Wednesday, March 03, 2010


In Which We Establish Our Bona Fides...

Everyone has some aspect of his or her life that should be easy, but never is, that makes us wonder, Why does this have to be so hard? It’s usually a normal everyday thing, something that the rest of the population deals with almost effortlessly. But for whatever reason, there’s always something, some little thing, that makes Fate point a bony finger in your direction and say, “Him. He’s going to have a harder time dealing with that than anyone else.”

There’s no telling what that thing will be. I have a friend who probably holds the world record for dialing the wrong telephone number. It always takes him at least two tries to connect with whoever he’s trying reach. Even when he got a mobile phone and carefully entered all of his important numbers in the address book, he’d get a wrong number.

My parents, God love them, were fated never to invest their money well. Any time they had an extra bit of money set aside and wanted to invest it, the investment went sour. They would invest in stocks, only to see the company go under. They switched to real estate and the first house they tried to flip went to a couple who couldn’t get financing from a bank, so my parents held the note on their mortgage. Then the couple declared bankruptcy three months later. They went into business for themselves once or twice, and it never worked out.

My personal hardship? The thing that should be easy but isn’t?

Driver’s licenses. The universe just doesn’t want to extend driving privileges to me.

I was reminded of this fact the other day, when I went to turn in my out-of-state license and get a new one. I was told that here, in the new state I’m calling home, the bureau of motor vehicles is adhering to some new Secure ID policy, and that to acquire a new license I would need to bring in several forms of identification, including my birth certificate, my Social Security card, a W-2 form, and three pieces of mail with my in-state address on them (and those pieces of mail could not be more than 60 days old).

I get that they want to conform to the new federal guidelines, and crack down on ID theft, but come on! It’s a driver’s license. I’ve signed newborns out of the hospital with far less proof of identity than what my new home state was asking of me now.

But my consternation was far from complete. After reviewing my paperwork and all but doing a DNA swab and demanding blood and stool samples, the clerk handling my application informed me that I would now have to take a written test to qualify for my license. She pointed to a dark corner of the building crammed with little desks. Then she handed me a thick sheaf of paper. “There’s your test,” she said. It was 50 questions long!

I slumped into a desk over in the corner and glanced through the test questions. They were multiple choice. The first one was:

The minimum age to acquire a driver’s license in the state is:

A. 16 years, 270 days
B. 16 years, two months
C. 18 years
D. How the hell should I know?

Or something like that. I read through the entire test and it was filled with questions like this: stuff that was somewhere in the state driving manual, but had no real bearing on my ability to safely pilot a motor vehicle. Which we already know I can do perfectly well. Ahem.

It wasn’t so much that I was dismayed with the questions as I was with the fact that I’d have to take a test. Unless they’re essay format, I’ve never been very good at tests, driving tests in particular. Not because I’m stupid (so much) but because, as I’ve said, the universe doesn’t want me to get a driver’s license. And the way the universe tells me this is often through the medium of a driver’s test.

I’ve known this since I was 14, when I was a sophomore in high school and first had to take driver’s ed. Back then, the way it worked was: you had however many hours of classroom instruction; at the end of the year, you took a written test which, if you passed, would earn you your learner’s permit. Then, in junior year, you’d take the behind-the-wheel portion of driver’s ed, log in however many hours of practice driving the state required and by the end of that year—or your 16th birthday, whichever came last—you’d take your actual driving test and get your license.

Problem was, I was the youngest in my class by almost two years and wouldn’t be old enough to use a learner’s permit until my senior year, but I was made to take driver’s ed anyway. It was taught by our health and phys-ed teacher, a real piece of work named Mr. Jack-Ass.

I’m joking, of course. That wasn’t his real name. His real name was Mr. Super Humongous Jack-Ass.

By the time I met him, Mr. S was well past his career zenith—hell, his life’s zenith. He had briefly played professional football, or so we’d been told. Between the intervening years of that apex moment and his tenure as my phys-ed/health/driver’s-ed teacher, he had devoted himself to a new sport, one that evidently involved over-eating. As I scan my mental Rogue’s Gallery, I have a general visual impression of him as a fleshy fellow in food-flecked velour tracksuits whose elastic supports had been stretched literally to their limits.

Talking to him was never something you wished for because Mr. S was a spitter and in conference with him, he would convey large amounts of saliva—along with bits of whatever food he’d recently been eating—onto your face and shirtfront. As if this wasn’t enough of a deterrent to interacting with the man, he also had a tendency to treat any conversation with a student as an opportunity for derision and public humiliation.

I discovered this on the first day of driver’s ed, when I went up to his desk and asked if I might instead be permitted to take a study hall period in lieu of a class in which I was legally too young to participate. After making fun of me for being the baby of the class (a constant refrain of my formative school years), Mr. S essentially told me I had to take the class whether the state of New Jersey thought I was old enough or not.

“But what’s the point?” I asked. “By the time I’m old enough to use the learner’s permit, it’ll be expired and I’ll have to do this all over again.”

“The point?” he cried, liberally distributing spit and masticated chili dog across my glasses. “The point is you take the class now or get an F!” A few of the jocks in class snickered behind me, which only encouraged Mr. S. “And don’t worry, I’ll let you repeat the class with me next year,” he added, then grinned at the jock douchebags behind me, as if he’d scored a lovely point of wit at my expense.

It was one of those moments—I had them often in my youth--where I wished for clairvoyance, so I could inform Mr. S that he’d never get the pleasure of having me in class again, that he’d be gone from the school in less than a year, fired over an incident involving him dropping his velour trousers to moon a bevy of pert young cheerleaders. But in the event, I just slunk back to my seat. I took the course, I passed the test, I got my useless learner’s permit. And then the next year, my schedule didn’t permit me to take driver’s ed with the sophomores and their new teacher. I could have done it senior year, but my ego got in the way and I couldn’t stand the thought of retaking a course I’d aced two years previously. So I graduated and started college without a driver’s license. Which you wouldn’t think would matter (since I was also without a car), but my student ID wasn’t much help when it came to cashing checks.

Thus it was that the next summer, I rode my bike way the hell across town to the local DMV and sat once again for the written test to get my learner’s permit. It was harder than I remembered, but I passed. A few weeks later, I went back to take my behind-the-wheel test and it was an epic failure.

The main problem, as I saw it, was that I had done all of my practice driving in small cars, mainly an old diesel VW Rabbit and a Chevy Citation. The car I used in the actual test was some ungodly Detroit-made monster that shared the same dimensions as a World War II aircraft carrier. Thus when it came to the pivotal moment in the test—the dreaded Parallel Parking—I humiliated myself. I misjudged the distance to the curb by about 20 feet, so that when I turned to back in and gave it a little gas, the aircraft carrier didn’t just hit the curb, it took it out. And kept going. I crunched on through the pulverized cement and up across the sidewalk, leaving a tire mark in the grass of the yard beyond. Then, just to make a day of it, I put the car back in drive and accelerated forward, off the yard, off the sidewalk, out of the parking space, and right into the path of an oncoming car. Luckily, the driver of that car must have passed her road test with flying colors, because she put on a textbook display of defensive driving, weaving around me and managing to give me the finger without losing control of her vehicle.

I had to wait three weeks before I could take the test again, but this time I borrowed a tiny Dodge Omni, and made my friend bring it to my house at the crack of dawn, where I amused some of my early-rising neighbors with an exhibition in parallel parking that went on for almost an hour. I parallel-parked that sucker about 200 times, leaving curbs and lawns intact with almost every attempt, then drove straight over to the testing site. I passed, but as the instructor handed me my paperwork that finally enabled me to get a driver’s license, I remembered feeling a sense of hollow victory, and thinking to myself, Why did this have to be so hard?

I had the same feeling many years later, when I moved to Pennsylvania, another state that required you to take a classroom exam before they’d grant you driving privileges in their state. That was almost more humiliating than the incident with the aircraft carrier. Because it wasn’t a traditional written test. The classroom featured three large antiquated boxlike consoles that each looked like a cross between a Soviet-made television set and a slot machine. In fact, they were audio-visual devices that flashed a slideshow up on a screen, showing you different traffic signs and driving scenarios. After giving you about three milliseconds to study the image, the screen would switch to a question about the image you just saw and you were required to press one of three lighted buttons on the console to give your answer. If you answered correctly, the machine whirred pleasantly on to the next slide. But if you got the question wrong, the contraption made a resounding CLUNK that signaled your failure to everyone throughout the building, possibly even across the state. Pennsylvania gave you a very small margin of error. Three CLUNKS and you were out. I got three CLUNKS, and had to wait two weeks before I could face the devices again. Even then I barely passed because when I accidentally bumped the machine with my leg, some kind of malfunction occurred and I got two unearned CLUNKS. Luckily, I answered the remaining questions correctly (and rather gingerly).

Ever since, I’d been lucky enough to live in states that required me only to trade my current license for a new one. It had been 17 years since I had to reckon with another test, and now here I was having to deal with a freaking exam of 50 questions—none of them essay-type.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Except of course that it wasn’t, so much. I took my time, employed what common sense I have, and finished the test. I only got one question wrong—the first one (turns out it was 16 years 270 days, not 16 years, two months). Then proceeded through the rest of the processing without incident.

Until the end, when the clerk who took my money and my picture, informed me that I would have to use a paper receipt as my license until the bureau of motor vehicles finished processing my information and making—by hand, I suppose—my new super-secure ID.

“Oh,” I said. “Do I just come back in and pick it up?”

“No,” the clerk said. “We’ll mail it to you.”

I paused a beat. “Can you send it to my office? I’m not home during the day to sign for anything.”

The clerk shook her head. “That’s okay. We just send it regular mail.”

I blinked for a few seconds, then said. “Are you shitting me?”

The clerk blinked back.

“I have to bring in every personal credential to my name so you can confirm my identity and create this secure ID—which you then just pop in the mail and trust to the US Postal Service?” I said this last a little shrilly, I admit. I had suddenly morphed into Mr. Super Humongous Jack-Ass, minus the velour tracksuit. I may have even sprayed a little spittle and microscopic bits of food at her while I said it.

The woman shook her head—I gathered this was not the first time she’d heard this response—and muttered, “Why does this have to be so hard?”

Took the words right out of my mouth.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I literally have NEVER brought home a properly functioning electronic-anything. I feel you. Great post :)
My son has the same problem with the universe and his driver's license. The latest is a battle with the state of CO to accept the birth certificates issued legally in RI by the towns. He has the little card and the big certificate, but that was no good.

After 7 years of residency, he finally got his grandparents to travel to Providence and send the 'right' form. He was not able to get his license then, because it was suspended. Yes, he's never had a CO license, but it's suspended. He has to pay the fine for that, before he can get one.

I think he's fine with his bike.
Great post, I feel your pain, acutely, but don't get me started...
This post brought back a lot of memories to me about my own quest to get my driver's license -yes, many, many moons ago!
I knew how to drive when I was about 7-8 years old -from then until I got my learner's permit, one of my uncles would always let me drive his car when we would go "touring" on the old dirt roads nearby my home. I wanted my license when I turned 16 so bad, as the saying goes, "I could taste it." But my Mom in a fit of pique because I had driven her car up the road past our house one day when I was 11, refused to sign for my permit so I had to wait until I turned 18 and get the permit on my own. And there's were the problems began for me and my license. My uncle's cars were always automatic whereas my Mom's car -a heavy, clunky 1952 Pontiac, was stick so stick shift was not my forte. Add to that, my Mom didn't like to let me practice driving so I got very little driving time in on her car, not near enough to be smooth on the gear shifting stuff. When the time came for me to take my driving test, I flunked every single part of the test EXCEPT the three-swing turn, which I performed quite nicely on a very icy pavement no less! In my defense, we learned later that some of my shifting issues were due to the fact that the clutch in Mom's car was going bad and went out completely one night while Mom and I were up at the high school where I was practicing driving, to get more experience with shifting. The clutch burned out, but thankfully, not when I was behind the wheel but rather when, after it appeared the car was stuck on some snow, my Mom insisted on being the one who would "rock" the car loose. I've never been so grateful in all my life for not being behind the wheel at the moment when the clutch died completely! (Oh and most of my vehicles over my life have been stick shift! Don't know why but I like them better, overall.)
Just a great post, MM, and had me snickering, chuckling and laughing out loud too as I read this and compared your issues to my own experiences.
I remember a few white-knuckle moments from your practice days - one involving a stop sign and a dump truck. Or what is a trash truck? Well, I guess at those speeds, it really doesn't make too much difference! Great post!
We also live in your new home state, and had to do the same thing. We were terrified we'd fail the exam (the signs are HARD! without color). Back then (just 2 1/2 years ago), we got our licenses the same day. Now, we've moved, and we need to get new licenses... but there's that whole SecureID thing. So, we've been putting it off for... Well... 8 months. Maybe longer now.
Congrats on passing! LOL

When I was 16 I moved from Hawaii to Florida and had to get a new DL, something that turned into a year long quest. In Hawaii parallel parking is not part of the test, which was great since I couldn't parallel park to save my life. However, when we moved to Florida not only did I have to surrender my highly prized DL I had to take the whole test for that state! Which, yes, included parallel parking.

Somehow I managed to keep my Hawaii DL, get a FL permit and take drivers ed during my Junior year so that I could legally drive while learning to parallel park from someone other than my Army officer father who turned all drill sargeant on me when I was behind the wheel. The next year, after I already earned (and I do mean earned) my Florida license, they took parallel parking off the test. But I tell you what, I can parallel park a minivan now. ;-)
They just instituted the new secure ID thing here too, and my dad recently went to get his license. Being recently retired, he had plenty of time to prepare and called the hotline the day before to confirm what documents he needed to bring, etc. The hotline said his old driver's license for renewal and the fee. Something to verify his change of address, like a bill. THAT's IT!
The next day, he went to the DMV, only to find out that those new regs went into effect and he needed the old driver's license, his birth certficate, three bills within 60 days, his social security card, etc. He said (very loudly) to my mom "This is bull***" and they left to gather their information.
When he returned, two hours later with all the paperwork in hand the lady at the counter told him she agreed completely (she had heard him yell when he was in earlier and rmembered him) but at least he didn't do like the last guy did; have all the proper information with him but become so frustrated at the process that he walked out in the middle of renewing his license, leaving all of his important documents behind.
Interesting note, if you have a passport you can bring that and skip all the other stuff. Too bad getting one of those requires so many hoops now!
It's so great to have you back. I've missed these stories sooooooooo much!
this is one of those stories that I can't ever stop laughing.

Thank you.
Thank you.
Thank you.

My hard thing in life ... nothing is ever easy.
Well, now everybody knows you don't live in Massachusetts. Here you can get a drivers license in a box of Crackerjacks. And the worse of a driver you are, the more they like it. That's because they can hand out more tickets to you, so bad drivers are a better source of state income than good drivers.

Of course, having spent some goodly portion of your life in another more northerly New England state, you probably heard rumors to that effect, eh?
Okay, maybe I'm a tad late returning to the party, but it's great to see you posting again. And this piece was your usual greatness.

The fickle finger of fate has cursed me with the complete inability to a) win any sort of raffle and b) never catch a foul ball.

Could be worse, I guess.
Your story is timely! I'm about to embark on the immigration process to enter the US ... I'll need to update my license once landing in the States...which could possibly include a written and/or road test.

When I moved to Texas, I had sold my old car. I eventually inherited my father's old car a few months later, and I got insurance for it right away, but by the time I got around to exchanging my license, my old Wisconsin license had expired and I had to go through the WHOLE process of a written test, road test, etc. before I could get my legal license. I had to go to that DMV office about half a dozen times before it was all said and done and write an angry email about getting scheduled for a road test at one point. And of course, they mailed me my permanent license by regular mail here as well. Fun times. I'm never letting my license expire again, I can tell you that.
i feel your pain - nearly everything i do ends up being WAY more complicated than it should be. i prefer to believe that i am the plaything of the fates, as opposed to just being an idiot. *sigh*

glad it all worked out eventually!
I sympathize, MM. My driver's license test was no picnic either. My classroom instructor had a hook instead of a hand for 1 arm.

Also, having moved to a number of different states, I've had to take the written for most. Fortunately, just once each time, but it was still a pain. In grad school, I had to take a test to get a Class D license so I could drive the grip truck. That one was a challenge.
I so feel your pain, and am thrilled that you're posting again! You're absolutely HILARIOUS.

My first driver's license (many many moons ago) said that I had green hair and brown eyes (it was actually the opposite) and even back then it was a fight to convince the DL people that I did not, in fact, have green hair (sigh).
I also think I live in your new home state. We had to make three trips to get the documentation portion correct. A bank statement in the mail works, but a certified letter from the bank with your mailing address does not. Common sense people!
*Looks at the calendar meaningfully.*
The gators can't keep pwoer mowers alive, depsite givng them the best care a mower is supposed to gte. luckily we do fine with humanpowered reel movers.

i have a friend who can;t keep a telephone working. that's a seious problem.
Yeah, you would think you wouldn't favor one child over the other, but truth is, some of your kids are a lot easier to love than others. Those are the one's that require the most attention and most effort from you. Ultimately, that means you're more incline to favor the other more because they require less of your time, just try not to let it show as much. And remember, you're only human!
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