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copyright 1999, Lois June Wickstrom   


Impossible Wishes and the DMV

by Lois Wickstrom


Every once in a while I find myself wanting something I can't have. In fourth grade, I wanted to be in with the in-crowd. In high school I wanted my poetry to sell to a national magazine. And when I was forty-four, in Philadelphia, I wanted a driver's license.

Each of these goals looked simple at the time. But I never did catch on to what made the in-kids in. A couple times they let me think I was getting close. They invited me to a party, but gave me wrong directions, and by the time I got there the refreshments were gone. They let me play four-square with them, but when it looked like I was winning, they changed the rules, right in the middle of the game. And they all had nicknames, like Super Sara, but when they made one for me it was Gweek.

Getting my poetry published got off to a better start. The campus poetry anthology chose my poetry. The local newspaper printed a poem. I even won a state contest with one poem. But when I tried the national magazines, all I got were form-letter rejections.

Still, I was hopeful when I applied for a Pennsylvania driver's license. Maybe this was an attainable goal. I'd been licensed to drive in California, Colorado and Florida. I'd been driving for 28 years without killing anybody. And getting a driver's license is supposed to be something normal people can do. The DMV doesn't require that you be a member of the in-crowd, or have poetry published in a national magazine. At least not in the official rules in the driver's handbook they gave me.

I called the testing office to make sure they were open, and to double check that I was bringing everything I'd need. "That's it," the man assured me. "Just your old license and your glasses if you need them. We'll waive the behind-the-wheel test if your out-of-state license is valid." And he added, "Be prepared for an hour-and-a-half wait."

"Don't you make appointments?" I asked. The man acted as if I were a Gweek for asking such a silly question. "Nope, we tried that," he said. "It didn't work." He couldn't explain how appointments didn't work. They work at dentists' offices and at car mechanics' garages. They even work at the DMV in Florida where the high school dropout rate is second-highest in the nation. He rejected the idea of an appointment as if it were a poem that didn't meet his current needs. Then he gave me directions to the testing center.

His instructions led me to a detour, and then on a goose-chase around a large park. And just like in elementary school, by the time I got to the testing center, everybody else was there ahead of me, and the refreshments in the juice machine were all gone. Plus, I had to parallel park in a one-hour zone, so I was sure I'd get a parking ticket while waiting to get my driver's license.

While standing in line, I decided to read the rules book, even though rules are supposed to be the same from state to state. But this book was different. It didn't discuss the standard stuff like what a double double yellow line means in the middle of a street. Instead, it gave folksy driving tips like what o'clock to put your hands on the steering wheel, and what to do when driving on snow. Ominously, the book did promise that the test would only cover the laws.

Finally, after two hours in line, I was only inches from the main door. Then a woman came out of the testing room and announced, "No one will be allowed to take the driving rules test unless he presents a social security card for identification." They were changing the rules in the middle of the game, just as I was winning.

When I returned to the testing center, social security card in hand, and parked in another one-hour zone, the line of would-be test-takers snaked around the waiting room and out the door. After another two hours, I entered the testing room. In the middle of this archaic bureaucratic tangle, there sat rows of computers administering the tests, while one harried woman hand wrote people's names on cards, and looked at a computer screen to see who had passed. It would have been faster and more accurate if the woman had entered the names into the computer and scored the tests by hand. Someone had given her wrong directions, too.

They lied about the test. It did ask where you are supposed to put your hands on the steering wheel. (The Pennsylvania answer is 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock. My instructor in California had taught me 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock.) I don't drive with my hands in either position. And I've never heard of anybody getting a ticket for having the wrong o'clock hands. I passed the test, anyhow. It was kind of like getting my poem into the high school anthology __ it didn't get me to my ultimate goal. It got me a place in the line for the eye test.

I passed that, too. But the examiner still didn't give me a license. No, I hadn't broken any more unlisted rules, like saying "gotcha" while wearing socks in a four_square game. It turned out they don't give driver's licenses at the testing facility in Philadelphia.

The examiner filled out another multipart paper form by hand. He rubber stamped some little boxes on it, and then he check marked others. Finally he gave me two copies of my paperwork. "Where's my license?" I innocently asked. "The handicapped people have the contract to take the pictures. You send this form to Harrisburg along with $22, and they'll send you a picture authorization card and a list of picture taking places."

I looked around the building. It didn't appear handicapped accessible. "You'll get your card in about three weeks," the man said. "Your temporary is good for 120 days." He confiscated my Florida license with my smiling picture on it.

While I waited for my card, I tried to use my temporary license for check cashing identification. "Is that your license number?" hopeful merchants asked. "I don't think so," I responded. "I think that's just a number the DMV stamped on my form." The temporary form was about as useful for identification as my birth certificate which says I weigh 5 pounds and 11 ounces.

Finally, about a month later, Harrisburg mailed me a photo authorization card. But they didn't use my real name. They chose to give me the nickname of Hois. That may be better than Gweek, but it's not what I want on my driver's license. Besides, the only way to have a license that said Hois would be if I had two pieces of signature identification also certifying my name as Hois.

I called Harrisburg. They said "No problem. We'll fix it and get you a new card in the mail." Instead they sent me an official name change card to be carried with my Hois license, just as if I'd had a legal name change from Hois to Lois. I was back in the four_square game. So close to winning and they changed the rules again. Since I couldn't get the Hois license, the name change card was useless. I was starting to think that it might save time if I got my name legally changed to Hois.

I called Harrisburg again. "Oh, they told you the wrong rules. The only way to get a new picture authorization card with your name spelled correctly is to get a notarized form stating you are not now, and nor have you ever been called by the name of Hois." By this time 68 of my 120 temporary days were gone. I was envisioning having to start over in that long line to take the computer test again.

Finally, two weeks later, a photo authorization with my name spelled correctly arrived in the mail. I went to the photo location, which was handicapped accessible, and big enough to give the driving tests as well. They took my picture. And still I didn't get a license.

"We have to take your picture again. We forgot to put film in the camera." A sign on the wall at the picture taking place said they were making two sets of the pictures so they'd have records for criminal identification. The second bulb flashed while I was still recovering from the green blob after-effects of the first one. My photo looks like that of a drunken criminal.

Maybe this license shows why my other goals have been unattainable. Anybody who looks like that should be named Hois. Or maybe Gweek.