Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The $300 plastic card

This is a rather long story without commercial breaks. So please blink and look away frequently to get the soap out of your eyes.

$300 - credit card? gift card? No. It's a Driver's License. This is the obligatory fleeting view of the present before the long flashback, so here goes.

April 2006

All the guys around me were planning to take the written test to get a Learner's License (having secured financial aid and internships for the summer, this was the next "peak" for the PIGS to conquer). It was the usual once we found a copy of the Driver's Manual on the internet (for free, of course) - try to remember every word on every page, try to trap other people with 'trick' questions, take pride in reciting 3 decimal places, revise the material in the bus all the way to the DMV (Dept. of Motor Vehicles).

I cleared the test and was feeling pretty good - only 3 months in the US and on par with people who had come in Fall 2005. I paid $23 for the Instruction Permit, already thinking about how to compensate (eat more free pizzas, shop for bland cereal for a few weeks, etc.). Three of us scheduled a drive test on the same day, ignoring the advice of the elders.

May 2006

My roommate was kind enough to give his car, so the three of us showed up for the road test on the same day. When it was my turn, I started by setting off a blast of hot air in the officer's face. Didn't know they would be asking about all the knobs in front. And then I turned with a flourish from the wrong lane, sealing my fate for that day. Anyway, only one of the 3 got his license that day, so I didn't feel too bad.


Next followed the usual period of procrastination - for the whole of summer, fall till I had successfully forgotten whatever little I had learnt for this test.

May 2007

I finally scheduled another appointment. By that time, all the "elders" with cars had left for the vacation, forcing me to rent a car. And what day should I choose but the start of a long weekend. The rental company did their usual thing - push the car no one would rent onto the unsuspecting guy. So there I was, for my next test, in an uncomfortable cross between a car and a minivan. All I could see when I turned back were the car's huge C-pillars. It was a surprise that I didn't knock over anything bigger than a cone in my parallel parking. "Get to know your car", said the officer, without any sympathy for the $70 that I had just spent.

($23 + $70 = $93)

June 2007

I reached California, happy that I didn't have to rent out a car again for my test. I could drive the car that my company had been nice enough to pay the rent for. I showed up for the written test again, finished it, all the while wishing that road tests were this easy. All I got for the $27 was a piece of paper with my name on it. I confidently made an appointment for a road test since I had already driven this car for more than 200 miles without hitting a cone or the curb.

($93 + $27 = $120)

I was at the DMV early on June 17, for my road test. There was a pre-test screen when the lady at the counter chose to read the entire 3 pages of my rental contract. She settled on the point which said, "This car shall not be used in races, contests or tests". Funny how government offices in any country (well, at least the 2 I've lived in) choose to make the lives of the people who come to them difficult. She chose to interpret the 'test' as a driver test, while it was obvious that the contract referred to a test of the car. So I was turned away this time without even taking the car out of the parking lot.

I made another appointment for the 27th of June. When I showed up that day, I thought I would outwit the lady (has this ever worked?), so lingered around in the queue until I could go to another person. This time, I didn't hand over the rental contract and gave him only the receipt for the rental. Apparently, this guy did not have much to do that time of the morning, so he ended up calling rental office and asking him if taking the test was allowed. Of course, the rental guy was only too happy to say no.

There I was, my 'brilliant' plan foiled, grinning sheepishly at the appointments guy. He just assumed that I must be a really bad driver and gave me my third appointment for July 9.

July 2007

July 9
This time, I wasn't taking any chances, so I went to another car rental and asked him if I was allowed to take a test (I know, stupid). The guy said that he didn't give out permission letters. Weird how I am trusted to drive the car alone all over the state but not in a test, accompanied by a DMV officer, at speeds of under 35 mph. So I showed up at another rental company (it was next door, thankfully) and asked them for their smallest car. The guy at the counter was only too happy to spot a guinea pig without an online reservation. "We are very short on cars now, Sir. I can give you one for $60" (usual rates are around $40-$45). I tried to suppress my groan and made up a story about picking up a friend from an airport and returning the car in 2 hours.

He led me to a gleaming white Ford Mustang (double groan). "We are offering you a free upgrade. Have some fun!". Of course, the real reason was that no one would take the car because no one longer than 3 feet could fit in the back seat. I didn't have a choice, so I took the car and showed up again at the pre-drive check. There was a new lady at the counter. She asked for the letter and I said, "He told me that this company allowed driving tests", pointing to no one in particular. Fortunately, she didn't follow up and waved me through. I already felt like I had got a license.

I started a road test for the first time in California. The Mustang started with a rumble that echoed throughout the DMV. The rest were looking strangely at the guy who showed up for a road test in a sports car. The car moved along at 20 mph, probably the slowest it went since an engine was dropped under its hood. I completed the test without any problems, feeling very good about myself.
The officer looked up from the score sheet and said "Your main problem is speed. You drove too slowly". Then she checked 'Speed' under 'Critical Driving Errors' with the comment, "Driver drove too slow impeding traffic flow". I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. So I said the usual "Thank you" and went to the appointment desk once again. The guy couldn't believe that someone would fail the test by going too slow. He offered his part - "Too slow?? My wife would've run you over". After thanking him for his great piece of wisdom, I made an appointment for the next day.

All this happened in about an hour's time, so I took the car back to the rental and tried to elaborate on my picking up a friend story. I mentioned that I had the date wrong and he would be actually coming tomorrow. I wasn't hoping for anything, but the guy agreed to take half off the rent (wow, I can actually bluff). So the bill was reduced by about 25$, coming to

($120 + $76 = $196)

I mentioned this to my friend who couldn't stop laughing at how I failed the test by going too slow in a Ford Mustang.

July 10
I went to the car rental again, this time with an online reservation. The guy was a bit disappointed that he didn't get to charge his usual $10 premium, but gave me the car anyway. It was a much saner Kia Optima this time. The same person was there at the pre-drive check counter and I was a familiar face now, so I was just waved through without the usual uncomfortable questions. I had to pay a $6 fee since it was a 'retest'.

I started the test again, praying that I wouldn't add more to the total of the most expensive Driver's License ever. I was careful to stay exactly at the speed limit on the road. However, I've never managed to turn without stopping at least for a moment. Guess my mom's advise is embedded too deep in my brain (really). So I was nervously glancing at her sheet from time to time. She was managing to cover it with marks when I thought I hadn't made any mistakes. The test allowed 15 errors for a Pass, so I wasn't too scared.

The test ended. "You need to work on your turns", she said. She already had three comments on the paper. "Driver turns too slow". "Lane change too slow". "Stops unnecessarily". And she had marked speed for 4 of my 8 turns, marked unnecessary stop for 2, and marked speed for 2 lane changes. 15 didn't look like a lot, given my 8 mistakes due to speed. She counted the marks twice and finally wrote 15 on the sheet. "You barely passed. Go in and collect your license". After thanking her profusely with tears of joy (well, almost. there were also tears from my wallet), I went in and got my next piece of paper.

So to bring this rather sorry tale to an end, I returned the car ("You are freaky fast") to the rental, I paid $93. Since I had told him that my friend had come today, there was no half rate this time.

$196 + $6 + $93 = $295 + $5 (gas charges? Since 300 is THE number nowadays, I couldn't stop at 295)

Here I am, still waiting for my expensive plastic card. I've understood one thing though - procrastination makes you pay (literally). Should I write that down? Well, maybe tomorrow...


Filarial said...

heheeh an ordeal worse than mine.. by the by I bt a ford mustang..8)

justescaped said...

All I can offer is a sympathetic (and not un-empathetic) 'ouch!'
The ford mustang story is going to stick around for a while...

sarvamitran said...

thanks :D
rental cars and driving tests do throw up interesting situations

Dvijavanti said...

why don't you add an "update" to the story ;)

Anonymous said...

I have been there and done that and went through pain.
Let me tell you a secret- NJ residents with an indian drivers license has to go the DMV and there you get your license then and there - NO road tests - I think you will have to clear the written. you may want to check that out. Hope this helps.