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FROM FOOT TRAFFIC ... TO CAR TRAFFIC

The young man presses his face against the binocular-like openings on the machine as the line of customers lengthens behind him, jostling for space and blocking the entrance.

Employee Nancy Wenger, her blond head barely topping the counter, keeps the I've-heard-it-all-before-and-I'm-patient tone acquired in 12 years at the driver's license office.

She asks the young man to read the line of letters.

"What letters?" he asks.

"Do you," she says steadily, "have both eyes open?"

There are almost 15-million licensed drivers in Florida. In 2003, 288,000 more people than the previous year got the coveted card. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, new procedures to scrutinize paperwork and applicants were put in place, adding to the workload. The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles was already closing some licensing offices to save money.

So for a starting salary of $19,000, an employee will deal with a public more numerous, confused and cranky.

"On busy days, we see 250," says Alan Hughes, supervisor at an office on 62nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg. "We get the overflow from Tampa. They sometimes have four- or five-hour waits in Hillsborough."

"I like the people contact," Wenger says. A driver's license is "part of their life, to get a better job. I like to help them."

+ + +

Maribel Aranguren has been in the line twice before. The last visit, she forgot her car registration. The third time had better be the charm. She sits on one of the plastic chairs in the waiting area, one leg crossed over the other, one foot agitatedly bouncing.

The 30-year-old Venezuelan needs a license so she can drive for her job as a nanny. She has been an excellent student, says her instructor from Sureway Driving School, Isidro Santana.

"She will pass the test," Santana says of the last step: driving a car around orange traffic cones in the parking lot.

A woman sitting in another plastic chair, her baby chugging a bottle, says the staffers are rude. She did not want to be told to sit down.

Walter Schumacher of Pinellas Park has brought his grandson for a learner's permit. In Florida, 15-year-olds keep a learner's permit for a year before getting a license at 16.

Walter II must pass the written test, taken at one of the computers along a counter.

"He said, "Pap-pap, they give you all the answers,' " says the grandfather of his grandson's bravado.

Walter the elder ends up having to pay an additional $5 for a retake after Walter II fails part of the test. He did fine on the portion covering traffic signs. But who knew you were following too close if you couldn't count one-thousand-and-one, one-thousand-and-two before passing a fixed point after the vehicle ahead of you has passed it?

Walter II flunks again.

+ + +

The space is depressingly functional, like a gray Ford Taurus.

Drinking fountain and restrooms are the bare essentials on the "wait side" of the wall. The only reading material is the posters, all threatening: High schoolers who skip too many days of school can lose their license. Driving drunk. No insurance. Too many tickets. It all costs, they warn.

Several patrons break the laws of decent attire. One woman in a short knit skirt exposes an entire bare buttock as she sits down, drawing a gasp from a woman in an adjacent chair. In contrast, a man is studied fashion in a brown and orange basketball jersey, brown and orange athletic shorts, color-coordinated athletic shoes and several chains of costume jewelry around his neck, with medallions that clank as he paces.

A young couple in blue jeans are attached at the hip. Her T-shirt reads: Do not feed the model. He gets the nod to proceed to the back, and she goes, too.

"Are you here for a service?" the gatekeeper asks. "Then you'll have to wait over there."

Dejected, she finds a plastic chair.

After a nod from Wenger, applicants walk past the front counter to another lined with workers. Now they wait in rectangles taped on the floor. At the end of the counter, the prize is in sight. All that remains is for funny Bob to take your photo.

"Do you know how to catch a rabbit?" he asks a man standing before the backdrop.

"Would you like a tattoo?" he queries another.

"Promise not to show it (your license) to any young men. You'll melt their heart," he tells a teenager.

The patter, says employee Bob Evans, is to make people smile. A scowl on a license photo does no good: Look how many times you have to show it. But Evans has had one of his "worst mornings ever." His voice has given out, robbing him of his schtick, and by extension, cooperative customers.

"People," he says, "want to be humored, cajoled."

+ + +

The phone on the counter rings constantly. Half the calls are for other agencies. The driver's license office cannot fix your traffic ticket, sell you auto tags or issue you a fishing license. No ma'am. I cannot tell you what time you need to be in court.

Those who need only to renew their license can bypass the fake paneling by going online at www.gorenew.com or by phoning toll-free 1-866-467-3639.

"U-Z-M-R."

"One more column," Judy Wood says.

The woman has failed to correctly read a single letter.

Wood moves her to another machine for another try.

"N-R-D."

"There's no letters. They're all numbers," Wood says. She has worked here 11 months and prefers juggling people to files at the state prison system, where she used to work.

"9-10-8-4-7-9."

Long silence.

"6."

The woman passes.

So does Bernice Kivuva, after wrestling with an unfamiliar computer and driving lessons from her husband, John. The family, from Kenya, will live here a year while he earns a doctoral degree.

"I can go where I want," she says. "I feel great."

Susan Aschoff can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or aschoffsptimes.com.

If you're in the rectangle, you're near the end of your quest for a driver's license at an office of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Maribel Aranguren, 30, who just moved here from Venezuela, shows her frustration in a driver's license office in St. Petersburg. She had to visit three times before taking the driver's test and having her photo taken for her first license.

Brandon Tran, left, gets carried out of the office by his mother, Tramy Ho, of Clearwater, after Tramy had her photo taken for a temporary driver's license. Tramy, her husband and two children just moved to Clearwater from Iowa. Tramy's 21-month-old son, Andrew Tran, waits in the carrier.

Lauren Jones, 19, begins the process of getting her Florida Identification card.

At the end of her visit, Maribel Aranguren happily reacts to employee Bob Evans' instruction in Spanish to please wait in the back for her license photo.

While a line forms, driver's license office employee Nancy Wenger takes a phone call on another busy afternoon.

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