Like so many before me, I came to California brimming with hopes and dreams -- and neglected to go directly to the Department of Motor Vehicles to apply for a California driver's license. I pushed that off for several months, risking enormous fines, because California sets the deadline at two weeks and that's just plain unreasonable. Fuck you, state of California! I've got to find a place to live and settle into my job and find the nearest goddamned grocery store first, OK? Is it all right if I get a roof over my head and buy some food before shelling out hundreds of dollars in smog fees, registration fees and California insurance? Is it OK if I get my life squared away before dropping myself down the rabbit hole that is the local DMV office? Thanks.
So it's June 1998. My buddy Eric and I have both registered our cars, but have put off dealing with the driver's license -- mainly because of the test. By all accounts, it's tricky. Not "two trains leave Chicago traveling in opposite directions" tricky but, rather, "Can you park your car at a white curb if you're a veterinarian carrying a dying raccoon?" tricky. You can get only three wrong. And who wants to study? I mean, I've been driving for 13 years by this point. However, if we get pulled over with California tags and out-of-state licenses -- so busted. (I have three friends who are police officers. They have assured me that this is a particular pleasure.)
So, after steeling ourselves for the worst (luckily, you get to fail the written test twice before having to call it quits and return to fight another day), Eric and I hit the DMV. I hand over my New York driver's license. The woman types in my name and birth date.
"I'm sorry, sir. You have outstanding tickets on your license from the state of New Jersey. You'll need to get a letter of clearance from them before we can process your California driver's license."
None of this is true, of course. But she's not having any of it.
"Are you sure it's the same exact name? Same birthday? Same Social Security number? Same address?"
"I'm sorry, sir. You'll have to work it out with New Jersey."
Little did I know, standing there in the Washington Avenue DMV, that my life was about to change forever.
The biggest mistake you can make at a DMV when you are certain they are wrong is to walk out the door. Of course, they don't make it easy to stay. Instantly they place the burden of resolving the issue on your shoulders. And so you schlump away with your broken spirit and your meager resources and make a few phone calls. But the whole thing's incestuous. The New Jersey DMV told me I had to contact New York. New York told me I had to contact New Jersey.
So, naive fool that I was, I returned to the California DMV and told the new woman my whole story all over again, including the parts where neither New Jersey nor New York would help me, and do you know what she said?
"Why don't you go to New Jersey and resolve it."
"In person? You mean fly there?"
Clearly, this woman didn't want to help me. So I called New Jersey again and made a bit of progress. The DMV there sent me copies of the two tickets on the license. They were for a David Goodman, birth date 3-12-70. That's me, all right. But then they listed a New Jersey driver's license number, New Jersey address, New Jersey registration, different car, different license plate number. This was not me.
I returned to the DMV with the printouts of the tickets and explained very slowly and succinctly how, despite the odds, another gentleman and I shared the same name and birth date but clearly not the same driver's license or driving skills. The woman would not even look at the documents.
"You need a letter of clearance!"
"How can I get a letter of clearance from a state where I don't hold a driver's license?!"
"Figure it out!"
I was furious. "You mean to tell me, if two people have the same name and same birthday and one happens to be a crappy driver, the other one has to suffer for all eternity?!"
OK, I know I should have gone to a supervisor. I know I should have stayed and yelled and screamed until someone helped me. But I am lazy and don't thoroughly enjoy confrontation.
So next I decided to take the backdoor route. I sent New Jersey a detailed letter filled with various photocopies that combined into a point-by-point refutation of any worthwhile correlation between myself and the defendant. They weren't buying that day. I sent a second letter two months later. Their letters back were masterpieces of ignorance. Every keystroke of my missive was dedicated to explaining how I was not New Jersey Driver #G8964 etc., but how I was New York Driver #479 etc. At the top of both letters, I put: "David Goodman, re: New Jersey Driver's License #G8964" etc. Not even a photocopy of my current, still-valid New York license nor a printout of my (clean) New York driving record for the past four years made a dent.
Well, that was it. Fuck them and fuck you, California. I drove on my New York driver's license and never got pulled over.
And a lot of cool shit happened. I've written you about most of it. Met Clint Eastwood. Partied at Penny Marshall's. And all that time no one knew I was livin' on the edge. No one knew I was just a few short steps away from the big house. But you know what? No one would have cared. They're all my friends. They don't judge me. Unlike the state of California, they accept me with my New York driver's license. I never have to get a renewal with my friends. No one says, "Sorry, Dave, you can't come into the party until I see your letter of clearance from New Jersey."
But all good things must come to an end, especially when the DMV is involved. My New York license was due to expire on March 12, 2000 -- I couldn't blow it off anymore. So I buckled down, gathered my various sheaves of paperwork and went lookin' for a fight.
But then something magical happened. I handed the woman my license and she said, "Twelve dollars, please."
What's this? I couldn't speak. I wanted to cry. But I didn't want her to wonder why I was so happy in case that would prompt an investigation. So I calmly wrote her a check for 12 clams, passed the written test and strolled my happy ass out the door.
WOOOOOO!! You cannot imagine the weight that had been lifted. I was so relieved I didn't have to have it out yet again with the Man. But what had happened? Could it be that the evil cock Goodman born on my birthday had gotten his life together and paid the lousy $50 to reinstate his New Jersey driving privileges? I guess so.
(That's right. I could have paid the $50 and been done with this whole mess. But you know what? That would have meant they won. And I was never going to let them win.)
So it was off to lovely Europe to celebrate while the DMV witches waved their craggy wands over the lamination machine and made my California driver's license come true.
But then something else magical happened. Witchy magic. I returned from Europe to a letter containing this exact sentence: "We regret to inform you that the state(s) listed below have reported that your driving privilege is suspended or revoked in their state. As a result, we are unable to issue your driver's license." Now, bear in mind, California already had my New York license and had given me a flimsy piece of paper with a barely discernible photocopy of my face in return. It was due to expire at the end of April.
It looked like the DMV was going to have the last laugh. They let me get all excited only to screw me all the harder. I was livid. I was ready to throw myself down and do the time.
Fortunately, it didn't come to that. The woman I explained the story to took some pity on me, actually looked at my paperwork, saw the discrepancy and said to me, "You need a letter of clearance from New Jersey."
The counters at the DMV are quite wide, but I felt myself nimble enough to get over it and my hands around her throat with enough time left over to make it worthwhile.
"But," she said, "you just told me you tried to get a letter of clearance twice before from New Jersey and they were no help, right?"
"Let me see what I can do for you." A princess. A goddess, this woman.
What she did was get me the phone number of the California problem driver pointer system (916-657-8849, in case you ever need it). That was the best she could do, she said. It was so much more than anyone else had done that I nearly dampened her desk with my tears.
Well, one phone call later and everything was fine. My new driver's license was on the way. Why so easy? Well, despite my repeatedly asking every cranky, unfriendly, unwilling soul, "Are you sure?" and "Can you double-check?" they all overlooked one small fact: The criminal David Goodman in New Jersey has a different middle name.