People of Color: The test

The annual test to renew your car license is a fantastic opportunity to learn about the Israeli character, if that’s what you really want to do.

Car Test 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg News)
Car Test 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg News)
I don’t remember ever seeing a woman on her own taking her car in for “the test” – the annual test to renew your car license. Maybe there are garages in Kfar Shmaryahu or Kiryat Tivon or some other rich place where the guys who administer the test have to be on good behavior for the high-class clientele, so it’s civilized enough for women to bring their cars in – but not at the garage I go to. Because it has the state-authorized garage closest to me, I do the test in Ramle – for both my car and my wife’s, because there’s no way she’s going through that ordeal even if it were okay with me, which it isn’t. No decent husband would let his wife take her car to do the test, certainly not in Ramle.
Officially, it’s a test of your car’s roadworthiness. Unofficially, it’s a test of your Israeli warrior spirit. First you have to fight for turf against the other drivers, then you have to withstand ferocious abuse by a line of greasy, sweaty, pissed-off examiners. You have to run the gauntlet. They call it a car licensing test, but it’s really an army hazing. For men only.
Ramle is a gritty place to begin with; near Ben- Gurion Airport, it is home to the country’s main prison complex. You do the test near the southeast edge of town, right next to the railroad tracks, the old Arab neighborhoods and the highway. This is about as poor as it gets in this country. The garage sits in a corner of a huge dirt field where anything and, I imagine, anybody gets dumped. Next to it is a row of auto repair shops. My guess is that if the shop owners happen to be a few decades late in paying their municipal property taxes, they don’t have to worry about an inspector coming by to remind them.
A FEW WEEKS AGO I drove my wife’s somewhat dented 2001 Mitsubishi into one of the two snaking lines of cars waiting to be tested. I pull my car as close to the one in front of me as I can to deter anybody in the next line, or anybody driving up, from trying to jut in ahead of me, which can happen. The line moves forward, and I stay right on the tail of the car in front. But I see that the driver two cars ahead isn’t moving up, so there’s a big gap in front of him, big enough for another car to sneak into, which is like sneaking in front of me. I debate whether to honk, but I know that honking while in line for the test is very risky; it may be taken as an insult, it may set off a chain reaction of honking, it may lead to fights. I decide to wait until the line moves forward again to see if the guy up ahead closes the gap; when he does, I am relieved.
I was pretty confident that my wife’s car would pass. I’d brought it in for the pre-test repair, filled up the tires and taken it to the car wash just to do the exterior. A dusty exterior connotes poor maintenance, and the examiners would automatically assume there’s something wrong underneath. (A fleeting worry: They’ll see that the car has just been washed and figure I’ve got something to hide.)
Finally it’s my turn. I am sitting in the car at the mouth of a grease-lined tunnel of noise – engines racing, machines clanging, examiners laughing with each other and shouting at drivers. It’s far too loud to understand the examiners’ orders, and when you don’t know what to do, or when you make a mistake, they yell at you. If you yell back, they will find something not quite right with your car – which is no problem for them at all – and you will have to spend the time and money to get that thing fixed, and then you have to come back with your car for another turf war followed by another hazing.
It’s best to just go along with the program.
The first examiner, who’s waiting to test my brakes, has on the mandatory glare. He motions me forward, a little more, enough. He seems to be mumbling something. I don’t react.
“BRAKES!” he bellows, and I step on the brakes as hard as I possibly can and hold it there, straining and gritting, until I notice him make a faint, dismissive hand motion, and I take my foot off. He presses some buttons. He seems to mumble again. I don’t react.
“OMMBRAKES!” he roars, using the Hebrish for “hand brake,” and I yank up on the hand brake violently. More buttons, another contemptuous wave of the hand, and I advance slowly down the line.
The examiners look to be either Russian immigrants, Sephardim or Arabs; the only old-time Ashkenazi, as far as I can tell, is the owner, who’s also the only guy who doesn’t look pissed off. I can’t think of any other circumstance in this country in which Arabs are free to boss Jews around, and the Jews have to take it. For the Arab examiners, it must be kind of a thrill.
Along the Via Dolorosa, everybody’s mumbling or shouting at me from in front, from behind – lights on, lights off, high beams, vinkerim (turn signals). I’m managing more or less to keep up, but then I ought to; I’ve been doing this once or twice a year for over 20 years. I’m a battered Israeli car owner. I’m a lifer.
The last stop is a wide, deep, black hole in the floor that you have to maneuver your car on top of so the mechanics down below can check your axles or whatever. Your wheels don’t have very much room for error on either side; you have to drive your car pretty straight and steady to get it in position. I worry that I’m going to miss, that I’m going to turn my wheel in too much and drive the car into the hole, and even if no one is injured, the mechanics and examiners will yell at me for hours and hours. But on the other hand, if I maneuver the car too slowly, with too much trepidation, they’ll yell at me out of impatience. So what I do is say to hell with it, take aim, drive forward like a man and hope for the best.
I’m pretty sure this is what’s going through every driver’s mind as he approaches the black hole, and I’m absolutely sure the examiners know it and enjoy it. They let you struggle, then at the very end, when you’ve just got a couple of inches to go, when you’ve basically made it, the examiner, with a weary look on his face, motions you a little to the left, a little to the right, like he’s saving you from disaster, like he’s taking pity on you. My buddy.
After awhile, the last examiner handed me the checklist on the car – my test paper – and mumbled something. When I didn’t react, he said, this time in a relatively civilized tone, “The office is to the right.” I parked the car and looked at the checklist – it was clean. No items circled, no scribbled rebukes – my wife’s car passed the test. I passed the test.
Wow. It felt like I was floating.
In the office where you pay at the end, there’s usually a chaotic crowd at the cashier’s window, and again you’re fighting to make sure nobody cuts in front of you. This time, there were three people in line. No tension, no aggression. Every man under his vine and fig tree.
Then all of a sudden a guy with scars and welts and tattoos on his face and arms, dragging his girlfriend behind him, steps right in front of me. “We were here before,” he says.
Maybe it was the scars and welts and tattoos, or maybe it was my euphoria at passing the test, but I just smiled and mumbled, “Whatever you say.”
Then, as I’m leaning against the counter with two NIS 50 bills in my hand, the guy sees them and actually snatches them out of my hand and slips a NIS 100 bill in their place.
Unbelievable. Even more unbelievable – I don’t care. I looked at the guy and just started to laugh. He started to laugh, too. “You’re laughing, that’s good,” he said.
Paying and heading out the door, I’m thinking: What’s good, Psycho Killer, is that I don’t have to go through this again for another year.