Jim says he is a ". . . driving man. I can drive with the best of them."
He never has had an accident in his Chevy, Jim boasts, even in tough situations like Saturday night traffic jams on 14th Street, when cars from all over town form a solid line for blocks as everyone slows down to ogle prostitutes in hot pants.
"I be looking, moving over here and back across to see another one," he said with a wide smile spreading over his 38-year-old face. "And I never had no accident . . . not a one."
Jim never had driver's license, either. He can not read very well and he did not want to go through the embarrassment of trying to take the written test on driving rules - "If you are behind a slow truck near the top of a hill when should you pass?" - that is required for anyone applying for a driver's license.
But when his construction boss told him he could make more money if he had a license and could legally drive a pick-up truck, Jim said he got up some nerve and went downtown to the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services to try the written test on the rules of driving.
Jim, a graduate of Spingarn High School, could not read well enough to understand the questions that stared at him from a computer screen.
An attendant at the motor vehicles office saw him looking blankly at the question, he said, and gently asked him if he would like to take the special Wednesday afternoon test that is given orally to persons who can't read.
The test for persons who cannot read well enough to take the written examination has been given in the Washington bureau of motor vehicles for over 20 years. Originally, it was given as a special service for foreigners who were just learning to read and write English and to some school dropouts who had come to Washington.
In recent years, more and more persons who grew up in the United States and finished high school but who cannot read are taking the test. The busiest time of the year for the oral test is in the late Spring when District of Columbia high school students want a license to drive the family car to the prom or need a license for a summer job.
"I remember when 10-12 people was a big class," said James E. Burke, chief testing examiner at the motor vehicles bureau. "Now we have 20-25 in every class."
And the demand for the test that is read out loud continues to rise.
The Wednesday afternoon tests are currently booked solid through July. To accomodate persons who need the test the Bureau of Motor Vehicles is increasing the size of every session given after June 1st from 25 persons to 35 persons, according to Daniel B. Garrett Jr., chief of permit control.
Part of the increase in the number of persons taking the test is due to high school students who increasingly are asking to take the oral test.
"Schools around here must be pretty bad," said Garrett. "Kids come in here and they can't fill out an application. That happen all the time."
Garrett estimates that over 5 percent of the approximately 1,000 persons who take the test for nonreaders yearly are high school students. One day recently three of the 19 persons taking the test were high school students and three others, who were under 25, were recent graduates of city public high schools.
Donald Anderson, assistant chief to permit examinations, said he sometimes asks young persons why they cannot read or suggests that they go to a reading school.
"My heart goes out to the young kids, Anderson said. "You could find another reason to explain it if they weren't so young and in school. If they're over 40 and from the south and tell you they dropped out, well okay, then you know what happened. But with these kids . . ."
The number of high school students who take the oral test may be lower than the number of high school students who need to take it, several motor vehicles officials said, because many young persons who cannot read cheat by having a friend take the test for them. Young persons also often have friends take their road test for them, officials said.
"It is awful" Garrett said. "We've got a sign in there that says it is a $300 fine or 10 days in jail for obtaining a permit through misrepresentation. But we still catch them everyday.
"We don't prosecute too much unless they won't admit it," he added. ". . . we catch 7-10 on the road test every week but on the written test many more are beating us. We really can't stop it. We don't have the personel. This division has lost 38 people since 1974." Garrett said almost all of the persons caught cheating on the road test and the written tests are teen-aged students. In 1977, there were 354 license canceled because someone elde tried to take the road test for the person. No record is kept of the number of persons caught cheating on the written test.
While younger persons persons are caught cheating, the older persons sometimes try to give a bribe to one of the motor vehicle officials, said Anderson, the assistant chief of permits examination.
Jim said he was nervous when the test started last Wednesday. After filing into the test room, he looked around at the other persons in the room.
In one seat was Emily, the 25-year-old mother of five children and a graduate of Eastern High School. She wants to learn how to drive, she later said, so she can take her children to school.
In another seat was Fred, an 18-year-old from Northeast Washington, who will graduate this year from the D.C. Street Academy's reading program. he reads on the fifth-grade level after attending Slowe Elementry School, Taft Junior High School, the Franklin Center and the Street Academy.
A few feet away from Jim was Gina, a woman in her early 50s, who works as a short order cook downtown. Gina wants to learn how to drive because she has to be downtown to open the restaurant for the breakfast crowd by 5 a.m. Gina dropped out of school after attending the eighth grade in South Caroline. She never learned to read.
Elsewhere in the room were 17 men and two women, all dressed neatly, like Jim.
Five of the men were old, over 60. Another five were young, under 35 and the seven others were in their late 30s, 40s and 50s.
One of the motor vechile officials gave out slips of white paper numbered 1.20, with a space on the top for the person's name.
After the first question was asked - "When is a license valid? - the man was reading the questions to the group asked the question again in a less formal way."
Then he read the three possible answers.
After everyone had stopped writing a motor vehicles official went around the room to see if the nonreaders were taking the test correctly. The official found that at least four of the test-takers had written 1, 2, 3 in the first three open slots on the page.
After explaining what they had done wrong the man giving the test told everyone in the room the correct and how it should have been marked.
When the test was over the papers were collected and graded. Only eight persons passed: Four of the young men (including Fred) the older woman, (Gina) one of the middle- aged men and Jim.
After taking an eye test - some of the nonreaders do not know the alphabet so their eyes were tested with picture of animals that varied in size - each of the nonreaders had to identify road signs such as a "STOP" sign, a "DETOUR" sign and a "NO PARKING" sign.
"Signs don't bother me," Jim said the day after the test. "I know the real important ones by the color."