The DMV calls me in every five years to renew my driver license. It’s a routine event – eye test, check a few boxes, sign here and there, and swipe the credit card. This year, I did it twice. The first time was in January, a full month before the licence expiration date. I was driving through Marin County and knew that it would be the last time for a while that taking time out of a workday for this would be so easy. It was the scene we all know – a simple and noisy room in an aged building. There weren’t any adornments to the room which was furnished with vinyl floors, plastic chairs, and dusty false ceiling tiles, other than the State of California seal and a portrait of Governor Jerry Brown on the wall facing the seating area. The room was crowded with full representation from every stratum. The drivers of the expensive and powerful SUVs and sports cars, so common on the Bay Area’s roads, were side-by-side with those who bounced into the parking lot in their beat-up pickup trucks and economy cars with faded paint, cracked windshields and torn seats. There is no valet parking and there aren’t many measures available to avoid doing things for yourself when it comes to transacting with the DMV. Come one, come all.
After checking in and making a careful survey, I chose one of the hard plastic blue chairs in the third row off to the left side of the room, away from the doors and the long lines that formed upon entry. I had reading material, but it was hard to give it any prolonged attention, because I did not want to miss the call when it was my turn. It always feels like a lottery event or a bingo game at the DMV, all of us holding on to our paper tickets hoping that our number will be called.
About twenty minutes in, the computer system that operates the service queue broke. The soft unchanging computerized woman’s voice which provided important information such as, “Now serving number __ at window number __,”(with a very slight pause each time we heard “number”) was replaced with a voice from a woman on the public address system that had the tone and feel that fell somewhere between that you’d find from a volunteer at a kids summer sports camp and a police officer assigned to crowd control duty. The monitors at the front of the room that listed all the lucky tickets and their accompanying windows were also down. Black and empty, I could no longer use them to try to make sense of the queuing system and how my ticket fit into the sequence.
The incident brought more confusion and anxiety to the uneasy room. There was a lot of fidgeting, fretting and pacing going on, to say the least. Without the monitors, some just couldn’t get the instructions right and would walk up to a window prematurely or to the wrong window, where depending on who was on the other side, they would be greeted with a gentle redirection or a snarl and a bark that could make the rest of us start wondering who’d we’d interact when it was our turn that afternoon. There were a number of folks in the room who made wisecracks and comments to those around them, looking to engage them in a conversation about their displeasure with the DMV and in a perfect world, perhaps even underlying matters that were the real sources of their unhappiness. Others reached for their cell phones and treated the room to one-sided discussions about their annoyance with the situation. A woman in her forties in the first row, just to my right, single-handedly took it on herself to offset all the negativity. With an appearance of a few struggles and challenges that she had overcome and perhaps was still battling, and in a smoker’s craggy voice, she made it known to everyone how pleased she was to be at the DMV and for the good fortune of having a driver’s license.
That’s pretty much how I felt that day. I didn’t need to be anywhere else and I found no good purpose to be angry or uptight over something so small and that I couldn’t manage. The woman behind the counter with the booming voice and the others on duty were doing their best to keep the process moving. Belly-aching, exasperation and petty behavior from the people inconvenienced by the computer crash offered no help whatsoever. I put away my reading material, kept tuned in to the announcements and watched the mundane drama of the weekday play out until it was my turn to step up and renew the driver’s license. I went through the drill – took the eye test, checked a few boxes, signed here and there, and swiped the credit card – and then left with a temporary that was to serve as the record until I received the hard card.
But I never received the permanent license and during a phone call a couple weeks ago to investigate, I learned that the Marin County DMV branch didn’t fully process the paperwork. The woman on the phone told me that she could tell from the database that I had taken the eye test, but that the branch didn’t record the results. I informed her that that for many years I’ve needed eyeglasses to drive and that nothing has changed. I then suggested she check the records on her side, update the records and send over the permanent license without any more effort on my part. As you might guess, and as I could sense even as I was giving her my advice, this was going nowhere. She apologetically told me that I’d have to come back into a DMV branch to finish up.
Not pleased, but again not inclined to get too wound up about these things, I scheduled an appointment to do it again. A different branch in the Bay Area, but the same exact scene. Jerry Brown portrait included. This time however, with the credentials of a reservation, I was in and out in lickety-split. I arrived ten minutes early and checked in at the “appointment only” window, noticing the sign posted at the window to the left informed everyone coming in without an appointment should expect a three-hour wait before they’d get the opportunity to take care of their task. I headed up to the first row to look for a seat, but before I could select one, I noticed that the screen was telling everyone that F-62 was now being served at window 10. Conditioned to wait, and expecting to at least until the 11:50 appointment time, I hadn’t even heard the soft computerized woman’s voice telling me it was my turn. The young lady helping me was very kind and apologetic about the mishap in my first visit and did her best to assure me that it would work out okay this time. I’m sure that it will.
Driving’s not the thrill for me that it once was. Mostly, I do it to get around to take care of my duties and responsibilities – work commute, errands and such. This isn’t as easy in the Bay Area as it once was, which now has some of the worst traffic in the country. Even weekend day trips aren’t always smooth, since there are traffic jams seven days a week and the back roads are mostly a thing of the past.
Of course, when I first learned to drive, there was no trip too trivial or uninteresting to me. A request from my mother to run out for a gallon of milk might as well have been an invitation from Jack Kerouac to “On the Road.” I’d get in the family car, set the radio station to one of the FM radio stations, WXRT or The Fox, and set out for an adventure to the local grocery store. Rain or shine. Winter or summer. These were the days! Why not only was the ride itself a joy, but I could remember what I was supposed to buy without a grocery list.
I learned to drive in high school, between my sophomore and junior year. For a few short weeks at the beginning of summer, I took driving lessons from one of the gym teachers, together with my childhood buddy who lived next door. Our driving classes started early in the morning and somehow, with his family and mine, we managed to get rides back and forth to the high school every day. The school had brand new cars (Pontiacs, if I recall correctly) equipped with an extra brake on the floor of the passenger side of the front seat. I don’t remember much preparation or advance discussion before one of us was behind the wheel driving around the school parking lot with the other in the back seat and the gym teacher up front riding shotgun. Then we’d hand over the keys and switch positions. In no time at all, we were out on the town roads, getting our first taste of what it would be like to have our licenses. The big move was getting out on Route 20, which at the time was a four lane separated highway running east and west and was our introduction to driving at high speeds, passing trucks, and keeping in the correct lanes. This was the part of the course that set our youthful anticipations at their highest. We finished the course and in no time at all, were each on our way to the DMV to take our state driving tests and get our pass to paradise.
As with most kids those days, when we first started driving, we drove the families’ second cars. And there were some classics, nothing like those we see on the road today. My buddy and his sister shared his mother’s car, a two-door GM sedan. I shared a blue 1972 Dodge Dart with my sister and parents. One of my friends negotiated with his mother and his two older brothers for the keys to a big black Oldsmobile that had more room in the back seats than you’ll get with a first class ticket on Virgin Air. There were others – a brown Ford Pinto with wood decor on the doors, a white AMC Pacer, a Volkswagen Thing, an International Harvester Travelall, and lots of big sedans and station wagons made in Detroit.
Everyone worked summer jobs and soon, we all had money for our own cars. I think it was expected that sooner or later, kids would get themselves off the family car share programs, so the parents could get on with things or to make room for younger brothers and sisters who were learning to drive. It was about this time, that my younger brother miraculously escaped any serious injury when he misread the speed of an oncoming car at the Route 59 and Schaumburg Road intersection. These were both country roads at the time with no stop lights – only stop signs on Schaumburg Road. Headed west into Elgin, after stopping at the sign, my brother gunned our parents’ 1974 Dodge Station Wagon and put right into the path of the car headed south on Route 59. The car was a tank, but nonetheless totaled. Luckily, that was the worst of it.
By our senior year, my buddy had one of the coolest cars in the school parking lot. It was an orange Cutlass with a white convertible top and white interior. It was gorgeous and he tended to it with befitting care. One of the last times I drove in it was when we set out to a Cubs game in May 1978. It was cold and rainy that day, so the top remained closed. But that car was fun, nonetheless. It had a big engine that purred and roared, bucket seats and a stereo system suitable for the music we enjoyed. We drove the tollway into Chicago in style and then sought the right place to park that beautiful specimen. It had to be somewhere with enough room to mitigate the risk of the doors getting dinged; out in the open to perhaps prevent ugly acts of vandalism to the convertible top, the shiny paint finish or white wall tires; close to Wrigley Field; and of course, affordable. After scouting the neighborhood, we settled on an private one-car garage in an alley a few blocks away from the ballpark. An old Italian man caught our attention with a sign that he had posted on his garage door offering the spot for two dollars. We sized up the guy, looked around at the surroundings and agreed that it was the best alternative we had seen. We pulled the car into the garage, next to the garden tools and other items, gave him our two bucks and watched him close the door. It felt right and we were off to the game.
We sat in the cold drizzle and watched Vida Blue throw a gem and out-pitch the Cubs’ Ray Burris 2-1. I’d give anything to watch that game again. There was no such thing as a pitch count and the bullpens weren’t full of situation specialists. Both starting pitchers went into the ninth inning and Blue, one of the era’s best, gave up only four hits in eight and one-third innings. However, kids love the long ball. I remember leaving Wrigley Field that day feeling a little unsatisfied. Not only because the Cubs lost, but because Wille McCovey, Dave Kingman, Bill Buckner or Bobby Murcer didn’t hit home runs. My youthful desire for more, enhanced and juiced by the ride to the city in the Cutlass, was unfulfilled
We shuffled out with the other Cub fans and then walked directly to get back to the car. In our exuberance to get to the game however (and with the lapse that comes frequently these days with transition moments, but not so much then) neither of us took note of the alley’s location and couldn’t remember where we parked the car. The alleys didn’t have signposts and to two kids from the suburbs, they all looked the same. We couldn’t pick out any landmarks or distinguishing features that helped us find the right garage. After walking up and down and wandering though a few of these alleys, we imagined the worst and started to think that the old Italian man had stolen the car.
Nothing of the sort, however. We slowed down, relaxed our fevered minds and eventually found the car. Safe, tucked in and dry. Just like the man told us it would be.
These old Cutlasses are rare these days. Every now and again, I see one on the road. Some of them look pretty good. Excellent even. But none of them as good as I remember my buddy’s old car, driving down the Illinois tollway with the music turned up high. That was a lovely time.
At the Department of Motor Vehicles
to renew my driver’s license, I had to wait
two hours on one of those wooden benches
like pews in the church of Latter Day
Meaninglessness, where there is no
stained glass (no windows at all, in fact),
no incense other than stale cigarette smoke
emanating from the clothes of those around me,
and no sermon, just an automated female voice
calling numbers over a loudspeaker.
And one by one the members of our sorry
congregation shuffled meekly up to the pitted
altar to have our vision tested or to seek
redemption for whatever wrong turn we’d taken,
or pay indulgences, or else be turned away
as unworthy of piloting our own journey.
But when I paused to look around, using my numbered ticket as a bookmark, it was as if the dim
fluorescent light had been transformed
to incandescence. The face of the Latino guy
in a ripped black sweatshirt glowed with health,
and I could tell that the sulking white girl
accompanied by her mother was brimming
with secret excitement to be getting her first license,
already speeding down the highway, alone,
with all the windows open, singing.
– Renewal, by Jeffrey Harrison