Sunday, June 14, 2009

Miami Driver's Permit


It's hot and very, very humid. I am fifteen and standing with my mother outside at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Miami, Florida. Miami, fabulous as it might be in the dead of winter, is not where you want to be in June, July, and August. And if you do find yourself there in the summertime, for heaven's sake, stay inside with the air conditioning where it's possible to breathe. If you do have to go outside—because who am I kidding? you have to go out eventually—then the next best strategy is to stay away from the DMV. But when you're fifteen, all you want is that most cherished badge of dawning independence: a driver's permit. You can't drive alone yet, but the day is coming, and it's imperative to get that permit so that in another year, you'll be ready for the real thing (or not, but you'll be behind the wheel anyway; clear the sidewalks!). For weeks I had been studying for the written test: questions from the obvious (What does a red octagonal road sign signify?) to the less obvious (How many feet before an intersection are you supposed to signal a turn? I hated the "How many feet . . ." questions). I'd been quizzed by my parents and we all figured I was ready. I don't remember where the DMV was exactly; somewhere in the heart of the city. Here is what I do remember: We, my mother and I, show up and are told to get in line. The line at the DMV is long. In fact, it is very long. It spills out of the squat, square, one-story municipal building, out into the suffocating heat. We are standing underneath some projection of the roof, so there's a little shade, but it doesn't really help. The sun pierces everything; the whole city feels like an oven, but with thick, soupy air, not dry heat. So, we're standing there, and at some point it occurs to us that we are the only non-Latinas at the DMV that day; we may even be the only women, period—in any event, we are vastly outnumbered. All around us are short, dark, middle-aged men, wrinkled from the sun, speaking Spanish. In Miami, one presumes they are Cuban, but who knows. Latino men, anyway. And the other thing that becomes clear pretty quickly, as we are standing there with nothing to do and the line does not seem to be moving at all, is that these men operate by different social rules; their culture allows a much more overt dynamic of male/female, ogler and . . . oglee? Ogled. I'll tell you, the DMV line in Miami is a perfect place to get ogled, if you're into that. We weren't. So we're there, wondering if the line is ever going to get shorter. We're drinking Diet Coke. My mother notices the man behind us in line; he is staring at me, and it's freaking her out. She gives him a look. Next thing I know, the man is pointing to his eyes, then pointing at us (at me, at my mom, at us both . . . I don't recall, and it doesn't matter; it was a shared experience that made us both uncomfortable). We have no idea what the gesture truly means, and he repeats it. Did he say something in Spanish? Maybe, but we remember this later as a mute transaction of increasingly emphatic pantomime: the guy pointing to his eyes with the first two fingers on one hand, pointing to us, back and forth, grinning. My mom's solution? She kind of shoves the soda can out in a "back off" gesture. Eyeballs, Coke cans, volleying with heightened frustration until—what? I'm not sure what stops the interaction. It stops by itself, we turn our backs . . . eventually, what stops everything for good is that, disappointing as it is, my mom realizes we could be standing there for hours—apparently people do just that, then have to come back again the next day—and it's way too uncomfortable in every way, so we leave with her muttering that there simply has to be another solution. Which she finds. In the next day or so, my mom locates another DMV office about a half hour away, where there is no line and we are in and out in no time at all. The only notable thing there was the way, when I took my written test, I had to stand at a counter with a couple other people, and the guy on my right kept trying to cheat by looking at my answers. He had a couple solid decades on me, was also a Spanish speaker, and I assume had ESL issues. I don't know whether he passed his test or not, but I did pass mine. Got my eyes checked, photo taken (I still remember I was wearing a greenish-beige and white striped shirt, sporting long dangling earrings made of hammered copper), and left with a driver's permit in less time than it took to shake a soda can. All these years later, my mom and I still laugh about the scene at the inner-city DMV. The humor doesn't translate so well into words (at least, not in this draft, I don't think), but the pantomime still gets us every time.

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