Wednesday, January 09, 2008

We're on the road to paradise - here we go, here we go


My driver's license is suspended in North Carolina.

When the young woman at the DMV who was trying to renew my license for me this morning looked up from her computer and asked, frowning, "Have you ever lived in North Carolina?" I knew exactly what was up.

In the late 1980's, I worked in the insurance industry - I worked for a company that serviced the customers of the state insurance funds, to be exact. If you get too many tickets or accidents and the regular insurance companies don't want you, if you want auto insurance, you have to get it through the state. This is true in most states. Those rates are HIGH, and, at least back then, the state funds did not offer a payment plan. So there is this secondary constellation of little finance companies that offer financing to the desperate youngsters and hard luck cases who need to drive so badly that they will pay thousands and thousands of dollars a year to remain insured. Needless to say, the interest rates were incredible. We couldn't do business in Michigan because they had strict(ish) usury laws. Usury! How often do you get to use that word?

It wasn't a shady company, exactly, but the people who made their way through it were not, as a rule, career insurance people. We had the ex-soccer player who is now the manager of a professional team in New Jersey. We had the guy with the Super Bowl ring who held all his "meetings" at sports bars. We had programmers whose IBM System 36 expertise was not in great demand elsewhere.

And we had my boss, a terrible human being who had moved from company to company, always in an executive position, dogged by harassment charges but possessing the kind of brash, incorrect sense of humor that made him a hit with the other upper-management guys, who all seemed to yearn for the days when they could make a pass at a secretary with impunity.

That guy once put his hands on my ass to steady me as I stood on a chair, then leered over his shoulder at the head of HR (HR!), "Ten more seconds of this and I'm probably liable for $10,000!"

I am very proud of myself that I replied, "Tick-tock, motherfucker."

Although they laughed - and he didn't move his hands. They thought I was cute, their little punk-rock mascot. I only wish I'd ever been asked to testify against him.

Anyway, he wasn't a terribly good strategist either. At one point, he lowered our rates and attracted so much business that all of a sudden the company had no more money to loan. He announced to the entire sales and marketing team that we were to do no work for a month. "Go play golf!" he decreed. And the rest of 'em all went to play golf. Yuck.

This was summertime, and I lived in an un-air-conditioned apartment in southwest Baltimore. Staying home wasn't too appealing, and I had no money to go anywhere. I did have a car, however, and a gas card, so one afternoon I got in the car and drove to Delaware. I slept in my car at the National Park beach. When I woke up, I drove to a diner and had a grilled-cheese sandwich. Then I drove south to the National Park on Assateague Island. When I got hungry, I found another diner and had another grilled-cheese sandwich. I drove south. I slept in the car. I danced on the beach. I ate grilled-cheese sandwiches, sometimes with a fried egg. I got as far south as Ocracoke Island.

I spent a night at a hotel in Nags Head, mostly to take a shower. I remember that shower. Five days of sunscreen, sweat, salt water, and mosquito repellent washed off me and out of my hair - I remember wondering where their graywater went, and feeling sorry for whatever was downstream.

At one point I left the Outer Banks and drove through Dare County. The sun went down while I was driving one of those two-lane state roads that arrowed straight through a swamp. It was DARK. I was nervous. Locals kept whipping along that road, pulling up right behind me, and then passing me with a roar in their pickup trucks.

Now, I know that some people are scared of cities. Perhaps rightly so. I've been mugged and broken into, and had cars stolen in cities, granted. But I'll wager that just about anyone who is not from the South can get really creeped out down there. We hear Creedence in our heads, and think of poor Ned Beatty, and we suspect that behind the wheel of every pickup truck rides a crosseyed inbred redneck who will drag us from the car, hold us captive in a tarpaper shack, and invite his legions of cousins to perpetrate unspeakable things upon us.

So, eventually, when the third or fourth pair of headlights came up fast and rode my bumper, I sped up... and of course, that was the cop.

He pulled me over, I gave him my license and registration, and he told me to close my window back up because of the mosquitos. Oh, the mosquitos on that trip are a whole 'nother story.

When I got back home, I sent Dare County a check to pay the ticket. Months later, I got a notice from them that they had suspended my license, along with my returned check. I called. Money order only, or I could pay in person. I got a money order and paid it. What a pain.

So today, when I called the North Carolina DMV to find out why they are still reprimanding me almost 20 years later, I find I have to pay a "license restoration fee" of fifty dollars. Can I pay over the phone with a credit card? No. "Do you know anyone in-state who can come in and pay it for you?" You've got to be kidding. Bob says I should have said, "Just you, ma'am - you're my only friend in North Carolina."

It was a great trip though.