Fear and loathing at the San Luis Obispo DMV

October 19, 2022

Editor’s Note: The following series, “Life in Radically Gentrifying Cayucos by the Sea,” to be posted biweekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. 

Franklin’s memoir, “Life On The Mississippi, 1969,” is currently on Amazon.


I’m well over 70 years old and flunked the written DMV drivers test, a disgrace for a guy who’s never been in a  serious wreck and hasn’t had a ticket in over 30 years and drove a cab for three years. You’re allowed to miss three out of l8 to pass. I missed six. I was handed the DMV manual and told to study it and come back when I was prepared.

I put it off a couple weeks. I was intimidated by the complicated, purposely deceiving questions and felt persecuted by the bureaucrats trying to trick me. I am easily deceived and confused these days. My mind is no longer acute. My confidence has waned. Still, I read good books and have been told I can maintain an intelligent conversation with educated people, especially in bars after a few drinks.

I browsed the manual the night before driving from Cayucos to San Luis Obispo, arrived early at the DMV, and instead of taking the test right away, sat and studied the manual for an hour, infuriated that I had 100 pages of bullshit to absorb and remember.

Feeling doomed, I accepted the test from the same woman who’d flunked me before. Almost immediately, on the second or third question, I was fulminating at the manner in which it was worded to again trick a person with a perfect driving record who should’ve had his license mailed to him instead of experiencing this humiliation. I was muttering and cursing in the little enclosure, avoiding answering certain questions, answering the few easy ones, then returning to the ones confusing and deceiving me and pissing me off. I ended up trying to use my common sense and handed the test over to the same woman, who immediately began checking off wrong answers.

I again missed six. I was grinding my teeth.

“I could take this damn test 10 times and flunk it,” I railed at her. “This test is designed to trick me. I’m a good driver. No wrecks, no tickets, perfect. What am I supposed to do now, for Christ sake?”

She was not one bit ruffled from my fusillade, whipped out information on a computer and handed me a sheet of paper—a date to take another test, along with a renewed temporary license.

“Some people have problems with the written test,” she explained. “Just show up at 8:l5 and you’ll take it orally with another group of people who have the same trouble as you.”

She briefly scrutinized me. “You’ll do fine, sir.”

I showed up at the appointed time a week or so later. Right off I recognized my fellow flunkers. A scowling middle aged Native American with braided hair and the name of his tribe on his ball cap. A white-haired lady frantically studied the DMV manual and fretted. An employee in the hive behind the long lines yelled out at her: “Mrs. Russo, did you report in?”

She peered up from her manual. “Uh..yes.”

“Okay, Mrs. Russo!”

A rotund woman around 40 also studied the manual. Her sweatshirt displayed a row of booze bottles followed with the words, 11 STEPS–THERAPY WORKS. A white-haired man with a neat goatee, dressed preppy in a red sweater vest, arrived, peered around, sat down. The woman in the hive yelled, “Mr. Webster, have you reported, sir?” Mr. Webster, the man in red vest, reported. A tall, stooped, white-haired man at least 85 checked in, using a cane. He was morose. A young wild-eyed girl with hummingbird energy checked in. I sat clenching my teeth, knowing if I flunked this test I should probably turn myself into social services and question whatever I was doing day to day.

The woman in the hive yelled very loudly at us: “All those talking oral drivers test, please follow me!”

We all stood and followed her into a room with a long table and chairs, the kind of place you see in movies where corporate henchmen grill and terrify sycophants. Mrs. Russo was disoriented and struggling with her chair. I quickly pulled it forward and seated her. She thanked me, panic in her eyes. “I’m no good at taking tests,” she confessed. “I never have been.”

“Me neither,” I said.

The tall, white-haired geezer was told by the woman in charge to sit down, but he seemed too angry to do so. I pulled a chair up for him and he nodded at me and sat down, and Mrs. Russo righteously announced, “There’s a gentleman in the house.”

I glanced at the Indian man beside me. He was still scowling.

The lady in charge handed us a sheet of paper with l8 true/false questions and two extra sheets with street signs. The first question, which she delivered very loudly, was, “True or false? If you come to a flashing red light at an intersection, you slow down to see if it’s safe, then drive through.”

The white-haired geezer couldn’t hear her. She walked over to him and screamed out the question. “Christ,” he muttered, shaking his head. “False. Anybody knows that.”

“Please, sir, do not repeat the answer out loud!” She was not angry.

“Okay, sorry,” he muttered, grimacing.

The blanks for questions five and six were blacked out. When we came to these questions, she said, “The answer to question number five is on your sheets of road signs! The first question is, which sign is a ‘one-way street’? Place the number five beside that sign.”

I found an arrow pointing one way with the words ‘one-way’ on it and placed a five beside it. The old preppy-dressed guy on the other side of me was confused. So was the lady with booze bottles on her sweatshirt. The lady in charge patiently went over the question with them. Somehow this tolerant woman made it through all l8 questions. We made for the door, the Indian out first, me behind him. In line, the old white-haired geezer was behind me. He was very tall. While the gloomy Indian was being processed, the white-haired goat seemed to loom over me. His lip curled up to reveal a false teeth sneer.

“This whole goddam thing, the goddam test, it’s a goddam crock of shit,” he told me.

“You got that right,” I agreed.

“I’d like t’ find the assholes made up these tests and wring their goddam necks,” he added.

“You’re not alone,” I told him.

“Hell,” he growled. “I was a goddam cop for 30 years. Never had a wreck!”

“LAPD?” I asked.

“Naw. St. Louis. My hometown.”

“Hell,” I said. “I’m real familiar with St. Louis. I used to work on the riverboat, the Delta Queen, on the Mississippi. We docked down by the arch.”

“That was my territory. For twelve years!” he exclaimed. “That was a rough area. We cleaned it up.”

The old goat pulled out his wallet and withdrew his ancient police ID card and showed it to me. It was from the l960s. He was 25 years old. 6 foot 4, l80 pounds. A handsome young officer in those uniforms with a strap over a shoulder. “I came out here fifteen years ago. I’m 88 years old. I got quick-bowel syndrome. You think it’s fun driving from Paso Robles and back taking these stupid tests when I might crap my pants, for Christ sake!”

“No sir, I don’t.”

I was up next. I handed my test to the same woman who tested us. I watched her breeze through, never checking off any wrong answers. Perfect score. I lingered to see that the old ex-cop geezer with quick-bowel syndrome and a constant grimace, passed. He did, but didn’t seem any more relieved than when he came in. Walking out, I saw Mrs. Russo, at the end of the line, biting her lips, clutching her test. I felt as if a massive cloud had been lifted from my being. For now.

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I went there twice in the last 3 weeks and had no problem at all. Use the online appointment system.

My recent DMV experience makes for a much less entertaining read. It went like this:

I easily made an appointment online at dmv.ca.gov. I showed up about 5 minutes before my appointment time, checked in, had my number called about 5 minutes later, easily passed my vision test, paid $39, and the friendly woman that took my new photo was a fellow lefty. The end.

By the way, at the DMV web site, at this link:


… is the “Knowledge and Drive Tests Preparation” page, where you can, “Review the California Driver’s Handbook. It contains a lot of important information, so give yourself a few days to get through it,” and where they also write, “Read the test questions carefully. There will be one correct answer and the other two answer choices will be either obviously wrong or not appropriate for the question asked. Don’t overthink it; there are no ‘trick questions.'”

Their words, not mine.

Glad to help : -)

If I didn’t know better, you sound like a gosh Dang right winger, you should be so thankful for this great group of public servants assembled by our loving Governor to serve us!

Laugh out loud funny, Dell. Thanks.

Love these pieces by Franklin. Keep ’em coming!

Sorry, but driving a motor vehicle is a privilege and not a right. The number of innocent people killed by incompetent drivers proves that. If you have trouble passing a simple written test that most drivers ace without much studying, then maybe you should leave the driving to someone else.

I respectfully disagree with your comments. I’m an excellent driver with an impeccable driving history but I am a horrible test taker (and horrible is an understatement of my test anxiety). The last time I was required to take the written test I barely passed even though I studied and have many years of driving experience including respecting and obeying our driving laws. I agree that several questions are written to trick the test taker instead of being straight forward with the multiple answer choices which would more accurately test for one’s actual knowledge of the laws.

You may feel a bit different about this if you were in your 70s, lived on your own and didn’t have family nearby to help. I agree that the test is pretty simple but folks loose confidence and panic when their ability to remain self sufficient is threatened, thus, the failing marks. I’d put more emphasis on the driving portion if I were making the decisions to pass or not.