Jay Allen Sanford 9:45 p.m., May 19
My neighborhood is where the MTS Route 44 lurches around the streets of Linda Vista, the bus almost always full of college students with wheeled briefcases and young moms with strollers. My neighborhood is also the terrain of Routes 8 and 9, which carries tired Sea World employees and an army of restaurant and bar workers through picturesque areas where they could never afford to live. My neighborhood is the endless rows of apartments and condos that nestle between the strip malls of Kearney Mesa, alarming in their uniformity.
Like the other parts of this huge SMSA (standard metropolitan statistical area), I usually access it by MTS bus, in this case Route 20 that runs north and east from downtown San Diego. My neighborhood is also the New York-like urban density of Hillcrest, which I view from the Number 10 bus. This is where I can observe drivers turning suddenly without signaling, straddling two lanes at once, honking deafeningly when they don’t get their way, yapping away on their cellphones even after the light has changed to green, and failing to yield the right-of-way. I can observe “rear-enders” and more serious accidents. The fact that these people have their drivers licenses means that they are a lot luckier (and a lot younger-looking) than I am.
Although I love the multilingual, multicultural populations that live in each, I despise all my neighborhoods. To be precise, I despise the circumstances that led me to experience San Diego while wedged for hours into a bus, or running madly for a few desperate seconds to catch the next one. Day after day, I have only one question for the fascinating people I meet: “Why am I here?”
The answer starts on a cloudy, catastrophic day in February. It was one of those days in which a person wakes up feeling a little “off,” mentally and physically, and gets progressively worse. I had gone from waking up a little tired to feeling nauseous during a conference at my school, to leaving the conference early with as hot forehead, an overall “flu-ish” feeling and a swollen right leg. I was eager to get home, but too beat to rush.
As I drove up the steep streets of Mission Hills into my apartment parking lot, I suddenly felt the slightest scrape of metal against metal. I had “sideswiped” a parked car, possibly making an existing scratch in the paint a little longer.
At this point, all hell broke loose. I got out and surveyed the positions of the two cars, so that I could extricate myself, having little experience with tight parking on a steep hill. (The police report would characterize my surveying of the scene as “looking confused,” which, of course, is a good reason to revoke someone’s driver’s license.) The building manager yelled instructions from above, while several people stared at me as if I were a dangerous animal that had just escaped. No doubt most of them were native Californians and had never before seen such an act of moral turpitude committed right in front of them. I’m sure the same scene is repeated daily in numerous San Diego neighborhoods.
America’s Finest City tolerates homelessness across the street from corporate opulence, air pollution of our own and that blown in from Los Angeles, big-city rudeness such as cutting in line, and an unending series of financial shenanigans, but, by God, we won’t tolerate anything less than perfect driving.
After surveying both cars and seeing no damage, I went upstairs to my apartment to wait until things had calmed down, to put up a sign with my contact information. Unbeknownst to me, my fate was sealed at this point. I took several aspirin for a throbbing headache and fell asleep. When I woke up, my car was gone and the building manager mentioned that police had had it towed, not bothering to tell me that he himself, ever-mindful of his unique civic duty as a Southern Californian to protect cars at any human cost, had called police. Evidently, he had also mentioned that, as an imperfect driver, I was dangerous and needed to be stopped. This is So-Cal and any driving mistake is seen as a malicious and intentional act, such that the perpetrator stands little chance of being rehabilitated.
Approximately a week later, I received a notice in the mail from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) saying that my license had been revoked under Vehicle Code 13953, the section that allows for immediate revocation of a license if in the DMV’s opinion, “the mental or physical condition” of the driver requires such action. No doubt, my clean driving record, “sideswiping” of an unoccupied car and the uncorroborated opinion of my building manager were proof that my mental or physical condition required that I be removed from the streets immediately. The DMV was generous enough to give me a full four days to complete any errands requiring driving before the revocation became effective.
Alas, when I did not pass my drive test on the first try, the agency’s halfhearted efforts at accommodation ceased abruptly and unlimited agency discretion kicked in. I was not allowed to take another test because, in the learned opinion of my hearing officer, who met me once, I was incapable of improving my driving skills. Her advanced training must draw on secret principles the rest of us aren’t privy to, in that it allows her to conclude that someone with 19 years of postsecondary education cannot improve his or her skills.
The real reason I was not allowed to retest: I was under the jurisdiction of the Driver Safety Office, not the DMV field office. The goal of the Driver Safety Office is to revoke licenses, not to help people become better drivers, despite DMV assertions to the contrary. Assisting in the license revocation factory is the unlimited agency discretion allowed under administrative law, which leaves no room for either due process or “regular” rules of evidence.
So, for the many weeks it took me to find an attorney who took my case seriously, my favorite neighborhoods included Linda Vista and Tierrasanta, the main residential neighborhoods on MTS Route 928, which serves the Driver Safety Office, aka the License Revocation Factory.
It’s the people — the neighbors — that make a neighborhood unique, and every location has its own prejudices, its own unwritten code of what will be tolerated in the name of diversity and what will not. In Boulder, Colorado, people who are overweight or who don’t partake of outdoor sports are regarded with contempt. In Texas, women must interact with men with a degree of deference better suited for the 19th Century. In San Diego, anyone who is not perfect — a perfect driver, sporting the latest fashions, always ready to spend money — is ostracized.
The DMV can tell this neighbor that she will be rushing madly from one bus to another for the rest of her time in San Diego. The agency can tell me I’m incapable of learning, due to my age or something else. I’ll tell you one thing that they will never tell me: Exactly how long I will live in the United States without my drivers license. To paraphrase Alice Cooper: “Welcome to my neighborhoods.”