01 March 2006

Life at 16: The License Test

steering wheelRumor had it that it was easier to get your driver's license in Southland than in North City. I lived closer to North City, but if there was a way to lessen the chance I'd have to parallel park, I was willing to try it. Every day of Easter vacation before my test, I drove the 30 minutes to Southland to practice.

I was having problems. The side roads were narrow, and I couldn't quite get my three-point-turns in three points without pulling into someone's driveway or hitting the curb. Both errors heralded failure according to what I'd learned in driver's ed. Only two days before my test, I finally started to get the hang of parallel parking. I was a wreck all week.

The day of the test, Mom and I arrived at the DMV fifteen minutes early. To pass the time, I read all the signs on the walls. And then I read them again several times over. The three-point turn was mandatory. So was backing up 50 feet.

When it was time for my appointment, the clerk informed us the examiner was running late, and there were still two other people ahead of me. I did my best to stay calm while she told me to go wait in my car.

shirt sleeveThe next half hour felt like a very long time. The day was unusually warm for April, and the sun was hot through the windshield; I started to regret wearing my lucky shirt: a rich blue, heavy, long-sleeved tee from Banana Republic. I shoved the sleeves up past my elbows, and looked at Mom in the rearview mirror. State law mandated that a parent, guardian, or driving instructor had to accompany minors taking the driving test. She looked more nervous than I did because of the waiting. In an attempt to lighten the mood, she joked that she'd hit the floor if I should be braking.

Finally, the examiner arrived, a gruff man with bristly salt and pepper hair named Zucco. He told me to start the car, and I told him to put his seat belt on.seat belt My cousin had warned me that they take points off if you don't mention it before you pull out; it didn't improve Zucco's humor at all. "Go ahead," he growled as he searched for the seat belt.

The engine almost didn't turn over because I hadn't touched the gas pedal, but I caught it just in time to keep the car running. He told me to drive into town. As I pulled out of the parking lot, making sure to stop before the sidewalk, I made sure he wanted me to go right.

"Yes," he huffed as if I was the dumbest kid and greatest imposition he'd ever encountered.

At the next light, a T-intersection, I was pretty sure I should go left and decided it was better to guess than to check with him. When he didn't comment, I started to relax a little a bit, but then a traffic light turned yellow right in front of me. The car came to a slightly jerked stop, but I tried not to worry about it as the test continued.

Pedestrians were everywhere since it was such a beautiful day; every few feet I was stopping at another crosswalk. Zucco instructed me to turn right onto the one-way street, Railroad, which I knew was shaped like a boxy U that ended back on Main Street a block behind us. I stopped at another crosswalk on Main and then as I turned onto Railroad Street, I stopped again for people who'd just started crossing from the far side.

"Go ahead, they don't have anything better to do," Zucco commanded gruffly.

I thought to myself, OK, guy. Chill. I continued driving up the street when he pointed out a space and told me to parallel park. On the LEFT. This was something I'd never done before. If that weren't bad enough, I had to pull up beside a wide truck which was in the space ahead of the one I hoped to back into. As it was, I wasn't very good at parking on the right in between normal sized cars. I decided not to give up and did my best. Unfortunately, I wasn't looking over my left shoulder. I cringe to think how stupid that must have looked, but in the stress of the moment, it just didn't occur to me. Mom told me later that she'd wanted to signal me to look the other way and had even almost hit the floor with her foot, but she'd restrained herself.

So, unaided, I commenced inching back and forth into the space. Zucco interrupted me, "Just pull out. The idea is to get it in in one shot and not disrupt traffic."

I kept calm by assuring myself that he couldn't fail me if I couldn't park on the left. Just around the top corner of the street, he told me to parallel park on the right, behind another truck, in front of a driveway. I tried but I knew I wasn't getting it. I was in the driveway and I knew it, and I was sure he did too. And then I hit the curb. He told me to pull out, so I figured that was it: I'd failed.

I checked for oncoming traffic and started to pull out when a car whipped around the blind corner. Hitting the brakes, I narrowly avoided an accident and figured now I'd flunked the test twice.

"You've got to stay awake and be alert!" Zucco shouted.

I drove around the rest of the block, and when we got to Main Street again, I asked him if he wanted me to go left (back to the registry).

"No, we're going to go around and park again."

This guy is really trying to torture me. As I drove down Main Street, he pointed out a space on the right in front of a fire hydrant. Warily, I surveyed his face, wondering if this was some sort of trick. Noticing my hesitation, he growled, "There's enough room."

It wasn't the reassurance I was hoping for, but by then I knew it was the best I could expect to get from him. I backed in without hitting the curb, but still close to it, evenly spaced between the surrounding vehicles, parallel: it was perfect. "Pull out," Zucco said, "and go back around the block."

As soon as I turned onto Railroad Street, Zucco was aggressively rolling down his window. Some people had double-parked since we'd last been around the block. "Hey! You can't do that!" he roared at a sidewalk full of tourists, "We're gonna send someone out to get you!"

This is what I drove an extra twenty minutes for? I made myself breathe calmly and stay focused on the road.

Once we got around to Main Street again, he told me to drive back to the registry. No three-point-turn, no backing up fifty feet? I've definitely flunked.

Exacerbating my dismay, the parking lot behind the registry was packed. The first two teenagers tested had only to make a u-turn to park right behind the building. I scoped out my options and clicked on my directionals, but Zucco shook his head and barked, "That's not registry parking. Park next to that jeep."

I shut off the engine and as he got out, he turned back to say, "Go in and tell the clerk you passed," before walking away.

I stared at the registry's door as it slowly eased shut behind him. "Did I hear that right?" I asked tentatively.

"Yes," Mom replied with a laugh, "Congratulations, honey."

For a few minutes, I sat there unable to move. I had been prepared to flunk, not to pass. My hand was shaking so badly that I could barely sign my name on my license. Once Mom and I were ready to leave, I refused to drive home.

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  1. Danny Zucco was your driver's ed teacher? I always wondered what happened to him after Grease!

  2. Funny, Sam just posted about his driving lessons... (And I commented with the story of my failed exam!)

    Good for you, I'm sure your managing not to swear at him had something to do with it...

  3. Scholiast: Honestly, I think not falling apart or lashing out is why I passed.

  4. Well, you know, staying calm is critical for a driver... Doesn't matter how excellent you park your car if you can't control yourself in tight traffic!

    Good for you!