surely not immune to undoing through care and patience.

Well, perhaps I am callow after all--a dreamer, an idealist, naive, obtuse.

I said, What can I do about this?

And Cindy said I could pay by personal check, Visa, or MasterCard.

But no, don't you see, I never received the ticket. If I had received the ticket, I would have promptly paid it. But I never got the ticket, and now they've doubled the fine, and suspended my license.

Cindy said that she could have the photo radar picture sent to my correct address if I so wished.

If the driver in the picture is not you, she said, you don't have to pay the fine.

But it was me. I had no argument with that. I broke the law. I shot the sheriff. But I did not shoot the deputy.

You'll have to go to the court for that, she said. All we do here is collect what you owe.

But what about my license? My license has been suspended. I didn't do it, I didn't do it!

Clearly things were disintegrating. The fine point of simplicity had exploded into parts and particles, dispersing in all directions, become now a perfect confusion.

Oh, and by the way, you are required by law to provide current information to the DMV. It may be that the ticket was sent to an old address, but the fault there is yours.

Oh Cindy, Cindy, how can you be so cold, so like a machine?

I end up paying the fine, using my debit card. It was all the money I had until next payday.

Folks, don't forget to update your address with the DMV. Otherwise you may find yourself cuffed and carted away.

My next call was to the circuit court. I was told there that the matter was out of their hands. As far as they are concerned the case is closed (though of course I may personally appear and file a pink and a blue form, which will eventually be submitted to a judge, who will eventually make a decision regarding my complaint). In the meantime, they refer me back to the Department of Revenue regarding the matter of the delinquent fine, and to the DMV regarding the suspension of my license.

Allow me to insert at this point as a matter of trivial interest and peripheral applicability, that I suffer from multiple sclerosis. This is an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, causing, in my case, numbness of the legs, spasticity of gait, and a certain proclivity toward confusion and disorientation in thought process. Increased stress tends to exacerbate all these underlying deficits.

Therefore, I am becoming at this point in my traffic ticket struggles increasingly legless and mindless.

Back to the old corral. My next stop is the DMV. But do I walk the mile to get there--I and my cane--or do I drive, breaking the law once again, compounding my criminality, running the risk of incurring who knows what sort of penalty?

I drive. Twenty miles an hour all the way. Halfway there, a fellow driver rolls down his window to tell me that my left brake light is out. Just then a State Trooper passes on my right. Happily, however, he is pursuing some other felon.

I hide my car under an oak tree down the block, enter the DMV building, take a ticket, get in line. I'm number 77. Right now they are helping number 49.

This gave me a chance to practice my story for a full hour and a half.

I slap my suspension on the counter, in what is hopefully a significant manner. I tap the paper three times for good measure.

There's been a mistake, I begin, a silly mistake. I'm hoping you can help me sort it out.

The clerk brings up my account. He studies his computer screen. He tells me that the fine has not been recorded as paid. He tells me that it must first be recorded at the court, regardless of whether it has been satisfied at the Department of Revenue. He tells me that I may then, and only then, apply for reinstatement of my driver's license, and pay the associated fee of $75.

I run through my story again (please see the outline above). I am hopeless yet determined, determined because I am livid. I am looking at the phone which is sitting on the desktop, perhaps a quarter inch from the clerk's left elbow. I actually think about asking the question--Could you maybe make a call?

But the clerk gets there first. I suppose I could call the court, he says. That's about all we're left with.

I am astounded. I am thankful, relieved, hopeful again. I am suddenly a little less livid.

But my euphoria is short-lived. No payment has been recorded at the court. It all takes time.

I ask to talk to a manger. He has none. A supervisor? None. The clerk is becoming irritated, rather like myself, and so I leave this line of inquiry, afraid of what I might ultimately discover--that the robotic photo radar machine itself is the boss.

Surprisingly, however, I have somehow inspired the clerk to impart more thorough information about the process (a charity far beyond the requirements of the job description) I am told that the DMV actually has nothing to do with the photo radar machines themselves. No one really knows who does. It is suggested that I might call The City.

The City. Yes, that's simple enough. Just dial 411. City and State? Portland, Oregon. And your listing, sir? Uh . . . the City?

I trudge through once again--mindless, legless, exhausted.

I never received the ticket. I never received any correspondence regarding the ticket. The first I knew of this was six months later when I received a bill from the Department of Revenue.

Well that is because you failed to update your address with DMV, the clerk says. You are required by law to keep your information current.

So here is what is being said. In essence I am to pay a doubling of the initial fine, plus the fee for reinstatement of my license, not because I exceeded the speed limit in the now distant past, but because I failed long ago to update my address with the DMV. The penalty for this, minus the initial fine, which I do indeed owe, is one hundred ninety-six dollars.

That is correct, the clerk says.

I am suddenly reminded of an old Star Trek episode, wherein a zombie-like population blindly follows the orders of Landru, a holographic figure of smoke and mirrors which is actually projected by a computer hidden behind a wall, left there long ago by a civilization now extinct, or otherwise departed to better parts of the cosmos.

Is it me? Am I mad? Confused? Obtuse? Stupid?

How has it happened that we have come to the point in our society where the intent of the law is lost to automation, where an administrative oversight can supersede and replace the very meaning of its original conception?

How is it that we have lost the ability to communicate by means of common reason, one to one as individual human beings, rather than mere victims and paper-pushers.

Minus the machines, the papers, the system, the trance-like stupor of bureaucracy, it's really very simple.

Isn't it?

No comments: