Taxing my patience

I am, by any measure, a law-abiding guy. But before you rush out to nominate me for Citizen of the Century, hold your hosses.

I don’t obey the law for lofty, idealistic reasons, but for the same reason I do everything else – sheer laziness.

Face it: It’s far easier to obey the law than to deal with the consequences of being busted – especially for me. Or to use a journalistic metaphor: If there’s one thing worse than never getting your picture on the front page of the paper, it’s getting your picture on the front page of the paper.

Life couldn’t get better if I saw my pic on page one of the ADE for winning the Pulitzer Prize. On the other hand, having my mugshot there for something as minor as jaywalking would, within hours, have me setting up shop in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

The old cliche rings true – crime doesn’t pay. Breaking the law almost always ends up badly – unless of course you’re one of the peeps who makes the laws. Those gonifs could get busted stealing the pennies off a dead man’s eyes and would not only say they did it for the good of This Great Land, but since no one votes, they’d get away with it, too.

But it’s not like that for the average Zhlub In The Street as we Zhlubs I.T.S. know all too well.

So that’s why I drive the speed limit, only pass on a dotted line and have always paid my taxes.

Or it’s why I’ve almost always paid my taxes. For there’s one tax I did not pay fully and that was the sales tax on my cars.

First of all, I didn’t render it unto Caesar because, as far as I was concerned, Caesar already got his fair share. Almost every car I owned was ancient by the time I got it. They were all pre-1970 VW Beetles, and the only reason they stayed alive was because they were maintained by my genius mechanic Vern Friend.

The fact is, though, by the time I took the wheel, they’d seen not only many miles but many owners. And thus my cobbling of the sales tax. The way I saw it, each car had been sold and resold so many times, the total sales taxes that’d been paid were greater than the original cost of the car. And if I put a lower sales price on the bill of sale and hustled the Empire State out of a buck or two? Why, so be it, and more power to me.

Friends of the state

For years this never presented a problem, for obvious reasons: If someone registers an 18-year-old Beetle with 160,000 miles on it, none of the DMV staff are going to blink if it says you paid four or five hundred frogskins for it. And why would they? First, it could certainly be true, and second., haggling over such a minor detail should be beneath their dignity. And it always wasexcept for once.

Before I go any further, let me say that while it’s popular to bash the DMV, I never do it – especially about the crew we have here. The people here have (with the noticeable exception you’ll read about shortly) always been great to me. They’ve been friendly, helpful, and patient, which I appreciate because of a weird problem I have: Filling out forms of any kind, about reduces me to tears.

I don’t know why it is; I only know I’ve been like this my whole life. In school, I breezed through essay exams. But when it came to multiple-choice and fill in the blank, I folded. If you can believe it, I even failed tests in seventh grade shop. And it never got better. I failed learner’s permit tests; when I was in the Navy I failed the military driver’s test (which I’m ashamed to admit was written on a fourth or fifth grade level at best). And even when it’s not a test, when it’s just a form, I lose my cool. That’s why I never get discount cards at stores and the like.

So filling out a form in the DMV makes me a pathetic weenie. I look at the form, and suddenly, though I could’ve told you if you’d asked, I can’t remember how many cylinders the car has or for that matter, how many wheels. So having a pleasant and helpful DMV clerk (which they all are) is to me like winning the lottery – without buying a ticket.

A bout with a beady-eyed bureaucrat

And now, the only DMV hassle I ever had:

It was the same drill – I’d just bought an antediluvian Beetle and was going in to register it. I filled out all the paperwork and went to next available clerk and when I got one look at him, my blood ran cold.

I’d never seen him before, and never saw him again, so I assume he was on temporary duty from somewhere else – from the looks of him, Pyongyang. He was middle-aged, lean and had that look of The Ultimate Bureaucrat. You know the type, I’m sure: one of those miserable minor functionaries whose only joy in life is making other people’s lives as miserable as his (as if such a thing is possible).

I’ve run into those dudes all over the world. One was a streetcar conductor in Slovakia who threw an unintelligible tantrum over something on my ticket that I never figured out and eventually had to pay six cents U.S. to square away. Another was a soldier in the New Delhi airport who insisted that to leave the airport I go through a metal detector that clearly wasn’t connected to any power source. And he made me do it twice.

And this guy in the DMV was their brother. He had that fiendish, focused squint that let me know he was going to find something, anything, that was wrong with my paperwork. And then he’d get a jolt of orgiastic delight when he sent me back, out of the line, to redo whatever, and thus help ruin my day in his own small way.

I handed him the forms. Slowly, deliberately, he went over every line. First, the car registration. He nodded and put it down. Then the DMV registration form. Again he nodded and again he put it down. Then the bill of sale. He neither nodded nor put it down. Instead he stared at one section. Then his face broke into a tight, smug smile.

“This,” he said, pointing at the form.

“What? I said.

“The price.”

“What about the price?”

“You said you paid a hundred dollars for it.”

“That’s because I did pay a hundred dollars for it,” I said.

“Oh?” he said. “A hundred dollars for a classic car?”

“Is it still a classic car, without an engine?” I said.

His beady eyes widened for an instant. It was clear I’d just beat him to the punch.

“It doesn’t have an engine?” he asked. “Whatta you do with a car without an engine?”

“Put an engine in,” I said. “That’s why I only paid a hundred bucks for it.”

He looked at the bill of sale, then looked at me, then looked back at the bill of sale, gnawing a bit on his lower lip. A long moment passed then another. He was obviously in conflict.

He shook his head slowly and then in a couple of quick motions, he did whatever he had to do to certify everything as legal. I coughed up the necessary fees (including a lordly eight bucks to the state of New York), got my plates and paperwork, and walked out of the joint, whistling the Beatles’ classic, “Drive My Car.”

Actually, I felt a bit sorry for the guy. He’d just been caught up in a situation fraught with irony.

One irony was he knew I was pulling a fast one on him, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Another irony was the car really did come without an engine, and I really did pay a hundred bucks for it.

And what’s most ironic is I got cross-examined and doubted at the DMV the only time I told them the God’s-honest truth.