Friday, May 25, 2012

Driver's licenses and anthropology

Driving is fun. What's more fun, is observing the way people drive, while not having to screech your brakes or curse under your breath. Most recently, I discovered something even more fun.... Driver's license stories. And while most anthropologists and social psychologists would not agree with me, (I know of one who would call me specifically after seeing this post, if only to yell at me), I think driver's license processes are pretty much indicative of the social construct of a place. As esoteric as this line might sound, believe you me, what you will read subsequently has the capacity to crack you up. The stories did get me guffawing for sure! Now, I have been told that getting a Pennsylvania license is toooo tough. In fact, when I told a professor of mine I was moving to PA, he wrote back with an opening line that said, 'good luck with the PA license'. Having driven in India, and even outside on an IDP, I wondered how one could possibly make driving licenses so tough to get! So, one morning, I broke my lazy, lousy get up at 11, sleep again schedule and went to the place called PADOT. The name just brought on the image of a big full stop, little did I realize that that was indeed their job, trying to put a full stop to all driving ambitions! Maybe not a full stop, but semicolon perhaps.... So one fine rainy morning in early fall, I went to PADOT. Presented all the papers they had asked for, presented myself, presented landing papers using which I'd zipped back and forth across the border a couple of times at least, only to be told that they did not have records of my legal landing in the state! Helloooo! Here I am... This is me.... There is a much better place (home and asleep) where I'd rather be was what I felt like telling them! 'fill out this form, send it to the powers-that-be, let them revert that you are indeed a legal alien (how exactly can something slimy green with a snout be legal? Although, I may not be very good looking, but calling me alien was a little harsh, but who'd listen), and then come back. So sad and gloomy, more for having lost sleep over a royal let down, I headed off to Starbucks to go drown my sorrow or rather sleep!

If this was a Khoda pahaad nikla chooha (or as ol'man Shakespeare would say much ado over nothing), here is the story of Alisha. She spoke to me one day about how tough it was to get a license in New Jersey. Having been stung by the PADOT disaster, I took her seriously. I had barely started relating my story, when she cut me off and said, "It's the written test that is painful!" Now, that took me by surprise, because I went back to my written driving test in India, which was never written. The person at the Transport office showed me a sheet with a stop sign and a sign for a speed breaker and asked me what they were. I answered. I got my license. "Take a sample test," she challenged. Intrigued, I did. And failed. Not once, but twice. Well, I pride myself at being a rather decent driver, but I really did not know whether one 5 ounce glass of wine was equal to a bottle of beer or a six pack of beer or a pint of whiskey or a shot glass of sake or spiked coffee!! And when you have 2 questions on the same 'concept', the stage was set. Then came the distance questions. How far from a stop sign do you stop? 5 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet? How far from a stop sign can you park? 5 feet, 10 feet, 20 feet? I felt like yelling out "Dudes! They'll mark off no parking zones and I'll stop at a stop sign as far as is correct as per my judgement! While driving, I am not going to get off, measure distances, mark off with chalk and stop!!! How far from a hydrant will you park? I run away from hydrants. Once towed 100 times shy! As if this torture wasn't enough, then came the penalty questions. If you are caught with a BAC of 0.05, do you get prison term of 3 months and a fine of $200 - $500? Or is it 6 months and 200 - 500 bucks? Or just 750 bucks and community service? Well, if I am caught with a BAC of anything, I am plain roasted! If the policeman tells me that I need to go to jail for 3 months and pay a $1000 fine, I will do just that! I wouldn't argue with him saying,'I guess you have your rules wrong. It's 3 months and $750 as fine'. The officer would just say,'arguing with officer, $1000 more!'

So when I went for my driver's license test in Ontario, I sat poring over books like how I did in B school. 20 meters is the following distance. dim headlights 60 meters in front of an approaching car. G1 and G2 have 0 BAC levels. And even page numbers were learnt by heart. I walked into the exam center more nervous than I have been over all my exams put together. And here, all they asked was what happens when you see a school bus flashing signs in front of you? And 3 questions on this concept! Whew! Saved!!! Moral of the story, Pennsylvania seems to be cut off from border posts. Drunken driving is a real issue in NJ and Canadians care a lot about their school children! And India doesn't really care about rules. As long as you can drive, and reach places alive despite the other drivers on the road, you're good. Anthropology here I come... Driving!