True Tales of Terror: Attack of the Fifty Foot Driver's License

This is a cautionary tale. It is designed to convey a point, and to drive that point home with terrifying force. If I can save even one of you miserable wretches from having to suffer as I have, then I will go to my grave in peace. Not soon, mind you, but definitely in peace. You must not under any circumstances repeat my mistake, for if you do, this will be your fate. Also, I apologize for calling you miserable wretches.

The irony of it is, I'm actually an excellent driver. Never got into an accident, never got pulled over for speeding. Never received so much as a parking ticket that wasn't issued by campus security, and that one was bullshit. (Well excuse me for parking in the faculty lot ten minutes before 6:00 PM. Go ahead, withhold my transcripts, you philistines. See if I care.)

Hell, I even took a defensive driving class once, so that I could drive a state vehicle during summer theater tours. If you haven't had the pleasure, here's everything I learned in those three hours: "Every traffic accident is not only preventable, but specifically your fault." The workbook posed a series of increasingly ridiculous scenarios, then asked, "Was this incident preventable?" As if you're going to answer, "Nope. Damn, nothing you could do there. It was just their time, poor souls. The road is a harsh mistress."

Q: Two vehicles approach an intersection. One is veering erratically. When the vehicles reach the intersection, both are crushed the Almighty Hand of God. Was this incident preventable? A: Yes. The drivers should not have led lives of sin.

So not only had I never hit another car, I had a special certificate in not hitting other cars. It had calligraphy and everything.

However, as I've mentioned before, my need for a car evaporated when I moved to New York. At the time, my New Hampshire-issued driver's license was set to expire in eighteen months. That's a year and a half window to transfer an out-of-state license — an eternity, even for a champion procrastinator like myself. In all fairness, I think I can be forgiven for putting it off. I mean come on, if the average suburban DMV is a nightmare, then what kind of Byzantine hellscape awaited me in the catacombs of Manhattan?

That wasn't the real reason, though. Somehow I got it into my head that transferring one's license meant taking the road test, and that just wasn't going to happen. Like, at all. I had never sat behind the wheel of a motor vehicle in New York, and was in no hurry to do so. Judging by the traffic patterns I witnessed in those first few months, it's technically legal here to murder someone by ramming their car and pushing it into the Hudson.

I let the issue slide. And slide. And ultimately, I did the thing that you should never, ever, ever do.

I let the license expire.

If my life were "The Shawshank Redemption," right now is when Red would say, "I look back on myself the way I was, stupid kid who did that terrible crime. Wish I could talk sense to him. Tell him how things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone, this old man is all that's left, and I have to live with that."

Not having a license was fine for a few years. I kept the expired one in my wallet for those increasingly rare occasions when bouncers carded me, and though they might have squinted at it with their flashlight, they always let me in. For anything official, I used my passport. But those were my mid-20s, when it seemed perfectly reasonable not to have things like a valid I.D., or health insurance. Eventually common sense started to take over. I couldn't avoid driving a car forever — eventually I'd need to rent one, if nothing else. Besides, driving (on normal roads, where sane people are) is good for the soul, and I didn't like the idea of giving it up.

One slow afternoon at work, I decided to take a look at the DMV website. A quick peek. Just to see what I was up against. It was in that moment that I caught my first glimpse of how far away Mount Doom really was.

The vicious truth is that if your license has expired, you have to start from scratch. Any previous experience is wiped clean. You begin the process as if you are gazing upon an automobile for the very first time, emerging from a two hundred year slumber to gape at the wondrous machines of the future. Sitting there in my drab little cubicle, the extent of my error dawned on me with a slow and terrible fire. I would have to take the road test. I would have to take the written test. I would have to take driver's ed. I would have to get a learner's permit. A goddamn learner's permit! Apparently I would also have to do trig homework, go to an Honor Society meeting, and find a date for the Junior Prom. (Theme: "A Time To Remember")

My heart was taking on water, but it sank once and for all when I read the last tidbit. Had I simply brought my old license to the DMV, they would have given me a new one. No questions asked. No road test required.


No use crying over spilled milk, right? Even in a case like this, where it's as if the milk adopted me from an orphanage and taught me everything I know about life, love, and happiness. It was time to suck it up, and deal.

Apply for a learner's permit. Pay the application fee and the driver license fee. Pass the vision test and the written test. Receive your permit.

The weather must have gone to the DMV that morning too, because it was complete shit outside. It was a Wednesday. I rolled out of bed and grabbed a hoodie, skipping the shower/shave routine in favor of getting this the hell over with. The Q Train rumbled into Atlantic Center, and I made my way up the escalators past Guitar Center, Victoria's Secret, and Payless. Whatever hopes I had for a targeted, Navy SEAL-like strike were dashed the moment I opened the DMV door. How could so many people have motor vehicle issues? On a Wednesday? On this Wednesday? I glanced around for a sign that said, "If this is all just a misunderstanding, press button to dispense new license." There was no button. But there were forms to fill out, and hey, forms are fun.

Eventually they corralled me into a room with other new licensees, to await the written exam. Buzzing fluorescents gave the scene a Kafka-like feeling, while the desks looked as though they had been used on the set of "Welcome Back, Kotter." After sitting there long enough to wonder if I had gotten in the wrong line and was about to be deported, we received our test booklets and were given instructions. The instructions were basically, "Take this test."

This was one of the questions:

What does this sign mean?

That is not a joke, may the Furies strike me down if I am lying. Christ, it was even multiple choice.

From there, we were funneled into a line for the vision test, just to make sure no one had managed to pass the written test while also being legally blind. Then came a wholly unexpected wrinkle. A woman pointed to yet another line and said, "Wait there to have your photo taken."

My brain, which had long since gone into low-power standby, lurched into motion. "Hang on a second, what photo? Why do we need a photo for a learner's permit? Aren't learner's permits just flimsy little pieces of cardboard? When I had my first learner's permit — back in, you know, 1991 — I distinctly remember it being a flimsy little piece of cardboard. Unless ..."

"This will also be the photo on your final driver's license," the woman added as she walked away.

"Shit," added my brain.

If you've ever wondered whether it's a good idea to have an I.D. picture taken after waiting on cramped lines for two hours without having showered, shaved, or dressed like a grown-up with a job, the answer is no, not really. The result should have landed me on the do-not-fly list, and the fact that I'm still able to travel on commercial airlines makes me worry that the Department of Homeland Security is dangerously understaffed. Go ahead, gawk if you must.

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Take a driver education course or a DMV-approved pre-licensing course.

Now comes the scam. Regardless of ability, all new licensees must pay to take a state-accredited driver's education course. Road lessons aren't required, but everyone has to sit in a room and listen to an instructor talk for a minimum of five hours. If you're busy, you can stretch out the five hours over a series of weeks, but most driving schools have a bite-the-bullet option for those who prefer to put the affair behind them. The goal of everyone in the room is the Magic Ticket, a certificate that verifies completion of the course. Without the number on the Magic Ticket, you can't make an appointment for the road test. The DMV distributes booklets of them to the schools. The instructors protect the booklets as if they determine who lives and who dies.

And so it came to pass that I killed an entire Friday night biting the bullet. I honestly can't remember the name of the place, so let's just call it The Jean-Paul Sartre School of Driving and Confinement. My fellow lost souls were a mix of teens getting their first license, and adults who had screwed up like me. One girl in the back made my exact mistake, letting an out-of-state license expire. I thought about offering her a suicide pact, but that's when our instructor made his entrance.

At around 6' 2" and 115 pounds, he was a Vaudeville act lost in time. Age had given him a leaning slouch — he didn't so much walk as follow his head's inertia. He was cracking wise before he even had his coat off. These were Henny Youngman-style jokes, classic setup/punchline numbers that the teens around me had never confronted. The dead silence should have been an omen, but Henny was undaunted, prodding us with "What's the matter, never laughed before?" lines until it became clear that absolutely nothing would happen until we found him funny. Satisfied with a smattering of pity laughs, he finally turned his attention to the subject of driving. The whole room breathed a sigh of relief, but it soon became clear that the act was to continue, loosely themed around the subject of driving.

It was like waterboarding, but with jokes. We were being jokeboarded.

I checked the time on my phone. There were four hours and fifty minutes remaining.

A rolling A/V unit in the corner was our only hope for salvation, and at the end of the first hour he mercifully pushed it in front of the white board and startled fumbling with the DVD controls. Even a grisly montage of driver's ed videos was an improvement over the comedy routine. I would have happily watched "Faces of Death" for the rest of the weekend if it meant Henny would sit down and shut the ever-loving fuck up.

However, something weird has happened to the driver's ed video business in the years since I got my first license. They no longer try to scare the shit out of you with scenes of carnage. Now it's all about guilt. Specifically, guilt about drag racing on Long Island. Because that's what every one of these stories was — a tale of some guy who drove around with his friends, had his manhood challenged by another car at a red light, and wound up killing said friends in the ensuing race. Now in jail, the guy talks about how haunted he is, how every waking moment is a reminder of the pain he caused. And for some reason, it all happens in Long Island. Is there some secret epidemic of drag racing in Mineola? Frankly, the whole thing raised more questions than it answered.

After the videos, Henny seemed resigned to the fact that he wasn't going to get a laugh without resorting to Kim Jong-Il tactics. He hunched over the desk and plowed through the rest of the syllabus, droning on without once taking his eyes from the pages. To my astonishment, the evening had become even sadder. At long last, Henny made what was likely his first good decision in a lifetime of questionable ones: He let us leave two hours early. We swarmed the desk for our Magic Tickets.

I managed to lose mine a few days later, and rushed back to the school for a new one. The girl at the front desk filled out the paperwork, and asked which instructor I'd had. "I don't remember his name," I said. "He made a lot of ... jokes." The girl scrunched her nose. "Oh, him. Yeah, I can't imagine sitting through a class with that guy."

Practice for your road test. Use your driver education certificate or pre-licensing course certificate to make an appointment for your road test by phone or on-line. Pass your road test and receive your NYS driver license.

There is something you should know about the Magic Ticket. It is only valid for one year.

I know, I know. There's no way in hell he actually put off the road test for a whole year, right? He made his appointment the very next day? Right? Yes?

Well, no. First of all, I believe I described myself earlier as a "champion procrastinator." It's practically a point of pride. But more to the point, if this is to be a cautionary tale, the stakes need to be sky-high. And the stakes couldn't possibly have been any higher than this. I made the appointment for my road test with mere weeks to spare. If I failed, there would be no escape. I would have to go back to Henny. Since that was clearly not an option, it was either pass the test, or never drive a car again.

My friend Courtney let me practice driving around Queens in her Volvo. She was digging through her purse and didn't notice when I plowed through a red light and nearly killed us both, so hey, I guess I owe her a solid. She also volunteered to come with me to the road test. All drivers have to bring a vehicle, the person who owns that vehicle, and the vehicle's registration. No fair stealing a car for the exam.

At the appointed time, we arrived at the test location on the last street in Astoria, where the neighborhood ends and the ConEd plant begins. There's no building, you just pull up behind the last car in line and wait your turn. Courtney wished me luck and stepped out to the sidewalk, making way for the tiniest ball of rage ever to sling a clipboard for the DMV. She was a foot shorter than me and about eight years younger, and this was not her day. It was like someone wrapped "Jagged Little Pill" and "Straight Outta Compton" in a ball of tin foil and threw them in a microwave.

She flung the door closed and snapped her seat belt. Her pen clicked at the ready, and before I knew what was happening, we were off. Within twenty yards, she was docking points. "Didn't check rear-view mirror. Didn't signal." Yikes. Not the start I was hoping for. We meandered through the neighborhood, encountering a handful of cars along the way. The course couldn't have been easier, Miss Daisy might as well have been in the back seat. Still, the points kept coming off. "Didn't signal soon enough. Turned too sharply." I did my best to stay calm, but a horrifying thought laced its fingers around my mind.

I was blowing it.

The situation began to spiral out of control on a two-way side street. There was no painted line to mark the lanes, and the cars parked on both sides didn't leave much room. Throw in the fact that Volvos are deceptively narrow, and I was pretty nervous about sideswiping the parked cars. So I gave them a wide berth. My version of "giving them a safe berth," however, is not how Jagged Little Compton saw things.

"You're in the wrong lane."

"I'm what?"

"You're in the wrong lane, come to the right."

"I can't come right, I'll hit those cars."

"Move over, you are on the wrong side of the road!"

"But ... cars!"

Ever try to argue with an angry bureaucrat when your future's on the line? Words drift away. Logic steps out for a smoke, then skips town. I sat quietly, brow furrowed and mouth hung open, driving on some alternate plane of reality. She had me parallel park, which I vaguely recall not butchering, then we returned to the starting location. She docked one last point as we drifted to a stop.

The panic drained away, and now I was the one boiling over with rage. I survived the DMV, Henny, and the streets of Queens, only to be defeated by this kid? Seriously? This wasn't happening. This was happening to someone else, to the kid in line behind me, who was probably going to fail on the first try anyway. This was all a mistake. It had to be.

She tallied up her scratch marks, and let out a long breath through her nose. "Technically, I should fail you." My brain queued up every curse word in English, and started searching the archives in French and German. This was going to be a torrent of vulgarity for the ages. Poets would speak of it long after the fall of civilization.

"I'm not going to. But you have to be more careful on those two-way streets."

The torrent died in my throat. It was over. I had won. The nightmare was fading, leaving only the light of dawn. After two years and a hundred fifty bucks, I had my license back. My honest-to-God, government-approved, New York State driver's license. Holy shit.

When I got out of the car, the blood rushed to my head. I felt dizzy. Courtney took the keys, and asked how it went. I either said "Fine" or punched her, I don't remember which.

Q: Two vehicles approach an intersection. One of the drivers has let his license expire for no reason. His vehicle bursts into flames. Was this incident preventable? A: Yes. The driver could have tried not being a jackass.