Learning to drive in Northern Manhattan
by Daniel P. Bader
Sitting in the passenger seat of an Americana Driving School car, June Coleman, a life-long New Yorker, is determined to learn how to drive.
She’s taken more classes than she can remember, including the current 90-minute session with her instructor Evelyn Cruz.
“I’ve failed the road test twice,” Coleman says, with a tense laugh. “I attribute my failure to nerves.”
She slides behind the wheel at W. 177th Street and Wadsworth Avenue and buckles her seat belt. Cruz makes sure Coleman has her permit with her before she lets Coleman turn the key and reminds her to adjust the mirrors so she doesn’t have to move her head to see them.
Ready, Coleman puts the car in drive.
“No, no – signal,” Cruz says. “Turn your wheel one full turn, check your blind spot.”
With a lurch, the car is in traffic, heading south.
Cruz tells Coleman to make a left turn at W. 173rd Street, and Coleman, nervous about turning against traffic, misses the light and gets stuck in the intersection.
“Signal, observe and relax!” Cruz says.
Still unsure behind the wheel, Coleman said she plans to take lessons until she knows she can get what she wants.
“I’m not taking the road test until I’m confident I can pass,” she said.
Coleman is just another challenge for a driving instructor, a job that combines the support of a teacher with the nerves of a dare devil.
“Not everybody can be a driving instructor,” said Juani Ortiz, owner of Americana Driving School. “You have to be very patient, you have to have a lot of psychology. You’re driving with a very nervous person.”
Ortiz started in the driving school business while studying psychology at Lehman College in the Bronx. It was 1984, and she got a part-time job at a driving school owned by a Trans World Airlines pilot who taught driving on the side.
Not long after she bought the business for $5,000.
“It was one car, one desk, and he left me a typewriter,” she recalled. “If I had known I would have studied business.”
She grew that business, Broadway Driving School, into a nine-car operation, owns the building it’s in and teaches truck and bus drivers how to get their Commercial Drivers License.
Ortiz started Americana Driving School four years ago and has four cars and seven on-call instructors, including Cruz.
The Americana office on Broadway and W. 178th Street is a lot more than a waiting room for new drivers looking for time behind the wheel. Ortiz is an Authorized Progressive Insurance agent and a broker for a half dozen other insurance agencies.
It’s also a classroom.
Plastic stop signs and pedestrian crossing signs sit just outside Ortiz’ office in an otherwise empty instruction room.
“You have to have the classroom instruction,” to get a license, she said. Americana offers the five-hour class required by the Department of Motor Vehicles before taking the road test. She also offers the defensive driving test that insurance agencies require for a discount on their premiums.
Back in the car, Coleman settles in a little bit, and she and Cruz talk about the best way to accelerate and brake.
“With the tip of my toe,” Coleman says, repeating after Cruz.
“Look at him, he just stopped in the middle of the street!” Coleman complains. Frustrated by another double-parked car, Coleman wishes she were driving in her brother’s quiet suburban neighborhood in New Jersey.
“You’re never going to learn that way, sweety,” Cruz says.
The Manhattan Times is the bilingual newspaper of Washington Heights and Inwood.