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Gary Younge
A long way to change a letter

Those who don't make it into the post office, it seems, get passed on to the Department of Motor Vehicles. And Manhattan is where they train them.

The DMV holds a special, none too affectionate place in the American psyche. In a country where not being able to drive is akin to not being able to read - you simply cannot function in most places without it - the DMV is the gatekeeper: the publisher of the national identity card, otherwise known as the driving licence.

New York is different in three crucial respects. First, unlike most of the US, it is not only possible but advisable to function in New York without a car. Second, the huge movement of people in the US - you have to visit the DMV whenever you change the state you live in - makes the Manhattan DMV a chaotic hub. And third, New York attitude combined with the stifling bureaucracy can make for a particularly potent mix.

So when my birthday signalled the expiry of my Illinois-issued driving licence I made my way nervously to the eighth floor of a building in Herald Square - an office where you stand in line just so that you can stand in line - to have it renewed. I came out feeling like the 20th hijacker.

I arrived with every possibly relevant document. My driving licence, birth certificate, marriage certificate, passport, social security number, a letter from the state department (a precious note that could only be procured by obtaining a letter from the Guardian and the British consulate vouching that both the newspaper and I were indeed who we claimed to be.)

There was one small complication. My previous driving licence had been issued in Illinois - where they had spelt my surname without an "e". After an hour and a half in line I was designated a special case and given a number prefixed with a letter H. For the next two hours I watched the Hs nudge up slowly, thinking if this were a deli counter my cheddar cheese would have fully matured into stilton by the time I was served.

When I was finally called, the man behind the counter took one look at the documents and shoved them back to me. "Your name's spelt wrong. You'll have to go back to Illinois to sort it out. There's nothing we can do here."

The idea of driving the approximate equivalent of London to Prague seemed unreasonable just to get the "e" back on my name. But no amount of pleading would work. I tried appealing to his better nature, but he did not seem to have one. I asked what would have happened had the mistake occurred in Hawaii. He shooed me away with disdain and a number in Illinois I could call.

Two months later I returned to Herald Square with a note from Illinois that still had my name spelt wrongly - "It is your responsibility to check before you leave the office, Sir." This time I was pointed in the direction of Mr Stanley's office. Mr Stanley was kinder, if distracted - "How comes you're a foreign journalist if you're born in Chicago?" he asked.

"That's my marriage certificate," I explained.

"Oh," he said. "Your name's misspelt here," and then cut me off mid-explanation and waved me on. Two hours later, I was back at the counter watching my receipt being printed. It came out with the precious "e". When I alerted the official he threw his hands up in despair, said something about "that's a whole different question," and went in search of a higher authority.

He returned shaking his head and complaining to his colleague.

"Well OK," he said. "But that's going to be five more dollars"

My eyes welled up and my spirits sank as my paranoia registered "five more hours". But when I realised it was only my money he was after, I handed it over. It was a small price to pay for a road trip into the mainstream.

· Overheard in a Brooklyn office: The term "Jubanos" relating to those Jews and Cubans in relationships and their children. "I don't know if anyone else uses it," said the woman who introduced it. "But there are a lot of Jews in the salsa scene and a lot of Cubans. We all know who we are and there are lots of us."

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Another Day in the Death of America
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