I had to get my driver’s license renewed so I stopped by the office behind the courthouse that is open two days a week in the rural Florida county where I live. There was a single clerk talking on the phone, trying patiently to explain some detail of a new regulation to somebody on the other end who evidently just wasn’t getting it.
Three of us stood on the other side of the counter, our presence silently urging her to get back to us. Finally she finished and quickly turned to the line. Then the phone rang again. She answered and two more people came in. Then three more behind them. She finished with that caller and tried again. The phone rang again. Somebody mumbled “Take it off the hook” but she wasn’t allowed to do that.
“Would everybody please have a seat,” she asked. “Please!”
We all relented and sat down except for one elderly man who had been first in line. She finished that call and finally turned to him.
“Well, Mr. Evans, did you come back with glasses?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am!” he answered brightly. “I went all the way to Quincy but I done got ‘em now.”
“OK, I’ve still got your form from last Tuesday. All you’ve got to do is pass the eye exam. Look through this machine and read the numbers in the first three rows,” she said adjusting the black eyepiece to fit his eyes.
He fumbled with the new glasses.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Sir, those are bifocals, be sure you look through the top of them, not the bottom.”
He fumbled some more and then hesitantly read the first three numbers, “five, six, three,” and paused for a long time.
“Good,” she said in an sympathetic voice, “now the next line.”
Slowly, painfully, he read them as she patiently waited, encouraging him along. Mercifully the phone didn’t ring again. It didn’t matter how many were waiting, there was no hurrying this. It was serious stuff. If he failed, it was the end of his life as an independent self-sufficient person. He knew it, she knew it, everybody in the room knew it.
As a society we’ve about given up on the rites and rituals associated with the passages through life, with coming of age and getting old. Most tribal societies had prolonged and difficult puberty rites to initiate youngsters into adult life. Today getting a driver’s license for the first time is the unofficial gateway to adulthood just as losing it when we’re old marks an ending of sorts.
Part of her job was to pronounce this sentence on the old folks who couldn’t pass that test, in order to protect the other drivers on the road. It wasn’t an easy thing to do and we were all hoping he’d make it. It was touch and go on a few of the numbers, but he finally passed. His life could continue yet a while as his own.