Omar Bustamante

Five forty ounces, three lines of meth, two joints, and “a few light beers” are all it took to land the man on the television screen in jail for seven years for driving under the influence and killing a teenager.

As I sit in the last row of seats in my driving classroom watching this public service announcement, I'm conflicted. I get that I’m supposed to be appalled at his reckless behavior (and I am), but I can’t help but wonder to myself: “Do people actually snort meth?” A quick Google search told me that they do on Breaking Bad and that there’s a Reddit thread of people who can confirm this.

I’m not the only person whose thoughts are wandering. Irina, a classmate to my right, has pulled out some busywork from her day job and David, the French guy at the front who talks too much, is busy reading the ingredients on his Slim Jim package.

Steven Thomas Leslie killed Jeremy Turner in a car crash while fleeing police in 1995. His crime has been immortalized as a part of Driving Schools' curricula across the country.

Advertisement

“I’ve seen all the drunk driving videos,” the guy in the video says ominously into the camera as a few people in the classroom giggle at his unintentional campiness. “I never thought it could happen to me.” An audible groan of relief passes through the classroom as the video draws to classic 1980s PSA ending and our instructor, Wilma, gets up from her desk with a polite, yet stern look on her face.

“That’s lot to think about,” she says, gesturing back to the TV as it begins to spin the VHS presentation in reverse. “A car isn’t just a vehicle. It can be a weapon. You know that?”

Irina isn’t the only person to openly snicker at Wilma’s earnestness, but she's certainly the loudest. We’ve been in this cramped classroom for the better part of an hour and we’ve heard nothing other than what we already know: “Don’t drink and drive, you’ll go to jail, you might die.”

Advertisement

The sage warnings aren't really getting through to anyone. The truth is that we're all over it. We've been over it.

For the past two weeks I've been attending driving school in downtown Manhattan, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's this: all it takes is a classroom and a few public service announcements to turn a handful of grown adults into a clique of dickish teens.

Advertisement

Growing up between Washington, D.C. and Chicago meant I never really needed to learn how to drive. Between robust public transportation systems and cities with miles and miles of bike paths, cars always just seemed like they’d be more of a hassle to deal with as opposed to, you know, walking or biking. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that a sensible, trendy teenager who graduated in 2013 and went to college in a big East Coast city might have passed up on learning to drive.

For the past 19 years, the number of American high school seniors who choose to get their licenses has been on a steady decline. Back in 1996, 85% of seniors graduated with licenses, but by 2010, that number was down to about 73%. According to the CDC, the number of teenagers who get licenses has only further dropped since then, thanks to the Great Recession.

Once upon a time I got my learner's permit in D.C., but I never really planned on learning to drive. It served me well as a confusing, vertical I.D. long after it had expired.

Advertisement

If I’m being honest though, the real reason I never tried all that hard to get my license had less to do with my love for WMATA and more to do with a deep and abiding fear of driving. I’ve got no problem being in cars that other people are driving. It’s just that the idea of being responsible for two tons of metal speeding down city streets seems like just the kind of stress that nobody needs in their life.

Deep down, though, beneath the mild embarrassment at having never gone through the most American of all teenage rites of passage, I can totally see the appeal of being able to hop in a car and just go somewhere.

When Wilma asked us all to introduce ourselves on the first day of class, everyone explained just what had brought them to driving school. I'd expected to meet a room full of teens and early twentysomethings in hot pursuit of vehicular freedom. What I found, though, was a group of white-collars and foreigners with crisp work visas clutched in their hands.

Advertisement

There was Sergio, a Brazilian father of two who needed to get his NY license to drive into the city from his new house in New Jersey. Rhoda, a native New Yorker, had vowed never to drive a day in her life until she learned that she'd be moving to Southern California for work.

It wasn't until Carrie, a journalist who hadn't renewed her old license in time, stood up to say that she desperately needed to go to IKEA, that something became quite clear to me. Even though I hadn't found the millennials my story was supposed to be about, I'd wandered into the birthplace of all teen archetypes: a classroom.

No matter who a person is, how old they are, or what they do, the moment they set foot inside a classroom, they change. Classroom settings turn everyone back into who they were in high school. Technically speaking, we were all adults, but you could see how in another time, in another universe we could have easily been characters in a John Hughes movie.

Advertisement

David and Jerome, the mysterious French exchange students politely ignoring the countless vibrating notifications buzzing in their pockets. Irina, the Russian girl whose hard work ethic kept her surreptitiously glued to her work email whenever she could steal a glance.

And then there was Carrie who, like the movie's protagonist Charles, only came to learn and make friends in earnest. The movie would have been called The Stick Shift and it would have been glorious.

Advertisement

I didn't just get along with Carrie because we were both journalists. We bonded over being the types of people who ask teachers too many questions about things that are never going to be on the test just for the sake of asking.

"My permit says that I wear glasses, but that isn't always true," Carrie pointed out to Wilma. "Sometimes I wear contacts. I mean, I'm wearing them in the picture on the I.D., but you could never tell. Will I be marked down for that? If I didn't disclose?"

New York City's very posh, Patrick Nagel-inspired Driver's Manual that very briefly became my bible.

Advertisement

No one said anything while Wilma patiently assured Carrie that her tester would ask her about the contacts, but there were more than a few people who couldn't care less about Carrie's questions.

Juan-Carlos, another New Yorker who also happened to be the youngest person in the room stared at Carrie for basically the entire class. At first I thought that the 19-year-old might've had a crush on her, but eventually it became clear that he was annoyed at her insistence at asking long, hypotheticals that slowed class down.

"What if you get to a country road where it's difficult to tell which way traffic is moving?" Carrie asked at one point. Juan-Carlos groaned and stared out the window into the gridlock in front of the Flat Iron building.

Advertisement

I never actually spoke to Juan-Carlos, but I learned a lot about him from the way that he used his phone. As best as I could tell he was juggling at least five conversations using a mix of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

He wasn't one for emoting all that much, either to his phone's screen, or to the content of the class. What he lacked in vocal expressiveness he made up for in thumb dexterity. Also his iPhone's background was Chrissy Teigen if that means anything.

Advertisement

When I asked her how Carrie had studied for her permit test, she fired up Quizlet on her phone and showed me the deck of digital flashcards she'd created. After flunking the permit test twice (once for not studying and once for being unsure about right-hand turns on red in New York), I'd made flash cards myself. Carrie was my kind of people.

If Carrie and I were the class nerds, Jerome was our resident cool kid. Like David, Jerome was also French, but unlike David, Jerome consistently showed up to class in well-fitting power suits.

During coffee breaks, he'd post up in a corner and fall into animated conversations with his family in spitfire French. In class, though, Jerome feigned disinterest and would sometimes flat out refuse to answer Wilma's questions.

Advertisement

"I'm only here because the law says I have to be," Jerome told me when I mustered up the courage to ask him about his demeanor one day after class. "I've been driving for 15 years; I don't have any questions."

Even if Jerome didn't have any questions for Wilma, our instructor, she had plenty for us.

Advertisement

Wilma never seemed all that bothered by Jerome or any of the rest of us, for that matter. Within the first few minutes of the first lesson she'd memorized our names and had taken to drilling us on common misconceptions about driving under the influence.

"Nobody likes a wide awake drunk or a clean drunk," she clucked at someone's suggestion that coffee or a cold shower could sober you up. "And exercise won't help you either; nobody likes a sweaty drunk."

Advertisement

Wilma had been teaching at this driving school since 1987, when she first moved to NYC. Teaching came naturally to her. The real trick, she told me, was finding a way to connect with each class. With us, Wilma started off with classic positive reinforcement.

You could make Wilma smile if you could accurately count the number of points you would lose during your driving exam for certain traffic violations. But that wasn't enough.

She wanted to see my class engage more on the finer points of three-point-turns, so she broke out the Hot Wheels, and split us up into small groups. She stalked the room while we narrated our internal "driver's monologue" and made complicated, make-believe turning maneuvers up and down imaginary streets with our fingers and toy cars.

Advertisement

Her secret weapon, which eventually got everyone participating in a class discussion about pedestrians in New York City, was bragging about her famous former students.

"Tina Fey," Wilma reminisced. "Was one of my most difficult students. Nice, though."

Advertisement

Fey, you'll remember, is famous for her insistence on never learning to drive. If Wilma's pictures are to believed, however, Fey, Hugh Jackman, Brook Shields, and Daniel Craig all made their way to her classroom and came out licensed drivers.

Wilma made sure to point out that notorious driving school holdout Tina Fey had, in fact, come through her class. Let that sink in: Tina Fey and I went to the same school.

Getting your driver's permit as an adult in New York is criminally easy. You sit down, take a standardized quiz on the basic rules of the road and, if you pass, you're sent a state-issued I.D. that allows you to get behind the wheel (with proper supervision) and take control of a car.

Advertisement

As someone who had never driven, this all seemed ludicrous and completely justified having to go through Wilma's pre-driving test course. That being said, I didn't feel any more prepared to get behind a steering wheel when my time with Wilma was over.

The missing piece of the puzzle, Carrie told me on our last day of class, was practice. None of what I'd learned or jotted down in my notebook would make any sense until I actually drove a car.

After our final class, Wilma explained to me I was responsible for racking up 50 hours worth of driving practice and she suggested that I earn them in a neighborhood similar to where I'd eventually take my test.

Advertisement

Fun fact: you can't take your driving test in Manhattan. Even if you could, though, I can't imagine why you would. The streets are packed with other cars and obnoxious pedestrians are never ending.

No, I've been spending my weekends in the promised land of New York City driving: Long Island. A college friend has been willing to let me scoot around the block in her Camry when the streets are empty enough. I'm just now getting the grip of shifting between different gears by feel alone, which is great, but I've also gotten into the habit of knocking over garbage cans, so there's that.

New York law says that I have to have held my learner's permit for at least six months before applying for a license, but I doubt if I'll ever really get into driving.

Advertisement

Last week, my official driver's permit finally came in the mail and for the first time since I started this whole process I felt like I'd accomplished something.

Part of me feels that as dangerous as it is to let kids drive when they're 16, there's something about being so young and naive about danger that makes driving easier to learn at that age. At 24, I'm not old, but I have seen enough Fast & Furious films to know that driving is cool and fun and dangerous and the reason that Paul Walker's no longer with us.

Next March, I'll ask a state-licensed test taker to sit in a car with me while I parallel park and pretend that I'm not scared shitless of freeways. I don't know whether I'll pass the test or not, but I do know that you totally shouldn't try to get cute during the exam and try to pull any of that "unspoken rule of the road" crap in from of your examiner.

Advertisement

"They'll fail you right then and there," Wilma warned me, chuckling. "And they'll do it with a smile."

Boom.