In one of the greatest bathroom reads of all time, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the inscrutable Mr. James ranks baseball players in two ways: at their peak, and over their entire careers, thus giving weight to some players who shone brightly if only briefly. Think the wonderful late Mark Fidrych, who was nearly unhittable for his magical rookie season, then was done in by injuries. I was reminded of this the other day as I drove to work. I have written before about the thrills of working right next to a State Highway Patrol office where they conduct driving tests. Every day there's an endless parade of mostly teenagers chauffeuring around a well-dressed officer, who has the power to grant or deny each individual teen's bid for a driver's license. Mostly I see two aspects of the process: out back where the drivers come around for the tricky maneuverability test, and out front where the car pulls up after the entire test, the officer gets out, delivers the good or bad news to the waiting parent, and then strides into the office. If the reactions of teen driver and parent aren't clear enough, the results of the test are apparent soon enough: if the teen, with parent in tow, pulls around to park, the test was passed and now it's time to go in and get the actual license; if the car pulls away and off into the blue (read gray, it's Cleveland, after all) yonder, the test was failed, come back next week, kid (in an amazing bit of prescience, somehow knowing that thirty years later I would be writing about all of this, when I took my test, I failed the at-the-time-new maneuverability test; thus I drove off and returned the next week and duly passed; hence, in true journalistic spirit, I know intimately both sides of this story--you're welcome for my dedication to fairness).
Anyway, the other day, as I was winding my way through the cul-de-sac behind the strip mall--a less direct route to work, but one that avoids the utter chaos of negotiating the large parking lot, where it's obvious that years after acquiring their licenses, most drivers disregard all rules of the road--I found myself behind a car that was in the middle of a driving test. This became clear by the solid twenty seconds we lingered at every stop sign, waiting for all the other vehicles at the other various stop signs to wave the testee on, at first patiently and then a bit more passionately. Following directly behind the test vehicle gave me enough time to make a few discoveries: it is possible to keep a car moving at a steady rate of 3 mph, and turn signals can be quite hypnotic when deployed half a mile before a turn. When the car eventually did make that turn into the strip mall, I noticed that the testor was my favorite, a tall guy who looks uncannily like former football coach Bill Cowher, most accurately like Cowher after a replay challenge doesn't go his way. I'm glad that guy wasn't conducting the tests thirty years ago; I might have been so scared as to never pass the test.
All of this got me thinking that apart from an IRS auditor--covered completely, and then some, by the great David Foster Wallace in his posthumous, would-be novel The Pale King--there can be no more powerful, fear-inducing occupation than a driver's license testor. I'm talking peak performer, not career. Does anyone command greater respect, fear, and power--for all of ten minutes--than these Highway Patrolmen riding shotgun with some teenager whose whole world hinges on the outcome of the test? I think not. I mean familiarity, if not always breeding contempt, certainly breeds a lessening of authority, as any parent or teacher would know. But for that short, ten-minute interval of time, the driving testor is king, God, Supreme Being. In the moment of clarity that only comes from nearly being late to work and finding oneself behind a possibly newly-minted driver who is obsessively concerned with doing everything right and not pissing off the Supreme Being in the uniform riding next to him or her, I realized the awful--both in the that's horrible, and in the wow, amazing senses of the word--burden those testors must carry. I'm sure there are moments when all the over-the-top respect and reverence and obsequiousness feels pretty damn good and damn-well-deserved, but really, ten minutes after ten minutes, day after day, month after month, year after year of being on the receiving end of such frightened fawning must get tiresome, if not downright depressing. I wonder, if only to maintain some equilibrium in their lives, if these testors, after a particularly long day or week of being the Supreme Being, must have to go stand in line at the customer service desk of some discount warehouse, or spend a couple hours on the phone trying to get tech support for a PC, or simply go home and watch reruns of Cleveland Browns games from 1999-present. If they don't, they should start, because a little bit of masochism, a little bit of being kicked around, would probably be just what their psyches need; man, or woman, cannot live sane forever if all he or she knows is such power as the driving testor knows.
And forget such psychological babble. Aren't these driving testors driven completely nuts being driven around so anally, so deliberately, ten minutes after ten minutes, day after day, week after ... ? My God, I bet when they go out at night these driving testors beg their friends or lovers to take the wheel and drive like madmen(women). "Oh, please, roll that stop sign! I can't take another complete, twenty-second, look-all-ways-seven-times-and-then-tentatively-inch-out-into-the-intersection stop." Or, "Go ahead, take it up to twenty-seven in this 25 mph zone, please, just for me." Or, when the going really gets rough, "Okay, I'm going to tell you to go left at this next stop sign, but instead of saying, 'Yes sir,' and putting your turn signal on way too early, I want you to just gun it, run the stop sign and yell at me, 'In your maneuverability dreams, Ponch! Ha ha ha!' Oh God, that would be most wonderful!"
And so, my sympathies to you, officers, and my grudging--you really don't want it any other way, do you?--respect. My next fifty rolled stop signs are for you.
By the way, David Foster Wallace had an inconsistent career, but at his peak, nobody was better.
And Bill Cowher had an inconsistent career, but at his jaw-jutting, spit-spewing peak, he was among the best.
And Bill James, well, I'm still crunching the numbers on him.