The California Driving Handbook
A Novel
Edmund G. Brown, Governor
Today I'm afraid I'm going to lose my state-granted permit to drive. I've enjoyed sixty-seven years of freedom --- I got my very first driver's license in 1947 --- and over the years that slim piece of paper has allowed me to escape a sullen family, a nagging wife, a boring party, a drunken brawl, a street fight, a screaming child, an abusive lover, a knife-wielding friend, a brutal uncle ... and a creep who would have beat me senseless if he had gotten to me before I got out (sorry, no details available --- I've forgotten almost everything).

Now, here, in my new-found senility, the loss of the freedom to drive, to escape in my old Pontiac, looms large in my life. There is a chance, a rather large one I believe, that today they will be snatching my pedal from the metal.

As a reward for these eighty years that now hang so uneasily on my aching shoulders, The Authorities, if they so choose, can take my wheels from me. The anarchist in me despises the power they have to put me into the jail of my own home with a mere wave of the hand, a raised eyebrow. So I must, this afternoon, go to their big drab noisy building and meekly apply for a five-year re-up of my freedom to ride. What will they do, I wonder, when they see the shaky old geezer I've become since five years ago when I appeared (I keep thinking) so much younger and frisky. Will they pull out a rubber stamp and (bonk!) stamp REJECTED on the form I present to them just because of my blotched mug, the beaky nose, the twitching, half-closed, rheumy eyes, the dewlaps, the quivery hands, the wrinkles atop wrinkles? If so, could I indict them for Elder Abuse? I doubt it.

What will I do if they take the license from me? Who gave them all that power, anyway? They have the right, duty and obligation --- I understand --- to steal the freedom I have to leave my home and go to the Bourbon and Branch Bar across town, to go to Stinson Beach, to go to the zoo, to go to the park, to drive 3000 miles east, or north, or south, if I so wish. They can steal that freedom from me with a mere click of a computer key.

Without their wretched little piece of paper, how am I to do all the things I insist on doing on my own, every day, at any hour? To go to the dump, to the store, to the deli, to the barber, to the sex store, to the next state, to the next country, to the next world. On my own.

If they shut off this spigot, must I stay home in my rocking chair? Do I become a criminal by merely getting in the car and starting the engine and taking off as I have done for lo these many years?

§   §   §

I was nervous when I got to the DMV, nervous and talky: I wanted all to see how alive and with-it I was. This is no geeze drifting off (I wanted them to know), no wrinkled prune wandering about in his last senescent years.

I made it through the forms, stood in the lines, answered the usual questions. And then came the written exam.

I have to tell you, I have not anticipated nor feared an exam like I anticipated and feared this one. The ones I took years ago that got me into this or that university or college, the one that got me admission to a law school (if I wanted; I didn't) or business school (if I wanted; I didn't) or into a graduate program in English (I wanted, sorta) or a permit to be a social worker (I wanted, but soon enough came back to my senses.)

This exam mattered to me as much as any of them. They put you in a little booth and you have to answer 18 questions and if you don't get 15 right, you lose. The questions about the alcohol figures (with .08% or more schnapps in your blood you are out) or whether you can pass a trolley on the left or the right (no) and when you should turn on your headlights (a half-hour after official sunset; in fog; in heavy rainstorms) or how and where you can turn left from a one-way street onto a two-lane two-way street. Or the penalty for pushing an animal out of your car onto the edge of a freeway (6 months in the slammer!) or making woopee in a vehicle "within 1,000 feet of a residence." No foreplay in a Ford (no! no! no!) ... even though I presume my days of philandering, even in a car, are, alas, long gone.

All of these are of more than passing interest because I can lose my license if I don't know the "Three Second Rule" on freeways (has to do with tailgating) or the speed limit in alleys (15 mph) or whether you can or cannot make a U-Turn on a residential district street (yes) or in a business district (only at intersections) or the exact height or weight of a child who (it's the law!) must be strapped down in a government-approved baby seat (under 4-feet 9-inches, less than eighty pounds). (And I wonder how am I to bond with my beloved grandchild who has been lashed down a prisoner behind me?)

Without this essential knowledge, I would for the first time in sixty years be foot-bound, like those elegant ladies in China. Not knowing the maximum speed in urban neighborhoods (25 mph) and how fast you will react at 55 mph to an emergency ahead (400 feet) and in which directions you have to turn your wheel when parking facing uphill on a street without curbs (to the right) and who has the right-of-way if you are on a one-lane road in the country and you are coming down and meet a car going up (the car coming down wins). If I fail a couple of these vital questions I will be denied, for the rest of my days, the wheels I need to go where I want when I want as often as I want.

When I was done with the exam the guy behind the counter --- the one who looked just like a Marx (Chico, not Karl) --- took it (one second) and checked it (twenty seconds) and took the time (three seconds) to scrawl, in caps, 100%. Tomorrow, it will be framed, hanging on my wall right next to the picture of my gramps. Who drove (cars, tractors, Peterbilts ) for fifty years without a silly little piece of paper in his wallet with his picture on it. Until his fatal crash.

And so, now, temporarily, they have decided that I can still run free.

At least for the next five years.

Or until they catch me.

§   §   §

The California Driving Manual is about an odd a novel as I've ever read. The hero is a Goody Two-Shoes (the Safe Driver) who follows all laws having to do with locomotion. He stops for school children and school buses and trains, never sings Frère Jacques at the top of his lungs coming down from a night in the mountains boozing with friends and never worries who has the right of way if he meets someone coming uphill. Goody pulls over when fire engines wail by, stops at cross walks for the blind, never smokes a doob in the car (looking in the mirror every half-second or so), always avoids looking at accidents at the side of the road.

He pays attention in "Cone Zones," never plays with himself on lonely dusty roads just outside of Bakersfield late at 1 AM, stays 300 feet behind all ambulances, rats on other drivers by calling 911 when they appear to be driving drunk, never rolls down the window of his car and screams "You stupid fuck!" when an idiot pulls out of the alley just ahead. He refuses to appoint a designated driver when he wobbles out of the It'll Do Tavern after his fifth round, and even makes note of --- and apparently accepts, and doesn't even gag at --- the concept of a judge being empowered to suspend his driver's license if he is spotted "Engaging in lewd conduct and prostitution in a vehicle within 1,000 feet of a residence." No Foreplay in a Ford Firebird; no Coupling in a Cadillac; no shagging in your Chevrolet.

I recommend The California Driving Manual to you for study day-and-night three days prior to your day of being initiated or reinitiated into the land of the blameless driver. But I warn you, if you are nearing your 80th or 85th (or 90th!) birthday, remember that some sourpuss at the driver's license bureau can cut off your water if you miss three questions: How many feet can a car drive in a bike lane before turning at a corner? (200). What's the speed limit when you are crossing railroad tracks? (unlimited if you hear the sound of a whistle; zero if you're stuck --- I just made that one up.) When can you drive with your parking lights only? (never). What happens to traffic fines in construction zones? (they double). Are there absolutely no exceptions to the rule against diddling in the front seat of your Stutz Bearcat within 1,000 feet of a residence (only if you are with a relative of an employee of the DMV).

And what happens if you are on 805 heading south at 65 mph and suddenly to your right you see a beautiful lady driving parallel to your car and she is topless, or a man shirtless and shortless? Do you speed up? Slow down? Must you toot your horn? If you're caught staring and blinking your lights, will they suspend you forever? What's his or her fine going to be, if any? Are you going to rat on them?

§   §   §

The day I got my new license in the mail I called my lawyer to let him know that I was good for another five years, despite being old, shaky, half-blind, and a dyed-in-the-wool nightclub tippler. He congratulated me.

"Of course there was a condition attached to it." I told him.

"What's that?" he asked.

"That I'm never ever to drive alone within a thousand feet of an open-air Farmer's Market."

"Strange," he said. "Such a strange caveat! I've never heard of one like that before."

--- A. W. Allworthy
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