Proving to the DMV that you can drive when you are 89 years old is not for the faint of heart

Richard Abcarian, 89, embarks on the first of four attempts to take his driver's test at the Culver City DMV. (Robin Abcarian/Los Angeles Times)

Visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles is never a totally pleasurable experience; usually the most you can hope for is an absence of pain. But waiting for a test in Culver City recently felt like torture.

I was having flashbacks to my 16th birthday, the day I failed my driver’s test at the Canoga Park DMV. I was a teenage loser. Devastation does not begin to describe the way I felt that day.

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The minutes ticked by.

At last, I heard a man call: “Abcarian?”

The moment of truth had arrived.

My father stood up.

“You got this, Dad,” I said. “Don’t forget, you’ve been driving for almost 80 years!”

A 16-year-old boy sitting next to me looked up quizzically.

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“He’s 89,” I explained.

A few months earlier, my father’s gerontologist had administered some standard cognitive tests. My dad had trouble remembering a sequence of words and counting backward from 100 in sevens.

“I’m going to have to let the DMV know,” the doctor told us. “I’m a mandated reporter.”

I felt a sense of dread, followed by relief: Whether my father would continue driving was out of the family’s hands. Professionals would decide.

While we waited to hear from the DMV, my father took his car to the body shop. He spent a small fortune fixing all the dings and dents.

Mild cognitive impairment, my foot.

The man is diabolically clever. And still funny as hell.

Before his driving test in Culver City, he had to pass the written exam, which is administered in a special office in El Segundo. You get three tries. The second time he failed it, he asked the clerk if she knew what “defenestration” means.

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“Because that’s what I’m going to do to myself if I don’t pass this test,” he said.

He took his third test a few minutes later.

And he passed.

Now we had to worry about the driving test.

::

My father, who grew up in Fresno, began stealing his parents’ car when he was around 15. After they turned in for the night, he’d slip the keys out of his mother’s purse and sneak out to their barn-like garage, where his friends would help him roll open the door as quietly as possible. They would push the car into the alley, away from the house, and taste the freedom that only your own wheels can provide.

A couple of years later, my father bought his first car. It was a 1929 Ford Model T. Price tag: $5.

He is absolutely unsentimental about cars, but he does get a slightly dreamy look when he brings up that Model T. Not because of the car — he planned to drive it to Yosemite and push it over a cliff before someone offered him $10 for it — but about who he was when he owned it.

I feel similar nostalgia for who I was when I bought my 1967 VW Bug in 1974 for $800. That Bug and I were inseparable until the engine caught fire a few years later in Berkeley. My mechanic told me someone had installed a Porsche fuel pump in the car, which caused the fire.

Big lesson for me from that catastrophe: You can’t douse an engine fire with a garden hose.

::

Now, I am not going to say that the DMV is incompetent. I mean, it’s amazing what those folks do every day, and how every California driver’s life improved after the agency went online awhile back. (Unless, like me, you can no longer remember your DMV password and no matter how many times you ask for a link to reset it, the link never arrives. But I digress.)

As my father walked out of the building with the man assigned to evaluate his driving skills, I let out a sigh and thought: Well, this is it. He either passes, and maintains his independence, or he doesn’t and we enter delicate and possibly unpleasant negotiations about how he fills his larder, sees his doctors and copes with a sense of betrayal by a universe that has generally been kind to him as he ages.

In less than two minutes, he was back.

Oh no.

He must have flunked. My heart sank.

“They’re saying there is something wrong with the form my ophthalmologist filled out,” he said.

At the counter, a clerk showed us a tiny, empty box on the form. His doctor had missed it. His “best corrected visual acuity” is 25, but the box was empty.

We drove directly to Kaiser in Baldwin Hills, a spectacular new building with greeters and so many helpful people you feel like you’re walking into a luxury hotel.

We found a nurse, who filled in the empty box for us in blue ink.

Two weeks later, we returned to the DMV for the driving test.

This time, he was refused because the blue ink in the box did not match the black ink the ophthalmologist had originally used.

We drove back to Kaiser and had the doctor fill out a whole new form.

Two weeks after that, we were back in Culver City for the test. My anxiety had given way to a rippling sense of irritation. Which only grew when we were turned away a third time.

“I am really sorry,” the tester told us. “I can’t give you the test because you made this appointment for yourself the last time you were here. Your hearing officer in El Segundo is the only person who can schedule your drive test.”

“Do you have any idea why your clerks would let us make an appointment we were not supposed to make?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “But I plan to bring it up at our next staff meeting.”

When we arrived home, a letter from the DMV was waiting for my father. His license, it informed him, had been suspended. The reason: The DMV said he had failed to show up for his second scheduled driving test — the one they didn’t let him take because of the ink color discrepancy.

I had to talk him down over that one.

::

Last Thursday, two days after we returned from a two-week family vacation in France, my father and I drove for the fourth time to the DMV in Culver City for his driving exam. I felt stoned from jet lag. I could only imagine how he was feeling.

On Wednesday, he had taken a four-hour nap and when he woke up, mistakenly thought he had slept for more than 24 hours. “Good morning!” he answered the phone when his girlfriend Gillian called at 6:30 p.m.

I prepared myself for the worst and opened the newspaper I’d brought with me so I didn’t have to think about the carnage that was probably being inflicted on the streets around the Culver City DMV.

Twenty minutes later, my dad’s tester approached me in the waiting room. He was alone. Maybe my dad had defenestrated mid-drive.

“Oh,” he said, “your father is in the car. He drove just fine. No issues at all. Wait to hear from the DMV.”

Late Monday morning, as I was writing this column, the DMV called. My father should stay off the freeway, but otherwise, he’s good to go.

Happy Independence Day, Dad. I hope we don’t have to do this again next year.

Or ever.

In 1947, then-high school senior Richard Abcarian sat proudly behind the wheel of his first car, a 1929 Model T Ford. Purchase price: $5. (Courtesy of Richard Abcarian)
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