I moved to Great Barrington recently and was told by my insurance company that I have to get a Massachussetts license because my current license is British.
Last time I took driving lessons I was nineteen and living in England. My English instructor didn’t say a word when I did something right. When I did something wrong, he went on and on and on about my mistakes. As Henry Ford put it, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” I became more nervous every time I took a driving lesson. My instructor told me I’d probably fail my test. So the first time, I did.
Flip forward to last month. I’ve been driving on both sides of the Atlantic for twenty years, but schedule two lessons with Dave’s driving school in Great Barrington incase I’ve run into any bad habits. Half my life is spent driving my kids around. If I don’t pass my test, we’ll have to move. And we don’t want to move. We feel at home here.
My Dave’s driving school instructor teaches me how to parallel park so I’m an inch away from the curb – he lived in New York – if you don’t park that close in New York you lose your wing mirror. “Good,” he says. “Very nice,” he says. “You’re an alert, safe driver. You’ll do fine.”
On the day of my test, I arrive at the Town Hall twenty minutes early to make sure I’m there on time. When I get there I learn – to my dismay – that I need to have a real live human being, other than the driving test examiner, sitting at the back of the car during my test. It’s 10.40. The test takes place at 11.00.
I don’t know very many people in Great Barrington yet, and the two I feel I can ask aren’t home, so I run into the camera shop on Railroad street. The sweet guy with the beard told me he’d help me move into the office where I write, may be I can ask him?
“I would,” he says, meaning it, “but I’m on my own here and I can’t leave the store.” I pop into Tune Street – another chap with a beard says he can’t do it for the same reason, but I should go and ask in Fuel.
The coffee shop is packed. I hate to impose on anyone – but my family’s future is at stake. “Excuse me,” I say to a room full of strangers, “I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I need someone with a driving license to sit in the back of the car when I take my test. In – God is that the time? – ten minutes.” No one hears me.
Then I notice a chap who looks like a young Groucho Marx working hard at his computer in the corner. It’s Bill Shein who I met for a nanosecond three months earlier. I remember he’s a former comedian, like me. Maybe the fact that we’ve both told jokes to drunk people in night clubs will help.
The English part of me dares not ask him– he’s busy, it’s an imposition, it’s kind of rude, he’s running for congress for God’s sake. Then my inner American explains the situation and to my astonishment Bill Shein says, “No problem.”
“Can you do this without cracking any jokes?” I say as we head out of Fuel. “If you start, you’ll set me off, and then I’ll laugh during the test and the examiner will think I’m taking the piss and I’ll be doomed.”“Don’t worry,” he says.
He follows me to the Town Hall as if he does this sort of thing every day, hands his license to the examiner and somehow manages to peel himself into the back of my Subaru – he’s a tall guy, it’s not easy.
“Could you clean off the seat please?” the examiner says to me from outside the car. Her name is Trish. “Sorry,” I say, nervous as hell.
I pass the banana, the jar of peanut butter and my son’s sock back to Bill, who takes them wordlessly.
“Start up the car,” Trish says. “Parallel park. Do a three point turn.” I follow her instructions and less than five minutes later we’re headed back to the Town Hall. My heart sinks. I must have failed. She didn’t even ask me to drive in reverse, which, fyi, is something I’m particularly good at.
“I’m satisfied,” the Trish says. “Your application for a driving license is approved.”
I’ve passed! I love Trish. I love Great Barrington. I love Bill Shein.
Bill gets out of my car.
“Thank you,” I say, shaking Bill’s hand. “You really didn’t have to do that. Thank you.”
I’m an American citizen. I can vote here. And I will.