Learning to Drive
About how I learned to drive in high school thanks to a sketchy gym teacher, drag racing cops and sad street walkers in Brighton Beach.
It was 1983 and as luck would have it, I was given an opportunity to learn how to drive. Well, when I say “opportunity” I meant that one of the gym teachers I had in high school let us all know he was offering driving classes to us for a nominal fee.
The teacher was Mr. Hearty. He was my gym teacher, but the day he offered us all driving classes was when he was subbing for a history teacher in school.
“If anyone wants to learn how to drive, see me after class to sign up,” he said before doing his actual teaching.
After class I walked up front and asked about the details. The deal was for a fee of $115 we would take a 6 week course and then we would be able to get a license. We could even get a learners permit to start the process.
“I have to go ask my parents,” I told Mr. Hearty as he passed the sign up sheet to me.
“Okay, here is more info,” he said while passing me a Xeroxed sheet that broke down all of the details of the course.
I walked out of the classroom and read the sheet as I headed outside and back home.
All I could think of on the way home was how to talk to my dad about this. He didn’t own a car and I had no idea how he’d react to me wanting to learn how to drive… Which in and of itself meant that I wanted to own a car.
Truth be told, I didn’t have any I’d if I even wanted a car. All I knew that if you are an American teenager, you needed to learn how to drive or else.
“Why do you want to learn how to drive?” my dad asked as he looked over the driver’s ed info sheet.
“Maybe I want to buy a car?” I responded.
“Where do you get the money for it?” he asked.
“I’ll get a job,” I responded.
And this went back and forth for a bit until my dad agreed to pay the $115 for the driving classes. I filled out the form, he made out a check and then gave it to me.
Next time I was in school, I gave Mr. Hearty the filled out form and check and before you knew it I was on my way to learning how to drive.
The road to learning how to drive was to head out to some weirdo shack/storefront near John Dewey H.S. in Gravesend. While Dewey was a great school the part of Brooklyn it was in was somewhat of a dump. It was right under the elevated subway and next to it were a bunch of construction companies and related lots filled with trucks, supplies and junk. In between that stuff was a weird narrow path divided by a wire fence with razor wire on top. Walk down that path and at the end of the path was a nameless building and in there is where the driving classes happened.
Nobody really questioned why these driver’s ed classes were being held in a sketchy building that seemed to be better suited for a mob sit down and/or beat down, but no matter. We all went along with it.
After a few classes spent in front of a dingy blackboard with Mr. Hearty showing us the ins and outs of driving via chalk and lectures, we moved into the world of driving for real.
The routine was he’d pick us all up in the evening after school in his customized Toyota van — the very 1980s TownAce or LiteAce model — and then take us somewhere relatively quiet to practice driving and such. When I say the van was customized I don’t mean to say it had some kind of carpet covered lounge in the back of some airbrushed eagles and sunset on the side of the van. Not at all. The big customization this van had was it had a passenger side break that allowed Mr. Hearty to slam on the breaks if anyone behind the wheel did something risky, dangerous or just plain crazy.
The first place we went to practice driving skills was Manhattan Beach; also known as the suburbs of Brighton Beach.
If Brighton Beach was working class and filled with classic NYC pre-war buildings and tenements, Manhattan Beach was the clean suburban neighborhood next door: Filled with single family homes, lawns and garages. The neighborhood was separated from Sheepshead Bay by the bay itself and only had a few roads leading into it so traffic was relatively light during the early evening hours.
The first task itself was driving there. During the first few classes, he drove us there. The traffic through Brighton Beach was nasty with tons of double and triple parked cars so it served as a great example of defensive driving.
“Nobody here knows how to drive,” he told the van full of 4 to 5 high school kids who actually lived the neighborhood. “But when we’re done with this course you’ll know how to deal with drivers like this,” he said to us as he swerved and short-stopped down Brighton Beach Avenue and waved at the collective humanity driving around us.
When we got to Manhattan Beach we all took turns learning the basics of the road on the quieter side streets and avenues. Stuff like basically driving straight ahead, basic turns, leaning into turns and even some light parallel parking maneuvers.
There was this one guy I remember who was very greasy, pimply, wore glasses and could barely make a U-turn without nearly killing us. I don’t remember what he did wrong, but he really sped up like a loon at times, and Mr. Hearty would just slam on the breaks all the time.
“You crazy or something?” Mr. Hearty would as the kid. He just smiled like a hyperactive loon. I mean he was basically a spaz and honestly stunk at driving.
One day it was my turn and I did it all like a pro without much effort. Good enough that Mr. Hearty said, “Okay, let’s head over to Oriental Boulevard.” which was a cool thing for him to say.
Oriental Boulevard was the main strip in Manhattan Beach. While not as filled with traffic as Brighton Beach was, it was still closer to real driving the side streets we practiced on. I was damned proud to drive that Toyota van down to Oriental a Boulevard and do things like change lanes, drive behind — and in front — or buses and such.
It was fun until a police car zoomed up right behind me, flashed its lights a few times and waved at us to pull over. What the heck? There is no way I did anything wrong or anything, but I pulled over and waited for whatever to happen.
A cop got out of the car, crouched down and ran over to the driver’s side window. I rolled it down and he basically said, “Can you just stay here for a while?” I turned to Mr. Hearty, he nodded in agreement and — when the cop ran back to his car — he told me to roll up the window and explained what was happening.
“We didn’t do anything,” he said in a hushed tone and explained, “Pretty sure they’re going after drag racers and they want to hide behind us.”
I was kinda confused but hey who knows, I didn’t have to do much but sit there. And there we sat, idling with the headlights off and doing utterly nothing.
After a while we could hear the high speed buzz of cars racing towards us on the other side of the street. Pretty solid drag race action happening. And the second they passed us, the cops slammed their car into reverse, swerved in the other direction, turned on their flashers and drove off chasing the drag racers.
We sat and watched until Mr. Hearty told me to turn on the headlights and drive off.
“Where to?” I asked. “Calling it a night. Let’s drive back to Ocean Parkway and drop you off.”
“Through Brighton Beach?” I asked and he said, “Yes, through Brighton Beach.”
Took a deep breath and headed out of Manhattan Beach, down. The far eastern side of Brighton Beach Avenue and braced myself felt the pile of bad driving bullshit that awaited us the second we crossed a Coney Island Avenue.
The drive featured a lot of starts and stops and the occasional aggressive honking and shouts in Russian and such but by the time we reached Ocean Parkway, my sweaty palms had dried off and we all survived.
I got out, Mr. Hearty and the other student driver wished me goodnight and I headed home.
The next few weeks of driver’s lessons were pretty much the same as what we had already done; practice makes perfect and we were all getting to be better drivers! Except for that twitchy spaz guy. He really stunk.
But one of the last lessons we learned was how to parallel park near Sea Breeze Park (aka: Asher Levy Park).
The park was right near Ocean Parkway so it was close to me and the high school which gave us more time to practice parallel parking. Not a lot of traffic nearby, but lots of parked cars from the nearby tenement buildings. Not enough to mean there were no parking spaces, but there were just enough parking spaces that allowed us to hop from one space to another during our lessons.
But the thing about Sea Breeze Park back in the 1980s is it — like most NYC public parks back in the 1980s — it was pretty sketchy after dark you just never wanted to walk near through it when it got dark. Yet despite its reputation, that’s where us high school students would end up learning how to perfect our parallel parking techniques.
“Okay, pull up behind that one,” Mr. Hearty said to me as I made a left on Seabreeze Avenue and slowly drove the van next to the park. As I drive I noticed some women walking near the park but I paid them no mind.
Suddenly about third of the way down the park, Mr. Hearty told me to stop. “Perfect! This spot is great,” he said. “Now line up near that car in front and park.” So I went ahead and did that.
So as I’m getting lined up, put the van in reverse and getting ready to turn my head left, some woman wearing sunglasses at night comes up to my window and motions to me to roll my window down.
I stopped the van, rolled the window down and she pretty much instantly she starts to whisper speak, “What do you want baby… Come on baby…” Mr. Hearty jumps in and says, “Nothing! We don’t need you!” and then stretches out across me to roll up the window.
“Okay, just get back to parking,” he says to me. And as I go ahead and get back to parking, another woman comes to the passenger side window and says pretty much the same thing to Mr. Hearty.
“No! We don’t need you go away!” he said to her as he simultaneously stuck his head out the window to check my parking technique.
“Cut right,” he said to me while literally batting the hooker away from the car with his arm.
“Are you police?” one of the hookers said as the followed the car along as I pulled into the spot.
“Go away!!!” Mr. Hearty said to the hookers who started to talk to each other in Russian. “Now cut left. Get lined up,” he said all the while batting away those Russian hookers.
“What do you want?” one of the hookers said to Mr. Hearty adding, “You’re crazy!” one of them added as I finally got into the spot.
“Perfect!” he said. “Especially dealing with them too!” he added. And with that I got out of the driver’s seat and let one of the other student driver’s get up front.
The Russian hookers stood back a bit to watch what we were doing all the while; pointing at us and occasionally shouting things like, “What do you want?” and “You’re a cop?”
This went on for a little bit until we had all taken turns parking in various spaces near Sea Breeze Park and headed back home.
Weeks would pass and the classes would end. Everyone got their driver’s license and life seemed to go on as it should.
Mr. Hearty would still go on doing those driver’s lessons and even told our gym class he would cut the end of the day gym class so he could go to teach the class.
He usually had some other gym teacher fill in for him when he left early, but on that day he had nobody to cover for him so he let us out early.
To kill time, some of us headed to an open classroom and just sat around bullshitting before the last class of the day. And on one of those days, one of the assistant principals saw us, stuck her head in and quizzically asked, “Why are you guys here? Shouldn’t you be in gym?”
A few people responded, “He had to leave early.” And the assistant principal scrunched up her face and nodded. She seemed baffled by Mr. Hearty leaving early. So I decided to add more details by blurting out, “He left to teach some driving classes.”
Other students looked at me with a scowl and the assistant principal’s face changed, he eyes got wider and she simply said, “Driving classes…” and then told us all to wait right there in the classroom.
Some students came up to me and said, “Why did you say that?” to which I honestly asked, “What’s the big deal?” and then they explained to me that those driving lessons were not really legit. I mean the driving lessons themselves were fully legit, but Mr. Hearty was sneakily doing them on his own time and just cheat a bit by cutting out early at his end of day classes.
A few days later I found out Mr. Hearty got in trouble for those driving lessons. He still showed up to teach classes, but he was not happy.
One day while I was walking down the hallway, he saw me, stopped me and said, “So you told them about the driving lessons?”
I paused silently as he glowered at me and walked away. A few other gym teachers down the hall saw that interaction and they all glowered at me as Mr. Hearty approached them and talked to them — presumably — about me.
Word got out among some of the students, but nobody really cared. The gym teachers at the school were kind garbage people so it was like a collective whatever.
But it still made gym class harder. And if Mr. Hearty ended up being my gym teacher on some days, I would just show up for the attendance count, head back to the locker room and head out the back door, run down to Ocean Parkway and head back home.