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Nina in New York: Queasy Pass

A young professional's take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in New York City.

Today I present to you a story of city bureaucracy at its finest.

Recently, I decided to reinstate my E-ZPass for my car. It had been years since I had one, and it was originally linked to a family account. That account was canceled long ago, so I assumed all would go smoothly when I went onto the E-ZPass website to register for a new device.

No go. When I put in my plate number, the system told me I was already registered under an existing yet defunct account. Okay. So I gave them a call. And got the wrong department. Then I was transferred to customer service, where I was told that my old account was "greyed out" in their system, so there was absolutely nothing anyone on Earth could do to remove it. Including her supervisor. And until it's successfully removed, I couldn't sign up for a new one. So, can I reactivate the old account? No. Impossible. It's greyed out, remember? It is untouchable, stuck in a catch-22 that leaves me with a theoretical E-ZPass which both cannot exist and cannot be expunged. Alright, I'll bite. What can I do?

The customer service representative told me, with no trace of archness or humor in her voice, that I should go online and create an account using all of my correct information, save for the license plate number. That should be faked, using my initials and birth date.


"Yes, fake."

Um, okay. Then I was to print out my confirmation and fax it and my real car registration to a customer service fax number, along with a note explaining that they should switch the plate numbers on the new account. Apparently, whichever faceless person who would receive this fax would see that one set of plates was fake and make the change. That was the only way to override my currently grey predicament.

"Are you sure this will work?" I asked. "It sounds a little fishy to me."

"No, ma'am. It will work," the rep replied, still without any acknowledgment that she was giving me a relatively insane set of "official" instructions.

"Because, I mean, I just don't want to wind up with an E-ZPass registered to a car that doesn't exist."

"No, ma'am." I could tell the conversation was over. I could either do it or not. Somewhere in the background, Gregor Samsa was laughing.

So I did it. And I heard…nothing. For weeks. When I called back, I ran through the whole story, assuming the new customer service rep would confirm that I was given bunk advice and balk at the idea that I would ever think that could be the way things work.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. He responded curtly, almost cutting me off because he already knew the drill. I asked if he could confirm that my fax was received and my case was being processed.

"Oh, well, we can't give you any sort of confirmation. And I have no way of knowing whether someone is working on it. You should just resubmit the fax."

"But, how will I know someone gets that one?"

"Oh, you won't. But you'll get your E-ZPass eventually."

Ah, forget it. I relented to the uncomfortable fact that I had absolutely no control whatsoever over the situation, nor would I ever. And the rep was right. Eventually, I did get my E-ZPass in the mail, registered to my actual car. The former account vanished, and I haven't had any trouble. To be honest, I was almost a little disappointed that this is a system that actually works.

So what's the lesson here? That relinquishing control doesn't always mean not getting what you want? That we are powerless to an impenetrable bureaucracy? Or is it just that I got lucky navigating a circuitous, tangled, bizarrely absurd administration, which could just as easily have failed me?

I think this is one of those situations in which analysis only gets you further down the rabbit hole. The real moral of the story is never to let your E-ZPass account shut down improperly unless you're sure you won't change your mind at some point. Beyond that, I just can't help you.

Have you had a similar run-in with bureaucracy leaving you baffled? Sound off in the comments below...

Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I'm always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.

Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.

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