Maybe, when I asked the enormous, perspiring driving inspector how he was and he responded, “I am fine, sir, thank God,” I shouldn’t have laughed right out loud. But I did. And it all went – as we say in driving parlance – downhill from there.
There were two of us renting the driving school’s official mascot (a lemon), for the road test required to reclaim our long-neglected, expired licenses. Juan, the other guy, looked to be about my age (but straight, so he could have been thirty). We each had a short refresher lesson from George, an instructor with what I’ll call a new perspective on the English language. Not that he didn’t use the correct words; he just didn’t use enough of them, and the ones you got were mumbled in a hybrid Asian/Queens accent I’d never heard the likes of before. This caused his anecdotes – not to mention the actual instructing – to lack a certain…coherence. Initially, the notion of parallel parking with an audience of two was a bit disconcerting, but Juan had a good sense of humor, so we got through it.
GEORGE (muttering): Too close. Gonna be tight. No, that’s okay, keep going. Mile away. Gonna take five points off for that. (Opens door and actually looks.) No, you’re fine. Good job.
I was accustomed to this kind of eagle-eye precision by now: the previous day I’d embarked on a full-length, 45-minute odyssey with George, while he buried his face in his appointment book and took a few calls. At one point, as I was looking left for approaching traffic before turning, he said, without so much as glancing up,”You need to look left. Shoulda looked left. Hello, George speaking.”
So after our brush-up lessons, which featured the tale of a DMV-rocking scandal involving payoffs and a 4:30 appointment tomorrow (??!), we turned onto a desolate block in the Bronx and pulled up into the line to await our tests. George used this time to inform us that our inspector might be named Ollie (or Ali [or Harry - who the hell knows]), and that he used to work at the DMV but had not been associated with the aforementioned scandal we now knew absolutely nothing about. “He talks a lot,” said George, “but that’s okay.”
A short ninety minutes later, we were up. Juan and I had agreed to a coin toss, which I won, so I heartlessly sent him to his fate first. George and I waited on the sidewalk as Juan got into the driver’s seat, at which point George advised me to look in the opposite direction in order to avoid “annoying the inspector.” (Really?? Hoo boy.) Said inspector, who by this time may have had a different name entirely, lumbered over and threw his 300-plus pounds into the passenger seat with audible fury, and they were off – on two wheels. Before long they had returned, with Juan appearing slightly drained, but newly licensed. Now, it was my turn. And by God, I would be signaling.
Sometimes the learning process continues right through the testing process; for example, I learned that George had not been riding the passenger-side brake for the duration of my lessons as I’d suspected, but a sluggish fuel-delivery system was simply a bonus feature of the compact heap now lurching down the cratered streets of Riverdale. At least the inspector was a peach, the epitome of professionalism and patience, rattling off his instructions in a deliberately confusing monotone: “Keep driving straight please. Continue driving straight make a right please. Continue park the vehicle please.” (What?) You also need to know that this was accompanied by a litany of exasperated noisemaking and foot stomping designed to establish world-weary authority and intimidate his lowly subjects. During one particularly harrowing parallel parking attempt, with my oppressor gasping and sighing like there was only one donut left that he couldn’t quite get to, I hesitated while assessing my position.
Ollie stomped on the brake (possibly), and hissed, “Sir. Back. The car. Up.”
I inched backward.
Another stomp from Ali, who scolded, “Sir. Why are you backing up when clearly you need to be going forward.”
“Because,” I replied, trying my best not to grind my molars into powder, “I think you just said to back up.”
“Well sometimes you’re just gonna have to take charge,” said Harry, rolling his fat eyes. “Sir.”
“In that case, get out,” is what I did not say after that.
A few additional adventures later (including a flawless parking success which Oreo chose to ignore completely), I pulled up to our home curb, certain I’d failed. Miraculously, Arlo chose to grant me my license, along with the admonition to “practice your parking. And your turns. And your steering.” (And driving. And clean up that room. And finish your peas.) With great difficulty, he clambered out of the vehicle. “Thank you,” I rasped, ready for a nap. “You’re very welcome, sir,” he said warmly, moving slowly toward his next victim.
Soon after, as George hurtled down Broadway on our return trip to Manhattan, Juan and I compared notes.
“He was mean,” I said.
“Oh, thank God, I thought it was just me,” said Juan. “At one point, he actually grabbed the wheel and said, ‘Sir! What is the matter with you?!’”
I guess the “sir” is key. But no matter. We’d accomplished our goals, and it was over. I know I’ll never let my license lapse again. I may never drive again either, after that ordeal, but I might. After all, we were adequately prepared and, thanks to George, we had been warned. I think.