Where's My Driver's License?

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It had been a long and slow day. My back hurt bad. It had been hurting bad for a long time, and I'd taken to referring to it as my "glowing albatross of pain" for some reason. All I wanted to do was get back to the apartment, gobble some pills, open a beer and lie down on the floor.

I stopped and checked the mailbox before going upstairs. Three envelopes, none of them looking terribly interesting. I trudged up to my apartment, tossed the mail on the table, dropped my bag and went to make sure that both cats were alive (they were). Then I returned to the kitchen, sat down, lit a smoke and idly flipped through the mail.

I'd been right about two of the envelopes. They were advertising something or another. Nothing I needed. The third one, however, caught my attention.

It was from the Dept. of Motor Vehicles. I shrugged, emitted a small curse and tore the envelope open. I knew what this was.

People are often surprised, for obvious reasons, to discover that I have a valid driver's license. Maybe I shouldn't. Fact is, I've only been behind the wheel of an automobile four or five times in my life, the last time some 12 or 13 years ago. It was on a straight, flat strip of a rural two-lane interstate. Empty farmland to either side, no cars in sight either in front of me or behind. Still, my driving style in those few times I attempted involved gripping the wheel as tightly as I could, slamming my foot down on the gas and shrieking until whoever was with me insisted that I pull over. I think it has something to do with realizing, once the car started moving, that I was in control of a several-thousand-pound hot steel killing machine. That last time I was behind the wheel, I lasted maybe a minute and a half.

Nevertheless, I have a driver's license with all my original points intact. This day and age, you need one. You try to present anything else as ID in this city (or any other city), and you're immediately suspect. Put on some sort of list somewhere.

(I remember trying to get into a bar in Minneapolis a few days after my wallet had been stolen. All I had ID-wise was my passport. They wouldn't let me in.)

When I first moved to New York and went to trade in my Pennsylvania driver's license, I was expected to take an eye test. I had been officially diagnosed with RP a year earlier, but wasn't telling much of anybody (especially not the DMV). Fortunately, I stood in line long enough that the woman who was with me was able to help me memorize the eye chart before I reached the counter. Everything went very smoothly, and I had my new license half an hour later. If I had no intention of driving, what was the big deal? Who was I hurting?

A few years later, after I was registered with the state as being legally blind (even given an official blind man number), I figured it would only be a matter of days before someone from the DMV showed up on my doorstep and demanded that I relinquish my license. I expected them to tear it up right there before my eyes, letting the scraps flutter gently to the ground.

But that never happened. Instead, six years ago I received an envelope from them similar to this new one. Fill out this little form, it said, and send us a check, and we'll send a renewed driver's license straight to your home. No trip to the DMV for a three-hour wait in line, no written exam, no road test, no eye charts to read, no nothing.

I did what they asked?filled out the form and wrote them a check?didn't lie about a thing?and about two weeks later, I had my license.

It was pretty much the same deal this time around. Fill out the card, send them a check. This time, however, there was one catch. See, there was another card in that envelope that needed to be filled out and returned as well.

"Take this form to your eye doctor?" the instructions read. My heart sank.

Well, so, that was it. No more valid driver's license for me. What now? Get a non-driver state photo ID? Nobody accepts those for anything. I was screwed. At least I was well beyond the point where I was being carded at bars anymore.

Then I got to thinking. Thinking, I know, always gets me into trouble, but there I was at it again.

As it so happened, I was already scheduled to have one of my regular eye appointments in just a few days. I'd been seeing the people in that office for years. They knew me, knew what I did, and were extremely cool. It was the one doctor's appointment I ever looked forward to.

My plan was not to ask them to fill out the DMV eye form in a deceptive manner?nor to ask them to change a few numbers around on my behalf. Quite the opposite. My plan was to bring the form to my appointment, just like the DMV said, and ask my doctor to fill in all the numbers they asked for in an honest manner. Hoping, of course, that the word "blind" didn't accidentally end up on the card somehow. That done, I'd write a check, mail everything back to the DMV and wait to see what happened. I might well be throwing away $40, but for some reason I thought it was worth it just to find out.

The following Tuesday, when I was first brought into the examining room to have a quick squint toward an eye chart and to have my eyes dilated, I slid the forms from my pocket and said, "I'm wondering if you could help me with something here."

"Those DMV forms?" the first ophthalmologist asked (I deal with two at that office).

"Yeah, and I, uhh?"

He looked at the eye test form. "Well, you'll never pass this one," he said.

"I know that?I was just wondering?"

"?but I do have one over here that you might be able to pass." He walked over to a closet and riffled through some papers until he found what he was looking for. He turned back, holding another form. "Yeah, you might be able to pass this one," he said, without further explanation. "Just send this one back instead of the one you have there." He then put some drops in my eyes and sent me back to the waiting room as my pupils grew to the size of manhole covers.

Was this really going to work? It was beginning to look like it might. He hadn't filled out the form yet, but I guessed he would be doing that soon. It was busy in the office that day?maybe they'd have to mail it to me later. That was fine. I still had a couple weeks.

The waiting room was packed, and from the sounds of it I was the only patient there who was under 70. One was complaining about how cold it was. Another complained about having Alzheimer's. Another man had shown up on the wrong day, after coming all the way in from Jersey, and was wondering if he could be squeezed in anyway. Two women across from me eavesdropped on everyone else, and recapped what everyone was saying.

I kept my mouth shut.

"I haven't been able to drive in almost six years," said the man from Jersey, who seemed to be the oldest of the lot.

Showoff, I thought.

Half an hour later, a bit numb from the company, I was led back to another examination room, where another ophthalmologist would check out my retinas and my cataracts. I was led over to a chair, where I sat and waited for a few more minutes. At least it was quiet in there. When my eye doctor opened the door, she was already laughing at me.

"Y'know," she began, "I'll be honest with you?I'm really not comfortable with the idea of you driving a car."

"Oh, you don't have to worry about that?I haven't been behind the wheel of a car in over a decade?and don't intend to try now. It's just that?"

Should I just come out and tell her that it was a harmless scam? A test to see if the DMV would give a license to a clearly blind man? A bit of investigative journalism, even, if it turned out. I didn't have the chance.

"I can't really in good conscience fill this out for you. I could go to jail."

"Oh, no you wouldn't. I'm not asking you to fudge anything. It's?"

"You wouldn't pass this test anyway. Not by a longshot." She was still laughing about it, and my earlier hopes began to sag. "No, what you're gonna have to do is get yourself one of those non-driver IDs. It's easy?all you have to do is call the DMV."

"Oh," I said. I guess in the back of my head I sort of knew this was what was going to happen. "Well," I told her, "you can't blame a guy for giving it a shot."

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