I’m 70 years old and flunked the written DMV drivers test. I didn’t bother to study for it and felt I knew the answers and flunked it badly, a disgrace for a guy who’s never been in a wreck and hasn’t had a ticket in 25 years and drove a cab for three years. You’re allowed to miss three out of l8 to pass. I missed six. I was handed the DMV manual and told to study it and come back when I was prepared.
I put it off in a couple weeks. I was intimidated by the complicated, purposely deceiving questions and felt persecuted by the bureaucrats trying to trick me. I am easily deceived and confused these days. My mind is no longer acute. My confidence has waned. Still, I read good books and ran a literary journal and have been told I can maintain an intelligent conversation with educated people, especially in bars after a few drinks.
I browsed the manual the night before driving from Cayucos to San Luis Obispo, Calif., 20 miles away, on a day I also play basketball in a gym there at noon—a priority in my life. I arrived early at the DMV and instead of taking the test right away, sat and studied the manual for an hour, infuriated that those sadists accumulated l00 pages of bullshit to absorb and remember.
Feeling doomed, I accepted the test from the same woman who’d flunked me before. Almost immediately, on the second or third question, I was fulminating at multiple choices that were seemingly the same but worded again to trick a person with a perfect driving record who should’ve had his license mailed to him instead of experiencing this humiliation. I was muttering and cursing in the little enclosure, avoiding answering certain questions, answering the few easy ones, then returning to the ones confusing and deceiving me and pissing me off. I ended up trying to use my common sense and instincts and handed the test over to the same woman, who immediately began checking off wrong answers.
I again missed six. I was grinding my teeth.
“I could take this damn test ten times and flunk it,” I railed at her. “This test is designed to trick me. I’m a good driver. No wrecks, no tickets, perfect. What am I supposed to do now, for Christ’s sake?”
She was not one bit ruffled from my fusillade, whipped out information on a computer and handed me a sheet of paper—a date to take another test, along with a renewed temporary license.
“Some people have problems with the written test,” she explained. “Just show up at 8:l5 and you’ll take it orally with another group of people who have the same trouble as you.”
She briefly scrutinized me. “You’ll do fine, sir.”
Well, I was so rattled I showed up a week later on the wrong day, waited in a line 30 minutes before discovering my idiocy. I went and played hoop, a person competing against men half my age, can sink a shot from 22 feet, out-smart my opponents, and flunk a simple drivers test a l5-year -old could pass in a breeze.
I showed up the following morning. Right off I recognized my fellow flunkers. A middle-aged native American with braided hair and a scowl sat beside an obese white woman. A white-haired lady frantically studied the DMV manual and fretted. An employee in the hive behind the long lines yelled out at her: “Mrs. Russo, did you report in?”
She peered up from her manual. “Uh…yes.”
“Okay, Mrs. Russo!”
A rotund woman around 40, perhaps Latina, also studied the manual. Her sweatshirt displayed a row of a dozen booze bottles followed with the words, l2 STEPS—THERAPY WORKS. A white-haired man with a neat goatee, dressed preppie in a red sweater vest, arrived, peered around, sat down, peered around, stood, gazed around. The woman in the hive yelled, “Mr. Webster, have you reported, sir?” Mr. Webster reported. So did I. I sat back down. A tall, stooped, white-haired man, at least 80, checked in, using a cane. He was morose. A young wild-eyed girl with hummingbird energy checked in. I sat clenching my teeth, knowing if I flunked this test I should probably turn myself into social services and question whatever I was doing day to day. A middle-aged woman led in another geezer, this one in worse shape than the white-haired man who stood against a wall grumbling.
The woman in the hive yelled very loudly at us: “ALL THOSE TAKING THE ORAL DRIVERS TEST, PLEASE FOLLOW ME!”
We all stood and followed her into a room with a long table and padded chairs, the kind of place you see in movies where corporate henchmen grill and terrify sycophants. Mrs. Russo was disoriented and struggling with her chair. I quickly pulled it forward and seated her. She thanked me, panic in her eyes. “I’m no good at taking tests,” she confessed. “I never have been.”
“Me neither,” I said, not telling her I once aced tests in college.
The tall, white-haired geezer was told by the woman in charge to sit down, but he seemed too pissed to do so. I pulled a chair up for him and he nodded at me and sat down, and Mrs. Russo righteously declared, “There’s a gentleman in the house.”
I glanced at the Indian man beside me. His ball cap indicated his tribe. He was still scowling.
The lady in charge handed us a sheet of paper with l8 true/false questions and two extra sheets with street signs. The first question, which she delivered very loudly, was, “True or false? If you come to a flashing red light at an intersection, you slow down to see if it’s safe, then drive through.”
The white-haired geezer couldn’t hear her. She walked over to him and screamed out the question. “Christ,” he muttered, shaking his head. “False. Anybody knows that.”
“Please, sir, do not repeat the answer out loud!” She was not angry.
“Okay, sorry,” he muttered, grimacing.
The blanks for questions 5 and 6 were blacked out. When we came to these questions, she said, “The answer to question number five is on your sheets of road signs! The first question is, which sign is a ‘one-way street’? Place the number five beside that sign.”
I found an arrow pointing one way with the words “One Way” on it and placed a 5 beside it. The goateed guy on the other side of me was confused. So was the lady with booze bottles on her sweatshirt. The lady in charge patiently went over the question with them. Somehow this tolerant woman made it through all l8 questions. We made for the door, the Indian out first, me behind him. In line, the old white-haired geezer was behind me. He was very tall. While the gloomy Indian was being processed, the white-haired goat seemed to loom over me. His lip curled up to reveal a false teeth sneer.
“This whole goddam thing, the goddam test, it’s a goddam crock of shit,” he told me.
“You got that right,” I agreed.
“I’d like t’ find the assholes made up these tests and wring their goddam necks,” he added.
“You’re not alone,” I told him.
“Hell,” he growled. “I was a goddam cop for forty years. Never had a wreck!”
“LAPD?” I asked.
“Naw. St. Louis. My hometown.”
“Hell,” I said. “I’m real familiar with St. Louis. I used to work on the riverboat, the Delta Queen, on the Mississippi. We docked down by the arch.”
“That was my territory. For twelve years!” he exclaimed. “That was a rough area. We cleaned it up.”
“St. Louis is in the World Series,” I said.
Before he could answer, a man in another line down the row, said, “I was just in St. Louis and saw a playoff game. The Cardinals won. I’m from St. Louis, too!”
The old goat said, “I was a motorcycle cop.” He pulled out his wallet and withdrew his old police ID card and showed it to me. It was from the l950s. Patrick Riley. 25 years old. 6-foot-4, l80 pounds. A handsome young officer with those uniforms with a strap over a shoulder. “I came out here fifteen years ago. I’m 87 years old. I got quick-bowel syndrome. You think it’s fun driving from Paso Robles and back, taking these stupid tests when I might crap my pants, for Christ’s sake!”
“I hope that doesn’t happen to me,” I said. “I’m 70, still playing basketball…”
He squinted at me. “Why, you don’t look a day over 50.”
“Thanks, sir. I was beginning to think I’d lost my looks as well as my mind.”
He grinned. “Me, too.”
I was up next. I handed my test to the same woman who tested us. I watched her breeze through, never checking off any wrong answers. Perfect score.I lingered to see that the old ex-cop geezer with quick-bowel syndrome and a constant grimace passed. He did, but didn’t seem any more relieved than when he came in. Walking out, I saw Mrs. Russo, at the end of the line, biting her lips, clutching her test. I felt as if a massive cloud had been lifted from my being. For the time being….§
Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, which he shares with his dog, Wilbur. He’s a regular contributor and founding publisher of The Rogue Voice.