I was driving along an L.A. street the other morning when I saw a sight that said it all. Cruising along slowly next to me was an obviously Mexican man (Mexico flag decal, a Chivas soccer sticker in the back window, and clouds of exhaust belching out of the tailpipe). What he was driving defied the laws of physics. His car had been hit by something (either another car or a telephone pole) right at the driver side door, bending the car almost in half. It resembled a backwards "L" driving down the street. I don't know how it could go forward, but somehow it did. His back seat was full of gardening tools so I assumed he was on his way to work. He was about to enter the freeway on ramp, but before he did... he made the "Sign of the Cross."
It was the same Sign of the Cross that every Catholic soldier has made before entering battle from the Crusades to the War in Iraq. Every Mexican boxer makes it before the first bell. Every Dominican baseball player makes it before he steps into the batters box. I used to make it before my Dad came home to see my report card. It is a simple prayer that asks for only one thing, "Please Lord, let me live." That's all he was asking, " Just let me live." It was the only protection he had as he entered the perilous L.A. freeway -- the "Sign of the Cross Insurance."
While much of the nation has insurance by Allstate, Farmers, or Blue Cross, the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country have only holy water and a prayer to protect them from financial disaster. By the way, how do they know that it's only 12 million? Did they do a house-by-house census? "Uh senor, how many illegal people in your house?" "Oh there's only me and I'm not really here, I'm from Aqui-no-stan." So why are these millions of people uninsured? Because they can't get a driver's license. How much sense does that make? It is a conundrum, which is an English word that means, pinche pendejo gabacho or a birth control device, I don't know which.
For those people whose ultimate argument is that they shouldn't be here in the first place, all I can say is "sorry you spilled your milk meester, would you like to hire a Mexican to clean it up for you?" If you can just get your head out of the sand for a second, let me give it to you as straight as I can. These millions are not going anywhere, now, or in the foreseeable future. They are the linchpins of our economy. If you think that our country is going through financial difficulties now just try removing 12 million people who probably work two or maybe even three jobs at close to minimum wage and replace them with what... union workers? Your hotel bed will never be made and you will never be able to get a hot meal in any restaurant. Good luck even finding them if you want to deport them. The first thing any self-respecting Mexican in this country does as soon as he can gather enough money for a down payment is get the biggest, gaudiest, shiniest, mud flap encrusted truck with a sound system that can loosen the gold fillings in your teeth. He will be gone somewhere else faster than a fart in a dust storm with just the faint echoes of "El Tigres del Norte" fading in the distance. He is not constrained by the speed limit because he doesn't know what the speed is because he doesn't have a driver's license. The last thing on his mind is buying car insurance.
How much sense does it make to have 12 million, not only uninsured, but unlicensed drivers out on our highways and byways without any guarantee that they have even the minimum knowledge of how to operate a vehicle or any idea of the rules. My mother-in-law, who's from St. Petersburg, Russia and has a degree in economics took the drivers test seven times before the instructor finally got tired of seeing her cry and said "what the hell, here's your license, just don't kill anybody." While learning to drive (?), she couldn't understand why pedestrians didn't get the hell out of her way. "Can't they see I have big American car, what, they are stupid? In Russia they would be grease spots by now." Hey, call me crazy, but it would seem to me to make sense that I would want anyone who is behind the wheel of a 2,000 pound machine going 65 miles an hour to have had at least five minutes of instruction. For all I know the last thing he drove was a tractor... or a donkey.
Another interesting fact is that of these 12 million undocumented workers 75 to 85 percent are under 25 years of age. A great percentage of them are teenagers. That's all we need, 8 million teenagers away from home, working so they have their own money and then on Friday night have access to beer and car keys. All I have to do is remember my teenage days and it's a miracle I even go out on the road.
The very first time I got to drive by myself I took a bunch of my friends to school and was caught, by a motorcycle cop going 90 miles an hour on a back street. He flipped on his red light about a half a block from school and then followed me into the student parking lot. He proceeded to take his time as he wrote me out the world's longest ticket. The crowd watching and laughing grew and grew until two taco trucks, attracted by the swelling crowd pulled up and started selling breakfast burritos. It took the whole first semester before kids stopped sniggering as they passed me in the hall. It gets worse.
When I finally had to go to court to face the music, the judge threw the book at me. For my very first offence he suspended my license for six months and fined me one hundred dollars. I was 16, where was I going to get a hundred dollars. This was 1962. Foreign country's used to get a hundred dollars in Foreign Aid from the U.S. and consider themselves rich. Thank God my father, a policeman himself, had accompanied me to court. Very reluctantly he fronted me the cash, but assured me that I was going to pay it back doing yard work... probably until I graduated from High School... and I was one of the good kids! I was on the honor roll, the debate team, the hall monitors, but put me behind the wheel and I turned into Evil Kenevil.
I used to do things in a car just to see if I could do them. I remember one time, a week after I got my driver's license at 16, and I took the family car out for a little spin to the grocery store. I had to beg and beg and beg to borrow the car for half an hour. Finally my dad let me have the keys. I took my girlfriend with me. She wasn't really my girlfriend yet, but I was hoping. I don't know if it was the combination of the newness of having a license, or wanting to show off for a girl, or just because I was a knucklehead, but I wanted to see if the family's Nash-Rambler station wagon, with a push button gear shift (the latest thing) could lay rubber in the parking lot of the super market. I put the car in neutral and revved the engine up to as loud and as fast as it could go and then popped it into gear... and it worked! I "laid a batch" as they said in those days, accompanied by a loud screeching, ear-piercing wail, inside of a burning, black, acrid cloud of smoke. We looked at each other in amazement. There was a moment of silence, like the moment of silence that follows all great events in history and then... "let's do it again."
If there is one phrase or action that every person on the planet would like to erase from his or her memory or have the chance to undo, it would be "let's do it again." When we did it again there was no burning rubber, there was no ear-piercing wail, there was only the loud clanking sound of the transmission hitting the pavement... oh, and the sound of me crapping my drawers. The only thing that pulled me out of my shock was the blaring horn of a diesel truck a foot in front of us that I had almost hit head on. I could feel my heart pounding in my feet.
I had to call my father to come to the scene. As he looked at the trail of mangled transmission parts that lay in a 10-foot long path behind the car, you could see steam coming off his head. I knew that if I had admitted the truth I would not be here today telling you this story.
"I don't know what happened Dad. I just put it in gear and the next thing that I heard was this loud noise." He knew I was lying. He was a policeman; he knew all teenagers were lying. He just couldn't prove it. A week later a mechanic told him that a spider gear (whatever) had broken and fallen onto the other gears and that caused the snafu. It was covered by the warranty so "no harm, no foul. "
Many years later, during a family gathering, after dinner, everyone was sitting around swapping family stories. When it came around to my father's turn he started to recall the incident of my first traffic ticket. I just rolled my eyes. I had heard this story many times. I was 30 now and each time I heard it I still recalled all the blisters I got from weeding the garden, but this time was different. This time he added some new information. I guess it was partly because of the "holiday cheer" he had imbibed and partly because maybe he thought I was old enough to hear the truth now, but this time he admitted that he had gone to the judge before I got to court and told him to impose the sentence that he did. The judge was reluctant because what my dad proposed was far in excess of the usual fine, but he convinced him that it would teach me a lesson. Well you know what dad, you did teach me a lesson. Never cop to the truth when it comes to driving... and this is the first time he's hearing the truth about me dropping the transmission of his brand new car. What goes around comes around. This is just one story of my teenage driving years. Now that I'm older I think a reasonable age when you can get a license is around 30.
Now this all leads me to what I'm really worried about... my safety! Forget immigrant rights, forget helping the international underclass. I'm all for the huddled masses, just don't let them huddle 12 at a time in a broken down minivan hurtling down the Hollywood freeway at 85 miles an hour without a license. Hell, let them have fake licenses with phony addresses. Throw my nerves a bone! I'll believe it. I believe in Social Security and I'll probably never collect it.
I guess one of the ways that karma works is that it finds out what you are most afraid of and then makes that happen eventually. This summer, on my birthday, I was rear ended by an illegal immigrant. I was on my way to a nice birthday dinner when traffic came to a sudden standstill on Pacific Coast Highway. It was a summer Sunday and traffic had been stop-and-go for miles so it didn't surprise me that we had completely stopped. I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw an old van coming straight for us. I knew immediately that it was not going to stop in time and I said to my wife, "Hold on, we're gonna get hit." She didn't really hear me, she was texting. All she said was "Huh" and then the van slammed into us. Thank God we were not injured, (yea Volvo) but I couldn't say the same for the car, it was totaled. Before I could even get out of the car my wife was on the phone calling 911. I came around to assess the damage and to check on the other driver. Looking quickly at the van I thought it had to belong to an undocumented immigrant, and it did. She was young, female, blond... and English. She was all right as well, just shaken up. I thought it would be a good idea if we exchanged driver's licenses and insurance information. She looked to her girlfriend who was riding with her and in that moment I knew that she had neither.
"You know I left my driver's license and insurance information at home. Why don't I go get it and I'll be right back."
Now I may look like a lot of things, but a total fucking idiot is not one of them.
"I don't think so sweetheart. Why don't we just wait here until the police get here?"
"Oh, you already called the police."
"Yes, they'll be here any minute."
She and her girlfriend slunk off to sit on the curb to await their fate. When the police arrived they found out that, of course, she had neither drivers license, nor insurance coverage nor did she have immigration papers to allow her to be here legally. She was fucked. I felt a little sorry for her... not a whole lot, but just a little. After all, my wife and I could have been seriously injured. We were all very lucky. What made me feel for her was the look on her face. It was a look that was both frightened and defiant at the same time. It was a look that said, "I'm in deep shit" and "why did this have to happen to me." It was as if it was almost unfair that she got exposed. It was an accident after all. It wasn't her fault. It was an accident. I have never seen that look on any Latino's face that has been busted for the same reason. They all know that it's part of the deal. A very real and consistent part of the deal. There is almost a zen-like look that I have seen them get as they are being handcuffed and loaded into vans for their returns to their native countries.
Every politician who has ever had a brief moment of sanity and proposed that anybody, illegal or not, should be eligible to get a driver's license has had the experience of watching members of his constituency turn into an angry mob. You would have thought that he just proposed making rape legal. Which in a way is what is happening. What recourse do you or I have if any unlicensed and uninsured driver hits us? Zip, zero, zilch, nada. Who gets screwed? You and me, Bippy. We get a bump up on our insurance rates and they get to go back to England and make tea.
Now, for the most part, Mexicans, without a driver's license, are safe drivers. On second thought let me amend that, they are slow drivers. Now that may be safe or unsafe depending on what road they are driving on. They don't want to draw attention to themselves so they drive 35 miles an hour on the freeway in a car with four different colored doors. They want to be safe. Slow is safe. They pay no attention to the honking horns and the angry looks of the other legal motorists. You will never see a Mexican undocumented immigrant on America's Wildest Car Chase's. If they get pulled over, they just think, "oh well it's time to visit the wife and kids back in Mexico anyway." They just think Americans are too stressed out. Calamate buey! Your job will still be there if you're five minutes late... or maybe not. It could have been outsourced to India or Thailand by the time you get there so maybe you better speed up. You can afford a speeding ticket, I can't.
Now, just because other native motorists have driver's licenses doesn't mean they know the rules either. Just look at Britney Spears, for instance. In order to escape the paparazzi she sped away from a Starbucks with her infant son on her lap and they were both unbuckled. Her excuse was "hey y'all, I'm country." Mexicans are country too, just a different country. In Guatemala a driver's license is any three by three-piece of paper with typing on it.
At the end of the day, it not only doesn't make logical sense to deny licenses to undocumented immigrants, it doesn't make financial sense. A driver's license costs what, 50 dollars? You multiply that by 12 million, you could easily pay for a week of war in Iraq. Mexicans could be patriotic and legal at the same time. So the next time you see what you think is an undocumented immigrant driving slowly on the freeway don't honk at him in frustration, honk at him in support. Honk at him with a honk that says "I support you in your efforts to get a license and contribute to the war effort. Don't be surprised if he looks at you and makes the Sign of the Cross.