At 90, a grande dame of Pasadena renews her driver’s license

The woman taking her California driver’s examination was much older than the rest us in the Pasadena D.M.V. office. I first noticed her while standing on the left in a narrow corridor. This was the line to enter the examination room. The people on the right had already passed the thirty-six-question exam, entering no more than five incorrect answers, and they waited to be issued a temporary license at Window Two. With her husband pushing against her shoulders, they plowed right up the middle between the two lines. Did the elderly have special privileges? They disappeared in the mass of humanity, and I thought no more about them until I lined up again, this time at the proctor’s window with my completed exam. The room featured carrels around the perimeter walls and four school desks in the center. The old woman’s white head, tipped my way, was bobbing over the exam sheet as she worked at the front desk on my right.

After my exam was scored, I lined up for my temporary license. I was behind the woman’s husband, who was my same height, five feet eight inches, and stood perfectly erect in a blue shirt and tan slacks. Before long she came out of the exam room, saw him holding her place, and in a voice dripping with jubilation, said, “I passed!”  She made her way to him for a kiss. “I only missed two!” She wedged in front of him now and faced forward. “What’s this line for?”

“Temporary,” he said.

The jubilation resurfaced in her voice. “I’m ready for a martini!”

•  •  •

She was just five feet tall and more wizened than I’d first noticed. Seeing me leaning around her husband to look at her exam sheet, she said, “I’ve been driving for seventy-eight years!”

Seventy-eight years? That would’ve made herno, it seemed impossible. “You started when you were—?”

“Seventy-two,” her husband quietly corrected without turning around.

“I’m ninety—he’s ninety-two.” She had bloodshot eyes behind her glasses, but her hair and lipstick were perfect and she was impeccably dressed for the summer day.

“I studied for two weeks,” she said, laughing now and stepping past her husband to thump my breast with her right index finger. “Some of these questions were tricky.”

She showed me one she’d missed. It asked about the penalty if you fail to pull over for a cop. She’d marked the box for Answer A, which said it was a $1,000 fine. Answer B was correct: up to a year in jail.

I told her I’d have guessed the same.

Then she stepped back into line and showed her official photo to her husband, who snickered like a mule that snorted pepper flakes.

“I felt like I should smile,” she said.

“You don’t have to,” he replied.

I reentered the conversation, asking if she was going to get herself a sports car.

“He had a sports car when I met him,” she said. “It was black.”

Picturing him in a Stutz Bearcat, her with a raccoon coat, I was surprised when he said it was a Porsche. As before, when she said she’d been driving seventy-eight years, my brain bogged down with the arithmetic. But maybe they’d met in the early or mid-1950s, when Porsches first hit the streets. Pasadena always was a good town for cars. The couple could’ve been in their thirties.

And then, before stepping up to the window to receive her temporary, she addressed her husband over her shoulder, saying, “I’m going to need a nap.”


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