by Jonathan B. Ferrini
The Department of Motor Vehicles in California is a great equalizer. It has no race, income, gender, or sexual prejudices. It treats everybody miserably. What happened to this state? Rising rents, astronomical home prices, traffic congestion, homelessness. I remember growing up in California in the fifties, when life was better. Orange groves lined the freeways. You could hop in the car, and drive across town without it taking hours. It’s no longer the Golden State, I remember. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is that the DMV metes out its horrendous experiences equally, to all those unfortunate to endure it. You meet all kinds of people at the DMV. You might call the DMV a “Golden Melting Pot.” I’m sitting in a crowded room surrounded by people from throughout the world, who speak languages I can’t understand.
I’m sleepy, and can barely keep my eyes open. I was awake all night worried that I may fail the driving test due to my age, and poor vision. I’ve got to renew my license. It’s my independence. I’ve been driving since I was sixteen. I wish I had Didi here to comfort me. Didi was my wife of fifty years who passed recently. She was always at my side, through thick and thin. If I get my license renewed, I’m still relevant. I’m an old man, a “dinosaur” nobody cares about, and, without my driver’s license, I’m helpless.
It’s so crowded I was lucky to find a chair next to a young Asian woman, dressed in business attire, with her eyes glued to her smart phone. I could tell from her wardrobe that she was refined, educated, and felt out of sorts within the DMV. She looks very organized--the type of person whose life has gone according to plan. She sits next to a buff, twenty-something, Latino male with a large tattoo on his forearm. He looks like a gang member. On her other side sits a tall, skinny, white-trash looking kid, who resembles a dope addict.
I’m staring up at a monitor waiting for my number “82637” to be called. It will be hours before it’s called.
My long wait passed by listening to the conversation between the three young people seated near me. We had one thing in common; we were native sons and daughters of the Golden State at the mercy of the DMV. Friday morning slowly crept into afternoon as we waited for our numbers to be called.
The tall, skinny kid, introduced himself as “Timmy”, to the young Latino, and asked about the tattoo on his forearm. The young Latino said, “The tattoo on my forearm reads, “El Chico de Ajo” which translates into “Garlic Boy.” I’ve gone by the name “Garlic Boy” for many years now.” The young Asian woman pretended to be preoccupied with her smart phone as the two spoke.
Garlic Boy told his story to Timmy. “The screams and cries are loudest at night, and aggravate the inmates who encourage the predators, and fantasize about the fate of the prey. I chant “Om Mani Padme."
Hum, and peace, replaces terror. I chanted every night after being incarcerated at Corcoran State prison for five years.
“Soon after my incarceration, I visited the prison library, and randomly selected The Teachings of Buddha. Reading it, removed the hatred, and vengeance consuming me.
Gilroy California is a farming community known for growing garlic. Our family lived in a trailer home located downwind from a garlic processing plant, which gave my family the permanent stench of garlic. “There are two social classes who live and work in Gilroy: wealthy landowners tracing their lineage to Spanish land grants, and migrant farm workers harvesting their crops.”
Timmy asked, “How did you end up in prison?”
“Gilroy can get hot in the summer. My parents sent me to purchase a few groceries. I entered the town mini-market, and dashed for the Slurpee machine to cool off. I poured a tall Slurpee, and grabbed the groceries. As I approached the counter to pay, a Latino gang entered the store which was empty except for me and Ernesto, the proprietor. One gang member stood guard at the entrance.
“The leader of the gang smelled my garlic stench, placed his arm around me saying, “You’re my garlic boy” .His grip was firm, and he approached the counter with me in tow. He held a gun to Ernesto’s head demanding money. Ernesto opened the register, and handed over the money, begging, “Please don’t kill me!” The gunman turned to me, and said, “You stink man!” He hit me on the back of the head with the butt of the gun. I fell unconscious.
I was falsely accused of being a member of the gang robbing the mini-market. The Public Defender ignored my plea of “wrong place, wrong time,” and pressured me to accept a plea deal. I was sentenced to prison, and Ernesto was elected mayor of Gilroy on a “law and order” campaign.
“When I was paroled, the bus ride home from prison felt like a prison cell as it crawled up Interstate 5 surrounded by Central Valley farms. I’m anxious, and clutch the “Teachings of Buddha”. I silently chant, “Om Mani Padme Hum”, which calmed me. I got off the bus at Ernesto’s mini-market to buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate our family reunion, and treat myself to a Slurpee, which I dreamed about in prison.
“The bus stopped in front of the mini-market. I entered, and recognized Ernesto behind the counter. I poured a Slurpee and selected a bottle of champagne. I approached the register, and asked Ernesto, “Remember me?” to which he replied, “No. You all look alike!” The doors to the mini-market swung open, and in the store mirror behind Ernesto, I see the shark like stare of a “meth head” quickly approaching the register, determined to rob, and likely kill Ernesto. I turned to the meth head, rolling up my shirt sleeve, revealing prison “tats” criminals recognize, while giving him my “prison eye stare down.” I held the bottle of champagne like a baton. The meth head stops dead in his tracks saying, “It’s cool man. No hassle from me!” He backs his way out of the store, and runs to his car speeding away. Ernesto knew he “dodged a bullet”, and held out his hand to shake, saying, “Thank you. How can I repay you?” I hand him my copy of The Teachings of Buddha. I walked out of the store to my family reunion, sipping the Slurpee like expensive cognac.
Garlic Boy’s experience in the mini-market brought back an old memory I shared, “We owned a corner grocery store and lived in an apartment upstairs. We knew all our customers by name. I put two sons through college with that corner market. We were forced out of business by a supermarket which opened across the street.”
Timmy spoke next.
“I grew up in the high desert of Southern California. It’s sun scorched, flat, and runs along Interstate 15 towards Vegas. Trailer home and apartment rents are low. The major industry in the area is meth production. Dad split, leaving me and mom to fend for ourselves. Mom graduated from alcohol to opiates to heroin, and couldn’t raise me. My aunt and uncle filed papers to assume my custody, motivated by the specter of being paid by the County as foster parents. They sobered up long enough to pass muster by the county. We lived in a beat up, prefabricated home, on a large plot of worthless, desert land, with no neighbors. My aunt and uncle were stoned most of the time. My dinner was fast food, a can of chili, or frozen dinners.
I’m assigned to a county road crew picking up trash along the interstate highway wearing an orange vest and helmet. There are four of us on the crew who live in half-way homes, and required to work until our probation periods expire.
Our boss is Deputy Horace who drives the orange county van which tows a trailer, including our portable plastic toilet. He is tough. Regulations require we get a one hour lunch, and two, 15 minutes breaks, but Horace only gives us a half hour to eat the unappetizing County provided sack lunch. The smug Deputy is nearing retirement, and never leaves the van with the air conditioning roaring.
The trash we pick up along the highway symbolizes lives gone haywire. Most of it is cans, bottles, fast food packaging, and condoms, but today we found a weathered photo album, and a baby doll. The photo album depicted a happy family I envied, and I wondered what had befallen them. I spied a used hypodermic needle which reminded me of my mom who died of a heroin overdose while I was in prison.
My aunt’s husband, Brady, drove a sewage truck for thirty years. His job was to pump sewage from portable toilets, and clean out the filthy, plastic bathroom enclosures.
On my eighteenth birthday, I was given a birthday present of sorts. I was handed the key to the sewage truck, and told that it was now registered in my name. Brady wanted me to drive the truck to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and then to Nogales, making a stop in each city, while unknown people attended to the sewage tank.
“I was arrested at a state agricultural inspection station when x-ray equipment alerted officers to the hidden compartments Brady constructed in the sewage tank, which he packed with meth. I was facing a forty-year sentence for interstate transfer of narcotics. The US Attorney was a kind, middle aged woman.
She offered me a plea deal if I flipped on Brady. I wouldn’t rat because my aunt and uncle would cut mom off from her heroin. I was a first time offender, and the US Attorney knew I was protecting my mother. She took pity on me, and recommended to the judge that I receive the minimum five year sentence.
Garlic Boy empathized with Timmy and asked, “How’s probation?”
“It’s a dangerous job working alongside the busy highways. Drivers routinely throw garbage at us. The people racing by us have contempt, pity, or sadistic pleasure for our plight, and, are dangerously glued to their cell phones.
Our crew came upon a smelly trash bag. It wasn’t uncommon to find decaying pets but as we examined the bag, it split open, revealing a stillborn baby girl. The sight of that baby really freaked me out. My childhood, and the road crew job, was like moving through the stages of purgatory, and, the final stage before entering hell, was finding a baby in a trash bag. We were ordered by Deputy Horace to bury her alongside the highway, to avoid “paperwork” and “demerits.”
I was ready to end my misery, and take Deputy Horace with me, when I heard a tire blow out, and noticed an out of control semi truck, heading towards our crew, which would kill us all. I warned my crew members who dashed into a culvert for safety. I knew Deputy Horace wouldn’t hear the warning horn with his windows closed, air conditioning running, and his playlist blasting from the van speakers. My finger quivered on the trigger of the warning horn, but I decided to warn Deputy Horace in time for him to run for safety. The fat old Deputy soiled his pants, vomited, and passed out in the culvert. He was breathing and scared into unconsciousness.
“We discarded our orange vests and helmets, wondering down the highway, towards a fate unknown.”
I felt sorry for Timmy. I looked over at the young Asian woman, who appeared to wipe a tear from her eye, and Garlic Boy was sullen.
Timmy and Garlic Boy suffered as young men. I reminded them, “Learn from your mistakes and make hay while the sun shines.” Timmy reached for his “smart phone” and began punching away at it. They call it “texting.” I don’t know what the future holds for these young people, but I wouldn’t want to be young today. Who needs instant communication, and multiple methods of sending a written message, or a photo? Nobody wants to have a conversation anymore. Doesn’t anybody ever pick up the phone anymore?
My old smokers cough flared up, and I tried my best, to suppress it. If I went outside to cough, I would lose my seat. The young Asian woman reached into her fashionable hand bag, pulled out a box of throat lozenges, saying, “Hello, Sir, I’m Amy Lum. My grandmother, Lao Lao, always found these helpful for a cough”. I was impressed with the young woman’s manners, and mention of her grandmother. I introduced myself, “Hello, Amy, I’m Maury.” I returned the box to Amy who motioned to Garlic Boy, and Timmy, to help themselves to a throat lozenge.
The shy, silent, young woman felt a simpatico with Garlic Boy and Timmy. Amy introduced herself to Garlic Boy and Timmy, “My name is Amy Lum. I couldn’t help but overhear your stories and I feel sympathy for both of you. I also had a tough time as a young woman. I leaned over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge staring at the choppy waters below, wondering about the many poor souls who jumped to their deaths, and tried to relate to the pain they suffered. I was disappointed knowing that all my hard work didn’t result in my admittance to any of the professional schools to which I applied. It was the first time I knew failure, but it wasn’t worth jumping to my death.
My guidance counselor suggested that I may be the victim of admission discrimination against the large number of highly qualified Asian students applying to professional schools.
Instead, I accepted the fact that “I didn’t try hard enough” or, “I wasn’t good enough.
My position in the middle of the bridge, deciding whether to turn back to San Francisco, or travel to Marin County, was a metaphor for my straddling two cultures, Chinese and American.
I grew up within the affluent city of Burlingame on the San Francisco Peninsula, about twenty minutes from downtown San Francisco. I was the only daughter of successful Chinese American parents. Both parents were over-achievers, and expected the same from me. I didn’t disappoint them. When I set a goal, I never failed to attain it. I felt invincible, and believed anything was possible, if I put my mind to it.
“I was admitted to my first college choice, Berkeley. I joined an elite Sorority, “Chi Nu Album,” also known as “CNA”,,which consisted of the daughters of the Bay Area elite. I was a devoted and reliable sorority sister, rising to the prominent position of President of CNA, because I always got things done. CNA was instrumental in welcoming me into the privileged, Caucasian lives of my sorority sisters, which made me distance myself from my Chinese cultural roots. It may have been self loathing, but I just didn’t want to feel different.
“I was the only Asian member of the sorority, and, it’s first Asian President. It was my habit since childhood to make friends with the Caucasian children of the affluent, always wanting to fit in with my Caucasian friends.
I successfully completed a double major in U.S. History and Biology at Berkeley, setting my sights on a career as a patent lawyer specializing in medical related intellectual property.
“My parents were caught up in the grind of the daily life of American professionals. They abandoned their cultural identity, unable to pass on Chinese traditions to me, leaving it to my grandmother, Lao Lao. They felt guilty for being too busy to be hands-on parents, and showered me with gifts, and money, to assuage their guilt.
“Lao Lao attempted to instill in me our rich Chinese heritage, and teach me to speak Mandarin. I didn’t understand the language, and the Chinese traditions were unfamiliar to me, so, I gravitated away from my heritage, choosing to “fit in” with my Caucasian friends.
“Lao Lao suggested that we visit “Angel Island,” which was formerly a detention center for mostly Chinese immigrants. It’s adjacent to Alcatraz, but might as well be Alcatraz. Conditions for the detainees were horrible, and many immigrants spent years on the island. Visiting Angel Island made my disappointments feel small in comparison to their plights.
“I no longer wanted to straddle two cultures. Leaving Angels Island, a flock of sea birds flew over the ferry boat, and Lao Lao said, “Look, my dear granddaughter. It’s the Angels flying over to say good-bye, and thank you for visiting.” I thought to myself that perhaps the sea birds were the souls of the immigrants. As the ferry boat moved further from the island, I looked towards the Golden Gate Bridge, eager to embrace my Chinese ancestry with the help of Lao Lao.
“I gained strength and determination from the immigrants I met on Angel Island. I’m grateful to the proud souls who shared our visit to Angel Island. What appeared to be a life changing setback for me as a young college graduate was actually an invitation to learn my heritage, and discover my life’s purpose. I found a position as an intern at the “Asian Pacific Islander Law Center,” where I quickly rose through the ranks into a paid position, after devising a student outreach program for Asian students without a connection to their culture. I finished law school at night, passed the Bar exam, and devote my law practice to Asian and Pacific Islander legal defense.”
I suspected Timmy and Garlic Boy, like myself, couldn’t relate to Amy’s privileged upbringing, and academic disappointments, but we could all relate to Amy’s cultural identity challenges. It didn’t matter whether we were the children of farm workers, the White, “working poor”, or the Jewish grocer within a predominately White, Christian, neighborhood. We all knew what it was like to be “on the outside, looking in”, as Amy envied, and sought eagerly, to mimic the lives of her well-to-do Caucasian classmates. I admired Amy’s resolve not be beaten by her disappointments, applauded her perseverance, and was happy to see her succeed. I provided Amy, Timmy, and Garlic Boy the lesson I learned long ago, “Life spares no pain and disappointment to anybody, much like the DMV.” I sadly, added, “Most of the time, I feel all alone. I wish my sons would call me more often.” I fell asleep.
I was awoken by Amy, whispering, “Wake up, Maury. They called your number. We’re rooting for you.”
Like a Buddhist monk, Garlic Boy calmly said, “Wish it so, Maury, and it will be.”
Timmy said, “You’ll ace the exam, Maury.”
I approached the counter behind which sat, an African American woman. She looked like a career DMV employee, approaching retirement age, and gave me the impression she was a “by the book” and “tough as nails” DMV examiner. She told me to look into a vision testing machine, and repeat the symbols, letters, and numbers I saw. I struggled. She appeared impatient. “I just can’t do it," I exclaimed. It was late in the afternoon, when I learned that I failed the vision test, and told, my license wouldn’t be renewed. I was dejected. I turned to exit from the counter, but heard, “Sir, why don’t you place some cool, moist, napkins on your eyes. You’ll find them in the men’s room. Come back in thirty minutes. You may try again.”
I returned to the counter, but struggled again with the vision charts. I believed I flunked the test a second time. The “tough as nails” DMV employee, said, “You passed!” I was elated, and wanted to kiss her. She smiled, and said, “My grandmother always recommended cool, moist, compresses as a cure for the blues. Never failed me yet! They didn’t fail you, either. Your new license will arrive in the mail within sixty days.”
I was so happy; I could dance out of the building. I wanted to share my good fortune with my three new friends, but they were gone, vanished like a “Santa Ana Wind” into The Golden State. I was impressed by the youth of California, after meeting Amy, Garlic Boy, and Timmy. Despite their diverse backgrounds, I believe, if anybody can fix California, making it truly “Golden” for everybody, it will be young people like them. A day at the DMV taught me: “The Golden State” is a state of mind.
Generations collide, minds are open, and stereotypes are vanquished, inside the crossroads of "The Golden State."
Jonathan Ferrini is a published author who resides in San Diego. He received his MFA in motion picture and television production from UCLA.