Chapter Fourteen: Crime and the City Solution
A low-stakes tale of small town outlaws with an up ending and apologies to Simon Bonney.
A few weeks in to mill house life, it was time to start driving lessons again. Because I had already lived a long time in France, I knew that nothing necessary is ever available when you want it, so I had been sourcing a new school since I arrived. Scarcity was the operative word out here. The closest ones to me were all fully booked and didn’t have an available testing slot at whatever the French DMV is called for months away. I found one a little further out, in the nearest small city, about 25 minutes from the mill house, that could, miraculously, take on a new student.
I was apprehensive about rejoining the failure cult again so soon, but money talked. The rental car fees, when added in to B&B rates that far exceeded my old mortgage payment, were a lot, and work was sluggish, if we want to be euphemistic about it. Plus I was sick of driving that tin can. I had put aside some money from the sale of the Paris house to get a decent car, and the license was the only thing that stood in my way. So away we go.
On my first day at the small school, off a parking lot in the old city center I recognized for its pretty good Saturday greenmarket, I met Alain, who was to be my instructor. He couldn’t have been more than 28, but he had the air of a Vice Principal: wispy-thin, dead serious, with those rectangular-shaped wire-rimmed glasses worn by every government employee in France, neatly trimmed dark curly hair, and almost too-impeccable manners. If Alain seemed incredibly into his job, it turned out his father owned the school. So at least one dynasty ruled this burg.
We went out for an hour (cost: €55) in one of the school’s fleet of hoopties so he could assess my skill level and tell me how many supplemental hours he thought I’d need. The ancient Citroën’s brakes were so spongy and its suspension so wobbly I almost wondered if it was another skill-building exercise. We rattle-banged around the once-charming historic heart of town slowly taken over by dusty hair salons and French “taco” greasy spoons, and made our way out to the big-box outskirts.
I didn’t want to tell Alain too much about the shit show that was my last bite at the driving apple, so we kept the conversation to the basics: I am moving to Le Perche full time, I am American, Alain has three cats and two dogs, I have two cats. He seemed nice enough despite his overall pointy head. I give any man with multiple cats and dogs the benefit of the doubt.
He told me I’d need four more hours, which seemed a little rich, but he needed to make sure I could handle all the various driving conditions possible out here, drastically different from eastern Paris and Bobigny as they were. (Thank God.) Indeed I was not an expert at country roads nor unpredictable old town urbanism. And I had no choice but to take his deal if I wanted to keep my slot at the only game in town.
It may have been on our second outing that things got exciting. Alain asked if I minded if we passed by a boulangerie for him to get a sandwich, as he had back to back lessons all day. No problem, plus the boulangerie, from the crappy Brioche Doré chain, sat on a very confusing intersection with bad signage and unclear right of way rules that he wanted me to learn. As Alain emerged with something mayonnaisey, leaned on the hood of the car and started wolfing it down, a scooter buzzed through the intersection at a wild angle and speed, ignoring every rule of the road he had just so painstakingly explained.
Alain precipitously tossed the half sandwich that remained and got into the car, fuming. He told me this kid had been passing through town regularly, and almost clipped someone his last time through. He thought maybe the kid was dealing drugs. “Wait, you have drug dealers out here?” I asked, trying not to appear personally interested.
Alain was now in a hurry, and asked if we could take a different route while he continued his litany of complaints. There are old ladies in this intersection, this kid could have killed one. Et cetera. He directed me to the outskirts of town, to a cluster of slapped together high rises with the look of state-sponsored low-income housing and I finally understood the level of his commitment to road safety. (Aside: the egregious ugliness of these building complexes stands in such stark contrast to the charm of old France, which the state works hard to protect, that I have always thought the bad architecture was intentional, to literally put the poors in their place. They pay attention to the aesthetics of buildings, so why not these?)
There was a police car sitting at the curb of one of the building blocks, and two cops were standing outside the entrance to the ground floor. Alain apologized and asked if I’d give him just a few more minutes, got out and approached one of the officers. I couldn’t hear him but the gesticulating appeared to mime what went down with our young scofflaw. Just as he was finishing up his complaint, the little fucker came barreling down our very same street on his scooter, saw the cops and beat it.
Alain’s eyes got wide, and he pointed at the kid as he zoomed away. The cops took notes and nodded but they weren’t going to give chase or anything. Either they didn’t share his zeal for civic comportment or they had bigger things to worry about.
So I guess this was small town crime? Everyone knows everyone else, even the nuisances. Everything is a known quantity. A couple weeks later, I read in the local press (which was quickly becoming my obsession for how it elevated the utterly mundane to headline status) that a drug ring was busted up in the same town. I wondered if the kid was involved and that’s what the cops were out for. Though his hasty exit upon seeing us may have only meant he recognized Alain’s car and wanted to avoid a pissy complaint. Yes, he needed to drive more considerately, but I hoped he didn’t end up in the pokey.
Finally our four hours had come to an end. Alain admitted in a pinchy sort of way that I was ready. We met at the test-taking outpost early one Monday morning. It was a block away from another marathon row of gargantuan supermarkets and appliance outlets. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and I was the only person waiting. From out of the center came an apple-cheeked man who looked to be about 60.
He got up front into the passenger seat with Alain behind, just like last time. From behind our COVID masks, he asked me why I had an accent. I explained that I was American, and, suddenly even jollier than he was before, he launched into a list of all the places he’d been in my home country. He did Las Vegas in an RV, which gave me a chance to tell him that my father’s family hailed from there, since the 1920s, and that I’d been visiting since the early 1970s. I told him that back then the action was around Glitter Gulch, north of the Strip, on Fremont St. Never mind that I was five years old at the time, and knew nothing of iconic titty bars, the guy was so loving these atmospheric tales of OG Sin City, he forgot to give me directions a few times. I barely had time to tell him why he should visit Joshua Tree before the test was over.
As we pulled back into the test-taking center, Alain was smiling, and the test administrator was smiling, so I was smiling. The administrator legally can’t give the score on the spot. They used to, but the massive proportion of failing grades delivered in person led to a lot of them getting smacked around. (When you are condemned to spending at least another thousand euros on high-anxiety nonsense, a little temper is understandable even if we can agree that violence is not the answer.) Alain shook my hand and said he didn’t think we’d be seeing each other again.
A week later, it was official. I was legal behind the wheel.
P.S. It is a damn shame that the epic band who inspired today’s headline has only 500+ subscribers on YouTube. Won’t you help change that?