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ralph robert moore

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like a drummer
august 1, 2017


In Texas, you can renew your driver's license online, a great convenience, and only have to physically show up at the Texas Department of Public Safety every 12 years, basically to get a new picture of yourself taken, because certainly our faces do change over 12 years of living, sometimes not for the better, and to make sure your eyesight is still good enough for you to operate a motor vehicle. This ease of license renewal lasts until you turn 79, at which point you have to take a driving test, much as you did as a child with beautiful skin and really nice hair, to make sure it's safe to have you behind a wheel. I have no idea why the state of Texas decided on "12 years" and "79 years old", but I'm sure it's based on some sort of sincere discussion around a conference table, smell of coffee, on a side table a tray of beige doughnuts, one side of each dipped in a pink glaze, decorated with crunchy green and yellow sprinkles, and the parameters do seem reasonable.

Mary and I got notices in the mail we'd have to show up in person at the DPS this time to renew our licenses (12 years had passed since the last time we had to show up in person at the department).

Fuck.

I don't like going to the post office. There's always a long line, there's always eight windows for postal workers to assist people with their shipments, six of those windows are always closed, and the remaining two open windows are always manned by people who are nice enough as individuals, but who obviously have no incentive whatsoever to be fast, or efficient. So you waste an hour standing in line, shifting foot to foot, while the customer at the one open counter (because the post office employee at the only other open counter has wandered off into the back with no explanation) chats endlessly with the middle-aged ponytailed clerk about how their cousin in Chattanooga can't find a pair of sneakers that fits right, she's found some sneakers where the front of the sneaker is not too bad, her toes aren't really squeezed together too tight, although it'd be nice if there was just a little more room for her toes, but of course you have to compromise in life, but the back of her sneakers, that's another story, they're tight and ride up the tendon on the back of her ankle, to where after not that many steps they begin to chafe, and that can get really unpleasant, because her cousin has to walk quite a bit, she's not allowed to park right up against the building where she works, even though there are always open spaces, because she's not salaried, which really doesn't seem fair. (I do firmly believe there is a subspecies of demon who deliberately behaves in such a way as to make others waiting behind them have to wait even longer. It's the demon's only power, and manifests in many ways. Starting to walk away from the supermarket shelf where boxes of rice are displayed, realizing you're about to reach for the box you've been patiently waiting to grab, then deciding to stay longer, pulling down a random box from the shelf, meticulously reading the entire back of the box, and both sides; on a two-lane highway, driving in the passing lane, coming up alongside a car in the right lane, and then driving at the same speed asthat car, effectively creating a two-car roadblock preventing anyone else from passing them; holding up a finger during a conversation to stop all talk while they pretend to frame the rest of their sentence in their mind, lifting their chin, staring off.)

But going to the post office is not Hell. Going to the post office is Heaven.

Compared to going to the Department of Public Safety.

When we had to show up at the offices 12 years ago, there was a branch in our small town. Trees in full pink bloom outside its modest front entrance, birds chirping, blue sky with the white puffs of jet trails. I still remember that. Mary and I walked in, a window was open, the clerk immediately took care of us. "Still windy outside?" Could not be friendlier or more efficient. Right hand, left hand stamping different forms, one after the other, like a drummer. We were back in the parking lot in fifteen minutes, me angling a fresh cigarette between my lips, reaching into the side pocket of my jacket for a lighter.

But that office closed, I guess to irritate me.

The new office we had to go to, instead of being a few blocks over, was twenty miles away, in a different town.

I went on line, to MapQuest, to get driving directions, because it involved a couple of highways.

All my life, I've suffered from spatial disorientation. And found out later in life, the last time I ever saw him, my dad did too. Spatial disorientation means you can't visualize where point B is in relation to point A. In order for me to get from one place to another, I have to memorize landmarks to show me where to go straight, where to turn right or left. I can only see the trees; I can't see the forest. If I approach our home from a different direction, even though we've lived here a quarter of a century, I'm completely lost. Same thing going into a store. Unless I memorize where I started, where I turned this way or that, how many aisles or rows I walked across, I can't find my way back to the front of the store. It's extremely inconvenient, as you might imagine.

So when I'm driving down different highways and side streets to get to a destination, it's vital I know exactly where to go.

When I put my destination into MapQuest, Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), Lyndon B Johnson Service Road, Dallas, Texas, MapQuest displayed directions for getting from our home to four different destinations, none of them located in Texas. Two were in Louisiana, one was in Kansas, and one in Montana. The fuck?

I admit, it made me very uneasy about how I was ever going to navigate us from our home to another city across twenty miles of snaking highways when I had absolutely no idea where I was going (Ian Fleming wrote once about how he disliked the word 'very', since it was an empty word, and indeed it is, but I am using it here just to emphasize the degree of my unease).

Eventually, by finding out what is next to the Texas Department of Safety, and finding the route to get to that adjacent building, I was able to plot a route.

New problem. Mary had a stroke back in 2002. As a result of that stroke, she has aphasia, damage to the language center in her brain, so it's difficult for her to verbalize what she wants to say, or understand what others are saying. Otherwise, she has no cognitive difficulties. Nothing about her aphasia would impair her ability to drive a car. But the new application for a driver's license asks if the applicant has a condition which would make it difficult for them to converse with a police officer. And of course Mary does. So we have to check 'Yes'. By checking Yes, we are required to submit a form, filled out and signed by Mary's primary physician, that affirms Mary has difficulty communicating (which is absurd on its face: Why the fuck would someone pretend to have difficulty communicating?) Anyway, I contacted Mary's physician (who is also my physician), and she immediately downloaded the form, filled it out and signed it, and mailed it to us in time for our visit to DPS.

Early (for us) Thursday, October 12, about eight a.m., we got dressed and started driving towards the DPS location. What we didn't count on was that we were driving right into the rising sun, so that it was impossible to read any of the highway signs. I had to rely entirely on instinct to know when to switch from one highway to another. Because we were blinded by the sun, once we went down the exit ramp of the final highway, speeding along the access road, we couldn't read any of the street signs for the cross roads to find the one we wanted until we were almost under the traffic light at that intersection, which made knowing when to turn left and right rather harrowing. Fortunately, Fuck!, Goddamn It!, and What the fucking hell! helped us out tremendously. Like prayers, curse words can be so useful, and we were finally able to glide into the DPS parking lot, which we realized with a great sinking was an immense lot, and already, at this early hour, jam-packed with cars. We had to park way in back.

Taking Mary's hand, I led us to the Morlockian front doors.

Inside was vast. Think of a vast, low-ceilinged interior space in your mind, and it was vaster than that.

Rows of benches upon benches upon benches upon benches stretching backwards to infinity. Loudspeakers announcing nonsense letter and number combinations.

After a minute of standing inside the entrance, trying to take it all in, children holding hands at the main tent of a circus, we guessed that we probably had to get into a long, winding line deeper in the building, to register our arrival. (There were absolutely no signs posted anywhere as to how to start the process of renewing your license. You were completely on your own, like a newborn gazelle dropping to the ground from the swollen verticality of its mother's vagina, while the mother continues galloping with her herd across a savanna thick with bluestem grass.)

We stood in that line for half an hour, nobody advancing, before the person at the front was eventually called to the large square processing area. When it was finally our turn, the clerk started to hand us our renewal forms. I explained to her we had already downloaded the forms and completed them. She seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would do that. Handed us two white squares of paper with alpha-numeric sequences (since we were both renewing our licenses), and told us to find a place to sit until our tickets were called.

"A couple of hours passed" is such a short sentence to read, it only takes three seconds, but spending three seconds to read that sentence in no way conveys the length of time we had to sit in chairs in this vast, ceiling-noisy auditorium waiting for our ticket to be called. There are 20 three-second segments in each minute; 1,200 segments in an hour; 2,400 segments in two hours. So say "A couple of hours passed" 2,400 times out loud, and that's how long we waited.

Most of the time Mary and I sat side by side in our row of chairs, lost in our own thoughts, occasionally raising our eyebrows towards each other, smiling, squeezing each other's hand, just trying to power through this. Occasionally I joked around with two black guys sitting to my right. At one point, one of the black women in the large square processing area announced, "There is no food or drink allowed inside the building." Since we had a blue plastic water bottle filled with ice cubes and water, and she was staring right at me as she made the announcement from thirty feet away, I got out of my seat, walked over to one of the wastebaskets by the restrooms, and threw out our water bottle.

Every once in a while, a pre-recorded woman's voice would politely announce the new set of applicants who should head towards a long stretch of registration stations disappearing into the artificially-lit distance. The impersonal feminine voice sounded like someone announcing when different parties would board the spaceship. Our tickets were S150 and S151. She'd go, "E122 please proceed to station 4. E123, please proceed to station 6. E124, please proceed to station 9." You would think the next set of announcements would be for E125, but instead it would be for B103. It really didn't appear to make any kind of sense.

Our numbers finally got called.

We went to the station associated with our numbers, and sat down in front of a counter, red-bearded guy on the other side. I explained we were both renewing our licenses, and I would go first (I figured if I went first, it would give Mary a chance to observe what the process was, so she could imitate it). I passed to him across the counter my already filled-out renewal form. Stood up, leaned over, pressed both thumbs against a glass machine on the counter for a really long time, while the machine recorded my thumbprints. Still standing, I stared down at a circle below a camera mounted high above the counter, as the red-beard took a picture of my face. He swiveled left to check his computer monitor. "Let's try another one."

I hunched over again, staring at the circle below the camera. Snap. Swivel to the left, waiting for the monitor to display my latest image. "Okay!" More tappings at the computer, pushing back in his swivel chair while he waited for the printer to print. Except it didn't. "This printer's been acting up." I lifted my eyebrows. "They always let us down." Grin, looking back at his printer, the monitor. Tapped some more keys. Finally, paper rolling out.

He lifted the sheet from the tray, handed it to me. "This is your temporary driver's license until the real one arrives in the mail, figure about two weeks."

I glanced down at the sheet of paper, saw my black and white face on the page.

"So now your wife?"

I handed him Mary's renewal form. "Mary had a stroke in 2002. As a result of that stroke, she has a condition called aphasia, which means a difficulty understanding language. So on the renewal form, where it asks if the applicant would have any difficulty communicating with a police officer, we indicated yes, and we've included a form from Mary's physician as required, affirming she does have aphasia."

The thing is, it would be obvious once Mary talked to the clerk that she did have difficulty speaking and understanding what was being said to her, and it would be helpful to have that issue mentioned on her driver's license, so a police officer would know to spend more time getting her to understand what he was saying, what she was saying.

Red beard obviously hadn't dealt with this before. Fuck.

He got nervous. Spoke to his supervisor, a heavy set woman in the next booth. After a few exchanges between the two of them, she rolled over from her booth to his in her wheelchair, looked at Mary's application. "We'll need to have your wife take a driving test, and pass a written exam."

"Why would that be? She renewed her driver's license in 2004, after her stroke, and it was a simple process. No driving test, no written exam."

She brought up Mary's driver's license history on red beard's computer. "The renewal was in 2005." Stupid face looking at me triumphantly, like I was a criminal for getting the year wrong.

"Okay. So even more recent."

That caught her off-guard. "Even so…we have to establish she's capable of driving."

The thing is, you can't fight with bureaucracy. I mean, you can, but it will rarely get you anywhere. Mary would incur a lot of stress if she had to take a driving test, and I didn't want to put her through that. Plus she wouldn't be able to pass a written exam, because of her aphasia. She'd know the answers, but wouldn't be able to understand the questions, or write the answers. And the truth was, I've always done all the driving anyway.

Mary and I consulted, leaning sideways towards each other. "Can Mary simply apply for a Texas ID card instead?"

TO BE CONTINUED