Sunday, June 15, 2008

At the DMV

I've never driven a car. Never needed to. Might have wanted to at times, but never ever had the time to invest in getting a license. I love the freedom of a bicycle and the only motor vehicle I've driven was a motorcycle -- not as anarchist as a bike, not as spontaneous, not as much fun, but not bad for a fossil fuel powered vehicle.

Since leaving Japan, however, I've been spending more time in the U.S., especially California, where I have the time (sort of) and a very, very real need. And it's not even the piece of paper I need as much as the ability to drive. I keep imagining a situation where we are in the wilderness, Big Dog breaks his legs and I can't drive us out of there or go and get help. I have recurring nightmares where I have to drive down a curvy mountain road in a beat-up stick shift Beetle (for some reason, it's always a stick shift Beetle!)

So, in 2004, I went to the Santa Monica Department of Motor Vehicles to get a Learners' Permit.

There's a desk just in front of the right corner of the rectangular horseshoe of counters. An elderly lady at the desk asks if the Learners' Permit is for me. In a sort of incredulous tone of voice. I try not to sound too sheepish about it.
"Do you have a picture ID?"
I show her my passport.
She examines the visa. It's good only until October. Plus I have no Social Security number. She warns me that this could make the whole process much more time consuming and by then my visa would have run out. "But you're going to get a new visa, right?" Sure.

She hands me an application form and a ticket stub. I wait. And wait. It's a busy day at the DMV. An LED sign at one end of the room tells us Culver City has the shortest wait time but by then I've already invested more than 20 minutes, so I stay put. Finally, my number is called and I go to the number 14 counter.

There is a slightly demented looking older man. He has a Def Jam bowling shirt on that doesn't quite match the grays in his hair. No one at any motor vehicle bureau in Japan wears a bowling shirt! They all look like cops in uniform. Here, no one is in uniform. Plus, this guy looks a bit like Samuel L. Jackson. I wonder if he's going to start quoting Ezekiel any second, but after taking a look at my application he shouts, "What's this address?" pointing at my Japan residence. "What the hell IS this JAPAN shit? Why do you need a license if you don't even live here?" He's babbling on. "And you won't ever get a license if you don't have a social security number."

I tell him that I am only here to get a Learner's Permit.

Mr. Jackson is making all sorts of mean and negative remarks about how they don't want me to get a driver's license. there are already too many drivers in L.A. (I have to agree with that one!) and I'll never pass the background checks, etc. etc. At the same time, he's also joking around with everyone in the room, dancing, acting really weird, singing, waving my application around, hurrumping, and finally saying "You gotta pass the test, first. You get three chances. Don't blow 'em all."

It was pretty much Twilight Zone overall.

Well, that was 4 years ago, with a limited-time permit. I drove around a bit during that summer, and then didn't touch a single steering wheel for the next 3 years.

Last summer, I got a new Learner's Permit, this time at the San Luis Obispo DMV where, much to my disappointment, there was no Samuel L. Jackson. The Permit is 2 weeks from expiring and I've had maybe a total of 3 hours behind the wheel. I need to take the driving test before the permit expires. I am freaking out.

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