After I flew back to Phoenix and claimed the keys to my new apartment, one of my first acts of settling in was to pay a visit to the Motor Vehicle Department. My passport was my only remaining valid form of identification. Rather than afflict it with new creases and sweat stains, I thought I’d obtain a state-approved photo ID, which would be good for six months.
It turned out that the agent had bigger plans for me. “Are you aware that your driver’s license is suspended?” She asked.
I nodded. Standing before her in crotch-cradling lycra cycling shorts, a plastic helmet under my arm, I was very grimly aware of it. My first act of settling in had been to buy a Trek road bike, the fastest vehicle I knew of whose licit operation required no official approval.
“To get it reinstated you’ll have to pay a $500 abandoned vehicle fee.”
How my beloved Geo Prizm came to be abandoned in the eyes of the law is a long story. Let’s just say it involved a light collision in the turning lane, a smashed-in driver’s-side door, a high deductible, and a lot of poverty. I was no longer quite so poor as I had been; paying the fine wasn’t going to be fun, but it was possible. The thought of scattering the black clouds from the record and getting my license back appealed to me. With a gulp and a sigh, I lay my Visa on the counter and said, “Okay.”
Without removing her eyes from her computer screen, the agent took it. Then she said, “Oh…wait.’
“You’ll also have to go to traffic school.” Traffic school consisted of a one-day, eight-hour course held in the conference room of a Scottsdale motel. Mainly, the pupils watched videos – “Mr. Walker and Mr. Wheeler,” starring Walt Disney’s Goofy, being one. As an alternative to paying another fine, it was far from a bad deal. I knew because I’d been through it twice before.
I agreed. The agent printed out some forms, which she instructed me to fill out and sign. I did as she said, and she handed me back some other forms to keep. Then she ran my card and had me sign the receipt. I left the place with a temporary state-approved ID card and a sense of being one fairly small step from legitimacy.
But I had another record to clear up.
During my year in Turkey, I had to work Saturdays and Sundays, and my work days lasted long into the evenings. Traveling to the nearest church would have involved a seven-hour round trip and transportation costs in the neighborhood of $100. With no confessor available, my sins, great and small, piled up. On my first Saturday back in the Valley, I decided to get them absolved and receive Communion for the first time in 13 months.
The church had an open confessional, and the priest turned out to be one of the most benevolent-looking men I’d ever laid eyes on. Actually, “benevolent” doesn’t do him justice. He was adorable. Well-padded around the middle, with dark brows arching over gently inquisitive eyes, he looked as though at any moment he might cry out, “Oh, bother” and thrust his paws into a jar of honey.
“For your penance,” he said. “I give you one Our Father.”
I felt exactly the way all those Bible verses say I should feel: ransomed, redeemed, suddenly debt-free, welcomed back into the bosom of the family. It made me so giddy that I forgot how to begin the Act of Contrition. The priest pointed to an end table between us; taped to its surface was a piece of paper bearing all the words from start to finish. After I got through it, the priest said, “God bless you.”
I offer these two anecdotes side by side not because they’re so wildly different, but because, in nearly every respect, they’re so similar. In each case, an authorized representative of a legitimate power helps a man atone for some past transgression. Both representatives strive, above all, to be helpful. (All those jokes about grouchy or clueless MVD workers might have some basis in fact, but that basis is not to be found at the branch on North Hayden, where Tempe and Scottsdale meet.) The only difference is that one form of penance pinched, memorably, whereas the other was memorable for not pinching at all.
From time to time I hear from people who believe that penance should pinch, that redemption dearly bought should also be dearly paid for. Most of the time, I can’t really track these arguments, so I can’t tilt with them here. What I do know is that I’m not eager to get another car, even if I can make a down payment and find financing for the rest. I am simply too given to daydreaming and too impulsive to make a consistently good driver. The abandoned-vehicle fine didn’t teach me that, but it will certainly make it hard to forget. It’s just as well that running has given me the glutes of a centaur, and that Phoenix now has a light rail system.
Probably it will work to the good of the State of Arizona, not to mention the environment, that I avoid all near-occasions of vehicular sin by remaining self-sufficient, energy-wise. But the near-occasion of my explosiveness is conflict with my fellow humans. I lack the creativity to stick it to them in ways not covered by the Sermon on the Mount. My approach follows the same phases as Field Marshal Haig’s – either cower behind the parapet or charge. It produces more or less the same results his did. In the best of all possible worlds, I’d be a desert hermit. In this one, I’ve got to earn a living, which means seeking terms with all manner of disagreeable people.
There’s an old story about a prudish actress – I forget who – who installed a swearing jar on the set of one of her films. On the first day of shooting, her more spirited co-star – I want to say Ava Gardner, but I could be wrong – took one look at the thing, dropped in a twenty, and extemporized a prose-poem in high modern Billingsgate. Jesus has dropped a twenty in all of our swearing jars, but there’s a catch. When we transgress, we have to pay him. By holding down the payment to a token, the priest ensured I could afford to go on trying.