What I like about these Sunday Memory Drawers is that one simple thought opens a flood gate of other memories. Thinking last week about learning to drive on my dad's Buick Le Sabre also brought me back to the day when I first got validated as a driver.
We've all been there in the photo above. That dreaded bastion of bureaucracy and civil service bullshit. The DMV. And I am happy to say that my bi-coastal existence has enabled me to have experience with both the ones in NY and LA.
No bargain on either coast, I assure you.
But, back when I first was driving, the big thing was to get your learner's permit. To do so, you had to pass a written exam which meant you need to study some book from cover to cover. Learning lots of stuff about how far behind a semi-rig you should be. I remember zipping through this test because it was summer and...well...there was nothing else I had to do.
Of course, in my house, everything moved slow. The time between my getting the learner's permit and actually taking the road test was not weeks or months, but two years. Don't ask, I won't tell.
But, somehow, logic eventually intervened and I booked my appointment to get behind the wheel for a grade. At that time, the place to go for these tests was behind the old Adventurer's Inn near Cross County in Yonkers. I was going to be tested on the car that I was most comfortable with...my father's prized Buick.
I remember all the testees and their cars lined up anxiously. Now the urban rumor of the day was that all teenagers flunked the first time because the driving testers were mean. And they were all Civil Service workers who couldn't be fired so they didn't give a shit.
When I was next in queue, my nerves bubbled to the surface. Dad slid out of the car and in came a fat version of the Florence the Maid character from "The Jeffersons." I smiled and said good morning.
"Uh huh. Show me where your ignition is."
Okay, we're going to be like that.
"Where's your blinkers?"
"Okay, start the car. Drive the corner and make a left."
Just how unhappy are you with your job, miss.
But I did as I was told. It was over in five minutes.
"You flunked. Come back in six weeks."
What? Huh? You're kidding. What did I do?
I won't add my father's comments but you can usually find them on a rerun of "All in the Family."
The urban legend was indeed true. Six weeks later, I came back and did the same test exactly as I had before. I passed. I remember looking at the new tester, another real life version of a Norman Lear sitcom, and thought about how unhappy she looked as well. Was the only excitement she had in his career derived from failing some nervous 17-year-old?
Moving on. And motoring on. I was good to go and content that I'd never have this ordeal again.
When, years later, you move three thousand miles to the west, you realize that you need to get a driver's license from your new state of residence. Easy, right? Fill out a form. Stamp a couple of things and you're done. Nope. While I was not required to perform a road test, you did need to complete that blasted written exam.
Back to the book. Here I am. Learning one more time how far you need to stay behind a semi rig on the road.
Now they give you about thirty questions on this test in California and you pass as long as you don't get more than eight wrong. It was multiple choice and the test was on double-sided paper. Fifteen questions on the front and another fifteen on the back.
I performed my civic duty and took the completed test to a clerk for grading. She would do it right in front of me. She looked at the front of the paper.
Check, check, X, check, X, X, check, check, check, X, check, X, X, check, X.
I had seven wrong on the front of the test already. Holy shit.
She flipped it over. And I ran the table on the back. All checks. Whew!
After I came to, I was thankful that, at least, California wasn't going to require me to take a road test. I could only imagine how badly I would do on that. Whew again!
Little did I know that a few years later on one December afternoon...
I got mail from the California DMV. With my birthday coming in February, I was due for a driver's license renewal. Simple enough. The only slight curveball was that, for this particular renewal, I couldn't do it via the mail or on-line. I actually had to make an in-person appearance at an office. I reason to myself that this is the government's way of giving their sub-freezing-IQ-ed employees something to do. You know. The skilled laborers. Those folks who are experts at stamping papers and removing staples.
The small iota of good news with the California DMV is that they welcome people to make appointments ahead of time. You can easily cut the long line in the parking lot and not be subjected to body odor and broken English. Since I don't fancy an issue with my renewal, I make an on-line date for the first week of January at the DMV near my office in Van Nuys. Okay, Van Nuys is not a spot where any humans should be seen more than once a decade, but I figure that the office proximity will make up for the possibility that somebody's enchilada will squirt out onto my shirt.
On my first appointed day, I zipped over to Van Nuys at lunchtime. I marveled at the third world gathered on line, all of them forlorn with some sort of form crumpled up in their hands. No appointment? Suckers! I scurried past them triumphantly as if I had one of those Disneyland Fast Passes.
Inside, my bingo-like number was called pretty quickly. Geez, I can get out of this dump within fifteen minutes, I thought. The old fart behind the counter checked that my renewal form had been filled out and in correct English. No problem. I stood on the line and had my new license photo taken. Okay, it was a terrible picture, but it's not a headshot going over to Paramount Central Casting. No problem. I shuttled a few feet over to the optical machine for the eye test. Left eye. Top line. E-P-Q-R-T. No problem. Bottom line. F-S-L-M-O. No problem. Right eye...
Er, problem. I have very little vision there. Nothing new. This has been the case since my time in the womb. Attention to all potential muggers: if you want to hit me up for my wallet, approach me from behind on my right side. But, other than that potentiality of being a future crime statistic, this vision has never been an issue.
Except with this asshole at the DMV.
"You have failed the eye test."
Yeah, so. My vision hasn't changed. I just went to my eye doctor in October for a check-up.
The dumbbell fumbled with some paper clips and then handed me another form. If I had this filled out by my optical physician, I could bring it back and then get cleared to drive. Okay, so my DMV experience was going to be incomplete today, but, at least, I saw the glimmer of an end game. When I would have my next appointment in two weeks.
My eye doctor easily filled out the necessary paperwork. He included my latest eye exam results and virtually cleared me to steer anything except perhaps the space shuttle. This was all I needed to clear this small bureaucratic hurdle.
Or so I thought.
On the day of my second DMV appointment, I scooted past the morons on line one more time. Once again, my bingo number was called promptly and I reported to the designated window which was now manned by some Hispanic kid who might have just crawled out of a car trunk. He barely scanned my form and then stamped another page.
"Okay, step over to the machine and take the eye test."
I thought this was a bizarre request given the copious optical dossier my doctor had just provided, but I complied. The same results, of course.
"You failed the eye test."
I asked whether anything that my optometrist had written was of any use. Apparently not.
"Your vision has changed."
No, it hasn't. Except for reading glasses needed for small print and dark restaurants, I had the same baseline vision. Fine in the left, zero in the right. And I have been driving for almost four decades.
"You'll have to take a road test and prove that the vision isn't a handicap."
WHAT?????? How the hell did he think I got to the DMV office that day? By Uber???? And can you please call up on the computer screen my almost pristine driving record????
Indeed, the main problem in all this is that, when I first got my driver's license, I was living in New York and there were no original records for me in California. But, still? I asked Hose A if he would at least speak to a supervisor. And he was nice enough to acquiesce to my request.
No dice. DMV supervisors are even worse than the people they manage.
"My boss says if you take the drive test this one time, it will be on your record and you never have to do it again."
I looked around at the jerks on line around me. One could barely speak English and had no I.D. with him. Another had to be about 90 years old and didn't seem to be getting nearly the same treatment on his end of the DMV counter. They both would probably sail through their DMV experiences virtually unscathed.
But me??? I'm a potential menace on the road. I can't wait to get out there and play pinball with your Lexus. Or maybe run down your immediate family at a farmer's market in Santa Monica. This was the excesses of our government in all their glory. Performing inexplicably and erratically.
Wanting to get the misery over with as soon as possible, I scheduled the drive test for the following afternoon. And, unlike perhaps every other slob in the DMV that day, I went home in misery. Let's face it, the last time you ever drive 100% perfectly in your life is usually when you take your very first road test. I had done this years ago...twice thanks to the accuracy of the urban legend. Could I possibly pass this again???
Yeah, I didn't sleep much that night.
Three PM the next day couldn't come soon enough. And, trust me, the afternoon was a thoroughly demeaning event. I was forced to wait in my car for about 45 minutes in a queue so long that I thought I was going through the drive-through for a "Double Double" at In N'Out Burger. I had to watch examiners kick a prospective driver's friends and family out of the car, as if they were all going on the road test like it was the Mummy ride at Universal Studios.
Why the hell am I here, I kept thinking. Over and over and over and over.
When my vehicle was next in line, I noticed my appointed examiner making his way to my car. A short man in a baseball cap. Except when the short man in the baseball cap came to my window, I realized that he was a she.
Oh, shit, is my eye sight really that bad?
No, she really did look like a guy.
Before she climbed into my car, I had to prove that I was semi-competent. Here's my left signal. Here's my right signal. Here's how I honk the horn.
It was THAT bad. And really no different than Yonkers, New York.
Once we got on the road, I did exactly what a friend at work had counseled me to do earlier that day.
"Pretend you're driving in front of a police car."
And, for about two-thirds of the test, there was. The examiner was actually very nice. Make a left, make a right. Move to your right lane. Get over to your left lane. On the way to the DMV, I noticed a school on the same block. I knew damn well they would take you through that neighborhood to see if you would slow down. So, I was prepared. I figured that's the way the Van Nuys DMV trips up would-be drivers. Me? I literally crawled past the school. Ha!
Eventually, we even wound up on the freeway. I merged fluidly into the traffic and then fluidly hit the exit ramp. I looked around at all the vehicles on the road. How many of them were illegal aliens with licenses printed on their computer?
Even though I had practiced several of them that morning, this road test did not require you to perform a parallel park. After fifteen minutes that seemed like fifteen days, we pulled into the back of the DMV office.
"Well, you passed."
My short guy/girl examiner then nitpicked me on a couple of little nuances of my test, but he/she also mentioned that they were all a result of the many bad habits each of us picks up after they have been driving for years. But, nevertheless, I was good to go.
I thought about some of the other tests my examiner had to probably administer that day. I was likely the easiest. But, surprisingly, I had lucked out with one of the more professional DMV workers in the world. I let her know that and she started to beam.
"Nobody ever said that to me before."
She was genuinely moved. After all, nobody likes the DMV. And I certainly didn't either. But, I was quite appreciative of somebody who had taken a nervewracking moment in my life and had smoothed out at least some of the creases.
I still couldn't wait to get the fuck out of there. Yeah, it's still true. Nobody really likes the DMV.
And I was done with driving tests at last.
Dinner last night: French dip panini at the Arclight Cafe.