Tuesday, February 3, 2009


The last time I had to renew my Driver’s License in person (rather than by mail) I was working at Universal Studios. I mention this not to brag, though I wouldn’t put that past me. I brag at the drop of a Borsalino. Which is a rather expensive type of hat. Which I happen to own. And it’s really nice.

I mention the fact that the last time I had to renew my Driver’s License in person I was working at Universal Studios because Universal Studios boasts a unique on-site feature. Universal Studios has its own branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles right there, on the studio lot.

Again, not bragging, but I’m not aware of any other studio having its own branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles located conveniently on the premises. The employees of other studios had to go to the regular DMV’s. With everyone else. We didn’t. We had our own place. Just for us.

And what a Department of Motor Vehicles it was. Not that I’m putting down the regular Departments of Motor Vehicles, exactly. It’s just that sometimes, those places have a discouraging vibe to them, not totally dissimilar to the Post Office. It’s like there’s this subtext of regret pervading the operation, like the people working there are thinking, “I have a job, and that’s good. But it’s this."

In contrast, at the Universal Studios Department of Motor Vehicles, you felt a positive vibe the moment you stepped through the door. It was all bright colors and sparkling smiles, sort of like the musical comedy version of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“Upbeat” doesn’t adequately capture the mood. You know how an office feels the day before Christmas. Giddy, verging on, “Who cares?” That’s what the Universal Studios Department of Motor Vehicles felt like every day. The concept of “official business” was almost an afterthought. This was more of a party atmosphere.

All of this mattered to me. And here’s why. There are three parts to renewing your California Driver’s License. You have to bring in your application form which they mail you. You have to pay the license fee. And you have to pass an eye test.

Yeah. It’s the third one. Not my easiest thing. If there were a continuum labeled, “Things I’m Good and Bad At”, seeing would sit way over on the “Bad” end, next to “Being comfortable at parties.” An eye test says, “We’d like to shine a light on pretty much the worst thing you know how to do.”

Understandably, I was nervous.

I hand the Universal DMV folks my application form. I pay my license fee. All that’s left is the eye test.

I stand at the line you’re supposed to read from. I cover my left eye, (not necessary because I can barely see out of it when it’s not covered.)

I focus on the eye chart. I’m having trouble making out the letters (which is a problem, because that’s all eye charts have on them). I stall. I make lame jokes. I complain about the glare from the overhead lighting. One thing remains constant. The letters on the eye chart are elusively out of reach.

At this point, a sympathetic employee from the Universal Studios Department of Motor Vehicles asks,

“Would you like to stand a little closer?”

“Can I?” I reply, trying to suppress my surprise. And appreciation.

I move closer. I pass the eye test. I may be misremembering this, but I believe the room erupted in a spontaneous cheer.

Flash Forward to yesterday morning.

I’m back at the DMV. It’s the regular one this time, a Department of Motor Vehicles devoid of any Universal Studios home field advantage. I have my application form. I’ve brought money for the license fee. I’m there for the eye test.

You can tell I was hardly looking forward to this ocular challenge. I’d received my invitation to this party two months ago. The appointment was for two days before my birthday (license renewals are keyed to your birthday). In two days, my California Driver’s license would be invalid. I’d have had to take a whole new test. Including a driving test.

I can’t explain why I put this off. Maybe I was hoping, in the intervening period, I would learn to see better. No, I don’t think that was it. I have a stock answer for why I tend to do things in the hardest and most excruciatingly agonizing manner imaginable.

Because I’m me.

That says nothing. And it says it all.

Arriving a few minutes early, I “recon” the DMV facility, looking for an easy eye chart. (This particular DMV had maybe sixteen windows, like in a bank, each with eye three charts posted on the wall behind them.) Looking for an easy eye chart’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Because of the glare from the fluorescent lighting, some of the eye charts really are easier to read. The problem is you don’t get a choice. You go to the eye chart they assign you to.

They assign me to Window Nine. The DMV employee takes my application form. He takes my money. (Which I’ve always found premature. What if I failed the eye test? Did they give me my money back?)

An now it’s “Game Time.” The DMV employee tells me to cover my left eye and read the chart.

I look at the Window Nine eye chart. It’s not one of the easy ones. I immediately make an excuse. Suspended from the ceiling as part of the DMV’s festive tribute to Valentines’ Day is a large red crepe paper ball. I complain to the DMV employee that the ball is obstructing my view. It’s not. I’m grasping at straws. I dance around, repositioning myself at a less challenging spot (where there’s less of a glare from the lights). I quickly read the letters.

C P F L A. (A little “heads up” for if you’re ever taking the test.)

He says, “Now, cover your right eye.” I say, “Let’s not waste each other’s time.” He lets it go. I pass.

I head for the parking lot, waiting for the relief to set in. It never does. I run half the gamut of emotions. Anxiety? Big time. Relief. Never. Why not?

Because I’m me.

My mind has jump-started into “worry” mode. About what?

The next time I have to renew my driver’s license.

And since it’s unlikely I’ll be working at Universal Studios

It’s going to be the hard way.


Anonymous said...


As an occasional pedestrian in your state, I take comfort in knowning that the streets of California are not generally lit by fluorescent lights. Even so -- I'll keep an eye out for you. What are you driving?

growingupartists said...

Do I sense a little "spring" in your step, a symbolic renewal? Wouldn't be the worst transformation a Jew ever had.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Earl! And it's not like you really ever drive much anyways, so relax. Loving the blog. Showed it to my classes today and told them they have to make blogs too. The inspiration was: If my friend Earl can do it....anyone can! (I refer, of course to the technical challenges. No one can write like you do!)
P. Gordon

Anonymous said...

No offense, Earl, but couldn't you get glasses or contact lenses to help you to see better??
Or is that what everyone else usually does, so you don't? :)

Unknown said...

I did the same thing sending my license by mail just to renew it sending it to DMV California . It was amazing.