Although I have been happily driving my "new" 2007 Volkswagen for almost a month, I am still legally the owner of the "old" 2002 Hyundai that breathed its last a month ago today. As I write this, I am still trying to figure out how to get rid of it. But I have run up against a colossal snag in the river of red tape that runs through Missouri. It's a rich source of amazing-but-true stories, though the truth is so amazing (and hilarious) that people who hear it may think I'm telling tales.
Today, I stand in awe at the symmetry at work in the universe. For I went through bureaucratic hell when I brought my Arizona-born Hyundai into Missouri. And now a similar nightmare bookends the Missouri life of that Hyundai.
The story really starts in 2006, the first year I renewed my tags since moving to Missouri in '05. That spring I had also moved from the hinterlands to the great city of St. Louis, where City Hall's gorgeous, neo-Baroque facade conceals a vicious, concrete maze where citizens run from office to government office like laboratory rats. Office A will only give you cheese in return for a peanut from Office B; while Office B requires a stuffed olive from Office C; and Office C won't stuff the olive unless you first give them a bit of cheese....
I had to make two trips to City Hall. I ran around between three offices on the main floor, then up to a higher level to purchase a money order--not once, but twice, because they only told me I needed the second one after I came back with the first one. I had to ring up officials in my previous county of residence and force them to negotiate with officials in the city, because I refused to drive out to the hinterlands to settle a property tax bill that I'm still not sure I owed. I had to ring up officials in my previous state and ride herd on a title search that had gone on for several months without a result. I got a ridiculously expensive parking ticket because the meter ran out while I was enduring all this. But in the end, I got everything in order so that I could renew my tags in '06. And again in '08. And again in '10, after investing thousands of dollars in repairs to pass the state-required inspections. And then, a month later, my car gave up the ghost.
Was it worth it? Oh, yeah! Because I now have a very clear memory that, in 2006, Missouri received whatever it needed from Arizona to create a title for the Hyundai. This memory anchors me as I float in limbo, a full month after requesting a duplicate title so that I can scrap my Hyundai and pay off the wrecker's bill. For now, the State of Missouri claims it has never seen a title for my Hyundai.
I learned this amazing news earlier today from a representative of Missouri's Department of Revenue (DOR). She wondered how it was even possible for me to get tags in Missouri, and renew them year after year, without producing a title for the vehicle. I told her this was precisely my point. I knew I could never have done that. I knew that in 2006, the first time Missouri told me they had never yet seen my title, though they had been happy to register my car the year before. And I know it even better since my 2006 paper chase at City Hall, which only happened because they wouldn't let me renew my tags until every scrap of paper was where it belonged. I remember the agonizing Arizona title search. I remember the sadistic county auditor from the hinterlands. I remember all too well that I wouldn't have had a car to drive home, parking ticket or no, had not the title turned up. And now, having renewed my tags twice since then without one whisper of a missing title, I'm expected to believe Missouri never had it. That's likely!
So what did my friend at the DOR suggest? She suggested I contact her opposite number in Arizona and request a duplicate title from them. Then I could use it to apply for a Missouri title, just so I can sign it over to a scrap dealer and be done with it. All right, I said! Give me the phone number! She gave me the phone number. I called it. The phone number was disconnected.
So I went online and looked up a phone number for the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division (MVD). I asked their rep: What do I have to do to get a duplicate title for this car I bought in Arizona? "Sorry, we don't have it." Is this because I transferred the title to Missouri? "No, our records show we never had that title." (This lady I believed. Why? Because I could remember being here before... like, in 2006.) So, who would have that title? "Besides you?" Yes, please, let's assume I can't find it. "Well, our records show you had a lien on the car." That would be the bank I borrowed from to pay for the car. "You say bank, we say lien holder. Call the lien holder and tell them to [insert rapid stream of Arabic]." Could you say that again, more slowly? "Sure. Call the lien holder, and have them [insert slightly less rapid stream of Chinese.]" What? Wait, I'm trying to write this down...
This convo went on for a long time before I was able to make sense of what I was supposed to do. And what was I supposed to do? I was supposed to ask the Bank (or "lien holder") send me an original title and lien release for the Hyundai. Then, I was supposed to send that to the MVD along with a $4 fee and a title application (Form #96-0236, available at the end of a convoluted series of internet links), taking care to keep copies of everything -- the best advice I've heard all day! Then, having received a title from Arizona, I could apply for a Missouri title, but why bother? I could just as easily sign it over to the wrecker & have done with it. Only then I would also have to send the MVD a "sold notice" (Form #46-8502). However, in the very likely event that the Bank could not send me the title, I could at least get the lien release, send that to Arizona with two title applications--one with the lien holder's information, and once with my own--along with $8. I kid you not.
Well, I thought, at least now I know what I have to do. So I called the Bank (lien holder), which in fact released the lien in 2008 when I finished paying off the Hyundai. "May I have an original copy of the title and lien release, pretty please?" No, you may not. "Why?" We can't send you an original lien release because we do not currently hold a lien. "But you're the lien holder. Everybody else is pointing fingers at somebody else, and you're the end of the line. You've got to be able to do this." That's too bad. The loan was paid off in 2008. "That's what I'm saying. I paid you. Now cough up." But the lien was released in 2008. We can't release it again. "Oh. Well, how about a duplicate of the '08 release, then?" That won't do you any good. The state won't accept a duplicate, particularly not with a 2008 date on it. "[Angry outburst snipped.] All right, put yourself in my position. Suppose you've lost the only original copy of your car's title. Surely, there must be somewhere you can get a duplicate. What would you do?" You could ask the Arizona MVD to apply in writing for a duplicate lien release... "Oh, never mind! I've got another idea." (Click.)
So I called Missouri's DOR again. I spent another 15-20 minutes on hold. I spoke to another person who couldn't explain what was or wasn't in my file. This time, I read to him the Title Number on the receipt for my registration renewal. He was amazed to learn such a title actually exists. "Can you verify that it's in the file?" It's right there, issued in 2006 after an out-of-state title search. "Could this title be duplicated?" Yes. "And my request for a duplicate title is in good order?" Yes. "So were good?" No. "Why not? Doesn't the existence of this title prove that, as of 2006, Missouri was satisfied with my Hyundai's documentation?" The Catch (22, anyone?) is, this evidence conflicts with another documented fact: After Missouri issued that title, someone filed another out-of-state title request--which, for unknown reasons, was denied.
I now have to wait for a nice young man in Jeff City to shake some trees at the DOR and find an explanation for these two conflicting pieces of evidence. At this late hour of the day, he couldn't promise to start his investigation until tomorrow, when (I hope) he will call me and give me the final verdict. Perhaps then, after I settle with the mechanic who, in turn, paid the wrecker for towing my car, and after all the fees and penalties and (if necessary) well-placed bribes, I may have enough cash left over to buy a Happy Meal at McDonald's.
Five years ago, after my first collision with the bureaucratic sadism of a Missouri license bureau, I said I understood why this state has such a problem with vehicle tags being stolen. It's obvious: The legal process of getting tags is so awful that, even to a law-abiding citizen, stealing them starts to look like a good idea. (Though perhaps these afflictions are reserved for folks bringing a car in from another state.) Now, at the other end of the life cycle of an Arizona-bought, Missouri-registered car, I understand why some people walk away from their car with the key in the ignition and the windows down. Next to what I'm going through, a bit of insurance fraud looks like a good way to get rid of a vehicle. I love that my primary-care mechanic is an honest guy, but sometimes I could use the type who is open to under-the-table deals. Or a state that doesn't have its head screwed into... never mind.